Getting ahead in her career was not a major priority for Emma this year. Yet the onset of Covid-19 has elevated her work in ways she could not predict. Her skillset and professional experience are more in-demand now than they have ever been.
Change of focus
Emma’s focus at the beginning of the year was on helping her employer expand into new markets through strategic investments. However, the focus has now shifted to consolidation and downsizing. Her employer is an Australian university. With the drop in international student numbers and the exclusion of universities from JobKeeper, they have gone from a position of strength to fragility. This change has been rapid.
“My team went from planning for growth, writing business cases, negotiating with government, doing lots of exciting things to now essentially strategy design for major cost cutting. The transition between the two priorities was quick.”
The impact has been felt in many ways. “The workload shift has created a dramatic change in people’s importance.” She explains that, in times of boom, those with experience in corporate restructure and cost cutting were at the bottom of the ladder. Now they are becoming more vital to the organisation. Emma is among that number.
Change of importance
“I was someone in the lower tier of the team and I am suddenly more important. I’m on all the projects and in all the meetings with executives.” The upside is that she has plenty of work and is adding considerable experience to her career cache.
But the downside? “For myself, there are elements of guilt. Knowing how to behave in the office is strange. We’ve gone from being collegial to being competitive. Staff are desperately trying to demonstrate the value of their specific work and skillset to try to protect their own jobs. “
“At the same time they are advising the organisation more broadly which departments ought to be on the chopping block. It has been very challenging.”
While Emma has experienced significant changes in the workplace before, nothing compares with the sheer scale of the current situation. In one sense, this makes it a little easier for people, as it is happening across the board. So, no one team or faculty feels like it is being targeted.
Emma’s relationship with her manager has been an upside though.
“We’ve become more interdependent.” Emma brings skills and experience that her manager values and depends on. And Emma is usually direct with her recommendations.
“My manager likes order, which is normally a good thing. But in such a fluid environment where even the executives seem to change what they want every day, you can’t control everything. So, it’s important for me to be really clear about the consequences of any decisions.”
Emma recognises that her manager has been important in helping her too. She muses on being able to sleep at night as a result of her manager’s influence, “I know my manager loses sleep. Maybe she absorbs some of my stress?”
Caring for her colleagues
Emma understands the two-sided nature of her abilities, “I have strong analytical skills. It helps with being able to do my job.” The downside? “Each digit or number in my downsizing model is a real person. It seems pretty disgusting. I go home and think, perhaps I need to have a long hard look at myself and why I’m doing this job. But I have to cordon off my feelings.”
She wrestles with this. “I don’t want to maximise this situation for career benefit and progression. I really want to be more proactive in showing care for people, especially my colleagues. I don’t want to lose sight of how this is affecting people.”
Another way Emma has been able to cope with the stress is relying on her past experiences. “This isn’t the first time I’ve designed an organisational change program. The first time I tried to control it all, planning all sorts of contingencies. I realise now that there is only so much I can do. I have to trust other people and God. At the end of the day it’s not for me to control everything.”
This attitude provides her with a certain amount of comfort. “There are a whole raft of decisions that have to be made, so I don’t feel panicked about the outcomes.
When I was younger, I believed my analysis had to be perfect. Now I realise that I am not the centre of the organisation. Of course, what I do impacts people, but there are other mechanisms at play that I can trust. Behind all those things, I trust that God has his hand on the final outcomes.”
She has also observed that some people seem to be coping better than others. The difference?
“Some are a little bit older who have gone through change before and they don’t appear as stressed. Perhaps they are closer to retirement and losing their jobs isn’t the end of the world.”
For others not close to retiring? “Some don’t seem to treat their job as ultimate. It’s not necessarily a faith thing, it just seems that for them their job doesn’t define them. They have different identity markers. They don’t have everything wrapped up in their jobs. Perhaps for them a job loss isn’t as devastating.”
Reflections on education
“I believe that it is God’s intention for us to flourish. This has challenged my thinking about how higher education institutions make decisions about what they teach and research. It shouldn’t simply be about what is financially viable. This is the pressure in our current context.”
“We need to ask ourselves about the community benefit of the courses we teach and our areas of research. I need to be sharper when thinking about the trade-offs between financial profitability and the social impact of courses being offered. There’s a huge tension and figuring out how to reconcile this is part of the job.”
“I hope to stay in my current role and continue wrestling with these big questions. Wherever I am, my goal is to make organisations more robust and resilient. For now, I am committed to seeing my current projects through and making the best contribution that I can.”
(Emma’s name changed to protect identity)