When HBR asked readers what they learned in 2021, lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic took center stage. Readers said they learned not only how to work remotely better, but that they valued their colleagues and in some cases had a new appreciation for the office as a place to connect. Echoing this more deeply, readers said they had learned the importance of connecting — with friends, family, and colleagues. They also reported a great deal of self-discovery, whether it was a new understanding of what was important in their lives, or finding ways to achieve new goals.
When HBR asked readers a few weeks ago what they had learned in 2021, it became obvious just how true it is that this was the year of the “new normal.” Many of the reader comments echoed last year’s — we discovered new ways of working remotely, we built resilience even in the face of loss, and we found new purpose in the work we do — but this year, as we remain mired in the global Covid crisis, those lessons have a deeper undercurrent of permanence.
Below is a lightly edited selection of the responses we received.
We learned the importance of taking care of ourselves.
I finally learned it’s OK to say “no” at work, even though it “lets people down.” Health and well-being isn’t guaranteed, and in the end those who keep trying to drink from an already empty cup are actually the ones letting ME down. —Lindsey Boan, New York City, USA
After two years of lockdowns and restrictions, taking care of ourselves was a common theme in the lessons readers shared with us. Similarly, the article “Don’t Underestimate the Power of a Walk” debuted powerfully within HBR’s top ten most read articles of 2021. Whether we were trying to beat burnout or find joy, the reality that we needed to take care of ourselves rang loud and clear, even when it meant, as Lindsey learned, saying “no.”
We learned the value of connecting with our colleagues in person.
I learned the value of office conversations with colleagues. It is incredible how they help connect the dots for strategic decisions, and how hard it is to get the same in the more structured meetings online. They also help to maintain healthy relationships at work. —Ambrosio Yobanolo del Real, Santiago, Chile
Thinking about how we work was a popular topic in 2021; the most read article of the year was Nicholas Bloom’s “Don’t Let Your Employees Pick Their WFH Days.” For more on how employees worked, at home, in the office, or elsewhere this year, we also recommend HBR’s Big Idea “Rethinking Back to Work.” In this series, Ellen Ernst Kossek and colleagues explore how to balance employer and employee needs when offices reopen. The series includes Tsedal Neeley’s “12 Questions About Hybrid Work, Answered” and Ashley Whillans and Charlotte Lockhart on “How to Implement the 4-Day Workweek.”
We remembered to appreciate one another.
This year was a year of sorrow, losing a family member and almost losing my big sister to this dreaded disease. Others in the family were more lucky to recover from it. I make it my point to go and visit my family and make sure they are safe and get what they need, and more importantly interact with them more. Life is too short. —Jerry Antonatos, Astoria, USA
I’ve learned that all the strategic thinking in the world cannot replace the power of human relations — especially in resolving conflicts. —Alexander Davidian, Nicosia, Cyprus
The most important thing I learned is that we need to see employees as people first. When addressing issues or concerns, it’s not a number walking into our office, it’s a person, with a life outside that absolutely plays a role in the employee they are bringing to work each day. Ask questions, be compassionate, show empathy. I will continue to play my part in HR by staying human focused. —Carrie Rudder Kimhy, Fort Lauderdale, USA
For more on connecting with friends and colleagues, we recommend two of HBR’s most popular articles this year: “Don’t Underestimate the Power of Kindness at Work” and “The Secrets of Great Teamwork.” In “Don’t Underestimate the Power of Kindness at Work,” a May 2021 article, authors Ovul Sezer, Kelly Nault, and Nadav Klein outline the research-backed benefits of kindness and offer practical tips for managers who want to promote kindness on their team. In“ The Secrets of Great Teamwork,” authors Martine Haas and Mark Mortensen examine the fundamentals that make teams work, even in complicated environments. And if there’s one thing we learned about in 2021, it was how to function in complicated environments.
We discovered what was most important
When I was growing up, my grandmother used to say “health is wealth” and I wondered what it meant. Now, having seen the health crisis for many families around me and I understand the value of her words. As I grow older, my commitment to myself is that I will do everything to live a full life, until it’s time to move on. I will take care of my health and that of my family’s health and hope that I will live without major ailment. —Naveed Khan, San Francisco, USA
The value in focusing on the things that we can actually control or influence — the rest is just distraction. —Aaron Elsmore, Brisbane, Australia
Since its debut in 2010, Clayton M. Christensen’s “How Will You Measure Your Life?” has remained one of HBR’s most popular articles. Revisiting it today, the article has extra resonance for readers who may be evaluating their work and personal lives, particularly as the Great Resignation surges. Beyond Christensen’s classic, we recommend two pieces: “The Secret to Building Resilience” and“What You Were Taught About Happiness Isn’t True.” Both of these articles, popular with HBR readers in 2021, provide tools for thinking about sustaining ourselves even in difficult times.
In recognition of all the ways this year has changed us
As 2021 closes, Jordan Cohen’s observation from New York City is one that many readers will probably relate to. Answering our question, he wrote: “I am different. I wonder how long that will last. I appreciate more while I have less. I think differently. I prioritize differently. I move slower. I watch more. I pay more attention and sometimes I pay less attention.”
May 2022 land gently in your lives, for all the ways you are different because of the past year, and for all the ways you are the same.