If you had described the world today to me back in January, I would have said it was from a science fiction novel. The sheer level of transformative change that has been imposed on the world over the last six-months has been astonishing and from everything that we can see at this point, there’s plenty more to come.

Shifts in gender roles, the forced rise of remote first working, the subsequent relocation of knowledge workers away from cities like San Francisco and London (see recent new stories on plummeting housing and rental markets), the lifting and re-imposition of lockdowns as nations, regions and cities attempt to get local outbreaks under control. The list just goes on and on.

The impact of all this on the world of work has been huge. Unemployment figures are unrecognisable when compared against previous trends and entire industries have in effect ceased to exist or been scaled back so far as to be only a shadow of their former selves.

In addition to this, the number of workers on UK company payrolls fell by 649,000 between March and June. And this is before the full impact of the gradual withdrawal of the government sponsored furlough scheme have fully impacted. When you overlay the coming culmination to the Brexit process and the potential impact this could bring to UK businesses, then even with a much hoped for recovery over the summer months as lockdown eases, unpredictability is the new normal.

Navigating todays labour market

And yet somehow, within this dystopian outlook, some people are still able to successfully navigate a job search and successfully start new jobs. Not as many as before the pandemic, granted. But several hundred thousand people per month have been starting new roles in the UK, even at the lowest points for this metric.

So, what is it that is enabling these individuals to successfully navigate todays labour market and find new jobs?

I’m lucky enough to be represented myself in the people who started a new job during the pandemic, as I made the shift to my current role in JOIN Talent during this period. I had already resigned from my previous post and was working my notice as the pandemic hit and have continued to work in a specialism I am familiar with and have joined people I have worked with before, so had a relatively easy ride of it. But what about other people and their experience of this.

For me, an unresolved curiosity is like an itch I can’t quite reach so I decided to try to speak to some people who have made the change to a new role (either in a new company or within their current one while working remotely) to see if I could see any themes or trends in how they have dealt with all of this and come out the other side. So, I added a post to LinkedIn asking if anyone in my network who fitted the bill could give me 30 min to talk through their experience, and the results were amazing.

The power of a network

With two posts to LinkedIn roughly one week apart I had offers of help from just over 30 people. Of those I then ended up speaking to 20 with others sharing their points in emails or messages. I spoke to people in the UK, Sweden, Spain, America and Australia. People who had found themselves on the wrong end of a redundancy process and needed a new role. People who had already handed their notice in pre-pandemic and then had to deal with the uncertainty and stress of hoping their new role remained long enough for them to reach it. Even a few people who actively decided to shift roles during this period.

Given the astronomical numbers of people impacted by the current situation I’ll be the first to admit that the sample size is hardly representative. That however is not what I was aiming for. What I was hoping for with this was to gain a more qualitative insight into the moves people were making during this period and to try to understand the experience through their eyes. Through this, I was aiming to extract focus areas for thought or research over the next few months that I could use as part of the source material I draw on when writing pieces like this.

Mission achieved.

Even before Corona we were in an era of data overload. Stats, figures, reporting, metrics. We’re literally buried in outputs from sometimes-conflicting data sources and left to make sense of the patterns that come out of that.

During the conversations we had we talked about their journey, the processes they went through, how they found their new roles, how they joined new teams and/or companies and what that was like without being able to meet physically. Most of all we talked about what their individual experiences were throughout the whole journey and what comparisons they could draw with other occasions in their lives when they had done the same thing.

Their stories were moving, rich with detail and lived experience. They were also remarkably consistent, given how geographically dispersed some of the individuals were and the fact that no two of them worked in the same role or had the same tale to tell. But that consistency was not quite what I expected.

There’s no such thing as a silver bullet (unless you’re hunting werewolves)

If you’ve read this far and are looking for the single solution that binds all of this up into a neat little package with a few sound bites, I’m about to disappoint you. The ways that the individuals I spoke to navigated changing roles were as many and varied as the people themselves. Everyone had a different story to tell and different viewpoints to impart and, although from that I was able to draw some conclusions and themes, what reassured me the most was just how ordinary they all were.

No one had a magic approach that only they had stumbled on. No tricks or tips to impart that would have allowed them to cut through the uncertainty of these times to achieve the move they were making. But when reviewing the various conversations a few things stood out.

Dedication is what you need

Anyone around my age who grew up in the UK is likely to remember Roy Castle and Record Breakers. I loved this programme as a kid and would regularly tune in to see completely ordinary people achieving world records simply by refusing to give up and dedicating themselves to the process. Inspirational stuff and something that came back to me a few times listening to some of the stories that were shared.

Whether holding their nerve in the job search process or managing their anxiety during the waiting period before starting a new role everyone I spoke to had in their own way maintained a level of focus that stood out. Sometimes this was out of necessity and sometimes out of desire but whatever the motivator was the approach was consistent.

The prerequisite of this level of focus and dedication is the ability to achieve it. Mental, physical, and social wellbeing were evident in everyone I spoke with to some extent. Something to reflect on there on what the elevated impact of not possessing those right now could be for the individuals concerned.

We’re stronger together

One of the things that particularly stood out for me was that only one person I spoke to found their next role through applying for jobs on LinkedIn or a job board. And none of them had been placed by an agency. In most cases what had enabled them to move was either that they already had a job offer in place as the pandemic struck or that they had a professional network who supported their move, through referral or signposting.

One individual had taken advice to try something different and had posted a video of themselves to LinkedIn which had generated response. Another had concentrated on simply catching up with pretty much everyone they could think of and galvanising job leads through that. A third had been approached by something they had worked with previously. Other people also had similar stories of how they had been able to count on friends and acquaintances along the way for advice and support.

Some of these stories were great to hear, but unavoidably came with a flip side. If an individual is facing a situation where they need to find a new role and have little in the way of a network to draw on (think those just entering the workforce or people who have to relocate for one reason or another) it’s a lot harder to be successful.

You can have anything, but you can’t have everything

Another thing many of the success stories I spoke to while carrying out the interviews had in common was a focus on key things for them and flexibility on the rest. This played out in many ways depending on the individual concerned, with some people deciding on their personal red lines from the start and then sticking to that throughout their search and others developing them as they went.

One individual was focussed specifically on securing a role with development opportunity, but as a result needed to widen the scope of their search internationally to secure that. Another was focussed on location and so had ended up accepting a role type they had never worked in before and taking a drop in salary as a result. Others were focussed on different things that were important to them from perceived security of employment to status of new position. In most cases they were able to meet their needs but not in quite the way they originally imagined.

So you’re telling me I have to get experience before I get experience?

In every case the people I spoke to were experienced professionals. Partly that will have been driven by my method of finding them, so we need to hold this point lightly. But it is pretty stark in this case that none of them were new to the workplace and that, whilst some had changed career as part of their move (usually not through choice), all of them had a full CV and career backstory to draw on.

There is a side aspect to this that came up in a couple of the conversations, transferable skills. All of us have them. In recruitment they’ve been talked about quite a bit. Currently there seems to be a distinct trend towards larger organisations hiring like for like replacements rather than looking for people with the transferable skills and attributes needed to succeed in a role and hiring based on that. This is closing the door to many people caught up in the slow down of particular industries and, if as widespread as the conversations I had would seem to suggest, is going to create a whole lot of problems further down the line.

Joining a new team when you can’t meet them is a lot harder

And I mean a lot. One person I spoke to was in a senior position with a new employer and two months in was only just beginning to come to grips with what was expected of them. Stop for a minute and think about that. Think about what the impact of that is on the motivation of the person concerned and think about what the impact of that is for the organisation who, I’m assuming, would like to see productivity reasonably quickly for a not insignificant salary investment.

This theme ran true over many of the others, with two notable exceptions.

One individual spoke about joining an organisation who communicated clearly and consistently from before their first day where the organisation was headed, what role they were expected to play in helping achieve that and how that translated into objectives for their first three months in role. To say that their level of energy when they were speaking about their new employer was on a whole different level is an understatement.

The second exception related to the size of organisation that people were joining. Overall, those joining larger organisations seemed to find it harder to find their place and form the array of connections needed to get started without prior knowledge of the organisation itself. Whereas those joining start ups or smaller businesses were folded in much more quickly.

However we choose to describe it, the fact is that these days anyone who is working outside of a key-worker role is almost certain to be working collaboratively with colleagues in other physical locations – whether that entails someone in a neighbouring building or the other side of the planet. The importance of having a close, cohesive, goal-oriented team is just the same in this dynamic as for those working in the same office. And getting it right can be even more important.

There was something in the way those who had joined smaller organisations were able to tune into the purpose of what they were there to achieve much more quickly. Another common thread in this is that in every case, the smaller organisations had little or no formal onboarding processes. They just pulled people in and got them started in a team environment where people connected frequently and consistently from day one.

The overall effect of this was to drastically shorten the time taken for a new joiner to contribute, whilst also positively impacting their level of engagement. Not one person I spoke to who had been through a more formal onboarding had the same outcome. Food for further research there.

In conclusion

None of the people I spoke to were superheroes. They were ordinary everyday people like you and me who through fate, judgement or circumstance needed to change roles during this period. Only one of them actively chose to leave their current employer post lockdown and they had re-joined a previous employer as their destination, thus easing their transition.

This is a far from ideal time to be doing this. Most people I spoke to had an experience so different to what had happened for them previously they found it hard to draw comparisons. Everyone commented on how tough the whole process was, both in terms of managing their own emotions through it and in terms of finding their way through the whole thing.

Organisations could be doing a lot more to help than they are. Where people I spoke to felt that the organisations they joined were acting to support them during this time, their dedication, energy and commitment were much higher. Something else to think about right there.