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Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Do you dare switch jobs in the coronavirus economy?

Workers debating a change sweat their security and how to make a good impression with new colleagues while many are still in lockdown

One Wednesday in May, I found out I was losing my child care. Two days later, after just enough time for the panic to set in, my phone rang. It was not Mary Poppins, but a top editor at The Wall Street Journal, where I work. That job I’d interviewed for over the winter? It was mine.

“Congratulations!" she said. I felt like I might throw up. I’d been pining for the job for months, but that was before the novel coronavirus hit. Now, here was the career opportunity—a dream—and here was my life, a mess. Could I really start something new during a pandemic?

It’s a privileged problem to grapple with in the face of a recession that’s left millions furloughed and unemployed. Still, the state of the labor market is part of the conundrum. Do you have more job security if you stay put, or if you go? How do you weigh lockdown-induced burnout and family responsibilities against the long-term possibility of a new role? And what about the pressure?

“So many people just really want to kill it," executive coach Michele Woodward says of the first 90 days in a job. “How do you kill it over Zoom? It’s impossible."

Her clients are struggling with the uncertainty inherent in job offers these days: There’s often no telling when new employees might meet their colleagues, if their commutes will be safe, whether they’ll have the flexibility to care for an elderly parent. Our lives, too, are precarious. Partners’ paychecks disappear, schools can’t promise they’ll reopen, we question where we should live. With the whole world in flux, it can feel scary—even foolhardy—to bet on the future.

Still, at the end of the day, after all the hand-wringing, Ms. Woodward’s clients often land on yes.

“There’s this concern that we could be in this situation for a whole year," she says. “Why not just do it?"

By the time Alex Reiff was laid off from his sales job this spring, the 33-year old felt “mentally done." He was disoriented by Indiana’s stay-at-home order and exhausted from working constantly in recent months, including sending emails on the day his son was born in November. He changed his LinkedIn profile to read “full-time dad."

“It’s what I am. It’s what I’m doing. I’m not a worker right now," he told me in April, as River, then 5 months old, cooed in the background. Mr. Reiff’s wife still had her social work job. Between that, his severance and savings, they had enough to live on. More than 70 people had reached out to him on LinkedIn with opportunities, but he was busy attending to River’s 5 AM wake-ups and introducing him to mashed banana.

“I’ve said no to everything, which feels sort of scary," Mr. Reiff said.

Then the family started getting used to quarantine life. Mr. Reiff’s mother came down to help with River. When the right opportunity—a remote job with a Canadian company—came up a few weeks later, Mr. Reiff decided he was finally ready to make the leap. The firm seemed family-friendly, and since most of the employees live on the West Coast, he still has mornings free to spend with River. His break and job change brought a perspective shift: Being a dad and husband is much more important now.

“I am not living to work," he said in June.

The thought of confessing an issue at home to a prospective employer and pleading for flexibility can feel risky, especially as the economy teeters. Still, everyone’s dealing with something as the pandemic rages on.

“It’s become a collective problem," says Jessica DeGroot, president of ThirdPath Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for better approaches to work-life balance. She recommends asking your interviewers how the company has handled employees’ personal challenges over the past few months. Their answer could reveal how sensitive they’ll be if you need to, say, adjust your hours down the line.

Sometimes prioritizing your personal life means taking a new gig. Engineer Devika Harshan moved to Portland, Ore, last year to work on a big project for construction firm Skanska, leaving her boyfriend, aunt and uncle behind in Nashville.

“I always pushed myself to be like, ‘OK everything else is going to come together, I’m going to focus on my work,’ " the 28-year-old says. “It worked out, until it didn’t."

Alone in her apartment during lockdown, she missed her family.

“At a time like the pandemic, you realize like, what are you working for?" she says.

She started looking for a job in Nashville, and got an offer from a construction consulting firm there. Still, she struggled—was it OK to uproot herself to ease her loneliness? What if the company rescinded the offer before she could start, or ended up not having enough work for her?

“I could get laid off either way," she reasoned. “I don’t know what to expect from work, but at least I have my family here."

After digging deeper into the company’s projects and funding, she felt confident making the jump.

Overall, more Americans are staying put these days, if they can. Some 2.1 million Americans quit their jobs in May, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a 41% drop from the same month a year before. A recent survey of executives conducted by search firm Salveson Stetson Group found that 64% weren’t interested in making a career move during the pandemic.

Emma de Mûelenaere, 31, was excited about the prospect of joining a New York City startup after spending several years taking care of her young daughter. After each interview this spring, she’d be “in an ecstatic, happy mood," she says. “Then reality hits. Like, oh yes, Covid."

She considered her day care (potentially unreliable) and her eventual subway commute (potentially risky.)

“It was just too much," she says. She turned down the offer. “I still sometimes worry about it, like did I make a big mistake?"

I fretted about what to do at the Journal, too. During a masked walk on the beach with a colleague, I babbled about potential babysitters and career goals and parenting. One evening, as I was cleaning up the kids’ dinner and wrangling with the decision, a longtime mentor called me.

“Don’t think about this as the next six months," she said, urging me to explain my personal situation to my would-be new boss. “This could be the next 20 years of your career."

“Besides," she added, “isn’t this exactly the kind of stuff you’re supposed to be writing about as Work & Life columnist?"

I took her advice—and I took the job.

Say Yes to the New Gig?

How to size up an opportunity during the pandemic:

Do your research

Dig in to the company’s financial health to assess job security. Look at where its funding comes from, and make sure the projects you’ll be working on seem stable.

Assess flexibility

Huge swaths of the country had to deal with work-life conflicts like closed schools these past few months. Ask the hiring manager how the company helped workers navigate that.

Talk to your partner or roommate

Are they able to take on more household and child-care responsibilities while you try to prove yourself in a new gig?

Don’t lose sight of the long-term

Remember your career goals. Will this help you get there? Is the opportunity likely to come up again in the months to come?

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