New Year revelations: 6 things we learned from our clients in 2021

We worked with clients across sectors to solve new problems that arose in 2021 because of COVID-19. These are our 6 key learnings.

December 9, 2021

How would you describe 2021 in a word? 

Unique? Complicated? Unnerving? Challenging? Unexpected? Enlightening? Revealing? 

Around this time last year memes were flying around celebrating the end of the dumpster fire that was 2020. At the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, everything was supposed to get better. Expectations were high. 

That didn’t exactly happen. 

It has been a – I’ll call it unique - year. Hope quickly turned to disappointment with the arrival of new variants and fresh lockdowns and restrictions. On the other hand, the vaccine became readily available to everyone who would have it. 

While we were eager to return to some form of “normal”, the uncertainties around dangerous variants and a fourth wave kept everyone on our toes. Companies realized the temporary working conditions weren’t so temporary after all. Employees showed signs of burnout. The “Great Resignation” began to unfold.

We worked with about two dozen clients over the last 12 months. Our observation is that everyone just unravelled a bit. Conflicts that had been lingering under the surface were uncovered. We helped a lot of organizations get to the root of their issues and identify new ways to encourage collaboration.

Through our work in 2021, we uncovered six key learnings:

1. We need to put more care into relationships.

With many companies still allowing or requiring employees to work from home in 2021, we noticed a heightened disconnect between colleagues and teams. Time is a valuable currency, and people weren’t spending enough of it to build and foster relationships. With no (or fewer) water cooler chats and desk side catch-ups, a lot of people felt like they simply didn’t know each other as well as they used to. Little frustrations added up. The learning for everyone here is that we need to put more care into our workplace relationships to maintain the connection and collaboration needed to be an effective team. It takes work, but it’s worth it. 

2. People are longing for the way things were.

The realization that COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon hit hard in 2021. Moving from the adrenaline of short-term circumstances to the reality that this is a long-term situation caused discomfort and triggered grieving for “the way things were”. Through our facilitation work, we noticed a fork in the road beginning to appear. On one side we saw people who were able to continue to adapt – many even thriving in the new environment. On the other side, we saw people who were desperate for a return to “normal” – many of whom took time off or even moved on. The learning here is we need to meet people where they are. We need to listen – without judgement – to their perspectives. From there, we can find new ways to show them we care and keep them engaged.

3. We can do good work virtually, and it’s hard to replace real life face time.

We had a lot of success working virtually in 2021. At times, it was actually better because it allowed us to use technology like impromptu, live polling, digital whiteboards and ‘chatterfalls’ in a way we never had before. We also liked the shorter, more frequent meetings and the super easy verbatim note capture of digital. I was starting to question why we would go back to in-person sessions… until I had my first face-to-face last month. It reminded me that nothing can replace being in a room with humans – feeling their energy and building a personal connection. For our business, we will keep virtual sessions as an important tool in our toolbox, when it makes sense. But people are still craving actual, real life face time, and sometimes it can’t be beat. 

4. Hybrid is hard but it can be done well.

A lot of teams moved to a hybrid work environment in 2021. It looks different for everyone, but in general it involves a mix of people working in the office and at home. It seems like an easy concept, but it can be tricky to manage meetings and gatherings when some people are in the room and others are joining virtually. The obvious technical requirements need some thought (and, spoiler alert - a bigger AV budget), but they can be done well. The less obvious challenge is to ensure equality among team members – regardless of if they are in the room or at home – and maintain a balance of power. This takes planning and moderation to ensure all voices are heard as if everyone is physically sitting around the table. 

5. It has been a hard year for marginalized groups.

We were lucky enough to work with some really great organizations in 2021 – many of which are tackling big societal issues. Through this important work, we learned a lot about the challenges around affordable housing and mental health and how difficult this year was for people who are on the margins. Many organizations supporting these folks had to take a hard look at their mindset, values and operational procedures to continue to support their clients. Our learning here is that disruption contributes to creativity, however uncomfortable it might be, creating the opportunity for something new and important to emerge. 

6. No organization remains untouched by the impacts of COVID-19.

We worked with corporate teams, large and small not-for-profit organizations, municipalities, industry associations and health care organizations. Every group experienced high highs and low lows. They found opportunities to elevate their game while racing to stay afloat. Staff were exhilarated by rising to the challenge and worn down by its relentlessness. Leadership found itself in challenging and sometimes unfamiliar territory. Now, organizations are tired and need time to reflect, recharge and refocus. 

These learnings will serve us all well as we wrap up 2021 and welcome a new year in a couple of weeks. Beginning 2022 with new experiences under our belts and fresh perspectives to support our clients with whatever challenges lie ahead. 

Wishing you and yours the happiest of holidays.

Written by
Robin Parsons

Robin has more than twenty-five years of experience as an effective leader and strategic thinker. She helps organizations have better conversations that help them work together more effectively.

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Parsons Dialogue is based in Calgary, Canada, serving clients across North America. We design and facilitate strategic processes that help teams collaborate with clarity and confidence.

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