There has been much breathless talk of late about ‘The Great Resignation’, a supposed wave of job-quitting in the wake of Covid. Based on what I’ve been seeing and hearing as a career coach, I’m a bit skeptical of this, and on two counts. First, there was a lot of job mobility going on way before the pandemic hit. Second, the current economic uncertainty is putting some people into an understandably risk-averse mood when it comes to radical career change.
That said, something has definitely shifted in the psychology of work. I’d like to explore here what that something might be.
For the aptly-named essential workers in our society, the pandemic meant an often intensified continuation of their roles. For so many of us, however, it meant one of two things: working from home, or taking time out from work altogether.
Let’s look at the working-from-home crew first. Thanks to digital technology, core tasks could be accomplished from a laptop. The rigmarole of the job—getting dressed for work, commuting to workplace, shop talk with colleagues, office/workplace politics, lunch break, etc. etc.—just fell away. Some of us found this liberating, others found it positively head-wrecking. For many, the first feeling was followed by the second as soon as the novelty started wearing off.
However, even for those who missed being on site in their workplace, returning to work was a strange experience. This oh-so-familiar place, and the oh-so-familiar routines and practices associated with it, had been defamiliarised, made strange. For the first time, we saw just how much of this little world-within-a-world was constructed, artificial and (dare we say it?) unnecessary. While we re-acclimatised ourselves to this old way of doing things, we could never quite see it with the same eyes again. An uncoupling of core tasks and workplace context had taken place, and the sky had not fallen in.
There is great power in this. Having experienced the unprecedented and the unthinkable, we no longer take things as read in the way we might have done previously. While this may not have immediate effects in terms of our short-term career decisions, its implications for possible future action are profound. We are emboldened to see our current circumstances in relative terms. ‘This isn’t forever,’ is a powerful thought—and, in a world where technological change is heralding the kind of working-world upheaval we’re only beginning to get our heads around, a very necessary one.
What about the people for whom the pandemic meant paid leave from work? From the outside, this may have looked like traditional unemployment. But the fact that it was a government-mandated affair, with a return to work at the earliest opportunity baked in from the start, changed its social and personal meaning for the furloughed worker. And oh, what didn’t we discover about ourselves during those long months!
For many furloughed workers, the experience showed them just how much they loved their jobs. They couldn’t wait to get back to them. Good for them.
For others, by contrast, the period away from work gave them space to reflect critically on things. They realised just how much they hated their job, and dreaded ever having to go back. It had taken a disastrous global event to shake them out of their passivity and reality-denial. For the first time, they saw the future as an open horizon inviting them to take a new path.
I was talking the other day to a high-level manager in the corporate world who sits on many interview panels. She shared an interesting observation with me about this second group: the Covid hiatus has given many people not just the impetus they needed to reinvent themselves, it has also given them narrative cover. ‘I used the time out in the lockdowns to reflect on things’: this is a perfectly respectable thing to say at job interview.
If you find yourself in this second group, but didn’t manage, amid the return to work, to make the change you needed, know this: it’s not too late. ‘I used the time out in the lockdowns to reflect on things, and put together a plan for change’: this will be a perfectly valid thing to say in 2023.
Here’s to making work work for you in 2023.