My 3 big career lessons from COVID-19

COVID-19, a global pandemic, is something I never could have predicted I would experience. For me, this time hasn’t been completely comfortable but has taught me a huge amount about myself and my career. While not rocket science, learning these lessons during the COVID-19 pandemic has proven I should let these lessons shape my career post-coronavirus.

My COVID-19 context

I am writing from Western Australia in May 2020. WA started our coronavirus lockdown measures in March 2020. As I write, we have gone over a week without a new COVID-19 case being reported.

On the work front, I am a technology consultant at a Big 4 accounting firm. Through most of this coronavirus season, I have been working on a technology strategy with a client in the mining industry, making it fairly straight forward to work from home. I got on the working from home bandwagon earlier than most, starting work from home a week prior to the rest of my organisation.

Circumstances that changed for me through coronavirus included my organisation moving me to a 4 day week (hours and pay to reflect that), cancellation of social activities and out-of-home hobbies like aerial silks, and reducing the people I saw regularly to pretty much just my housemate and partner.

Reflections during COVID-19 outbreak

Your personal goals can be your career differentiators

The first thing I learnt from my COVID-19 experience, and this one surprised me, is that not everyone wants to work from home. As someone who has often toyed with the idea of being self-employed and has worked at an organisation that is supportive of flexible working, I had developed the assumption that working from home was the ideal for everyone. Working from home seemed like such an ideal situation to me that I expected everyone would want the same thing.

It took less than a week for me to realise that my colleagues, clients and peers didn’t feel the same way. For some people this related to the challenges of homeschooling children or managing relationships in the house, while trying to work. Even aside from personal circumstances, many of my colleagues preferred the in-office experience of work. They missed whiteboarding ideas, and the technology solutions couldn’t recreate this experience for them. They missed face to face interactions, and Zoom calls just didn’t feel as authentic or natural. They struggled to focus when not in a dedicated workspace, and the home office could not recreate this feeling.

For me, the opportunity to work from home confirmed what I had suspected about myself: I really enjoyed it. I found it easier to manage my energy levels as I could take a nap or go for a walk with the dog at lunch. I could align my working hours closer to when I had energy, which was great for a night owl, especially now evenings weren’t given over to social events.

I also found it easier to do deep work. Switching off digital notifications was all I needed to get some quiet. And in fact, I found I rarely needed to even switch off notifications. I was so seldom tempted to pick up my phone and check notifications when I was focussed without the interruptions of people around me.

What is my post-COVID-19 take away?

Everyone is not the same and the things that work for me aren’t everyone’s dream. These things can become my career differentiators. I should look for more opportunities where these differentiators enable me to have a greater impact through the work I do and how I do it.

Protecting your time is worth it, even if it’s awkward

In my first week of working from home was a really productive week, before many of my colleagues transitioned to working from home. Once they did, things got hectic thanks to the new coronavirus norm: Zoom calls (or any video call really).

When everyone was home, a sudden flood of calls saturated my calendar: team check-ins, more frequent client progress updates, planning calls, working calls, team social calls, personal social calls, family virtual yoga sessions and online exercise classes. For a couple of weeks, I felt like I spent more time socialising than I had before the virus. As an introvert, this was incredibly exhausting.

It’s no secret that in modern workplaces many meetings could have been emails. But I also learnt during coronavirus that sometimes these ‘email-meetings’ fulfill a purpose secondary to whatever the meeting topic is. For example, these meetings are critical energisers for extroverts. And even us introverts need that human connection. Even if it depletes our energy, it’s an important social workout to enhance our mental health.

However, the exhaustion of those two weeks of non-stop video calls taught me that I needed to manage my meeting time better. For the mandatory calls, how long did it really need to be? Could I step out early once my part was delivered? For the optional meetings, was the meeting going to be additive for myself or someone else? Or would my time be better spent on deep work or walking the dog (or even vegging out on Netflix during lunch)? And I also learnt it’s good to know when to cancel a catch-up!

What is my post-COVID-19 take away?

I found it much easier to not attend a meeting, or attend only for the allotted time when working from home. The virtual format decreases that social pressure to stay online — even if closing a Zoom meeting is awkward! This enabled me to realise the benefits of protecting my time and increased my motivation to manage this better when our working lives change again. And the reality is everyone has other pressures on their time so protecting your own time can help everyone build better boundaries on their time.

Work you’re passionate about is truly different to work you’re ‘just’ paid to do

COVID-19 gave me an opportunity to start writing again

One of the biggest opportunities the coronavirus pandemic afforded me was also one of the biggest stressors. When my work hours got cut back to 4 days a week, it gave me both the incentive and time to finally experiment with some of the other vocation ideas I had. This blog is one result of that.

We had about two weeks warning that our work hours were going to be reduced due to COVID-19. After a couple of days of freaking out and lots of tweaking the budget spreadsheet, I decided I needed to plan what I wanted to do with this time. I knew this time could easily be wasted on leisure activities or be absorbed by working ‘reasonable overtime’ if I didn’t make a plan to invest in other things.

My brother was super helpful in this space, taking the time to chat through some of the ideas I had, plus my career ambitions and hobbies. This conversation helped me create some goals for the time: spend more time on my board role, start writing again, build experience by experimenting with part-time remote work, and continue on the many online courses I had on the backburner.

I started out this period with a highly structured plan for my day off, with the day broken up into Pomodoros and set out in a document with easy-access links to my online resources to keep me focussed. That plan lasted two weeks. Not because I got sick of the structure or started to procrastinate, but because I enjoyed working on these things so much!

I found the forced structure was completely unnecessary. The occasional Pomodoro helped jumpstart me if I got stuck in an endless social media scroll, but on the whole, I found I could spend 90 minutes on a blog post without distraction, or work long into the night tweaking my website.

What is my post-COVID-19 take away?

It really is worth finding work that aligns with your passions, where possible. I used to believe that this was either a) unrealistic to expect to be passionate about your career or b) that the passion would dissipate once it became a ‘job’. However, with real motivation to make these side hustles work in order to supplement a reduced income, I still feel motivated and excited to work on them.

Reflections for my post-COVID-19 career

I’m sure none of the above lessons are truly groundbreaking. I could probably find 15 career books and 1000s of online resources built around these exact pieces of advice. However, they had never truly hit home until I had a chance to experience what my career and life was like if I actually implemented them.

In that sense, coronavirus has been an opportunity for me to experiment with new ways of working. I hope to take these lessons forward and shape a more meaningful career as life continues to evolve post-pandemic.

What are your lessons from this season of coronavirus? Share in the comments below.

#passions #productivity #workexperiments #workingfromhome