Downloading meditation apps and rethinking meetings: How tech leaders changed in 2020

We asked some of tech's most forward-thinking people how their work lives changed in 2020, and how their 2021 plans are shaping up.

Messy calendar

One of 2020's most lasting effects: A total overhaul of how we spend our time.

Image: Clockwise

It can be hard to know what to take away from 2020. It was an utterly unique year, with so many changes forced on so many people. And hopefully, 2021 and beyond won't have too much in common with the year that passed. But everyone in tech seems to agree that whatever the future looks like, it'll be different because of what happened in 2020.

In that spirit, we asked a number of leaders across the tech world to reflect a bit on a crazy year, and to tell us a few things they've learned, what's changed, and how they're bringing the new normal into 2021. Here's what they told us.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

What was the biggest change to your personal work habits in 2020, outside all the obvious stuff like "more video calls?"

Jessica Rosenworcel, FCC Commissioner: With two kids doing remote learning and a spouse who is also working from home, there aren't many quiet spaces in our house. Plus, we're using a lot more bandwidth during the day than we ever have before. So I find myself — like a lot of people — playing a lot of different roles. One moment I'm running an office call, another I'm speaking via video at an online conference and in yet another I'm Wi-Fi fixer and snack-maker. My days are full!

Ebony Beckwith, CEO at Salesforce Foundation: I used to think of self-care as an optional treat. Now, it's become a core management skill. This pandemic has required all of us to give of ourselves in new ways and show compassion to others as they figure out their own balance between work, kids, partners, pets and more. To show up for them, you have to show up for yourself, which is something I'm embracing.

Mike Schroepfer, CTO at Facebook: Doing more live video Q&As to stay connected. Every other week I host a live Q&A from my Workplace profile and anyone from the company can submit a question. I share top priorities, what's top of mind and talk about new technologies we've recently launched or that are in development. And then once a week I do a recorded Q&A that goes deeper into a technology or topic that I think is particularly interesting for people to understand. Sometimes we also post those videos to my blog, CTO Notebook.

Sophie Scott, global managing director at FleishmanHillard: The schedule around which I work has changed pretty dramatically this year. While I've definitely worked more hours overall, I feel like I now fit work in around my life, rather than the other way around. I've really enjoyed the flexibility of working out at 11 a.m. because I have a free hour, picking up the kids from school because a meeting got rearranged or even adding on extra days in Continental Europe to work from home in Italy because, well, I could!

Billy Easley, senior policy analyst at Americans for Prosperity: There's a thrilling workplace alchemy that happens in the office that Microsoft Teams can't replicate. The tradeoff is that I've gotten more disciplined and arguably more productive over the year than I was in the office, but it's not a trade I'd willingly have chosen. The biggest positive change is that I now have lunch with my husband every day and can play Animal Crossing with him in the middle of the work day. It's not productive to my work habits at all, but it's a nice fringe benefit!

David Ryan Polgar, founder at All Tech is Human: Pre-COVID, I sought out bursts of creative energy by attending a thought-provoking panel, schmoozing over cocktails at a networking event or having a freewheeling coffeehouse conversation. So the big change in 2020 was to really listen to my mind a little more to understand when the creative juices were running low and then step away from my laptop to reboot. Right now, I am finding inspiration — especially regarding my work focused on the impact of technology — on exploring great sci-fi novels.

Mo Elshenawy, SVP of Engineering at Cruise: Before the pandemic I could have never imagined myself as someone who would download a meditation app, but working from home has required me to put some physical boundaries around my work and home life. Personally, I believe in work-life harmony, not work-life balance, because the reality is that our personal and professional lives blend together and we need to find a productive, healthy way for these aspects to coexist. Being intentional about how I start my morning with meditation, exercise and reading — sometimes even all three if I'm feeling ambitious — has helped me keep this harmony in line.

Charles Meyers, CEO at Equinix: We implemented "WellBeing Breaks" companywide. Themes ranged from meditation and intention setting to physical activity to "hallway conversations" to moments of gratitude. We also shortened meeting times across the company to 25 and 50 minutes to provide employees with "passing periods" between back-to-back calls. Additionally, we turned Wednesdays into "Better Way Days," to give everyone a break from meetings and empower them to use the day in the best way to make their workweek more sustainable.

Ellen Pao, co-founder at Project Include: I use fewer hard deadlines when I am able to. We had a regular check-in that it was OK to cancel or not show up [to] if you weren't feeling up to it. At Project Include, we set priorities with general ideas of when we wanted things done and what had to be done in what order, but we've kept it pretty loose and flexible when it comes to dates. I jumped at the chance to work with Caroline Sinders and then McKensie Mack on a research project that I might not have done if I had stuck to pre-pandemic ways.

Is there anything you wish you or your team had done sooner (in 2020 or even before), knowing what we know now about how the world works?

Nick Fox, VP of product management at Google: One of the most important takeaways for me is leading with empathy and remembering that everyone's personal circumstances may be very different. In many ways, the office creates an artificial level of homogeneity, as you don't always know whether someone is caring for young children, or maybe an aging parent, or has other factors impacting their lives. When you're working from home, that boundary can go out the window. I think we can all bring more empathy to the workplace and relate to each other as people.

Schroepfer: Encouraging people to get better at writing. Asynchronous communication is something our teams depend on now more than ever before, and it's an important skill for everyone to work on when we're so reliant on chat and email to communicate across teams. We're thinking a lot these days about what work will look like in the future, and I think no matter what the mix of remote, in-office and in-between ends up being, people will be most effective when they can communicate well in writing.

Easley: There was an opportunity to focus our messaging on Section 230 more on the platform it creates for minority viewpoints and social movements in 2019 and early 2020. This summer highlighted the importance of having a platform for organic protests to form and organize. I think the CDA 230 discussion placed too much emphasis on how it supports innovation in the tech sector and emerging competitors. Those are important factors, but they focus on companies instead of people.

Polgar: I really wish that I had leaned into online collaborative tools sooner. The energy and enthusiasm from a great in-person brainstorming session can be somewhat mimicked online, but it really takes a great deal of planning and intention. 2020 has been a large learning curve as most of my interactions have gone from in-person to trying to collaborate online, and I really wish that I had mapped out these strategies earlier.

Aerica Shimizu Banks, advocate and founder at Shiso: I wish I had started my own business sooner. I was afraid to take the plunge until circumstances basically forced me to. But since I have, I have been buoyed by the support and organic growth. It's enabled me to feel more confident about the boundaries I draw, the relationships I cultivate and the values I articulate.

Jeetu Patel, SVP and general manager at Cisco: I wish I had taken greater advantage of working from home and spent more nights having dinner with my daughter and reading her a bedtime story.

What's one thing that was new to you or your team in 2020 that you're definitely going to carry over in 2021?

Elshenawy: We started hosting completely open forums with no agenda to give folks an opportunity to reconnect, ask questions and discuss top-of-mind concerns with teammates and leadership. Everyone's circumstances are different and these forums provided valuable insight into how our teammates are doing, what they need help with and where we can offer more support — beyond what's on their to-do list. We also recently started a mentorship program with leaders designed to connect engineers from across the organization.

Jessica Gonzalez, co-CEO at Free Press: This year Free Press really put racial equity at the center of our organizing, and it's something we'll continue to do into 2021 and beyond. Stopping racist hate was central to our organizing to hold platforms accountable. We also launched a new project, Media 2070, which documents the history of anti-Black discrimination in the media and calls for media reparations. In 2021 we'll build on this work to put bold ideas before a new administration and Congress for how to reshape our media and information systems to serve truth and justice.

Meyers: As we move toward building a company where everyone can confidently say, "I'm safe, I belong, and I matter," we sought to create space for courageous and vulnerable conversations between colleagues. Following the killing of George Floyd, thousands of our employees from around the world united together as a company through 24 hours of conversations about differences, inequality and making change to build a world with unequivocally equal human rights. This global employee event, where over a third of our workforce came together, could not have happened at such a grassroots and global scale without the equalizer of seeing each other through a Zoom screen.

Fox: COVID has forced us to be much more strict in how we prioritize. This was the first global pandemic we've seen of this scale, and we quickly focused our attention on meeting new, unique information needs. That helped us launch and then iterate faster than perhaps we've ever done with Google Search, and we were able to make incredible progress within a very short timespan. This was an important learning moment, and we plan to bring those prioritization practices into next year and beyond.

Rosenworcel: At the start of this pandemic, I noticed that if the routine noise of life at home interrupted anyone during a work call, they would apologize. But at some point, I think we all recognized that's no longer necessary. If the doorbell rings or a pet appears, so be it. There's no need to ask for forgiveness. There are a lot of people balancing a lot at home right now. I hope we can all take this attitude into the future with us because saying sorry that life interferes with work — be it basketball practice, a parent-teacher conference or a doctor's visit — isn't necessary. We can make space for that to happen, no apologies necessary.

Pao: I really enjoy the end-of-video-chat hand wave. I love that moment of transition to say goodbye and take care. Before 2020, endings were so abrupt as I went from call to call without thinking. The hand wave is a little more human and usually comes with a smile, and I hope to see lots of them in 2021.

Banks: Tweeting, not just RTing.

What company, other than your own, have you been most impressed to watch this year?

Beckwith: Two companies that I've been impressed by are DocuSign and Kohl's. DocuSign became even more of a mainstay in our business transactions this year, and built out their portfolio with important acquisitions. And Kohl's, [with its] innovative partnership with Amazon, has become so critical this year for people like me who are getting packages delivered regularly.

Elshenawy: General AI is an extraordinary technical challenge, and I've really been impressed by the progress made by the partnership between Microsoft and OpenAI to develop supercomputing technologies in Azure. Combined with the example OpenAI set in establishing its charter for how it will advance its mission, I see OpenAI as a defining player in the future of technology as it opens up new potential for what is possible.

Polgar: I have been highly interested in "faux meats" for the past 15 years, so the rise of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat has been a thrill to watch. From personal experience, I don't eat meat, but have always found the very phrase of being a "vegetarian" as too much of an identity. I just want to eat the food that I want to eat, not have to explain my choices with some sort of underlying philosophy behind it. Choosing a plant-based diet is easy; being a "vegetarian" can be a burden. Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat understood this.

What 2020 tech story or trend are you most interested in following next year?

Beckwith: Corporate purpose became non-negotiable this year. We saw a lot of companies step up and make commitments that will roll over into 2021 and beyond. Only time will tell if these words will turn into action. I'm hopeful that it will because business is one of the most powerful platforms for change.

Gonzalez: I'm interested in how the new administration and lawmakers will respond to widespread outrage with Big Tech. I hope they will pursue actionable public policies that focus on upending the business models that make hate and disinformation so profitable. We've learned so much about how tech is used to harm people and our democracy, so the next question is what the Biden administration will do to help. I hope they will look deeply at digital privacy and civil rights legislation that will make it more difficult for tech platforms to violate our civil rights and use our personal data to target hate and disinformation.

Easley: How cities, states and the federal government choose to regulate facial recognition technology use by police departments and other public agencies. The stakes are high: If used correctly, this technology could be a useful crime-solving tool. If used haphazardly, it could lead to unwarranted arrests and a decrease in public confidence in the police at a critical time. Congress held multiple hearings on this before COVID hit, and I expect the issue to return in 2021.

Patel: Zero-click user interfaces to make technology more inclusive. Among the most consequential features my team has launched are Webex Assistant and gesture recognition technology because it shows how our user experiences can evolve so that power user experiences can be afforded to occasional users.

Pao: How do we make tech ethical? We've seen [that] tech company leaders do not want to hear the truth, much less do anything about it — Google's attempt to belittle and minimize Dr. Timnit Gebru's work is shameful. We know board members and investors are apathetic and value only financial returns. Are regulators willing to step up and forgo tech titan donations? Are we going to actually listen and respect workers who are speaking up and organizing around ethical issues? Will the press give long-term attention and context to the harms tech inflicts on marginalized groups and generally?

Rosenworcel: Long before this virus changed so much, I talked about how the cruelest part of our digital divide is the "homework gap." That's when students do not have the internet access they need at home to do nightly schoolwork. But right now this homework gap is turning into an education gap because as many as 17 million kids in the United States do not have the broadband they need for remote learning. They're locked out of the virtual classroom. This is not acceptable. We absolutely need to put policies in place to fix this problem so no child is left offline.

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