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Pre-Pandemic Career Goals Don’t Work. Do This Instead.

How to help employees identify and pursue emerging opportunities

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Photo courtesy of Hannah Busing
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This article is part of InHerSight's Working During Coronavirus series. As the coronavirus pandemic continues, find helpful advice here on working remotely, job hunting remotely, dealing with anxiety and stress, and staying safe at work if you have to be on-site.

About 44 percent* of women feel their career progress has been delayed since they began working remotely due to the pandemic. This is not surprising. As companies have cut costs amid the current economic climate, many traditional growth opportunities such as promotions, salary increases, and development programs have dissolved. Add to that the fact that many women are juggling work and family, and there’s very little time to consider next career steps.

For employees, this can be disheartening. Striving for career milestones has long been an effective way for employees to stay engaged and productive in their work. Without achievable goals, “They can quickly lose motivation and not feel as excited about the work that they’re doing or lose some of their drive to be innovative or take on new challenges,” says Dana Hundley, cofounder of consulting firm Career Cooperative. 

You might already be noticing signs of such detachment on your team. In addition to apathy, expect disengaged workers to feel frustrated or overwhelmed more often, or to complain more. Ruth Gotian, who studies elite high achievers, says the complaining will likely be nonstop and that, for those who are overwhelmed, every little challenge will become a major crisis. As the discontent continues, the likelihood of employees seeking out new opportunities will also increase.

You don’t want that—especially if you’re already tightening purse strings. Turnover is expensive. According to research from the Wharton School of Business, on average, external hires cost 18–20 percent more than retraining and retaining current employees, and new hires tend to perform worse for their first two years on the job. It makes better business sense to reskill and upskill your existing workforce. 

“For employers, it’s a time to be really creative about how you’re utilizing the talent that you have,” Hundley says, adding that employees will be more excited about redeployment if you tap into areas they’re interested in exploring. “We do better work when we care about what we’re doing,” she says.

That’s where COVID-era goal-setting comes in. Gotian says continuing to pursue goals set before the pandemic is fruitless. “When people feel like they’re stuck, it’s because their goal is the pre-pandemic goal,” Gotian says. “You can’t keep that pre-pandemic goal without shifting or pivoting it ever so slightly because everything has changed now. [People are] very rigid on, ‘This is what was supposed to happen next.’ But that might not happen anymore, so what happens is they feel deflated, they feel frustrated, and sometimes they feel overwhelmed because they are spinning their wheels to get to that next goal, but everything that was in their plan has disintegrated.”

Read more: How to Check In with Employees When Everyone Is Overwhelmed

Exploring new goals during the pandemic

Instead, Gotian says managers should work with direct reports to embrace curiosity and newfound skill sets in their changed environment: “What is it they love about their new reality? What brings them energy? What depletes them? What really sapped all the energy from them? Maybe that should not be part of the new goal.”

Answers will vary—online courses they’ve completed, taking a project from start to finish, more time with family, 1:1s with teammates—and will likely require vulnerability on the employees’ side, especially if their interests are beginning to shift from their current role. In times of financial uncertainty, it takes bravery to admit you might want to switch teams or change careers entirely. “There are so many opportunities within every organization,” Gotian says. “I think we very often pigeonhole people. This might be an opportunity to cross-train them in different departments, and that could actually be a benefit because it prevents silos.”

Hundley says managers should emphasize trust and their appreciation of the employee’s transparency. “Have really direct conversations about, ‘This organization still really cares about your career development and growth,’” she says. “In truly nurturing an employee, sometimes that means nurturing them out of your organization.” Know that if you offer training or connections that help them achieve their new goal, that’s a win for both sides. “Look at the entire employee lifecycle. That person might become an alumni and a potential bounceback or part of your referral network.” 

Read more: Coaching Direct Reports Off Your Team & Toward Their Goals

In terms of pinning down areas of interest, Hundley says it’s also important not to limit the conversation to hard skills. She encourages managers to ask direct reports to explore how they want to feel at work first.

Right now, many of us are nurturing those soft skills such as empathy, collaboration, and communication, which might not be tied to business metrics, but are excellent career builders and valuable in times of crisis, she says.

Gotian agrees and suggests that direct reports (and their bosses) consider their skill sets from these angles: “Have you shown to be a crisis leader? Have you shown to be a leader in battle? Or are you the kind of person who much prefers to be the backbone? Are you the kind of person who serves as the emotional support? [The pandemic] has shown a lot of new skills for a lot of people.”

“I think in the era of COVID, career growth looks like, What are your short-term goals that will feed your growth and fulfillment right now? How do I want to feel when I’m at work? How am I defining whether I’ve had a good day or not?” Hundley says.

Measuring new goals and expectation-setting

Once everyone is on the same page, create a plan to help employees achieve and measure their “pandemic goals.” “Maybe the goals we set for ourselves on January 2nd or 3rd don’t make sense, but having some sort of formalized review system and a formalized development plan will create an ongoing conversation around an employee’s work,” Hundley says.

It’s best to start that process by identifying resources needed. “Resources could be time, it could be place, it could be people, it could be money,” Gotian says. Employees might need a new type of portfolio, a new kind of team, a shift in the direction of their work, etc.

Then, in order to set reasonable benchmarks, factor in new environmental stressors or distractions, such as having kids at home. “I think we need to redefine expectations and understand that it’s a moving target,” Gotian says. “You don’t have to get it by 5 o’clock.” A good way to open up that conversation is to say:

These are the things we need to accomplish this week. Is this something that you think is realistic? Is there someone who can help you with this right now? Is there a portion that you can do?

Read more: 2 Under-the-Radar Ways to Support & Retain Working Moms During the Pandemic

Finally, encourage employees to find ways to be kind to themselves at this time. “Control what you can control,” Gotian says. “That’s what high achievers do. They are laser focused on what they can control. You can’t control everything. So it’s important to know what you can let go of. If the laundry’s not perfectly folded and put away, and your meals are not worthy of Martha Stewart, it’s okay. It’s not forever.”

Asking them to regularly list out what they’ve accomplished at work and in life, for celebratory purposes, can keep them motivated and excited. It’s even a good habit for managers to pick up, too. “You’ve likely accomplished a lot more than you give yourself credit for. Do it every day, every week, if you have to. You don’t give yourself credit for all the things that you’ve done.”

Read more: How to Set & Model Realistic Work-from-Home Expectations with Your Team

About our sources

Dr. Ruth Gotian is the chief learning officer and assistant professor of education in anesthesiology and former assistant dean of mentoring and executive director of the Mentoring Academy at Weill Cornell Medicine. She has been hailed by the journal Nature and Columbia University as an expert in mentoring and leadership development and is currently a contributor to Forbes, where she writes about “optimizing success.” Currently, she researches the most successful people of our generation, including Nobel laureates, astronauts, Fortune 500 CEOs and Olympians, in order to learn about their habits and practices so that we may optimize our own success.

Dana Hundley is the cofounder of Career Cooperative, an Oakland, California–based boutique consulting firm that empowers clients to face career transitions, professional growth, and recruiting with confidence. They consult with companies to attract diverse talent through impactful recruiting and interview strategies and support employees through career development.

*InHerSight's survey results include responses from remote and non-remote employees. To provide specific insights in this article on how to support women working from home, we've removed responses from non-remote employees. The original data is available in the results featured at the top of the page.

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