(Bloomberg Opinion) — For the hotel chef who can’t afford his nine prescriptions, losing a job could be a matter of life and death. Even among the employed, fear of what’s around the corner is almost as paralyzing.
It’s enough to put the minor inconveniences of working from home – the unrealistic homeschooling curricula, the crick in your lower back, the maddeningly slow WiFi – into perspective. Just treading water seems like a victory, forget about actually doing your job well.
And if you do catch yourself wondering about the seminar you were supposed to attend, or the promotion you meant to apply for, you may even feel guilty. How can anyone think about job advancement right now? Finding a good time for “that conversation” with your boss has awkward written all over it.
But the coronavirus doesn’t have to be a dead end for your career. If anything, it’s a moment to be nimble and prove your value. That may sound like a tall order right now. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that skating by won’t provide any sort of job security. This is as urgent for millennials entering their peak earning years as it is for baby boomers watching their retirement savings circle the drain.
The first order of business is making sure your skills are evolving with the needs of your company. These days, that’s the ability to charm a client over Zoom, or keep projects on schedule as your team straddles time zones with fragmented working hours. If you’re in an industry directly hit by the virus, think about how your experience would be applicable to fields that have solid long-term prospects, like cybersecurity, robotics and artificial intelligence. These sectors aren’t just for coders and engineers; they need accountants, compliance officers, HR managers and communications teams.
With companies in triage mode, it’s up to you – not your boss – to identify what those must-have skills are. Caroline Ceniza-Levine, a Florida-based career coach at SixFigureStart, says the employers she works with in travel, financial services and technology can’t see more than 60 days ahead. Traditional on-the-job training was one of the first things to go as the outbreak intensified, according to a recent report by McKinsey & Co.
Making an effort to understand your company better is a good place to start. “I know too many senior people who don’t read [their employer’s] annual reports,” said Ceniza-Levine. You should know what the financial outlook is, which parts of the business are still making money, and whether resources are shifting.
The good news is that “re-skilling” is getting easier. Last month, Coursera Inc. said it will offer unemployed workers free access to 3,800 online courses. E-learning is relevant for people who’ve kept their jobs, too. Herminia Ibarra, a professor at London Business School, teaches a webinar on career reinvention. She recently asked participants in an online poll to describe their response to the coronavirus: 50% of the 2,000 people who wrote in said the outbreak had given them “opportunities to try new things or learn new skills.” In some cases, this new expertise is directly related to working remotely, Ibarra wrote in Harvard Business Review.
Remember, too, that industries from pharmaceuticals and Big Tech to pizza delivery and drug stores are actually adding headcount. Amazon.com Inc. brought on at least 175,000 people in March and April alone. Other businesses are moving people around internally or starting to prepare for events later in the year. Facebook Inc. said it will hire more than 10,000 people in its product and engineering teams ahead of the U.S. election.
If you do start a new job in this environment, prepare to be flexible. Last month, Ethan Than joined a biotech startup in San Francisco. His employer is generating revenue, and recently closed a funding round backed by some top-tier institutional investors. So while he didn’t necessarily worry his offer would evaporate, Than did have to consider how the nature of his job would change. Normally, someone in his role would spend a lot of time at conferences trying to bring in business. How do you build relationships over Zoom?
“I’m naturally a people person,” Than says. “That’s something I’m a little bit more anxious about.”
Than is fortunate to be in a relatively virus-proof industry. For the rest of us, there’s a useful parable that sums up how to think about our jobs at the moment, courtesy of Christina DelliSanti-Miller, a career-transition coach based in New York City. It goes something like this:
Every year, a small seaside village is ravaged by storms. Each time this happens, the villagers lay out their valuables on the sand to appease the ocean gods. At night, the tide sweeps all the riches to sea and the gods are satiated. But in reality, by the light of the moon, an old woman is collecting a small city’s worth of treasures.
The moral (beyond how to get away with stealing) is that once you learn how a system works, leverage it. Figure out what your industry needs, show your boss you can deliver, and use that to protect your job or even negotiate the next move. The more skills you gain, the more choices you have, says DelliSanti-Miller.
In the next few weeks and months, it may be tempting to keep your head down, your kids quiet and your wine glass (ahem, coffee cup) full. But if you’re feeling anxious, it may wise to consider diverting that weekly beverage budget to Coursera instead.