We recently held our annual “leadership retreat” at The Wilbert Group to reflect on 2020 and plan for 2021. The meeting itself felt different – we used to go to a colleague’s lake house, and now we were wearing masks and social distancing in an empty office. The content of the meeting also had dramatically changed. I had to laugh looking at the notes from last year, especially around the looooong conversation on the positives and negatives of a letting employees work remotely one day a month.
One day a month!!??
Well, 2020 has taught us a lot. At Wilbert, we have been fortunate and have continued to grow. Here are lessons learned from 2020 that I will carry with me.
- We can and must be flexible. Whether it is how we work as a team or how we support our clients, flexibility is key to surviving tough times. At Wilbert, we did not spend a lot of time worrying about change; we just leaned into it. We rolled up our sleeves and went to work.
- Relationships matter and can/should be cultivated despite the challenges of isolation. One key ingredient for Wilbert’s success is the commitment our team members have to each other. Those relationships were built during years of working side-by-side, as well as through fun memories at the Wilbert holiday party, ping pong tournaments and lunch at our large kitchen table. During the shutdown, we were drawing on that emotional capital. I started to fear we would empty the bank as the pandemic wore on. To keep investing in relationships and culture, we planned small group outdoor coffees and bought everyone Wilbert-branded pop-up chairs for park meetings. We leaned into Slack, a better-than-nothing substitute for casual office conversation. We hosted trivia nights on Zoom. I tried my best to over-communicate about everything to combat the anxiety that isolation inevitably breeds.
- Working from home has its upsides and its downsides. First of all, I must say the way our team handled working from home with absolutely no notice impressed me in a big way. We just did what to be done. As weeks turned into months, we saw both the upsides (less time in traffic, more time with family, healthier eating habits) and the downsides (less interaction with each other and clients, blurrier work/life boundaries, challenges in onboarding and growing new team members).
- A genuine commitment to clients and to those long-term relationships is essential. When it became clear we were all in a crisis, our clients’ needs changed. In many cases, we abandoned projects underway. We wrote crisis plans and investor communications; we created videos for clients to tell their stories; and we overhauled content for social media. We listened to our clients, anticipated their needs and tried to be as useful as possible. We didn’t worry about the extra hours or changes in scope.
- Racism is alive and well in the United States. George Floyd’s murder – and many other incidents in 2020 – led to a much-needed conversation around race. Figuring out how Wilbert should be a part of the conversation was not easy. We focused on actions, not just words. We donated to causes that mattered to our employees, and we widened the list of universities from which we recruit. We believe a more diverse applicant pool will lead to a more diverse team. We are learning our commitment requires ongoing and deliberate work.
- We are part of a community. When our community struggles, we must show up. In April, we saw a picture of cars in a food line circling the Atlanta Motor Speedway. So many hungry people! As a team, we voted to trim our budgets for fun and for wellness so we could donate $3,000 to the Atlanta Community Food Bank. We have continued to help many organizations, including the City of Refuge and the Atlanta Affordable Housing Fund. Our program Wilbert Cares has grown during 2020, as we dedicate our skills and talents to helping organizations on a pro bono basis.
In my personal life, I am a pandemic cliche. I adopted a puppy, learned new recipes and forced my children to hike at state and federal parks all over metro Atlanta. We didn’t get an above-ground pool, but possibly only because they were sold out. (We did buy an inflatable baby pool online.)
But at work, I made an against-the-trend decision, signing a lease this week to expand our office. (Don’t call and tell me I am crazy. I already signed it and only want positive feedback!) I believe we will continue to grow if we continue to do great work, pivot as needed for clients and focus on maintaining a meaningful place to work. And I want us to be able to come back to an office environment, when the time is right, so we can connect with each other, welcome new team members, host our clients and return to some version of normal.
Things of course will be different – I don’t know how yet, but I know we will all be different post-pandemic.
It has been a hard year. Many have suffered much more than I have, so I won’t complain. I am grateful for the lessons learned, for my colleagues who met the challenges of 2020 with courage and energy, for the extra time I have had with my children (even if I enjoyed the hikes more than they did), and of course for my sweet new puppy Daisy (see picture).