Managing your career in times of change

By Rebecca Guenard

In This Section

June 2020

  • Most of us have spent an uncertain couple of months working from home. Here we offer expert advice on how to keep your career goals while maintaining flexibility in times of uncertainty.
  • Identify your feelings and take care of yourself.
  • Stay professional, stay connected, and stay in the present.
Tips for managing change
Fig. 1. Tips for managing change

The scars of coronavirus will be visible on the world economy for years to come. Social distancing protocols, implemented to contain the outbreak, altered daily life around the globe for the first half of 2020. Businesses shuttered, and companies enacted work-from-home orders. Billions of people are experiencing an unprecedented strain on their careers. Thankfully, a pandemic is not regular career concern, but change should be expected.

Numerous sources have pointed out that expecting career certainty is the best way to be derailed by change. Yet, it is impractical (and anxiety-inducing) to set career and life goals on a foundational belief that they may someday fall apart. Studies in career development find that individuals with a thoroughly cultivated vocational vision perceive greater satisfaction in their work life. But, as the current health crisis shows, we cannot always predict what challenges our careers will face. While a clear, stable picture of one’s goals, interests, and talents are a career asset, flexibility takes precedence.

“The people who are going to succeed are the people who have the most flexibility. In this current circumstance, that means the adaptability to work remotely,” says Judith Katz, executive vice president at Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group (https://kjcg.com). She has worked with companies like American Airlines, Ecolab, and Merck to adjust their culture and help employees adapt to change. She suggests the following five tips for dealing with the career disruptions caused by coronavirus, though their practice should not be limited to this particularly unusual time. Apply these strategies during your company’s merger, an acquisition, a denied promotion, or any uncertain time in your career.

Recognize your trauma

“We cannot avoid the reality of the trauma this is going to create for people,” says Katz, referring to the economic effects of coronavirus. For some, that trauma might be caused by a job loss. She says, we cannot be naïve about that possibility as we await the full economic outcome of the pandemic. However, other types of loss take a psychological toll that should be acknowledged.

“The loss of normalcy; the loss of connection. This is hitting us, and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air,” said David Kessler, a grief expert, in a recent article for the Harvard Business Review (https://hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-youre-feeling-is-grief). He says that to take power over the grief, we have to acknowledge it.

On the days when you are feeling anxious about managing your composure in a state of uncertainty, it is OK to say that out loud. Let your co-workers know when you are struggling. Ask your team how they are feeling on a scale of 0–10 to avoid the compulsory response, “I am fine.” Sharing beyond the number should be voluntary, but people should encourage one another to share more information in particularly difficult times.

Only when we accept our emotions can we figure out how to work through them, says Kessler. “When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you,” he says. “Emotions need motion. It’s important we acknowledge what we go through.” Finally, he says to remind yourself that, as with any career change, this is survivable. There will be times in your transition when you doubt that is true. Express those doubts as you feel them, and eventually you will make it through to the other side.

Focus on the present

Katz says, though we do not want to be naive about the future, we do not want to put too much energy there, either. For some people, making plans is comforting, but the practice can also be detrimental. Spending a lot of time working out different what-if scenarios will raise your anxiety if there are too many unknowns, says Katz. “Focus on the present and what you can do on a day-to-day basis.”

In the case of the current health crisis, we do not know how products and services will be changed by statewide or countrywide stay-at-home orders. We do not know how long it will take the economy to recover. We cannot predict what the decision makers in our organization will do in this stressful time. Katz says, some people get frozen while others go into overdrive.

They may even go against their better interest because they are afraid, she says. “The challenge for many industries is that they do not know how the shutdown is going to impact their capabilities and profits when it is over,” says Katz.

Kessler recommends regular check-ins with the present moment to avoid preforming mental calculus trying to solve all possible career outcomes. “This will be familiar advice to anyone who has meditated or practiced mindfulness, but people are always surprised at how prosaic this can be,” he said.

If you find yourself worrying about the future, try shifting your focus to your present space. According to Kessler, naming five things in the room will bring you back to the present. Remind yourself that in the present moment you are safe. Hopefully none of the worst things that your imagination can conjure have happened. But, even if they have, apply your energy to what is within your control. “Instead of focusing on all the unknowns,” Katz says, “ask yourself: What is the most important thing to do right now?”

For example, you have all that data you compiled last year. Is this a good time to learn about data visualization? Set a date to present your data story to your group. Maybe you wish your team could be better organized, but you have been too busy with day-to-day work to research project management tools. Is this a good time to investigate if platforms like Basecamp or HubSpot could be a team asset? If you have, unfortunately, lost your job, this is definitely a good time to secure your finances and update your resume.

Whatever your career situation, stay active in the present. Do the tasks that are most important for your present situation and avoid concentrating on things that are out of your control.

Do your best work

“Do the best job that you can in your current position and, in the back of your mind, know that it could all change,” says Katz. A time of uncertainty does not mean that you lower your standards. Maintain professionalism, even when there is turbulence in your career. All the uncertainty can take its toll on your emotions. You may not be able to summon your usual energy or creativity. You may feel frustrated or angry. Resist operating in such a state of mind. Give yourself a break. Go for walks to clear your head or take an afternoon off, if needed.

Change is uncomfortable. It takes time to get good at something. A change can make us resentful that time was wasted and now more time will be required to get good at something new. But change is inevitable, so remember your work ethic and try to maintain it through the transition.

Katz says, this is not the time to become indifferent. Stay engaged and contribute with the same level of excellence. You might not have any control over the change that is happening around you, but you do have control over your reaction to it. When normalcy is restored, your organization will appreciate having a steadfast employee they could rely on through a challenge.

Take stock of your resources (Be a resource)

“What do you have control over? Think about the things you do have control over and focus on those things,” says Katz. “Otherwise it is too much anxiety.” One thing we can all do, she says, is maintain our networks.

Staying connected to people professionally is an essential part of managing a career. Social distancing required that we all stay apart, but, Katz says, the coronavirus protocols actually gave us time to strengthen our connections. Our colleagues and acquaintances were all experiencing the same uncertainty. A shared experience presents an opportunity to form a bond. Reach out to others in your industry who are experiencing (or have experienced) the same uncertainty as you.

Video conferencing became the new workplace norm during stay-at-home mandates. We got used to coffee breaks, happy hours, and even religious ceremonies over video chat apps. As we begin working onsite again, do not lose this virtual meeting habit. Use it to stay connected with other professionals in your network. Pick five people in your network and schedule a 15-minute Zoom coffee break on a routine basis.

Many of us look forward to conferences to provide a respite from work and social time with like-minded people. Their cancellation this year does not need to be a total loss. If you were looking forward to attending a particular conference session, reach out to the moderator on LinkedIn and express your interest. If you were scheduled to chair a session, invite all your speakers to a virtual coffee hour to meet and discuss your common interest.

Katz says that if her business dried up today, she knows exactly who she would contact. She has built strong connections over a long career by making the intention to get involved. She emphasizes that the best way to build networks is to give of your time and talent. “I always say to people in different organizations that volunteering and doing what you can to be known is critical,” says Katz. “Make yourself of value; a valued resource becomes even more important in these times.”

Foster professional connections throughout your career. In times of change, a reassuring voice from someone with experience can ease your anxiety and, in turn, as you navigate change through your career, you can be that voice for someone else down the line.

Practice self-care

“Make sure that you are taking care of yourself and doing things that are life-affirming,” says Katz. Exercise, read a book, sew a quilt, take-up salsa dancing. Find something that brings meaning to your life besides your work, she says.

During the coronavirus, outbreak gyms had to be closed. As a response, many online workout services extended their free trial periods. Peloton’s app provides workouts for people who have purchased their stationary bike, but they also have instructor lead workouts with no bike required. For a limited time, they offered 90 days of classes for free (https://www.onepeloton.com). Workouts include walking, stretching, strength training, and even outdoor activities. Similarly, the yoga instruction app, Down Dog, extended its free trial period during the outbreak (https://www.downdogapp.com). These free trial periods are not unique to the pandemic. Check out exercise studios in your local area. At any point when you are experiencing uncertainty in your career, a cost-free exercise routine can offer a necessary stress release.

If changes in your career have caused a lack of mental stimulation, there are many opportunities to sharpen your skills. Coursera, an online learning site established by Stanford professors, offers several free classes (https://www.coursera.org). Webinars are also organized in an instructional manner, and you can find a range of subjects by searching YouTube. Check nearby universities for their distance learning or extended education programs. Let a change in your career be an opportunity to reflect on your interests. Pursuing them could have multiple benefits, for your emotions and your career.

Regardless of how you choose to spend your self-care time, make sure to include an emotional assessment. Research by sociologist, Brené Brown, shows that being courageous requires vulnerability (https://brenebrown.com). If you are bravely facing career changes, there will be times when fear and uncertainty creep into your psyche. That is expected, according to Brown. In those times, practice the things that bring you comfort and share your feelings with people you trust.

The oil seed industry has experienced profound change in the past five years (https://philhoward.net). The big six agrochemical and seed firms consolidated into four companies that now control an estimated 60% of global proprietary seed sales. Dozens of acquisitions and joint ventures have been executed around the world since 2015. Now that we have collectively experienced career upheaval, we can better empathize with the human effect imposed by these corporate transactions. And, on the other side of this global pandemic, there will be yet more change. We hope these expert tips will help you manage it all successfully.

“Make sure that you are doing your best, adding value, and staying connected,” says Katz, in summary. “And take care of yourself. If you are not taking care of yourself, then your career will not matter.”

Rebecca Guenard is the associate editor of Inform at AOCS. She can be contacted at rebecca.guenard@aocs.org.

Further Reading

Whole‐life career management: a counseling intervention framework, Hirschi, A., The Career Development Quarterly 68: 2–17, 2020.

Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts, Brown, Brené, Random House, New York, 2018.

Vocational identity and career progress: the intervening variables of career calling and willingness to compromise, Creed, P.A., M. Kaya, and M. Hood, Journal of Career Development 47: 131–145, 2018.

Psychological capital: an evidence-based positive approach, Luthans, F. and C.M. Youssef-Morgan, Annu. Rev. Organ. Psychol. Organ. Behav. 4: 339–366, 2017.