Don’t look back in anger

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Chairman Ian McAteer looks back at quite a year, finding 2020 to have been uniquely challenging, but not without its consolations.

We have all overdosed on superlatives, analogies, metaphors and profound ways of describing 2020.

Yes, these are ‘unprecedented times’, and we have faced, and continue to face, enormous challenges. The full trauma, pain, injustice, damage and cruelty of the Covid-19 pandemic is still to be understood, but there is no question that it has changed our world, and changed us, forever.

As we limp towards the festive holidays, with Zoom fatigue and the novelty of working from home well and truly worn off, how do we assess 2020? What should we take from the experience? Out of every trauma comes learning, and learning helps us to adjust, recalibrate, and move onwards with optimism.

So here are my main takeaways from 2020.

We have become more empathetic. There will be exceptions, but I am convinced, paradoxically, that by being further apart we have actually become closer. Whether this is because we have overcompensated, or whether it’s because we’ve realised how valuable our relationships are, I’m not sure. I’ve never been asked by so many people, in such a short space of time, if I’m ‘OK’, as I have in 2020. And I doubt if I have ever been so focused on the wellbeing of my Union colleagues. The expressions ‘take care’, ‘be safe’ and ‘miss you’ have now taken on new meaning and carry with them authentic affection in a way they perhaps didn’t before. I sincerely hope that our newfound focus on empathy will extend beyond the pandemic and that this will be one of the positive legacies we can take from the experience. I hope that our wellbeing will now be centre-stage in all management and work-related decisions — even more so than in the past.

We have become closer to our customers. There is nothing like going through a tough time together to forge a strong bond — and this has happened with our client base. Shared experiences forge stronger relationships. This year we have gone over and above for our clients; simply because what had to be done, had to be done. (Much of our work was essential Covid-related communications.) But our clients have also stuck by us. Despite their own challenges they’ve been loyal, decent, honourable and understanding. There has been an unwritten and unspoken knowledge that we are all in this together, and only by us sticking together will we survive and thrive. Again, I sincerely hope this newfound way of conducting business relationships continues in the years to come. (And of course, I want to thank all our clients for sticking by us in 2020.)

We have adapted. And boy, have we adapted. Darwin didn’t say it was the fittest who will survive, he said it was the most adaptable, and that has never been more true than in 2020. Within three days we had the whole company of 85 people working from home. With Slack, Zoom, Google, Synergist and other online tools we almost effortlessly were able to collaborate and be productive. Indeed, I would venture to say that we are now more productive, more collaborative, more imaginative and more agile than ever before. Through collaborative working, our hit rate on new business has almost doubled, and we have a collective sense that there is almost nothing we can’t do. It is truly amazing how quickly we have been able to adapt and evolve into a new way of working. No wonder homo sapiens rule the planet.

Work will never be the same. This follows on from our ability to adapt. Now that we know how truly flexible and agile we can be; will we ever return to office-based working? I have no doubt we will, but new levels of flexibility and our ability to create teams remotely will undoubtedly change our approach to work forever. This will open up opportunities for recruitment, greater staff diversity and for international expansion. Remote working has, up to now, been the territory of call-centres and well-defined process-driven business models — and not for complex, creative and strategic organisations. I think this will now change if it hasn’t already. The opportunities this brings, for the early adopters, are enormous.

We are 100% social beings. Scientists say it is our ability to be social, our collectivist nature, our extraordinary ways of co-operating at so many levels, that has been the key to our success as a species. Yuval Noah Harari goes further and says it is our unique ability (other species also co-operate) to believe in ideas that are not tangible that truly bonds us together and makes us so powerful and successful. Thus, although we have adapted to a virtual and remote existence, there is no doubt that Zoom or Slack or Teams are not satisfactory substitutes for real-world connections. We crave the fluidity, spontaneity and spark of ‘natural’ real-world connections. We thrive off physicality and body language and the infinite nuances of how we communicate in a social situation. If there is one thing that this pandemic has taught us about the future it is that technology has its limitations. That argument is settled. At least for the time being.

“We become wiser by adversity; prosperity destroys our appreciation of the right.” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca.

There is a huge temptation to view 2020 as a ‘lost year’ or a ‘wasted year’; a year when we all stood still. For the Union Zoom Christmas Party I asked staff to send me photos of their year; of their ‘happy places’ and their happy times. The rich mixture of wonderful, exciting, warm and energising images that I received from my fellow Unionites gave me a huge lift. It also demonstrated so clearly our ability to face adversity and be stronger as a result.

Happy Christmas to all our clients, staff, suppliers and friends. 2021 will no doubt have its own set of challenges, but I truly expect everyone to continue to thrive. Meanwhile, enjoy the holidays.