2020: A Lesson in Imagination and Possibility

On March 16, the stock market plunged nearly 13% after trading had been halted earlier in the day to let cooler minds prevail.

The week prior, we had asked all ROOM employees to work from home until at least the end of March, and COVID-19 had officially been declared a national emergency.

I remember March 16 very distinctly because in the midst of markets melting down, we at ROOM were in the middle of critical fundraising negotiations – the fate of the world, and of the company, seemed to be teetering on a knife’s edge.

Reflecting upon that time in the middle of March, the phrase that comes to mind and that ultimately defines 2020 for me is “a failure of imagination.”

Back in March, when we told ROOM employees that we expected our WFH guidance to last until at least the end of the month, we could not imagine that in some cases it would be well over a year before we saw our colleagues again in-person. It was inconceivable that schoolchildren could be forced into distance learning not just for the spring semester but for the balance of the year and potentially longer. In our business planning, we did not comprehend the possibility of three distinct virus surges, and we certainly did not foresee, not even in our doomsday scenario planning, that office occupancy in key markets would still be hovering at 10% at the end of the year.

Most of us will look back upon 2020 and see that our imagination failed us on the downside. In March, we simply failed to imagine the extent to which the pandemic would disrupt our lives and how long the disruption would last.

But there is a flip side to the failure of imagination, and that is on the upside: possibility. In hindsight, the most significant event of March 16 was not the precipitous drop in financial markets, but rather that a biotech startup with no prior drugs to its name, Moderna, enrolled and dosed the first participant in the first trial for an mRNA vaccine. Just forty-two days after the gene sequence of COVID-19 was first published.

Back in March, few of us could imagine that a new vaccine could get fully tested and approved in under a year, achieve over 90% efficacy, and shatter all previous vaccine development timelines. Few of us could imagine that by June 2, Zoom would be hosting more than 300 million daily participants, or that companies with tens of thousands of employees would be able to transition into working remotely overnight. 

When it became clear that our country was suffering a dire shortage of PPE, and that large scale testing would be part of the solution for how we control the virus, we at ROOM applied our creative design and engineering skills, and our manufacturing capabilities, to make a contribution to the fight against COVID-19. The result was our Test Booth, reimagined from our signature Phone Booth to facilitate rapid testing and protect those on the front lines. We were able to donate Test Booths to hospitals around the world at the height of the pandemic, something I never could have imagined with our own team being fully remote. 

Our imaginations fail us because our brains want to interpret the world according to rules and norms as they used to be, or at the very least, as we wish them to be. When we acknowledge the limitations that prevent us from imagining the range of scenarios that ultimately come to pass, we can shed our blinders and disencumber ourselves of old mental models. As an entrepreneur, it is this recognition that gives me hope and makes me most excited about 2021.

Earlier this year, I wrote a ‘call to action’ for the industry related to offices and commercial real estate to build. At ROOM, we believe that there is a better way to work – where the office evolves to fit the needs of the people using it. We believe that the office is the heart of an organization, necessary to its growth, success, and evolution. A digitally connected and modular workspace should inspire better work, increase employee retention, and adapt to the changing needs of business.

If 2020 was a lesson that reality can in fact be stranger than fiction, then I hope that we view 2021 as a blank canvas, an invitation to be more imaginative than ever. Companies that just want to return to how things were before the pandemic will fall behind. We cannot return, we must move forward, and more boldly than ever. There are few moments in history when we are all given this license to shed old assumptions and let our imaginations run free. At ROOM, we could not be more excited to seize the opportunity, and I hope you will do the same.