What 2020 taught us. Where 2021 is taking us.

2020 was, without doubt, not the year any of us had planned for. It challenged us personally and professionally, but we also learned a lot. I wish I could offer some highly complex insight about what success looked like in 2020, but in reality, it all came down to transparency, collaboration, and drive. Those three simple things working in conjunction with one another are my biggest takeaways from this year.

Like many other organizations, O’Reilly went through a very tough time in March when we saw the pandemic’s effect on in-person events. We made a decisive call to shutter our $35M events division, which eliminated 75 jobs and forced us to re-examine our entire business. These were wonderful colleagues whom we lost, with years of working relationships with those who remained. That’s hard, particularly for a company of our size. We handled it the only way we believed we should—with transparency. We explained the rationale behind the decision, allowed our employees to ask hard questions, and addressed them head on. We grieved together, but we all understood it was the only way to survive as an organization.

Collaboration—working jointly with others in an intellectual endeavor—was my second big takeaway from 2020. When we closed our in-person events division, the entire O’Reilly team worked together to bring our renowned events online, and we did it in an astounding 10 days. All of our normal processes changed due to the personnel reduction, and there wasn’t a single employee who didn’t contribute to rebuilding our systems and processes to handle the shift to digital events. It was impressive to watch, and it was a level of collaboration I had never seen before.

And lastly, drive. O’Reilly is a mission-driven company and always has been. Our number-one operating principle requires us to ask at every turn, “Is it best for the customer?” Even after losing colleagues, our team drove themselves above and beyond to satisfy our customers and make sure O’Reilly itself survived the pandemic to continue our mission. Sheer determination and drive were behind that. And it’s what has helped us not only survive 2020 but potentially thrive in it.

As we move into 2021, we’ll need these three qualities to be rooted even more deeply in our everyday work in order to capitalize on what’s next.

The winners of 2020

For the past few years, we’ve been hearing about AI and other new technologies that are going to change the world. Instead, 2020 revealed the importance of technologies that enable people to work together, to serve their customers, and to collaborate—tools for remote work like Zoom, Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Google apps. In the end, 2020 proved that people augmented by technology is the way to win the technology game.

Good leadership is always good leadership

The way one leads teams is the same whether they’re remote or in an office. Transparency, empathy, setting expectations, and high goals resonate most with team members in either setting. One thing that does require more work is making sure the conversations that happened serendipitously at the water cooler still happen virtually. 

Don’t forget that your employees are human. Make sure your video calls aren’t all about work—ask your people how they’re doing, how their families are doing, and how work is going. You have to consciously take the time to do that on a video call.

Whether you go back to an office full time or never see the inside of a cubicle again, continue focusing on what you do best. The company has goals to meet and customers to serve, so break it down to that level. I call it first principles. It’s outcomes you want, and they’re not determined by the location of the people working to deliver on them. Just be sure to have good tools in place to encourage collaboration, and that everyone understands your fundamental business hasn’t changed (even if you might have tweaked your delivery method).

AI democratization

Now is the time to move forward with innovation. We need to stop discussing working remotely and get back to innovating.

Much of what’s happened in the past few years around AI is cloud-enabled solutions that give every company access to AI tools, like AutoML. This democratizes AI capabilities, empowering organizations of all sizes to take advantage of its value.

Corresponding with this is the price of high-level technical talent. While new employees with leading-edge expertise are something large organizations can afford to invest in, that’s not a reality for most businesses. You can’t hire new talent to take on all your technology endeavors. Rather, you must rely on your existing teams to stay current. But simply training them on a new technology isn’t enough. It’s vital to provide them with the tools to help them upskill and reskill in order for your organization to continually progress.

In 2021, I’d encourage organizations to get informed about what AI features are already available to them and not be afraid to learn how to use them. Smaller companies can’t be expected to hire someone every time they want to embrace a new technology—and they don’t have to.

Keeping pace with technology

Technology continues to move at the speed of light, and companies need to keep pace to stay relevant. 2021 will be no different.

The biggest change is that learning is no longer a “step away for a week and come back” exercise. There’s too much on your team members’ plates to miss concentrated work time. And technology is moving too fast – waiting four months for a conference to give them the answers they need right now just doesn’t make sense. They must be able to learn in quick bursts of knowledge that help propel their immediate projects. This is why O’Reilly believes in learning to do, not just learning to learn.

It’s not about consuming a four-hour video, but rather about empowering someone to get help and move forward while in the flow of work. It’s a game changer for enabling the tech worker of today—not just of the future.

Ultimately, no one expected this year to go how it did. But organizations must remember that they can pull through it. Transparency, collaboration, and drive. Put them to work in conjunction with your first principles and you can confidently move forward, innovate, and make smart decisions to push for a better tomorrow.

2021 will be hard for many organizations trying to get back to normal. But getting back to normal shouldn’t be the top priority. Focus on the first principles of taking care of your customers and employees and meeting your corporate goals, and there’s no doubt you’ll be able to succeed in the end.

Laura Baldwin, President, O’Reilly

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