It’s easy to talk about the business impact that COVID-19 has had. Over 40% of small businesses have had to close temporarily. More than 14 million Americans temporarily or permanently lost their jobs. Many businesses have experienced anywhere from a 20% to 60% loss in revenue. It’s easy to know these things are happening because we can see it; we have reports and charts and numbers to put everything into a clear picture. As business owners, we’ve seen it in our own companies, and we’ve seen it in our clients’ businesses as we’ve helped them navigate the twists and turns this year has thrown at them.
What’s not as easy to summarize is the emotional impact this year has had on business. Employees and clients have had to adjust to shifting demand, new work routines, and virtual meetings, yes – but they’ve also had to endure the same months-long anxiety and uncertainty we all have: worrying about the safety of their families, wondering about the security of their jobs, making sure their kids are able to learn from home, and coping with the isolation of social distancing – not to mention those who have had to deal with loved ones getting sick or contracting the virus themselves. It’s been a raw year for all of us, and as business leaders, it was instantly apparent that ignoring the emotional effects of the pandemic wasn’t an option. Like it or not, the spread of COVID-19 really did seep into every part of our lives.

Leaning In

For so long, the idea of a strong business leader has been all about delegation and direction. Leaders direct, employees follow, and that’s that – right?
This works pretty well when change is slow and predictable, but in a world forever reshaped by a global pandemic, there’s just something missing from this model. COVID-19 has quite literally changed the way we interact with each other – not just physically, but emotionally, too. As we’ve led our employees through the strategic challenges of 2020, the emotional ones have naturally followed. As leaders, we’ve had to lean into the discomfort of the year’s uncertainty – reshaping and redefining ourselves in ways that will last far longer than the pandemic.

Letting Our Hair Down

Tired. Stressed out. Anxious. Even a little sad. There’s no getting around it: we’ve all felt these things this year. We’ve all had sleepless nights and unconventional days. And we’ve probably all carried that emotional baggage with us to work more often than we’d like. As leaders, we’ve always felt close to our teams – but 2020 will forever be known as the year we officially let our hair down.
When the pandemic hit, our business and our clients’ businesses were suddenly facing an unanticipated and unplanned pivot – and the strategy and innovation didn’t happen in a vacuum or around an executives’ table. It required long hours, hard conversations, and deep buy-in. We had to ask a lot of our employees very quickly – at the same time, they were suddenly setting up classrooms in their homes, cut off from their loved ones, and worrying about their health. And we couldn’t do that just as bosses; we had to do it as human beings.
In order to carry our companies and our clients through the uncertainty, we had to show it all to our teams: the good, the bad, and the super-stressed-out. And we had to give them the space to do the same.
If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that human connection really matters. Research has shown that relationships with leadership are the number one factor in determining our employees’ work experience. This year, our responsibility to our clients has meant asking our teams to do more work under more stress than ever. As leaders, it’s also our responsibility to make sure we are creating an environment of empathy, compassion, and transparency. For us, that has meant everything from mental health time for employees to restructured leadership meetings to virtual hangouts for discussing anything and everything not related to work. Above all, it has meant leading people, not just employees.

Giving Ourselves a Break

As leaders, all the pressure builds on us. At the end of the day, what happens with our teams, our departments, our businesses – is on us. So, our instinct tends to be to put everything else ahead of our own wellbeing – always thinking we’ll address that later, on some magical day when our position suddenly stops being demanding. But the fact is, too much stress makes us worse at our jobs. All of us. It can cause absenteeism, poor motivation, lower productivity, and increased mistakes and accidents – not to mention the potential health effects. And at this point, 2020 is practically synonymous with “stress.”
It’s easy to forget about wellbeing when you’re running a business. Even easier when you’re raising kids at the same time. But this year, it stopped being something we could avoid. Between scrapped business plans, stressed and sick employees, loan paperwork, Zoom fatigue, and a million other unexpected curveballs, we both found ourselves facing burnout. And for both of us, it led to the most important lessons of the year: the difference between constant work and mindful work, the power of your network and trusted advisors, and the energy reserve it takes to pivot constantly. 
It once may have seemed blasphemous, but we’ve learned that it’s okay for us leaders to let some things slip off our calendars once in a while - or never make it on at all. In fact, it’s necessary.
Among many others, here’s our mantra for 2020: Busy doesn’t equal productive. We are business leaders, but we’re also people. Friends. Moms. It’s okay to make time and space outside of our business – and it’s okay if sometimes that time is just for us. To do something creative. To reorganize the pantry. To do absolutely nothing but savor a deliciously dry red wine. To decorate the porch just because it’s relaxing and productive and not work. It’s okay to have an open time slot on the calendar. And now that we do once in a while, we’re actually much sharper and more productive when it’s back to business.

Planning for the All-Term

At the onset of the pandemic, every new change to our businesses felt radical. If shifting to remote work, creating brand new service lines, and reinventing products (practically overnight in most cases) wasn’t the ultimate crash course in flexibility for business leaders this year, we don’t know what is. 
We have had to innovate and anticipate at every turn – pivoting everything from financial plans to service offerings to stay in tune with what clients need. As B2B businesses, we’ve had to do it right alongside most of our clients. When the pandemic hit, only 12% of businesses had continuity plans that left them highly-prepared for it. Even for businesses with plans in place, the ripple effects of COVID-19 piled up quickly. Between our two companies alone, we’ve had to deal with paused and canceled contracts, long-time employees leaving and new employees coming on board, reinvented and completely new services, organizational restructuring, loan applications, brand new technologies, and more. And it has all served as one big, glaring reminder: plan for everything. That means short-term, mid-term, and long-term. We certainly didn’t have the perfect pandemic business plan in place (did anyone?!), but we did have plans – and we were happy to share them.
Planning for everything means being open to anything – and that starts with sharing ideas.
For all the stress the pandemic brought to our businesses, it was also the ultimate opportunity for collaboration. It’s not often that one event demands that every business react. In our community, business leaders almost instantly started creating spaces to network and talk about how they were coping with everything that was happening. We held virtual office hours. We gave presentations over digital coffee dates. We led and participated in virtual boot camps, task forces, strategy sessions, and panels. Just like with our own teams, it was important that we talked transparently with other business leaders about what COVID-19 meant for our community’s economy. It was also important to hear about and share strategies that could help us all navigate the uncertainty we were facing. And often, it was most important just to know we weren’t facing it alone.

Final Thoughts

COVID-19 changed everything. The way we work. The way our kids learn. The way we shop, interact with our neighbors, hold meetings…even the way we think. It has forced us to look inward, to reassess our priorities, our lifestyles, and our interactions. As we have faced the radical change brought on by the pandemic, the way we lead has radically changed, too. 


Erin Joy