The past few months have been a whirlwind: working from home full-time, countless virtual quizzes and a steeply declining ability to interact socially… not to mention adjusting to the emotional rollercoaster that is life during a pandemic.

Beyond Her – a network for women at the start of their career – has been a supportive space for junior women at ENGINE during this period. As well as hosting workshops, socials and generally chatting about how we’re doing, being part of the network has got me thinking about the impact of Covid-19 and remote working on junior employees. As a group of ambitious women at the start of our careers, what does the future of our career development look like as a result of this pandemic? How can those on furlough regain their stride? Are we on the backfoot as a generation due to economic instability and a shrinking jobs market?

While I believe that there are certain actions we can take as individuals to ensure that we continue developing and thriving in our careers, I also believe that businesses can and should take action too.

Junior employees’ careers have been hard hit by Covid-19 and remote working

Firstly, junior employees are most likely to be furloughed, with 67% of businesses opting to furlough junior members of the team, compared with 41% who have furloughed senior employees. Although furlough has been an important means of protecting jobs, a junior colleague has described it as:

“an unwanted career break at a time when I want to be pushing myself and excelling.”

This uninvited pause leaves junior employees on furlough feeling undervalued and uncertain about the future. Meanwhile, junior employees who are still working are either snowed under as a result of other team members being on furlough, or feel pressured to have their head down 100% of the time in order to add as much direct value to the company as possible. This leaves no time to zoom out and consider opportunities for development.

A longer-term increase in remote working is likely to have lasting effects in other, more nuanced ways.

In an office environment, junior employees are able to have ad-hoc conversations with team members that may result in them learning something new or getting access to an opportunity. Working remotely, however, removes the ability for junior employees to absorb information from those around them. In order to access opportunities, junior members of the team have to shout louder than before, and for some this is uncomfortable. Add to this the lack of clarity that we are all facing in terms of future economic stability, as well as what will happen once the furlough scheme ends, and you can understand why those at the start of their career are particularly anxious right now.

Businesses need to think carefully about how to confront these new realities, both for the wellbeing of their employees, as well as for the wellbeing of their bottom line. The importance of career development has been often stated in the past: LinkedIn’s Workforce Learning Report discovered that 93% of employees would stay at a company longer if it invested in their careers, for example. But according to Nicola Slater – ENGINE’s Head of Learning and Development – it is even more important right now:

“Now more than ever, we need people to be performing at their best, to be able to pitch and get great work. Now is not a time for backing away; it’s almost the opposite.”

So, what do businesses need to do to retain their best talent and keep junior employees engaged?

Here are 3 things that you should be thinking about:

  1. If you are bringing junior employees back off furlough, ensure you have a well-thought through plan that will help them ease back into work. How can you do this? Firstly, don’t be afraid to open up a dialogue with them about what they need. Second, give them an opportunity to share what they have been up to while on furlough. I have friends and colleagues who have been volunteering, learning instruments, painting and undertaking pro-bono work. Don’t assume that they just sat sunbathing outside… although if they did then that’s ok too.

  2. If you do not have the budget that you typically would for training courses and the like, think outside the box about how you can offer learning opportunities. Nicola Slater explains that “development isn’t always about going on training courses. It’s conversations with colleagues, exposure to new projects and reading around topics too.” Think about how you can make more of these informal learning and development opportunities in a remote-working environment. It could be as simple as inviting junior employees into conversations that they typically wouldn’t be involved in, or having regular check-ins with them to find out what they are interested in learning more about. ENGINE is launching a mentoring programme, which is another great way of offering support to junior colleagues.

  3. Reiterate that junior colleagues should take time to focus on their development outside of day-to-day roles and responsibilities. Junior employees need time to take stock of their development to date and think about the bigger picture. While you may think that sharing content or guidance with junior employees is enough, chances are they do not feel like they have licence to actually take the time to do anything outside of their specific responsibilities. It is important to reiterate to junior employees that they can and should make time for this. Could you block out an hour or two a week that is dedicated to team members upskilling or thinking about their own development?

As we continue to navigate this “new normal”, it is vital that businesses realise the importance of re-thinking their learning and development strategies. If businesses don’t address the impact that new working practices have on individuals’ learning and development, they risk highly disengaged employees and an unwelcome skills gap. Businesses who are proactive in re-thinking learning and development, however, stand to gain a more engaged, skilled and happier workforce.

Stephanie Coyne has been painting watercolours during her time on furlough

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