The disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have led to an unprecedented reckoning by the American workforce that some have dubbed the “Great Resignation.” Workers have been not only leaving their jobs en masse, but also reconsidering what they are looking for in their careers.
As executive director of the University of Virginia’s Armstrong Center for Alumni Career Services at the Darden School of Business, Jennifer Coleman has been coaching MBAs on how to best achieve their career goals for more than a decade. But she has never seen a moment like this one.
In the center’s one-on-one coaching sessions, Coleman and her colleagues have helped alumni navigate this brave new world of confusion and opportunity. UVA Today spoke to her about the insights she’s gleaned.
Q. What do you see as the biggest factors going into this trend of the “Great Resignation?”
A. What has happened over the past 18 months is that people have reassessed priorities – whether it’s more flexibility with their schedules or relocating to be closer to family – and are seeking jobs better aligned with those priorities. With my coaching team, we’ve always tried to dispel the myth that it’s a zero-sum [equation] between work and life. What we’re seeing people do now is look for ways to make everything work more in concert – including recreation, relationships, health and work.
Q. How are companies responding to this trend when it comes to hiring and retaining the best talent?
A. Companies are being compelled to rethink what culture means and how important being physically present is to an organization. They are having to be far more flexible, not just on physically where employees are sitting, but also on how employees are structuring their days. Are they working 9-to-5 days? Or is it more fluid, a situation in which they work for a few hours in the morning, then pick up and care for their kids, and then work again from 9 p.m. onward? It’s all about options and choice and empowerment. It’s not about being completely in the office, or completely remote – because working at home is not for everybody – but it’s about giving people flexibility.
Q. How can employees leverage this moment to negotiate the best deal for a new job?
A. For people who are negotiating new positions, relocation isn’t always necessary. I’ve been coaching for about 13 years, and this is the first time I would advise people that if there’s a company halfway across the country that you’re really interested in, by all means pursue it, because you might not have to move.
Moreover, in a hot job market, talent’s always going to be incrementally more expensive, so as candidates think about their value, whether it’s cash compensation or other benefits, they’ll be in more powerful negotiating positions. They can use that as they negotiate the details about remote work environments. Is the company going to pay for your travel to headquarters when it’s required? What are they doing to support your home office environment in terms of equipment?
Q. When do you have the conversation about flexibility and scheduling – during the interview process, or after you’ve already been offered the job, or after you’ve started work?
A. During the interview process, you can get a sense of the culture and ask questions of employees, but I wouldn’t get into the weeds. You don’t want anything to distract the employer from your core value, and the fact that you have kids who need to be picked up at 4 o’clock, for example, is not part of who you are as a candidate. In general, I’d push that stuff off until you are the preferred candidate – ideally until after you have the offer.
It is worth making sure you are aligned on all of that before you start the job, however. I’ve seen people accept jobs in which these kinds of things are not discussed, and they can become problems quickly.
Q. What advice do you have for people who have had a so-called “COVID epiphany” and are considering a larger career change?
A. A big piece is finding a way to dip your toes into the proverbial waters of what you think you are interested in – whether that means you volunteer or take some classes or do something extracurricular that will allow you to talk and network with people. Anything you can do to expose yourself in a meaningful way will help you to really understand what you’re getting yourself into before you quit your job. It also gives you some credentials you can speak to in the interview process.
Q. How much of what we are seeing now in employment is a permanent change in the way people work, versus a temporary disruption?
A. There is definitely a shift here that is permanent. We’ve got a rising workforce of Gen Z that is already completely rethinking their relationship with work, even as this seems like a major mindset shift for older workers. Now that we’ve proven that flexibility and remote work are possible – and developed the technology to support it – I don’t see how we go back to square one. Pieces of this will last for sure.