The following article is based on my experience as a manager of software development at Booking.com during 2020

I will remember 2020 as a challenging but successful year. My wife and I bought and renovated a beautiful house together in the centre of Amsterdam. I was rehired into a senior management position at work. And my family has been doing well, with my brother and father working together in their construction business.

But it has also been a hard year. The global drop in travel demand affected Booking to the extent where 25% of the global workforce had to be laid off. It was incredibly difficult for all of us to see so many brilliant colleagues and friends affected. This caused widespread anxiety in the organisation, which was the main challenge for me to manage this year. The period of uncertainty was prolonged, due to the extensive process to ensure fairness in the Netherlands, and ongoing collaboration with our excellent Works Council. Since all decisions related to restructurong were made at the very top levels of company management, I often found myself in situations where I had to answer questions from staff where I had limited or no information. This was a lesson in communication, where I had to allay anxiety while ensuring that I did not say anything I did not know to be true. Frequent question-and-answer sessions, popping into the team’s standups just to see how everyone is doing, and reaching out directly to anyone who was especially affected to offer support, all reduced anxiety.

Empathy was especially critical during this entire year. It was still important to maintain the culture of feedback, with the emphasis on growth and coaching. Particularly important was to focus on my management team, ensuring that my team leads had the support and resources that they need in order to take care of their people and themselves, since they represent entire teams.

One useful tool was painting a compelling picture of the future of the company. The goal was to illustrate that there is a bright road ahead and that our staff are key to making it happen. Here the multiyear product roadmap and tech strategy facilitated my having meaningful conversations with career-focused top performers who want to know what next year will hold for them, communicating the vision to provide them with purpose, increase engagement and reduce turnover.

For my organisation, it was a successful year on the whole. We released a host of major product improvements, like the mew health and hygiene feature for COVID-19, while making strides to modernise the technical platform through service-oriented architecture. I assembled a top-notch management team with decades of professional experience between us. And we made improvements to the way the teams are managed, through agile and KPIs. I filled all the vacancies in my organisation, so this was also a year of interviewing and hiring. My organisation transitioned to WFH over a matter of days, with all of us scrambling to learn how to adjust to the new remote working environment – now it feels like we’ve been doing it forever.

So much of effective management is developing the instincts to know what to focus on, to be 6 months to a year ahead of the business, and to predict problems before they happen. These all come from experience, and this year was chockfull of that. It was painful nonetheless to see the extremely challenging positions that my people found themselves this in this year. Some were working from home with small children for months, others were ill themselves or who had family members who became ill and needed their help. And it was most difficult of all to say goodbye to so many talented colleagues and friends.

In retrospect, 2020 was a challenging but successful year. It posed huge unexpected obstacles – obstacles which were surmounted for me, my wife and my family, but it is deeply saddening to see how adversely so many other people were affected. I’m looking forward to the new year and expected recovery. Wishing you all happy holidays and a wonderful new year.