Finding the Blue Sky in 2020 (and Beyond)

people celebrating

When looking back on last year, the best description that neatly wrapped up our collective experience in a bow was from Leslie Jones on a 2020 recap show on Netflix. Her character said, “I’d say it was a train wreck and a s*&tshow, but that would be unfair to trains and s*&t.

Seriously though, let’s just call it the year of Murphy. Because anything that COULD go wrong … DID!

While I am not trying to gloss over the economic and other devastation that was unleashed upon us, I think it’s important (if for nothing other than our sanity) to try to find some blue sky in all this mess.

Working From Home

I think the biggest win of 2020 was finally making Work From Home (WFH) happen. For years, many organizations flat-out insisted that WFH was not a viable option for more than a day or two (even here and there). Beyond that, however, no way! And while some companies did embrace having some employees that were 80 to 100% remote, these were the exceptions. I previously worked for a company where the team was spread out across the globe. Every meeting was a video meeting; we were always working and communicating via video. My manager still insisted on a physical office presence even though many days were 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. nonstop meetings. So while the tools were available to us, there was still a, “NO! You have to be in the office!” mentality.

The biggest differentiator between organizations that pivoted quickly to remote versus ones that had difficulty was how well they had prepared their staff; not just by providing powerful collaboration tools like Office 365, Slack and Google Suite, but also taking time and effort to teach staff how to make use of them. For people working in tech, it was a relatively easy pivot. After all, most of our application stack was already in the cloud, and we spent all of our days in video calls anyway. The big plus? Our commute got much shorter. On the flip side, I saw firsthand how this was not an easy change for some organizations. My wife is an excellent example of this; she used a desktop computer at work, and while her organization was using O365, it didn’t know how to optimize for remote work. There was tremendous pain trying to change how they worked. I spent more than a little bit of time showing her and some of her co-workers how to get the most out of working in the cloud.

The most significant change to the WFH lifestyle was schools becoming remote. With a pair of 15-year-olds at home, one of whom is on the autism spectrum, I can say with absolute confidence that it did not go well. But it is honestly exciting, as we are seeing all manners of tools being developed to better share that collaborative classroom experience with remote students. This is great for the future; kids who might have to stay home for whatever reasons can still participate, and it will be easier to catch up. Even for those who are in class, the tools that allow them to review lessons or playback that one hard section can only make learning better in the long run. And now that colleges can go remote, this can absolutely turn higher education on its head. With a snap of their fingers, they can double school openings. They can go to a rotational system for an on-site section where each group takes one month in person, then one-month remote. It has the potential to make a huge impact on the cost of higher ed.

That fundamental “can I WFH” question was answered with 100% reliability. And while yes, there are some still that can’t, moving those that can into a WFH mode lessened the presence in offices and reduced risk across the board.

What’s the takeaway on this? 2021 wish is that moving forward, once vaccines are in place and risks recede, we keep this WFH mentality across the board. I hope we continue to make the changes we need and deploy the tools that are needed to ensure even more folks can WFH; whether it’s another virus (god forbid) or just feeling a little under the weather, more people stay home and help us all stay healthier. Imagine if 60% or more of sick co-workers did one or two WFH days. What that could do for the overall flu season!

Mask-Wearing, Curbside Pickup and Outdoor Dining

Regarding masks, for anyone that traveled to Asia with any regularity, you know that it is not uncommon to see folks wearing masks throughout the year. Why? Because they can potentially keep you from getting sick. More importantly, they stop you from getting others sick. While they are not 100% effective, I can confidently state that on my next flight, walking through airports or during cold and flu season, I will be wearing a mask! Because no matter what, it has been 14 months and nobody in my house has had so much of a sniffle! That is something you cannot put a price on!

What has been most exciting to me has been how businesses have evolved. Who among us will still be using curbside after all this subsides? The ability to easily order what you want and quickly pick it up is awesome. Although, I suspect many companies will scale back due to costs. Let’s face it, Home Depot is counting on us to wander the store aimlessly and buy 15 more things we didn’t really need while forgetting why we even came there in the first place!

We have also seen many cities where they have shut down a lane of traffic in either direction (or shutting a street down altogether) to expand the patio space for local restaurants. I personally hope this continues. When the weather cooperates (I live in Northern California and it cooperates for like 10 months of the year), more and more people almost always choose to eat outside.

The Blue Sky in AV

For those in the AV industry, however, I will admit the past year has been beyond devastating. I spent my first 10 years doing live events, rental and staging; to see that entire industry shut down overnight has been a nightmare that none of us saw coming. The only goal has been and still is survival. The devastation is beyond anyone’s deepest fears. No business ever plans for no revenue for 14 or more months. I have many friends in that world and I just cannot fathom what they are still dealing with.

In terms of our industry, though, one fantastic pivot I have seen locally is at a Bay Area AV equipment rental and event production company called Riverview Systems Group, Inc. I have known and worked with Evan, Eric and the rest of the team on and off for over 25 years. I have to say, I was blown away by what they have done to keep their business afloat. As a staging company, they have three things that can be a serious liability when your business vaporizes: a HUGE warehouse, TONS of equipment and really REALLY talented people. But over the last year, survival means taking whatever you can and turning it into an asset.

The company took its warehouse space and set up a bunch of equipment to turn it into two huge studios to rent out to local enterprises. Parties could host live events, webinars, product announcements and more. Riverview Systems has a huge, curved LED wall backdrop set up with all its production gear in a space that would seriously give many TV studios a case of stage envy. Due to all the space it has, the company can keep crews separate to ensure distancing rules are maintained (and they get it all sanitized after each event). It can host incredibly complex events and have allowed local companies to continue delivering top-tier communications that have been so important. The below is a video of the soundstage in action:

While we can all agree that this has been an insane year, it’s been incredible seeing the pivots that are fundamentally changing how we work. While “the future of work” or “the conference room of the future” have always been interesting exercises to visualize, it is clear that we will be hitting the reset button on those exercises, as we now have loads of great new ideas. I — for one — can’t wait to see how our workspaces will evolve over the next three to five years.

Please share any great things you have seen in this new normal. I hope everyone is safe and healthy and gets vaccinated so that we can get back to traveling and trade shows!