Career Management and the New Normal
What will work life and job seeking look like after the Coronavirus Crisis?
By Julie Norwell
The coronavirus crisis has unleashed a maelstrom of uncertainty about every aspect of our lives. It has introduced concerns as disparate as mental and physical health, financial stability, children’s education, screen time, the presidential election, humanity at the end of life – for heaven’s sake, we even worry about where our next roll of toilet paper will come from!
Paramount for some Americans are anxieties about employment. Just six weeks into the Covid-19 crisis, a jaw-dropping 30 million people hit the unemployment rolls. And that number is expected to climb. Economists estimate the unemployment rate may ultimately hit 20% – a staggering figure that is now being compared to the Great Depression, when a quarter of the American population was unemployed.
For now, there are still way more questions than answers about the uncertainty – especially for those who have lost, or risk losing, their jobs. Two questions topping the list are: How do we get to the other side of this crisis, and what will it look like when we get there?
The short answer to both questions is that no one knows for sure. This crisis presents the U.S. with two equally harrowing alternatives – a modern day Scylla and Charibdis: Reopen the economy and risk thousands more deaths, or keep the economy closed and risk unparalleled economic damage.
How it ultimately turns out will depend on so many variables, not least of which include when a coronavirus vaccine can be produced, and how effectively our leaders navigate us through this impossibly difficult strait.
But Americans are nothing if not resilient. Somehow, we will get to the other side. And the path forward isn’t so bleak if you resolve to prepare yourself well for work life after the coronavirus crisis. Here are a few observations to help set your expectations.
We Are Unlikely to Get Back to Where We Were
When investors tuned into the most recent annual Berkshire Hathaway stockholders meeting, they were heartened by the optimism of billionaire and financial guru, William Buffett, who dispensed with some folksy wisdom. “Never bet against America,” he said. At the same time the “Oracle of Omaha” was realistic about the changes we face.
“We do not know exactly what happens when you voluntarily shut down a substantial portion of your society,” said Buffett.
According to McKinsey, our era will be defined by the periods before and after the Covid-19 crisis. It’s clear that not all businesses will survive. McKinsey’s prescription for business leaders and policy makers to get to the “next normal” boils down to five words: Resolve, Resilience, Return, Reimagination, and Reform.
The same prescription is equally apt for workers. To weather this storm workers must develop a new playbook. They must resolve to study, learn, innovate and adapt to the new normal.
Blazing a Path Forward
To be sure, the return to any semblance of “normal” will take time, and it’s unclear whether the timeframe should be measured in months or years. But businesses are already planning for the next phase.
Consulting firm KPMG, for example, has published a useful conceptual model for how organizations might safely restart in a way that incorporates infection testing to mitigate the health risks to the workforce.
They’ve also looked at the struggles American workers currently face to understand how businesses can better support them. A survey reveals that 60% of employees say their jobs have become more demanding – even overwhelming. This is especially true of parents who are juggling work and childcare.
And the higher they are on the corporate ladder, the more likely people are to find work more challenging now. Few managers have experience overseeing an entirely virtual workforce. It requires a special set of skills to maintain employee morale, productivity, and a human connection at a distance.
The New Normal Work Life
Again, no one knows for sure what the new normal work life will look like, but it will probably look a lot like what prognosticators were forecasting in the pre-Covid-19 period. The future of work is now standing at the front door.
Most evident, is that there will be a burgeoning role of technology, especially anything pertaining to remote working. Virus or no virus, it will be impossible to put that genie back in the bottle. Now that companies and workers know that remote working works, fewer people will be going to an office.
Instead, business-as-usual will involve working from home, less travel, more video conferencing, and new apps and platforms that enable team communication and collaboration at a distance. In fact, there is a good chance that Covid-19 will trigger a permanent exodus from dense, metropolitan centers to rural and suburban locales. After all, why would city dwellers opt to pay high rents for a small apartment if proximity to an office is no longer a requirement?
Until a vaccine is available, only those for whom it is critical to be in an office will be expected to go. Those that do will find new floor layouts and safe zones in elevators that promote social distancing. Previously open work spaces may have sneeze guard partitions and ramped up cleaning regimens. If they don’t already, businesses will stagger work schedules to minimize contact among office workers.
Some changes may challenge privacy concerns, such as regular temperature scans. According to the Washington Post, PricewaterhouseCoopers will soon launch a contact-tracing tool for businesses. The tool adds an app to workers’ phones that detects the phones of any co-workers that come near.
The Covid-19 Impact on Career Management
To stay competitive in this new work environment, it’s imperative that workers keep up with technological advancements and prepare themselves for imminent changes to conventional modes of work. The rise of the Gig Economy was well underway before Covid-19. In the short term it will expand even more because companies concerned about their bottom line are likely to hire people on a temporary basis until the dust settles.
But a surprising sub trend is also underway at the executive level. The executive coaching team at The Barrett Group is finding that clients with demonstrable performance achievements under tumultuous circumstances are in hot demand.
“In the past month and a half, we’ve had more clients landing than ever before,” says Dan Resendes, chief consulting officer at The Barrett Group. “Companies that are affected the worst are looking to replace leaders that are failing to handle this crisis.”
Recruiters are also actively beefing up their lists of leaders proficient in dealing with crises, transitions, and virtual business. In addition to these skills, a savoir-faire in managing relationships and leveraging social capital outside of the traditional format is more prized than ever before.
Indeed, Resendes notes that the successes of clients at The Barrett Group is due largely to their efforts to check in on people in their network to make sure everyone is doing okay during this crisis. Networking is hugely important in the best of times. During a crisis such as this, where in-person meetings are risky, this kind of soft skill is crucial to building relationships and creating a community.
“We are seeing a fundamental shift in the skills and leadership background required by companies,” said Resendes.
Some Silver Linings for Job Seekers
It is difficult to see past the daily grim headlines, but there are some silver linings for motivated job seekers. Many job seekers are simply deciding to wait out the storm, which means the pool of competitors is smaller than it would otherwise be for those actively looking. Also, many older workers may simple opt for early retirement rather than reinventing themselves for a few more years, which will shrink the pool even more.
It’s important to remember that when a vaccine or widespread testing puts the worst of the health crisis behind us, the employment picture gets much brighter. Because the economy was victim to an exogenous shock and not internal rot, hiring may well be supercharged when it recovers.
Sure, some industries, like travel, hospitality, and tourism, may take a long time to recuperate, but others, like technology, healthcare, construction, and consulting firms, will be catapulted way ahead as innovators race to respond to new social and commercial needs and new consumer expectations.
Going forward, job seekers should highlight different skills and experiences than they used to. Anything that shows an ability to achieve a vision or a mission by leveraging calm, decisive leadership during times of adversity and crises will grab attention, as will skills in managing a remote workforce, an ability to restructure policies and procedures, and distance production.