The year that was
What a year. This time last year a friend of ours passed away suddenly, leaving a wife and two young boys without a father. It put things into sharp perspective. I wrote a post to capture my feelings and—tempting all the fates—ended it by saying ‘Bring it on, 2020’. 🤦🏻♂️
2020 has been nothing short of extraordinary. As we live through history we’ve watched—with some macabre, morbid curiosity—as death tolls in countries around the world continually rise. Thousands of people have died, millions more have been infected by a virus that continues to puzzle and perplex the top scientists. COVID-19 has changed things irrevocably, and arguably nothing will be the same as it was. At least for a while yet.
On a more personal level, this has been a year of huge change, both virus-related and not. My eldest daughter started secondary school (a big milestone), and I took a new role at work at the onset of perhaps the most challenging times possible for small businesses.
I’m aware I have so much to be thankful for. Coronavirus has affected us but—fingers crossed—not directly. Loved ones and relatives are OK. My wife and girls are fantastic and have been so resilient throughout 2020. I have a job that has been incredibly challenging, but equally… I have a job. The same cannot be said for so many who have been directly affected by coronavirus’ relentless spread; travel and hospitality, high street businesses. The economy has taken a massive hit, and will continue to do so, and though there’s a vaccine that is a light at the end of the tunnel, there’s still some time left before we go back to something resembling what we all knew pre-coronavirus.
St. Patrick’s day, March 17th 2020 will always remain in my memory. It’s the day we made the decision to close the office, sending everyone to work from home, unsure when we’d return. 10 months on and I’ve returned to that office exactly three times, and it remains closed.
Blessed with amazing weather for what seemed most of the first lockdown, my family and I actually felt like we had to whisper when someone asked how we found it. We loved it. No cars. Quiet, glorious sunshine. The South Downs behind us and the beach in front of us, we capitalised on it all. 10-mile hikes, constant gravel and mountain biking, and being together at all times was amazing and suited us perfectly.
At work was another story entirely.
In January I returned to Clearleft as an employee. This after a year away, first as an in-house designer (freelance at an insurance company) and another year at Clearleft (again freelance).
I was lured back to full-time and I took a new role as Design Director at the agency. As a member of the leadership team and a board member, this was a big shift as the agency had just moved to an employee-owned trust model.
With January and February unremarkable, March onwards was a blur. Joint responsibility for 23 people’s livelihoods during the most significant global economic event in our lives was a sudden and very real proposition.
In retrospect I’m really proud of the way we navigated the chaos that was coronavirus. We only furloughed a handful of staff and for relatively short amounts. We made no redundancies, and maintained a healthy pipeline of work that kept everyone busy. We introduced a reduction in hours worked to lengthen our runway, and we took safeguards to protect the agency, namely government emergency loans as a ‘just in case’ measure.
With a large portion of our revenue coming from our real-life events, we took a serious hit thanks to coronavirus. In early March we had to cancel our flagship conference in San Francisco last minute, just as the Mayor declared a state of emergency. By virtue of a strong events team and visioning we launched SofaConf to high acclaim, and postponed all other events to 2021, or moving to virtual entirely.
Working entirely online has been (and still is) incredibly taxing for everyone. The zoom fatigue is real. A prolonged lack of nuanced body language and real-life interactions has made for some incredibly difficult circumstances, miscommunications and reactions, many of which are yet to be resolved.
What’s more, as my office is now home I’ve taken over the living room in our small bungalow, relegating the rest of the family elsewhere during the day. My wife and kids have been so incredibly understanding and cooperative, which is yet another thing to be thankful for.
Professionally and personally, this is a year I’ve learned a lot about myself. Perhaps living in a small glass 16:9 rectangle for 10 months has made introspection easier, but there are few notable things I’ve learned:
In late 2020 we employed an external agency to conduct a series of workshops with us, to hold a mirror up to us and challenge our preconceptions around diversity, inclusion and our situation around it. During the workshops (which were great to experience on the client’s side rather than the agency’s) I had a revelatory moment around privilege.
As a white, English, heterosexual male I was made aware—in no uncertain terms—just how privileged I actually am. The workshop included a ‘vote’ whereby for each question posed by the facilitator, we turned our camera on as a ‘yes’ vote. Safe to say I kept my camera on entirely. It was a sobering realisation just how much I have to be thankful for, and how much I take for granted. 2021 will see me take more stock of this as I’ll try to change things for the better, when and where I can.
Strengths & weaknesses
Secondly, throughout the year I’ve learned more about my strengths and weaknesses. For one, I love speaking to people. As an introvert (as per a Myers-Briggs test long ago) I appreciate solitude. Yet inversely speaking to people gives me an energy I can’t express. I realised that constant meetings with the same bunch of people starved me from meeting, learning, listening and talking to the ‘new’. The new excites me, fills me with ideas and gets my juices flowing which in turn makes me feel more grounded. In 2021 I’ll be finding ways to connect with more folks around the world.
Weakness-wise I realised I can’t solve everything. I need to listen to my moral compass more. At a design agency it’s easy for ego to get in the way, so it’s important to know when to set it to one side. I’ve realised that I’m far too humble and modest in some respects, and at times I need to be pushier and more direct. It seems I’ll always have a degree of imposter syndrome that will never go away but I’m OK with that.
What a year. I’m sick of wearing masks to the shops (but will do so for as long as necessary, obviously). I’m so sorry for my kids’ schooling to be so messed up. I’ve experienced what I can only assume is burnout on a few occasions, and I really miss an office environment.
But we’re here, and there’s a light at the end of the tunnel with a vaccine. Everyone’s in good health. 2021 is coming. Things are OK, things will get better, and I hope you feel the same.
December 17th, 2020