insight magazine

Your Career in the Time of COVID

Professional growth looks different now, but with self-reflection, intentionality, and perseverance, you can make progress in these tough times. By Cassandra Morrison | Winter 2020

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Prior to March 2020, we had a mostly shared vision of what success looked like. Whether you worked at the Big Four, in a private company, with a nonprofit, or for the government, a successful career meant networking, professional development, and climbing the ladder. But in a pandemic-stricken world where networking events, conferences, raises, and new opportunities have largely halted, how can you keep moving forward?

A recent survey of 1,000 employees found the respondents were split on whether their career development was stalled or progressing during COVID—though more felt stymied—with nearly 41 percent reporting it had stalled and 36 percent reporting progress. With professionals describing such vastly different experiences, it leaves one to wonder if the “new normal” job market is much like the old one—all about what you make of it.

Time to Reflect

Much of 2020 has felt a lot like treading water—never getting anywhere new but staying afloat. For the 22 million that lost their jobs or the many more that hunkered down in the same job when the pandemic hit, 2020 was a time of surviving rather than thriving. But for those trying to build a career, just getting by doesn’t offer much solace— unless you change your perspective.

“This opportunity—if you start to think about it as such—offers you a chance to really do your due diligence; to stand back and think about where you are, where you want to be, and what you might want to do differently,” says Duncan Ferguson, career consultant and managing director of Vantage Leadership.

“Take some time, take a deep breath, and do some analysis about who you are as a person and what your value to the market is. You can figure this out by looking at the jobs you’ve had and what you’ve accomplished in them,” he adds. “Ask people in your network—your friends, family, mentors, people that you really trust—what they think your value is. And never underestimate your personal values as part of what you offer.”

For those who have remained employed but discontented throughout the pandemic, now is a good time to reassess “the reasons for wanting to leave and, instead, trying to create a better situation where you are with job crafting,” says Douglas Slaybaugh, CPA, owner of the CPA Coach.

Job crafting is the practice of approaching your career with an eye to what you can tweak and adjust within your job structure and duties to align it more with your talents and goals. This can be a change to what duties you take on, who you work with, or how you approach and interpret your job.

“Consider if the reason you wanted to leave or shift careers is still there. Some of the reasons that made you want to shift careers pre-COVID, like flexibility or a lengthy commute, may no longer be issues,” he says. “Look at the new landscape and see if it’s possible to enjoy the new environment. There’s also a chance you may have leeway with your current employer to craft your job to better align with the path that you want to pursue.”

A recent study from O.C. Tanner found that 48 percent of employees are considering a career move after COVID-19 settles down. Founder and CEO Jack Kelly posits that the unfathomable amount of deaths caused by the pandemic has “sobered everyone up.”

“Professional development looks a lot like personal development right now, and I think that’s a positive step forward,” Kelly says. “COVID-19 has been a shock to the system that gives you time to reflect, to start thinking about what you really want to spend your life doing—and once you decide that, your next step is making a game plan.”

Keep Showing Up

Carla Wright, CPA placement executive at Valintry Financial, says it’s crucial to keep doing great work and advocating for yourself in this remote landscape—even if you’re looking to move to a new company or a completely different field.

“If you’re working from home, you need to make sure that you’re still very visible. Do not be late for a Zoom call, always look professional, and interject with new ideas. You do not want to give the impression that you’re not working,” Wright says. “At the end of the day, you have to work harder at the impression you’re giving because no one sees you in the office. You have to learn to be very vocal about the things that you’re doing—don’t be shy about projects and accomplishments.”

In addition to touting your accomplishments, it’s no secret that learning new skills and gaining new credentials are key to career development. “Say you’ve been putting off your continuing education courses, or maybe you’ve never taken your CPA exam— now is the time to tackle those,” Kelly says. “Take graduate classes, grow yourself without anyone asking you to do so. But also carve out some time for something that you just want to do so that you get a victory. Little victories get you through tough times.”

Because 2021 is a reporting year for CPAs’ continuing professional education (CPE) hours, this presents a unique opportunity to truly take advantage of courses that will both propel your career forward and fulfill your licensing requirements. As Slaybaugh notes, one of the perks of a virtual environment is the fact that these classes are now online: “Frankly, COVID-19 has made getting your CPE hours easier and more accessible—it’s only a click away, so take advantage of that.”

Take Time to Connect

Networking used to mean shaking a few hands, going to a few industry events, grabbing a drink after work or a coffee in the morning—showing up with a smile and an open attitude, ready to find out how someone could help you move on or up. Now that we’re largely relegated to emails, Zoom cocktail hours, and social media, the pandemic is forcing a reset of how we network and why.

“Networking in the past put a lot of pressure on someone because you were only reaching out when you needed something from them; I like to believe that it’s more about relationships than networking now,” Ferguson says. “When we’re all having this shared, collective experience, it makes sense to reach out and ask someone how they are—and truly listen.”

“Take this pause to really check in with those in your network, without needing anything in return,” Slaybaugh agrees.

Kelly encourages professionals aspiring to new opportunities to spend time fixing up their online presence and fostering relationships now: “Start making connections before you need a new job and remember to reach out when things are good instead of out of desperation.”

To stand out in a remote environment, Kelly recommends putting time and effort into your LinkedIn profile—showcase what you do, what you’ve done, and what you’re hoping to do next. You should also put some thought into who you connect with. “Cultivate your connections: decision-making people, thought leaders, those who work at organizations and in positions that you want to break into, so when you reach out, you have a better possibility of getting a lead,” he says.

All in all, networking has changed greatly— and that’s better for some people, especially introverts. “Sending a message on a screen is a lot easier for some people than starting up a conversation at a crowded event,” Slaybaugh notes.

Be Intentional

While COVID-19 has changed many things, evidence and research suggest that companies are still looking for top-tier talent. But Wright says if you want to climb the ladder, you may need to change your perspective and reevaluate how you’re planning to get there.

“The top 50 firms have absolutely started laying off people and furloughed some of their best employees, whereas medium and smaller firms have forged ahead, taking advantage of these great assets becoming available. Maybe the key is to rethink your preferences—do you really want to target only big companies? Maybe you could craft a better career by joining a smaller firm,” she suggests. “Smaller and regional firms allow you to specialize in more areas, and ultimately to grow yourself.”

In fact, being open to a nonlinear career path may be the answer to success in this environment. A recent survey found that 64 percent of employees would be willing to accept a promotion even if it didn’t include a raise. Being open to nontraditional moves, either up the ladder without the accompanying pay hike, laterally, or to a different industry or smaller firm could be rewarding.

Though professional development, career advancement, and networking may look different now, what hasn’t changed is that anyone looking to make a move can benefit from taking the time to think about what they really want from their career. And in a time when everyone is feeling a little burned out, it’s the perfect opportunity to see the humans behind the jobs.

“We’re all working harder as parents, as spouses, as homeowners, and especially as professionals. I think there needs to be some expectation of understanding and empathy—from both sides,” Slaybaugh says. “The recent success stories I’ve heard are from employers who are providing accommodations for their employees, and those employees are the ones that stay loyal and work harder— whether in the office or at home.”

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