Career lessons courtesy of the pandemic

It’s been 59 weeks

We’re not out of it yet. Still, it may be interesting to look back, through the pandemic-related articles I’ve published here since March 2, 2021, on how our world changed. You can follow drop-down menus (REAL CAREERS/WELL INFORMED/COVID-19) or simply enter “covid” in the search field on this page. Here, you’ll be able track what you, your peers and professional association leaders have told me in response to my Weekend Polls, and some of the tips and strategies you’ve shared.

That’s right. It’s now been 59 weeks since I first began writing about COVID-19 and its impacts on our lives and careers.

I drafted my first COVID-focused article the last week of February, shortly after returning from what proved to be my final in person keynote presentation of 2020. I’d travelled to Manhattan, New Jersey and Ottawa in January, and was back in Ottawa in late February for a presentation for our federal government in Gatineau, Québec.

On returning to Vancouver in late February,  I noticed a dramatic uptick in the rate at which COVID-19 (the term pandemic had not yet been applied to the situation) was mentioned on the news and on business sites I follow. In that first COVID-related article, I encouraged readers to keep calm, wash your hands and pay attention to coughing etiquette … and then turned the focus to impacts on your workplaces, business continuity planning (BCP) and your careers. 

In that first article, I cited supply chain issues and consumer behaviour. I wrote, “Anecdotally, some people and organisations have curtailed personal and business activities or changed travel plans.”

Well, we know what happened in the days and weeks that followed. We shifted from reading and hearing about anecdotal experiences to experiencing such changes in our own lives. We’ve all curtailed activities, cancelled or postponed travel plans, and adapted to new technology and practices as our worlds were turned upside down.

Now, in April 2021, some countries have achieved significant vaccination rates while others lag behind. We’re also dealing with variants of the virus, and some jurisdictions are again facing renewed restrictions.

My most extensive poll yet on the pandemic

Now, I’m keeping a commitment I made to readers a few weeks ago. On February 25, 2021, I published the results of my January 2021 Weekend Poll, my most extensive pandemic-related Weekend Poll to date. We looked at the establishment of best practices for virtual and hybrid meetings. We covered ergonomics, compensation, remote working, job security (again), vaccinations, communications, resilience, influence, goal setting, performance feedback and (whew!) more. 

With the two final questions, I wanted to give opportunities for you to voice your experiences beyond responding to multiple choice questions … and you responded. Today, we’ll start with your responses to the first of those two questions: What’s the most important career lesson this pandemic has brought you? You’ll find those answers below, and in my next article we’ll look at the life lessons you’ve gained through this pandemic.

What you told me you’ve learned

A few themes emerged, and so you’ll see I’ve clustered responses accordingly.

Remote working

  • The ability to work remotely. I had thought about this before but had never done so. Once we are able to return to the office, I am hoping to continue working part time from home.
  • Executives have been able to see firsthand how the EA role can be productive, often more productive, when working remotely.
  • It’s possible to effectively support my exec remotely.
  • I can actually work effectively with little supervision from home. I don’t have to be in the office to provide effective support. I went from full-time work, five days per week, to four days a week due to budget cuts at work. Working remotely for so long now makes me realise I could be an effective VA, so I’m exploring that to fill my fifth (work) day.
  • The value of having an incredible team admin team!
  • Life and work can continue online.
  • Have a can do attitude – make sure you are visible when working remotely.
  • I always felt I needed to be in the office to be effective. The past few months has shown me that I can be just an effective working remotely. It has actually alleviated some stresses for me. I have employed new ways of carrying out tasks, I find I am interested in participating in more professional development because it can be done from the comfort of my own home.
  • That I can work remotely with very little downtime relating to equipment, wi-fi issues.

  • Business decisions come before work history and colleague relationships. Despite being awarded by the company and recognized with an outstanding performance rating, the decision to furlough/lay off (individuals) was based on wages, seniority and business necessity by an outsourced vendor without any day-to-day operational knowledge. Managers were then told to agree or find the funds elsewhere … and, in a pandemic, everyone looks after themselves first. It’s survival of the fittest when kicked to the street.
  • It does not matter how long you’ve held a role, nor how qualified or how well respected you are. You are expendable in a heartbeat. 28 years in the profession wiped out overnight.
  • Have a safety net of money and a can do attitude.

  • We are strategic and we can make a difference now more than ever.
Digital meetings

  • Technology allows for continuity in checking in, although it can never replace the value of face to face conversations.
  • How meetings can be done just as effectively remotely, and they’re more timely with no requirement to move between buildings and no travel costs. They’re also better for the environment.
  • Virtual meetings are something I have long believed to be under utilized until the pandemic.

  • I’m most productive if I dress as if I’m in the office, so I dress for my day.
  • I’d be more productive if I had more space to work at home. I sit on my bed, working from an ironing board, quite a lot, due to lack of space. Therefore I get distracted. But I can work effectively if I have strict deadlines.
  • That working remotely I easily slip into bad habits and am easily distracted. I now work in short bursts to keep myself focused and productive.
  • I have realized that the overall feeling of being overwhelmed by life as a whole has taken its toll on my productivity at work. I find it hard to stay focused and complete projects in a timely manner, which is unlike me.
Adaptability; openness to change

  • Don’t get too comfortable doing one thing; jobs can be really fluid.
  • No matter what we are faced with, we as human beings can adapt, although some take longer than others.
  • Flexibility (note from Shelagh: this word came up a few times)
  • Flexibility, willing to learn new ways of working, adapting to change
  • When planning anything – e.g., meetings – within the current COVID-19 working environment, be prepared and do not get upset when everything changes. Ensure your plan is adaptable to accommodate these uncertain times.
  • I work in a hospital and I’ve learned to be flexible, as everyone has. We’ve all worn different hats during this time. One day I’m screening staff at entrances, and the next I’m sorting PPE (personal protective equipment). Everyone has been very nimble and helpful to keep everyone safe.
  • Having (and keeping) the willingness to adapt and change
  • Be adaptable and patient.
  • I am able to be flexible and take on many roles, and I can pivot at the drop of a hat. My boss values my contributions and appreciates my insight.
  • No matter how challenging  it may be, most will step up when faced with an opportunity to be agile.
  • Adapt quickly and be visible when working remotely
Confidence and networking

  • Having a strong network is key to survival. I couldn’t get any employment via recruiters or online applications. I was lucky enough to find work through my connections.
  • Have confidence in your ability to continue to do the job effectively.
Communications and visibility

  • The little conversations and catch ups matter and are important.
  • Stay visible.
  • Empathy and soft skills are as important as your knowledge and ability for your role.
  • Adapt quickly and be visible when working remotely.
  • Pay attention to how people perceive you when communicating virtually.
  • Forge good relationships.
  • Always prepare for talking with your executive, whether it’s calendar alignment or other matters – and even more so if the talk is about your own personal growth and development. I always did this, but now focus even more on ensuring I am getting to where I want with my executive’s support. Also, I document it all so he actually “sees'” and can measure what I do /did that’s out of scope and had a significant impact on the team and business.
  • We can be creative in engaging our employees through digital tools. Also, I reach out to colleagues and my boss to get feedback, asking if something is missing or for a short social call, as we don’t meet each other at the coffee machine (for example ) as before for small talk
  • Communication is important, and don’t underestimate the effect of face to face contact despite having video meetings.
  • Communication is key.
  • Maintain communication while working remotely.
  • It is important to over-communicate when working remotely. Some have an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality, so it’s important to let them know you are available to assist. Others may assume that you’re not productive just because they can’t see what you’re working on. Over-communicating will reassure them that things are getting accomplished.
Resilience and wellbeing

  • I can be efficient without being ON for 10 hours a day – when I was in the office, I would wait around until I thought it was acceptable to leave. Turns out, it’s acceptable to get your work done on time and have boundaries.
  • Mental and physical well-being are even more important now when working remotely as there are less opportunities to leave your desk or take a break. Staying connected is key.
  • I’m very resilient.
  • (It’s important to) be resilient.  … (note: the following also appears above, under Productivity) I find it hard to stay focused and complete projects in a timely manner, which is unlike me.
  • Though (we’re not in) healthcare, we are deemed essential as we manufacture beverage cans. Therefore, we are busier than ever. Through adversity, resilience will shine through. I support a team of 75+, which has added 12+ new folks since March 2020. Not only have I advocated for myself by asking for more pay, I’ve also temporarily supported another senior VP and two VPs when their EA left the company. I have also received exceptional ratings and an exceptional review, along with a 15% pay increase. We’ve seen 15 of our team members who have become ill with COVID. Also during 2020, I was a finalist for the Above the Call award with “The Admin Awards”, which felt incredible.
Skills, professional development and career planning

  • We have to keep active learning skills at a high level.
  • To be even more proactive. I set my own goals and set up meetings with my principal myself when I need them.
  • To embrace new skills with an open mind
  • Diversify
  • My work is quite place-based and having a rest from the constant interruptions has been welcome. But my skills are best suited to managing more short-term responsive fixes than long-term project-based work. Learning a new skill isn’t as hard as I make it out to be in my head.
  • Education is not everything.
  • I find I am interested in participating in more professional development because it can be done from the comfort of my own home.
  • It’s taught me that, although I thought my permanent role would see me through to retirement, I might actually set up my own business (non-EA related) and go freelance, even though I said I never would. My permanent role now has a small chance of not surviving (if the organisation doesn’t survive), and so I need to be ready.

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