Lockdown and meaning at work: is this the right time for a career change?

29 May 2020

As a professional specialised in helping people with career transitions, I observe trends in career changes and have been paying even closer attention during this crisis. At this unprecedented time, many articles and posts are being published to promote the opportunity presented by this unexpected free time and encourage people to think about a change of career direction. Because career changes are all the rage these days, presented as the “grail” of any successful working life. This fashion conveys the idea of ease, sending the message that free time is an opportunity and all you need to bring your new career plan to fruition.

Of course, eight million French workers were ─ or still are ─ furloughed, on short-term working, or temporarily laid off. It was only natural then to communicate to help bring a different perspective to these employees who were now out of work (because on the opposite end of the spectrum others were overworked...). This could incite some people to use the time to take the leap, hire a coach, undertake a skills assessment or take a training course, because in truth there are a host of options available online. Primaveras, which I run, could have been tempted to communicate to attract these candidates looking for solutions. But career changes are a serious matter. We know that a successful outcome is essential for every candidate taking the plunge. That is why I am asking anyone tempted to use this free time as a window of opportunity to be prudent. Here are the realities that the appeal of filling up this free time could be masking.

Do not delude yourself about your confidence in the future

First of all, if you think that “post crisis” there will be an economic recession, that everything will stop, that nothing will be possible, and you are afraid of the near future: turn back now! As a priority, you must protect yourself and keep your job security. Set aside your thoughts about changing your life, to take care of yourself in some other way. Once everything starts up again, you will not be able to deal with the unexpected events and challenges that arise as well as carry out your plans. This is a matter of being honest with yourself. If uncertainty, which is inherent to any change, is making you doubt, do not make the leap now, because a career pivot, particularly a radical one, will always require some degree of risk taking.
The same message applies if you have not set a solid intention to change jobs. To you it is still just a dream and you are in no hurry. Be aware that life will quickly snap you back to a harsh reality: as soon as work starts up again and you are expected to hit the ground running because of the current turbulence, your secret wishes for fulfilment will be forced to take a backseat. So do not waste your time; or do it with eyes wide open, perhaps just for your own enjoyment… that would be completely appropriate!

Seize the unexpected opportunity…

If you feel that you do not fit into the previous two categories and you were already seriously considering a change, if you already had an idea for a new direction and your workload or its context prevented you from taking action, then this period may be just the right time to get things moving.
But when doing so, it is important to be aware of the true condition that makes for a successful voluntary transition. A successful career change is a matter of consistency, not speed. I often meet candidates who are in a hurry to get started with their Primaveras coaching. Although I understand the eagerness to achieve more fulfilment in one’s work, it is important for me to warn these candidates who are at a crossroads that career changes take time and hinge on actions over time rather than on the start date. To put it another way, they are a marathon not a sprint. As the fable The Hare and the Tortoise teaches us: slow and steady wins the race. Rushing is not a good tactic. Although it is not impossible to succeed at changing quickly, just like the tortoise!

… and keep going once the window of opportunity has closed

For some of you, the lockdown is therefore a window of opportunity during which to accelerate your plans and organise your actions. But the window must not open onto a wall: the post-crisis period will need to be seen as a springboard in the search for meaning rather than an obstacle. For this to be the case, I advise you to draw up a longer term plan right now that covers several months so that you do not fall victim to the busyness and chaos that will follow the lifting of lockdown. The coming situation will only be more uncomfortable if you do not prepare for it mentally.

With determination and method, this could therefore be a favourable time for those deliberately changing career directions. Making new contacts is far from impossible right now, with people being more open (depending on the professional context, of course). By changing your perception of employment, you will notice that recruitments have not completely stopped, although they are perhaps frozen in some companies. But only those of you who can successfully anticipate and lay the groundwork will have the head start to get past the finish line... just like the victorious tortoise.

“Now is the time to change careers!”: when you come across titles that make the process seem really simple, I strongly advise not imagining that all you need is this opportunity of free time to leap into a new career. However long the lockdown lasts, you will have to stay consistent in bringing your plans to fruition. But if you are employed, there is a risk that the inevitable end of the furlough period will hit you hard, because employers will naturally want to get their business back on track and will rely more heavily on their management level staff who were off work. In these circumstances, there is a latent risk of frustration creeping in, at having attempted the career change but not seen it through, or at not having given yourself the means to do so. Be honest with yourself or risk regretting it later.

Laurent Polet, Professor of Management at Centrale Paris, and co-founder of Primaveras, the school for finding meaning in your work.

SKEMA Alumni is a partner of Réseau Primaveras, a non-profit organisation founded by two faculty members from CentraleSupélec, advocating the freedom of each individual to choose their professional life so as to pour their talents into a career that is useful in this fast-changing world. Primaveras has developed its own method and applies it in group career change programmes to help people leave the career path they took based solely on their academic qualifications and choose a profession with a positive impact. The programmes are eligible for funding through the CPF (French training fund).

Réseau Primaveras will be hosting a career workshop in French on 19 November in Paris. The theme? “Looking to change careers? Come and get clear on some misconceptions!” (information and registration over here). Primaveras will also be running two webinars: one about atypical profiles on 15 January 2020, and the other, about changing careers, will be held in English on 29 April 2020. For information and registration, visit the calendar section.