Taking 2020’s Business Lessons Into 2021

General Motors. Microsoft. Airbnb. Hewlett-Packard. Mailchimp. Uber. What do they have in common? All were birthed and sculpted in respective crises.

Despite tremendous racial and economic injustice, Martin Luther King Jr. became the most powerful civil rights leader. John F. Kennedy’s refugee roots laid the foundation for his rise to the presidency. Just like many successful businesses, real leaders are forged in crisis.

According to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “43% of businesses temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic…Small businesses with monthly expenses over $10,000 had only enough cash on hand to last roughly 2 weeks.” It’s safe to say that 2020 was a year of crises.

2020 was also a year of valuable (and tough!) business lessons. It was a year of adaptation. You can stand confidently on your spot in the list of successful businesses and influential leaders by taking the previous year’s lessons constructively into the next. Let’s discuss seven powerful business lessons learned in 2020, and how to apply each of these lessons to your business in 2021.

6 Powerful Business Lessons Learned in 2020

Social, economic, and political activism shared the stage with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, adversely affecting businesses from all angles. But in these adverse effects, powerful business lessons bloomed and business owners should cling to them for a solid foundation moving forward. Here are seven powerful business lessons learned in 2020:

1.   Employee support is just as important as customer support

Companies unable to adequately support their employees during a challenging 2020 took an obvious hit in productivity, but also noticeably in customer support. Although the buzz around worker treatment, rights, and support initiatives is making its way to political stages able to enforce necessary changes, many business owners took it upon themselves to better these things internally. Prioritizing the health and wellness of employees resulted in company loyalty and a complete effort while at work.

Traditionally, the health and wellness of employees have meant gym memberships and health insurance points. But, post-COVID, it’s likely to mean something else entirely, as noted by CNBC’s Make It: Health and legal experts predict that on-the-job medical screening, such as temperature checks and antibody tests, will be a reality for those who return to work in the months ahead.

And in many cases it’s already happening: To combat the spread of coronavirus among essential workers, some of the biggest employers in the country, including Amazon, Walmart, Home Depot, and Starbucks have begun taking the temperatures of their employees before they are allowed to work.

According to labor and employment attorney David Barron, not only are employers legally permitted to check employees’ temperatures, but they are also currently being encouraged to do so by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some employees may argue this is an invasion of their privacy, but this could be key to the continued health and wellness of employees. This positive influence bleeds into supporting customers adequately as well. Supported employees have more to give to their work and therefore more to give to your customers.

2.   Overshare rather than under share

Businesses that decided to continue “business as usual,” or those that chose to shy away from addressing social, environmental, or political issues, didn’t resonate well with consumers because it felt as if these businesses were failing to acknowledge the new challenges they were facing.

Consumers appreciated businesses that demonstrated transparency and supported them more than those that didn’t. Walden business professor Bruce Huang summed up the ideal response to COVID in three words: “resilience, speed, and transparency.” Businesses that responded to COVID with these three values provided their customers with worthwhile content, as well as their plans to continue supporting their customers.

3.   Physical location and Interaction isn’t a barrier in business

For a long time, company leaders were saying that remote work would never be as strongly advocated for as much as work at a physical location. When 2020 forced most to move operations online and create a remote workforce, business owners witnessed thriving production and fresh employees.

Business owners that adapted with an effective digital transformation, productive use of technology, and a willingness to improve rather than cling to the ways of the past showed promise in navigating the murky waters produced by the volatile economic climate in 2020. With restrictions easing, many businesses are considering utilizing a hybrid model, similar to many schools, that allows some staff to work in-office and others fully remotely. Unfortunately, it has been proved many times that this hybrid model does not work, especially long-term:

If you happen to believe that remote work is no threat to social ties, consider the experience of, a company that provides an open-source platform for app development. Several years ago, Skygear was looking to accommodate several new hires by shifting to a hybrid remote-work model for their 40-plus-person team. The company soon abandoned the idea. Team members who didn’t come to the office missed out on chances to strengthen their social ties through ad hoc team meals and discussions around interesting new tech launches. The wine and coffee tastings that built cohesion and trust had been lost. Similarly, GoNoodle employees found themselves at Zoom happy hour longing for the freshly remodeled offices they had left behind at lockdown. “We had this killer sound system,” one employee, an extrovert who yearns for time with her colleagues, told the New York Times. “You know—we’re drinking coffee, or maybe, ‘Hey, want to take a walk?’ I miss that.” Successful workplace cultures rely on these kinds of social interactions. That’s something Yahoo!’s Mayer recognized in 2013 when she said, “We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together,” having the “interactions and experiences that are only possible” face-to-face, such as “hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.”

4.   Don’t panic, ever

Consumers weren’t the only ones who responded to the pandemic with panic. Many business owners responded with the same panic, cutting costs blindly, eliminating important teams, and laying off leaders without thinking it fully through.

An HR professional told Jobbatical “companies will recover just fine if they take care of their employees today.” Instead of performing bulk layoffs, companies should cut running costs, cut working hours, or seek out government support. People are the most important capital.

Businesses that found a way to keep important teams and company leaders, as well as respond creatively to budget cuts were able to rebuild successfully and maintain their operation through 2020.

5.   Trust the people you work with

2020 revealed that many business owners had a workforce full of people who didn’t trust one another. Back in 2018, one study found that 58% of people surveyed trusted a stranger more than they did their boss.

COVID and the panic it caused likely only made that already shocking figure only worse. Because of the pandemic, employees and employers weren’t able to sit down and work collaboratively to put together a plan to stay afloat. Communication went out the proverbial window. Yet, listening to one’s workforce is key to building trust with employees. Once the initial wave of COVID fear was over, employees noted that their organizations began stepping up: 78% surveyed stated organizational response was appropriate, 80% stated the response protected employee health, and 77% stated they were given the necessary information to plan for adjustments.

Businesses able to establish trust-filled relationships throughout all levels of the company experienced a spike in productivity and commitment to a thriving business operation.

6.   Take complete ownership of your financial situation

Many business owners passed the buck when it came to the financials and were fully dependent on experts to make financial decisions in 2020.

Conversely, some company owners finally took complete ownership of the company’s financial situation thanks to 2020. They became fully immersed in making financial decisions and educated themselves on what they didn’t know.

Business costs add up quickly and can spiral if not kept in check. Business owners who took the time to audit their financial situation were able to make creative budget cuts, find a way to continue paying employees, and strategically implement updates when other businesses struggled to stay open.


Jori Hamilton
Jori Hamilton
Jori Hamilton is a writer from the pacific northwest who enjoys covering topics related to social justice, the changing workplace, and technology.

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