The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed nearly every aspect of our lives, including work. Millions have been laid off due to the economic downturn, and many companies have had to tighten their budgets in other areas, freezing pay, promotions, and hiring, meaning the competition for new opportunities is fierce—when those opportunities exist at all. No matter your situation, you may feel like your career growth has stalled out.
Maybe your company delayed the promotion you had your eye on or isn’t giving out raises, or you fear you won’t be able to land that new job that would have been the next step on your career path. But career growth doesn’t always mean a promotion or a new job. It also means building new skills, gaining new experiences, and building up and strengthening your network. Despite the economic downturn we find ourselves in, these opportunities for professional development still exist and can help you set yourself up for a future raise, promotion, new job, or other opportunities once they do become available.
And don’t worry about how it’s going to look on your resume if you don’t get that new title right now. “While COVID has been a disrupter in no uncertain terms, we are going through this together as a community, and everyone is aware of the unique circumstances happening,” says Jamie Langhaus, manager, talent development at Data Dog. Future employers will understand if your career progression looks different due to the new coronavirus pandemic or if you have a COVID-related employment gap.
Here are some tips for professional development during the COVID-19 pandemic and surrounding economic downturn. They can all be done remotely, and they’ll all set you up for success once the job market rebounds and company budgets recover.
1. Identify How You'd Like to Grow—and Stay Focused on Your Goal
The first step toward professional development is figuring out what you’re working toward. Take some time to consider where you want to go in your career. What’s your next step once the economy improves? Do you want to move up within your current company? Or is a role at another company a better next step for you? If you’re unemployed, what do you want your next job to be? Is there an aspect of your current or previous roles that you want to focus more prominently on?
Once you’ve clarified your goals, figure out what skills you’ll need to develop or strengthen, what types of experience you need to gain, and what connections will be helpful to cultivate before you make your next move. For example, if you worked or are working as a general assignment journalist but love incorporating statistics into your writing, you may want to become a data journalist and you might focus on building your skills in data analysis, taking on assignments that involve a lot of statistics, and getting to know people who already work in data journalism.
If you’re struggling to figure out what skills and experiences you need to pursue, head to LinkedIn, and find people with roles you’d love to have. Take a look at their skills and background. You could even set up informational interviews with these people or those already in your network. You might also find postings for jobs that you’d love to have and see what companies require for the role.
Keep these skills and experiences in mind as you come up with a plan to continue your career growth during the economic downturn. And stay focused. Don’t just take a coding class because coding is a marketable skill. If your career goals have nothing to do with coding, this won’t help.
2. Set a Meeting With Your Manager to Discuss Your Career
If you’re worried your career is stalling, set up a meeting with your manager to discuss your future and where they feel you’re going within the company. When you schedule the meeting, be sure to give your manager a heads up that you plan to discuss your career progression. This will give them time to prep as well and allow for a productive discussion. If you have an upcoming performance review, you can bring this up then, but otherwise, you can set up a separate meeting.
Come prepared to the meeting with what you want to discuss. But keep your expectations realistic as many companies are losing money during the pandemic. So a big raise or promotion might not be possible right now.
In the conversation, be positive, but express what you want clearly. “You’re going in to start an open dialogue. Expressing gratitude for the work you currently have is great, but don’t feel guilty about looking out for yourself,” Langhaus says.
You can ask for more responsibility, discuss ways you can improve and land that promotion once the company’s finances improve, or if you’ve identified where you want to develop already, you might ask for opportunities to build those skills. Communicating what you’re looking for will help your manager keep you in mind for opportunities. This will also help keep you both on the same page about what your goals are and give your manager a chance to provide you with feedback about what hard skills they want to see you develop or soft skills they want to see you embody.
3. Volunteer for Stretch Assignments
If your manager or senior leadership needs help on a new project related to your career goals, be the first to raise your hand. For example, maybe your company launched a diversity and inclusion initiative in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. If you’re looking to grow your diversity awareness or your leadership skills, volunteer to join the team working on this. Managers will remember who wanted to take on more responsibility, which will help you grow within your company. This will also be a chance to develop new skills, practice skills you learned outside of work in a professional setting, or learn about a new part of the business, all of which can make you a better applicant for a new position.
4. Get Innovative and Pitch New Ideas
If there are no stretch assignments on the horizon, you might try to create your own by thinking about ways to improve your current company. You might propose a new program that will help fill a gap (but keep in mind that because of the economic downturn, companies may be hesitant to say yes to large, expensive new projects) or share your ideas for streamlining a current process. Identifying problems and proposing solutions is an essential skill that not everyone has—but leaders embody this regularly. By identifying and solving problems, management will see you as someone ready for more responsibility when the time comes for promotions, or you can tell the story of your achievement in your cover letter for future jobs, especially those with managerial components.
You might also pitch new ideas that will help you develop the skills you need. For example, at the JED Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is to protect teenagers’ and young adults’ emotional health and prevent suicide, employees wrote proposals to launch a new meditation and yoga series for themselves and their coworkers, says JED Foundation Chief Programs and Operations Officer Katie Cunningham. Staff can now join into group yoga practice or hear meditation led by a coworker at their leisure. For Cunningham, the employees who pitched the ideas stood out to her because they showed they cared about their coworkers and the organization’s culture even if the program itself didn’t directly relate to their role.
A yoga series works great at JED because they’re focused on mental health, so think about what would work at your company to help the team and strengthen the skills you specifically are looking to build. Maybe there’s a new software that you’d like to learn more about and would make your team’s project management tracking more efficient—offer to explore it and spearhead the change if it goes forward.
5. Grow and Maintain Your Network Within Your Current Company
Having strong connections with the people you work with is a must for career growth. It can help position you for a future promotion or get you in on that new project in another department. Your colleagues might also know people hiring elsewhere or have insight that can aid your professional development.
You can build new relationships by taking advantage of programs or tech tools, such as Donut, that some companies have in place to make it easier to connect with other employees even if you’re all working remotely. Otherwise, do some research to see which coworkers you’d like to connect with—maybe you have a common professional or personal interest—and reach out yourself.
Strengthen your connections with people on your team as well. Previously, you might have gone over to someone’s desk and asked for input or feedback on a project. Now you can do the same thing virtually. And “don’t be hesitant and afraid to reach out to more senior people,” Cunningham says. “Make sure your work is seen.”
Finally, don’t forget to nurture all your new and existing office relationships. “One obvious challenge of working remotely is the lack of social interaction and staying connected,” says Treena Diebolt VP, Global Talent Attraction at Peloton. Before COVID-19, you’d run into people from different departments or more senior managers naturally. So reach out to that colleague you used to chat about Grey’s Anatomy with and set up a virtual coffee date to catch up.
6. Attend Virtual Networking Events
If you previously frequented happy hour networking events or professional conferences—or even if you didn’t—go virtual. Most organizations that sponsored networking events have moved to virtual events. And some use Zoom’s breakout feature to help attendees interact, which means they can still be a great way to meet people. Even if the event only features one speaker with no interaction, it can help you grow your skills or understanding of an industry trend. You can find these networking events through professional groups or sites such as Eventbrite, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Meetup.
Take this one step further and plan your own virtual event! Invite a few current and/or former colleagues for a virtual happy hour and ask everyone to invite another person in your shared field.
Networking with people outside of your company will give you people to reach out to once you’re ready to look for a new job, or they may remember you themselves when they or someone they know starts hiring new talent again. It can also spawn ideas that you’ll want to take back to your company, which may turn into a stretch assignment to grow your skills or help you set yourself up for a future promotion, or give you ideas for other skills you can develop and ways to build those skills. For example, maybe someone who works in your field landed their last promotion partly by strengthening their search engine optimization (SEO) skills, and they can tell you what course they took. Or maybe you’ll meet someone who you admire for their public speaking cadence. You can ask them for tips or if they used anything in particular to become a stronger speaker.
7. Find a Mentor
Professional mentors can provide unique insight into your field and give great advice from someone who has previously been in your shoes.
Perhaps there’s a highly experienced person in your field you admire, someone in a professional group you’re part of who always has something insightful to say, or a more experienced alum from your college with your dream job. Now is a great time to reach out and try to connect. There’s nothing to lose. The person you admire is likely doing most of their work online already, so a virtual coffee will seem natural.
Once you find your mentor, set regular meetups and have them help you prepare yourself for future career growth: Ask them for feedback on projects, ask them to help you practice video interviewing or having a challenging conversation with your boss, or have discussions about which skills you should build to enhance your career.
8. Take Online Courses to Strengthen Your Skills and Learn New Ones
There are tons of online courses that you can take on your own time to set yourself up for career future opportunities—and the best part is many of them are free or low cost!
Refer back to the list you made earlier of skills you want to grow and where you see your career going to make sure you identify a class that will help you achieve your goals.
You can find online classes on websites such as Coursera, Udemy, Alison, or LinkedIn Learning that will have what you’re looking for across a number of industries. You can learn anything from negotiation skills to financial engineering and risk management to understanding intellectual property laws. There are also industry-focused websites, like Cybrary for IT and cybersecurity skills.
Learning new skills through an online course can set you up for a promotion or new job by making you a more attractive candidate. Perhaps the lack of a particular skill would have held you back from landing that next job. Not only will you be able to add it to your resume, you’ll be able to show future employers how you were proactive in your development while new opportunities were scarce. Hiring managers are likely to take note when the economy recovers and they’re looking to build up their teams again.
9. Take Control of Your Self-Development Through Books, Podcasts, and More
If some of these tips feel a bit overwhelming for you right now (you’re not alone if you’re feeling a bit burned out!) or you feel like you don’t have many other opportunities for growth, books, podcasts, and other media like documentaries or even YouTube video series might be a way to keep learning and developing. “Do whatever you can to make learning enjoyable and invest in your own development,” Langhaus said.
Thousands of podcasts, books, and other content exist to teach people about the business world, workplace culture, career advancement, and specific industries and skills—all featuring experts whose career paths might interest you. Start consuming content that will help you learn specific skills and leadership skills.
If you’re feeling too busy, make a commitment to listen to a podcast that will help with your growth for five minutes a day. These “small investments in yourself add up,” Langhaus says. Listening to a podcast can help spark an idea for a skill you want to develop, introduce you to a new industry trend you want to learn more about, or give you further professional development tips.
When you can’t achieve the usual markers of career growth, it’s natural to feel stuck. But even now, you can invest in your own professional development and set yourself up for larger opportunities and new jobs once the economy recovers.
It might just require a mindset switch. “Don’t rely on what you used to do before,” Diebolt says. “Taking the initiative and driving your own career will always serve you well.” So stay focused on your career goals and do what you can to grow professionally now so you’re ready for your next big move when the time comes.