How will re-engaging in professional life look when the pandemic ends?
By Julie Norwell
You might have heard Americans breathe a collective sigh of relief when the U.S. Bureau of
Labor Statistics published its monthly employment report in April. Over 900,000 jobs were
added to the economy in March, led by gains in industries that took the greatest beating when the
pandemic hit. At 6%, the unemployment rate is now the lowest it has been in a year. The
economic news will continue to improve as the number of vaccinated people rises, stay-at-home
orders are lifted, and Americans spend their $1,400 federal relief checks. The long-awaited
recovery has arrived!
To be sure, we aren’t out of the woods yet – the risk of new virus variants could slow the recovery. But for the first time we can imagine re-engaging in life outside of our homes. Over the next few months schools, restaurants, and theaters will reopen, travel will spike, and workers will return to their offices.
Or will they?
Work life has changed so dramatically since the pandemic began that it will never be the same again. Digital transformations that were expected to take months or years were established in weeks. Some jobs evaporated while new ones emerged, as economic demands shifted and automation ramped up. Travel plummeted, and meetings, conferences, and many other business activities moved online. Sometimes working better than the in-person versions.
The change has been stressful, though, and people have been pressed to learn new skills and accommodate new demands, processes, and mindsets rapidly. One significant repercussion is that workers have become introspective. They are reconsidering not only how they want to work, but also the kind of work they do. Increasingly, they want a job with purpose.
All these developments have major implications for the landscape of work. Exploring them is useful for anyone who wants to effectively manage his or her career. So, what will re-engaging in professional life look like post-Covid?
In-Person vs. Online Work
Arguably, the biggest adjustment for professional workers during the pandemic was that work
went remote – exclusively remote for many. Interestingly, after the initial mad scramble to
acquire the right home office equipment, technology, and setup, most employees came to love
working remotely. So much so that 70% of employees surveyed said the ability to work from
home for at least part of the week is a top criterion in selecting their next job.
Employers are for it, too. As many as 83% say the shift to remote working has been a success for their company. Most organizations are now adopting hybrid work models that incorporate both virtual and in-person work opportunities. At the same time, few employers believe permanent full-remote work is ideal.
Understanding when work conditions lend themselves to in-person vs. online work, then, is important.
Conferences, for example, especially big ones, risk turning attendees into zombies when conducted virtually. Nearly three-quarters of people surveyed say that the experience of an in-person conference is far superior to a virtual version. The former offers valuable socializing and networking opportunities, compelling vendor demonstrations, and engaging discussions that the latter doesn’t easily offer. When conferences are held virtually, they should be small in attendee numbers, short, early in the day, and on a Wednesday. (Yes, the survey was that specific!)
On the other hand, it turns out that a virtual environment lends itself very well to training and skills-building programs and offers numerous advantages over in-person learning. According to McKinsey, research shows that breaking up extended learning journeys into increasingly challenging modules enables better retention. Retention rates are also higher when learning is reinforced in regular training sessions spread out over weeks and months. The costs and logistical challenges of organizing traditional offsite, in-person training can’t compete.
When it comes to small group or one-on-one meetings, there is no obvious better choice for everyone. Both in-person and virtual meetings confer unique advantages.
By now, workers are habituated to virtual meetings. They’re convenient, portable, and efficient. Some people even find a measure of satisfaction in the relative social separation that a screen affords. And what’s not to love about attending a meeting in sweatpants?
Still, meaningful engagement is more challenging in a virtual setting. Visual cues and nonverbal communication are harder to spot. And making eye contact is the counterintuitive exercise of looking away from your counterpart to stare at a green dot.
For virtual meetings to be more effective in the new normal work life, professionals might benefit from developing better skills to build trust and human connection.
“Trust and rapport come from listening and acknowledging,” says Annie Meisels, public speaking coach and founder of A Powerful Voice, a workshop on effective communication both in-person and in the virtual world. “That’s especially hard in a virtual group setting. I coach clients on how to be vocally dynamic and narrate what they see people doing on screen so people feel seen and important. That can help create a connection with them.”
Ironically, engaging with people on-premises when offices eventually open might prove to be tricky for some people. In early April, National Public Radio broadcast a segment about the socializing challenges people face post-quarantine. The discussion centered on concerns such as, “After so much time apart, do we even know how to be with other people anymore?” and “My workplace is not ready for how feral I’ve become.”
If your social skills have atrophied, you’re not alone. But don’t worry, they’ll come back in short order. (Here’s a pro tip to get you started: Ask questions. Asking others to talk about themselves makes them think you’re a fantastic conversationalist – plus it takes the focus off you!)
Certain Skills Will Be Crucial
The Covid-19 pandemic is the big daddy of modern-day economic disruptors. But disruptions had already become a regular factor of the business economy and the workforce. Businesses must pivot quickly to respond to new market pressures and redesign procedures and methods continually. So employing people with the right skills enables them to be resilient. As a result, workers find themselves changing not just positions and employers, but also occupations and industries with a frequency that is unprecedented.
Adaptability, therefore, will be a crucial skill for re-engaging workers of all stripes. A second is a willingness to invest in personal learning and self-development because acquiring new skills will be a constant demand on workers of all stripes going forward. Also, being creative, innovative, and willing to solve problems as they crop up, as well as being able to effectively communicate will all be increasingly sought-after skills.
Not surprisingly, good leadership has been in increasingly high demand because companies need help navigating the uncharted waters of the post-Covid world and keeping a workforce that is on the verge of burn-out motivated.
Re-engaging In A Purposeful Life
Management consulting firm McKinsey reports that Covid-19 has caused nearly two-thirds of US-based employees to reflect on their purpose in life. Considering that 70% of employees say their sense of purpose is defined by work, that’s a stunning development. Executives are nearly three times more likely than others to rely on work for purpose. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that nearly half of survey respondents said that they are now reconsidering the kind of work they do as they are re-engaging.
It’s clear that people crave more meaningful work – and well they should! People who are living their purpose at work are more productive than people who aren’t. According to the report, they are also healthier, more resilient, and more likely to stay at their company.
It’s always smart for people to step back periodically to reflect on their personal values and their professional goals. It makes even more sense to do so after a year as tumultuous as 2020 has been. If there is a misalignment in your personal and professional pursuits, reexamine what you can do to make a change. Seek out professional help if you need it. Restoring purpose to your life might be the best way to re-engage post-Covid.
Here is what a Barrett Group client said about The Clarity Program©:
The Clarity program is a “great opportunity to recap goals, dreams and the way-ahead. Important to take the time to reflect before going forward. What is it one really wants and needs out of life and specifically employment/career. Serves a s a solid foundation for work/family balance. Hopefully individuals have a solid balance but always good to take a step back and get a review from an outsider.” (Jeffrey MacEachron, March 2021)