“Will my offer be rescinded?”
“What happens if I lose my job?”
“Will this affect my ability to graduate?”
“Am I able to go home?”
These are just a few of the questions that I have been fielding over the past few weeks since workplaces started changing their business models to respond to COVID-19. Admittedly, I have struggled to provide an answer to some client questions, as things have been changing so rapidly.
Knowing that everyone is having to adapt and change their approaches to work and responding to clients, it can be very easy for career practitioners to take a wait-and-see approach to their work until things become clearer. However, career practitioners can also be instrumental to individuals facing one of the most unexpected challenges to their career, not just through the knowledge that we possess but by extending compassion to our clients as we provide support and guidance.
Embracing uncertainty and chaos
In 2003, Robert Pryor and Jim Bright presented their Chaos Theory of Careers, which highlighted the chaotic nature of systems and individuals, in the sense that they are complex, adaptive and extremely sensitive to change. They also highlight that it is at the junction between stability and instability within the system, called the “edge of chaos,” that systems perform at their most optimum (Pryor & Bright, 2003).
“Career practitioners can also be instrumental to individuals facing one of the most unexpected challenges to their career.”
The instability highlighted here by Pryor & Bright (2003) refers to phase transitions, which can be either a gradual (such as learning a new skill) or a sudden (such as an unexpected layoff) change to the system. While the authors of Chaos Theory may not have anticipated a global pandemic as a type of sudden phase transition, they do highlight the inevitability of change. However, most of us typically resist change due to the disruption it can have on the pattern and sense of control in our own lives. Rapidly changing circumstances can be jarring because they expose the lack of control we have over ourselves and our environment.
How we react to change depends not only on our ability to adapt through purposeful actions, but also how well we understand ourselves. During times of change, career practitioners can help individuals reflect on their skills and careers, as well as work to increase their flexibility and adaptability to changing circumstances.
However, these less tangible goals are not often what the client is interested in. Depending on the situation, there could be a multitude of reasons that a client comes to us for service, some more immediate than others. We need to address these issues first to get closer to the goal of improving adaptability. This is why I started this article with the questions I have been presented with; each one of these questions is of more immediate concern to that individual than my goal of helping them adapt to this ever-changing reality.
By demonstrating a compassionate lens in our career development practice, we can help address client needs while also reaching broader goals. I do not mean to say that we are not already acting compassionately, but during these times of uncertainty, we need to act with more intentionality.
Practicing compassion and intentionality
So, what does this look like in practice, particularly within the context of working remotely?
- Be proactive and reach out to your clients to see how you can help. Many will appreciate the check-in, even if they don’t need anything.
- Be personal. While email allows us to reach hundreds of people at once, don’t underestimate the effect a personal note, phone call or video chat can have on a person’s well-being.
- Listen. This is the hardest part of communication, as we often have an agenda to fill, but in taking the time to listen to our client’s story we demonstrate our interest in them and this helps to develop trust in the relationship.
- Help the client develop an action plan / adapt an existing plan. Allow for flexibility in their situation (such as caring for others).
- Identify resources that the client can make use of that are appropriate to their needs and circumstances (ie, does a client have internet access?).
- Follow up – not just to review their progress but to see how they are coping.
- Prepare your clients for failure. In the face of constant change, not every plan of action will be successful. We need to reassure clients that this is normal and help them develop the skills to learn from these experiences.
- Be honest. While as professionals we want to make sure the client has the answers they need, it is alright to admit when you don’t know something. Take this as your opportunity to follow up with them.
- Be flexible. Remember that career conversations may not be top of mind for some people, and so be flexible in your expectations.
- Practise self-care. Not only are you helping clients adjust to the current situation, but so are you. Take the time to make sure you are being supported and caring for your well-being.
Over the past couple of weeks, I have seen many examples of creativity and ingenuity arise from the career development space to aid clients, schools, businesses and governments across the globe. Not only are people embracing the “edge of chaos,” but they are doing that which is core to the career development field: helping people. This is what we are passionate about, and every day, I see what a privilege it is to be able to have that level of impact on an individual. So, while we do live in uncertain times, I want to encourage you that no matter what happens, you make a difference in your role, every day.