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Takeaways from 2020

More than a year into the pandemic, we’ve learned valuable lessons and reevaluated our lives in the face of personal and professional loss and change. 

There’s a lot about 2020 we’d like to forget, but as with any devastating experience, there are parts we will remember as we move forward. 

Writer Danya Ruttenberg, in a recent Washington Post column, called this “a time of possibility.” 

“We have opportunities to create new social structures, new ways of being,” she said. “We don’t have to accept what we had before….  This is a moment when creativity and new thinking can help serve us and help us make the new chapter better.” 

Here are five pandemic lessons to keep in mind in 2021 and beyond.

To turn things around, pivot.

Pivot has become the pandemic’s most-used verb as we have watched businesses large and small turn on a dime. Shifting from tableside to curbside in a matter of days instead of months has saved many a restaurant; medical professionals’ quick innovations have saved lives. Many meeting planners — who routinely face disasters of varied description — already know how to pivot. But for those still learning, Jay Campbell of Ken Blanchard Companies offered tips in a recent column for Chief Learning Officer. Emphasize experimentation, he said. And pull people together to problem solve and brainstorm. 

“Cultivate an attitude of open-mindedness and gratitude,” Campbell said. “We are in a time of dramatic change. Pivoting will only become more important.”

Small feels safer.

COVID-19 cases have leveled in the U.S., and in-person meetings and events are returning, but the pandemic is not over. After a year of lockdown, some still suffer from social anxiety or even post-traumatic stress disorder, psychologists say. The return to normalcy — and to in-person meetings — won’t arrive overnight for everyone.

“It’s not going to go from not being able to touch anyone to having a big party,” Tara Well, a Columbia University psychology professor, told Healthline. “It’s something that’s going to happen gradually.” 

We’ve talked about the advantages of smaller cities as meeting sites for 20 years now, and the pandemic has placed a brighter spotlight on their virtues. To ease attendees back into in-person situations, 2021 could be the year to shift from a huge national conference in New York or Chicago to several regional meetings with fewer attendees in destinations to which people can drive, like Albany, New York, or Springfield, Illinois. All the good things about a smaller city, from lower room rates and taxes to less congestion and more reasonable dining options, still apply.

Learn by listening.

As people come together again, they’ll be talking about how they lived through the last year. Why not use this common thread to create content for meetings?

It could be as simple as posting a pandemic-related question or topic at luncheon tables or creating a panel of leaders to talk about what went right and wrong over the past year at their organizations. Find local business or nonprofit leaders who would be willing to speak to your group or serve on a “What We Learned From 2020”-themed panel. It could give attendees the chance to learn how a restaurateur in Lexington, Kentucky, combined outdoor dining, curbside service and a “ghost” kitchen to survive hard times; or highlight how a nonprofit like Meals on Wheels in Asheville, North Carolina, countered increased demand for services and dwindling in-person giving with a fundraiser that allowed people who were running and walking to relieve pandemic-related stress to support the organization at the same time.

Virtual has virtues.

Zoom rhymes with doom and gloom, words that accurately describe how we’ve begun to feel about the virtual platform. But thank goodness virtual platforms exist, for without them, we’d have missed seeing many of our colleagues and chums. Perhaps we’ll appreciate virtual meetings more when we don’t rely on them so much. And they will continue to be a part of the work world because people are comfortable with them. 

Organizations also realize that hybrid meetings, those with virtual and in-person elements, help draw a larger crowd and make it possible for those who can’t attend in person to enjoy what the conference offers. Venues are beginning to step up by investing in production facilities for hybrid events. Many are in New York, Las Vegas and other major cities, but according to BizBash, venues in smaller cities are adding virtual meeting capabilities too, including the Hotel Roanoke in Virginia, the Monterey Conference Center and the Anaheim Conference Center in California, and the Esports Stadium Arlington and Expo Center in Texas.

Doing less can mean more. 

One lesson the pandemic taught many overscheduled Americans is that it is OK to do less, to say no, to not do everything that’s offered. Fear of missing out flew out the window as even the most social beings opted to stay home and stay healthy. The limitations wrought by the pandemic helped some of us achieve something closer to balance, although all the juggling still brought stress and dropped balls.

It might become harder to draw the line between personal and professional as life shifts to a nearer normal, but at the same time, many hope to preserve the parts that served them well and fed their souls at a time of isolation: phone calls to friends, returns to abandoned hobbies, long walks alone or with family, time spent talking and laughing around the family dinner table instead of finishing up calls and emails on long commutes. The hope is that we’ll hang on to the pieces of the pandemic that made us feel more whole.