Covid-19 the new disruptor in our workplace and careers

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You are in lockdown, and your world has been transformed overnight. Like most of us, you are not allowed to see your family and friends, visit the gym or go to the office. You must re-organise your daily routine, while boundaries between home and work life have become blurred. For example, when do you stop being a parent and start being an employer? Your workday is flooded with new standard operating procedures (such as social distancing) and new technologies you didn’t even know existed, such as ZOOM, Microsoft Teams, and Google Hangouts. Fortunately, this will all be over in a few weeks. Then we can return to the office, resume our daily tasks, and life can go back to normal. Or can it?

Such a response can be expected from many people as they seek security and stability amid the chaos of unpredictability. However, it might not be a valid response, because Covid-19 will affect our lives on more levels than we can even begin to fathom. Already the tectonic shifts in the world of work and business, which we expected as a result of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, are on full throttle as companies try to survive in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) environment. And the economic impact on businesses at large and livelihoods is catastrophic. Also, virtual leadership is becoming the new norm, and effective management has reached new levels of complexity.

Being caught up in the rat race – or ‘normal life’ as we call it – we never take the time to ask the right questions. Shouldn’t we be honest, now that we finally have time, and ask ourselves: How sustainable was ‘normal life’ to begin with? Was it really viable in the long run for ourselves, our businesses, the environment, and the world?

Turning our focus to companies, the loyalty of employees is showing a systematic decline as the work environment provides them less work security and social and emotional safety. Lifelong work agreements with one employer are disappearing, and it seems that changing jobs frequently is becoming the new status quo. Innovative career terminology pays homage to new career arrangements and psychological contracts, with terms such as customised career, kaleidoscopic careers, post-industrial career, gig economy, boundary-less career, portfolio career, and protean career.

But what can be expected of a post-Covid-19 career, which will be characterised by even more flexibility, not only between jobs and organisations but also within the job itself? Following are a few guidelines to keep in mind as individuals, teams, and organisations step into unknown territory.

Be authentic as you reflect

We like to stay in our comfort zones because they are – well – comfortable, while fear of the unknown also helps to keep us there. However, this may lead to stagnation and cause us to become obsolete as the need for reskilling is reaching unprecedented heights. We need to reflect and, in doing so, make meaning of our experiences. We should take pride in areas where we have grown and gained career capital and identify areas where we still need to develop. We need to ask tough questions, such as which processes, systems, and skills are redundant and how we can adapt them to fit our new circumstances. If we don’t, we might become redundant, obsolete, be out of a job, and close our doors in the future. We simply cannot be busy with things that don’t bring life for ourselves, our jobs, and our companies.

Become your own career agent 

No longer will degrees and job titles guarantee lifelong employment. It will be skills that bind careers and not job titles per se. Your employer and organisation are not responsible for managing your career on your behalf. Organisations can provide support and resources, but ultimately the responsibility remains with each person. For this reason, you need to stay employable by managing your career. In these new circumstances, you need to become adaptable, flexible, independent and resilient, and be a creative problem-solver. Reinventing yourself is key in addressing the continuously changing needs of the world of work and remain valuable to your employer. In short, embrace all your experiences (even the bad ones), develop skills, and adapt to deal with life’s challenges as you move towards flourishing.

Be grounded in who you are

Many people are terrified by the thought of a de-jobbed world. Such a fluid environment, with few guidelines and many projects and interactive teams, causes great anxiety among employees. Especially those who prefer structure and predictability. For this reason, you need to stay grounded in who you are and what you value. This will be particularly hard if your values include your job title, climbing the organisational ladder, and the proverbial corner office, since you now need to become your own brand in the larger organisation. You will need to take extra time to spend on prayer and meditation to keep you grounded as you become your own holding environment. 

Reach out

The new world of work can be lonely as we focus on individual tasks and projects. Meaningful interactions between individuals and colleagues are crucial as we move towards a virtual world. Research has shown that purposeful connections, on both professional and personal level, provide the driving force towards flourishing and feeling connected. Identifying with already successful individuals, their ideas and trends influence us and results in positive behavioural changes.

In conclusion, is Covid-19 not perhaps the disruptor we needed to re-look our lives and re-evaluate what we have been doing before? Maybe we were given a chance to redesign our lives and to write our own life and career story. Maybe this is our opportunity to withdraw from the rat race and reinvent ‘normal life’ while we search for authenticity and personal meaning. Perhaps a gift lies within these dire circumstances. If we do go back to normal, will we not have lost the lesson? 

Ronel Kleynhans, Lecturer and Coordinator of the Honours Programme in the Department of Industrial Psychology, Faculty of Economics and Management Sciences, University of the Free State.