2021: Now that disruption is business as usual, we must rise above crisis mode

David Gewirtz takes out his crystal ball and tries to look forward into 2021. It can't be any worse than 2020, can it? Gewirtz gives us a framework to think about our new normal as it morphs into our new business as usual.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
Yeah, so that was 2020.

Welcome to 2021. It's nice to finally see 2020, that epic dumpster fire of a year, in the rear view mirror. That alone seems like cause for celebration. Of course, all our troubles won't magically go away just because the calendar changes. 

When my editors asked me to look forward to 2021 and identify one key trend, my mind raced. After all, 2020 was so disruptive, so life-changing, so world-changing, how could there be one trend that was more important than any other?

To look forward into 2021, we have to put 2020 into context. It was a year of epic disruptions, each of them cascading into the next, creating an upheaval like we've never seen.

2020: a year of epic disruption

Let's first look back at some of the core disruptions of 2020. From there, we'll have a framework to move forward.

Before I get started, I want to let you know that I'm presenting this list as objectively and dispassionately as I can because that's my job. But inside, my guts are churning. These issues, and our past year overall, have been brutal on the psyche. It's only fair to tell you that I feel it as much as anyone. And with that happy thought, let's dive in.

Pandemic-driven disruption

While each of these disruptors plays off of the others, the pandemic continues to weigh heavily on each of us in its own unique way.

The pandemic: The pandemic was the foundation of many (but not all) of the huge societal changes we experienced in 2020. From lockdowns to economic disruption to separating friends and families to more than 1.6 million deaths worldwide, the pandemic has put the world in a world of hurt.

Mask wars: Who could have predicted that a simple medical precaution would spark international upheaval? Evidence shows mask wearing reduces the spread of COVID-19, but to some, mandated face coverings seem an affront to freedom. Although necessary, masks are uncomfortable, make it hard to communicate and read others' expressions, and interfere with face tracking. Mix with intensely partisan politics and you have a recipe for conflict.

Privacy vs. public welfare: The pandemic has opened up a Pandora's box of privacy and information-related concerns. Whether it's contact tracing, vaccine records, testing results, or record keeping about everyone who enters stores and restaurants still remaining open, the conflict between our need to track the virus vs. our need for personal privacy has smacked us right up against our Constitutional protections.

Socio-political divisions

It's not enough to be living through the worst pandemic in a century. Why not also add virulent disagreements and divisions among the populace into the mix? One way to make a catastrophic emergency worse is to fight amongst ourselves. We did not distinguish ourselves in 2020, and we'll likely be paying the price for years to come.

America's election: What began as a brutal election year ended in a still-a-mess Constitutional crisis. The sitting president and much of his party refused to accept election results. Millions of Americans are elated that the Electoral College and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have confirmed Joe Biden's win, while millions of other Americans feel cheated and enraged. Even though evidence shows a successfully managed election, election credibility will remain a hot button for years. 

Racial unrest on a historic scale: Racial disparity has been an abhorrent aspect of the American experience for all of its history and we are now actively reckoning with that. When the brutal killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer was captured on video, the nation erupted. The Black Lives Matter movement predates 2020 by seven years, and has blossomed into a movement of historic proportions in 2020.

Women gain and lose ground: One glass ceiling shattered with Kamala Harris' historic VP win. On the other hand, the glass has lowered on millions of women exiled from offices along with their male coworkers. The chilling effect: the bulk of housework and childcare is being dumped on working women, possibly permanently damaging their careers and future employability. Women have experienced more coronavirus-related job losses than men. Meanwhile, the #metoo movement continues into 2021.

Redesigning business

One CEO described 2020 to me as "replacing the ship's hull while at sea in a Category 5 hurricane." Whether it's surviving through the lockdowns, providing essential supply chain services in the midst of a deadly pandemic, or completely redesigning work processes and working relationships, 2020 changed the face of business worldwide.

The collapse of retail: We've long talked about the impact of online shopping on brick and mortar retail, but nothing holds a candle to the mandated shutdown of shops and restaurants on a state-by-state basis. As Statista shows, the food service industry alone lost $130B in sales, 2.1 million jobs, and 110,000 eateries, all in one year. Not only are sales down, but the cost of COVID-mitigation has also eaten into vastly reduced revenues, bludgeoning an already hard-hit segment.

Digital transformation: As McKinsey & Company reports, digital transformation initiatives (whether online conferencing, improved supply chain, online ordering, and supporting distributed work) have accelerated by three to four years due to the pandemic. One COO told me "We had to do ten years of digital transformation in ten months."

Working from home: According to Gallup in October, 58% of Americans (down from 69% in April) are now working from home either full or part time. When compared to the 16% who worked from home either full or part time just a year ago, the magnitude of change the pandemic has wrought is evident. This mass telecommuting transformation is ultimately a technology story, and it has had prominence here at ZDNet throughout the year.

2020: The year of FUD

Fear, uncertainty, and doubt. That sure describes much of 2020. We also experienced anxiety, stress, anger, and deep sadness. It's been hard keeping it together in 2020. 

Emotional toll: The pandemic has had an emotional toll. Whether it's fear of catching the virus or losing one's job or housing, anger over some of the issues we've discussed, political grievances, exhaustion from pandemic prevention practice, anxiety from constant doom-scrolling, the breakdown in relationships due to deep divisions in beliefs and behaviors, or simply the inability to visit friends and loved ones, the pandemic has taken a deep emotional toll on all of us.

I've spotlighted ten major themes from 2020 and barely scratched the surface. But these are enough to illustrate the unprecedented challenge and change we've dealt with in the year that felt like a decade.

2021: When we start managing the new normal

What's the big trend that links all these disrupters? Put simply, 2020 was the biggest business disrupter we've ever seen. 2020 was a year of triage. 2021 will be the year when we start creating systems for managing that disruption, when we try to understand what that disruption means for workers, employers, small businesses, larger businesses, retailers, and education going forward.

The 2020s will be a very different decade from the 2000s and 2010s. 

My goal here was to identify one key trend that we can use to look forward, and it's become obvious what that is: we're really in uncharted territory. What does that mean in terms of business practice? What does it mean in terms of keeping our workforce able to afford living expenses? What does that mean for how we educate our kids? What does that mean for how we think about these problems? And what does that mean when we have to do it in a highly charged, highly stressed, and often highly combative environment?

That's what we'll all be exploring in 2021 and beyond. We clearly don't have the answers now, but these are questions that must be addressed and must be solved. Technology will certainly have a role, as will policy. The technology we can handle. The big question is whether we can agree on policy or just on mutually assured destruction.

I can't offer you any concrete solutions, but I can tell you what we here at ZDNet will be doing all year: doing our best to unpack it all, understand it all, and share what we learn.

It almost seems unfair, after what everyone has been through, for me to call on our business leaders to really step up in 2021. This next year will begin to chart our course for, possibly, decades to come. Are we going to innovate and rebuild, or will we just slap patches on top of patches? This is the time for leaders to embrace their better angels, get out of what was a necessary crisis mode, and embrace creativity to chart that new course and build a better future.

But the responsibility doesn't just fall to our leaders. All of us can create the world we want to live in. 

Here's hoping (desperately, sincerely hoping) that 2021 is a better year than 2020. 

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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