Reinventing Your Career Because of COVID-19? Read This First
As creative director for VMLY&R, a global marketing agency in Kansas City, Maggie Searle spent eight pressure-packed years leading creative campaigns for big brand names like Gatorade and Wendy’s.
In October 2019, the mother of two and soon to be three was approached with a new job opportunity at Disney that would have required her and husband Dan to move 1,300 miles away to California. She felt the draw of a career-building role with a brand of Disney’s stature, and couldn’t ignore it.
Disney, of course, took considerable time with its hiring process. Large corporations sometimes do that, and normally it’s fine. Except, a few months later, around the time one of Searle’s young sons broke his leg and shortly after she gave birth to another baby boy, COVID-19 hit.
And her career path took a sharp turn.
With nobody going to theme parks or hotels because of quarantining, Disney was forced to furlough 100,000 workers. Searle’s job opportunity instantly evaporated, and she was left with a decision: stay with her agency or muster up the courage to strike out on her own.
Like 61% of women who say they are planning career pivots because of the global pandemic, she opted to establish her own freelance marketing business. The chance at a better work-life balance and the ability to run her own show ultimately outweighed the rush of being at a premier agency.
“I’d had a team that was relying on me,” she recalled. “But sometimes I had to get the kids down for a nap or cook lunch. There was this constant tug-of-war between trying to take care of the home front without failing my team or agency, which I’d worked so hard to help build. I ended up telling Dan something had to give. It was becoming way too much. I couldn’t physically do it all.”
With millions of Americans losing jobs because of COVID-19 layoffs, more workers like Searle are reevaluating next steps in their professional lives. Do they try to find similar replacement roles close to where they already live or do they change direction and go with something new, like freelancing?
Increasingly, many people are choosing freelancing because it can be done remotely. They can pull up stakes, move somewhere more comfortable and affordable, and jump into new careers, businesses or freelancing arrangements that provide more flexibility and personal fulfillment. At the same time, workers freed from the demands of bosses and offices often find they have more control of their careers. They discover better ways to work and end up directing their own professional futures.
Here are five steps you can follow to successfully take control over your career.
1. Build on your strengths
When jumping into any new career, and especially freelancing, it’s important to stick with something you know. Build on your strengths, talents, and experiences. While this may seem somewhat obvious, many people find themselves uttering words like, “I think I could be pretty good” at this or “I’ve always wanted to try” that as they consider new professional paths.
That rarely works. A better approach, career advisors say, is to conduct a professional audit. This is where you spend time assessing hard skills, meaning your learned and acquired abilities, as well as your soft skills, which relate to how you interact with people, solve problems, and manage your work. Part of this process should involve exploring the hidden talents that might lie under the various rocks of your career. Maybe you’ve successfully written things for employers, for example, and genuinely enjoyed it, but never focused on that as a career. Or perhaps you handled 98% of the admin work related to trade shows but did it for a marketing team. Those types of experiences represent potential career change opportunities. The key when going into something new is to build around people and skills you know and, ideally, enjoy doing.
2. Crystal ball gaze a bit
When changing careers or going into freelancing, do your homework about the business and marketplace you’re planning to address. Make sure it’s not already packed with others doing the same thing. You want to differentiate your offering as much as possible. You should also be clear about why you’re going after that opportunity. It’s great to be passionate about what you perceive to be an opportunity. But there has to be a current and longstanding market need for your offering.
To understand the point, check out the scene from the 1991 film “Other People’s Money” where corporate raider Lawrence “Larry the Liquidator” Garfield, played by Danny DeVito, mocks a company for remaining in an obsolete business for too long—like the last holdout in the extinct buggy whip industry. “You know the surest way to go broke?” he asked. “Keep getting an increasing share of a shrinking market.”
Launching any new business should involve plenty of research. Choose a direction with an upside. Be part of a growing or emerging market. Consider applying your skills and experience to filling under-serviced needs. And once you have a clear picture of the opportunities at hand, create a sensible business plan mapping out your next two to three years.
3. Work that network
After identifying the path you want to take, pinpoint a community of people to help you traverse it.
The longer you’ve been in any one career, the more connections you’ve built. You may not realize how many co-workers’ lives you’ve touched over time. It could be in the hundreds, and some of them may have a need or desire to hire someone possessing your skills and talents. Searles, for example, found her first few clients by mining contacts from her long marketing career.
Treat networking like a numbers game. You want to follow the “golden rule of networking” and create a list of all your past ties. Send them connection requests on LinkedIn or emails announcing your new business offerings,and follow up with them every few months or so. Most importantly, keep that list up-to-date, and personalize your communications as much as possible.
If you’re pursuing freelancing, you should also consider finding and joining professional networks. There is plenty of freelancing work to go around, and sometimes other freelancers are willing to refer business they can’t currently handle to professionals like yourself. A few sites worth checking out include Freelancer's Union, We Are Rosie, the Upwork Community and Freelance Founders.
4. Go all-in on remote work
Starting fresh, by definition, means new rules. Why stick to old ways of thinking about work location?
If you’re like the 30% of workers who would quit a job if forced to go back to an office post-pandemic, you don’t want to commit to one location. If that’s the case, you may want to only accept career moves that let you work remotely, at least part of the week. Similarly, make absolutely sure you have the right equipment to efficiently connect and communicate with colleagues, clients, and partners around the world.
A note about this: cutting corners won’t cut it. Not having secure, manageable and capable equipment could derail your career or freelancing move if you are unable to sync with the nearly 25% of American workers expected to be remote by 2025.
5. Start small, stay patient
When making a career change or going into freelancing, it’s perfectly acceptable to start small with the goal of expanding later. In fact, it may be the better course.
On any career ladder, we must be willing to start on the bottom rung if necessary. True, if you have a wealth of experience in one area, such as technology, it might qualify you for a senior position elsewhere, say as an industry analyst, reporter, or head of marketing communications. But those scenarios may not be as common. So, getting a foot in the door of a promising opportunity can still be worth it—provided you’re ambitious—and patient.
Similarly, when starting a business or diving into freelancing, consider starting small and specialized. Pick a specific aspect of your expertise and, as that begins to take off, add other capabilities to your offerings over time instead of trying to do it all at once. Most successful startups embrace this approach with products and services.
Any change can be intimidating, difficult, and frightening. But it doesn’t have to be. With the right strategic approach, a determination to do things differently, and by fully embracing the remote mindset, it is possible to have the life and career many only dreamed about before the pandemic.
Ready to take the leap to freelancing? Consider setting up a profile on Upwork, the world’s work marketplace, and start browsing project opportunities that can help kickstart your career as an independent professional.