“This too shall pass.”
We tend to think of this as an attempt to be comforting when things are bad. But it goes both ways. Change comes when things are going well, too. It’s as certain as death and taxes. This goes for our work lives as much as for anything else.
We are never 100 per cent in charge of our own work destinies, even if we found and run our own companies. There will always be external factors that can change circumstances, force decisions or take away options. Especially in tech, which loves for things to happen big, fast or both.
As workers, we have even less control than founders or owners, because our employment and its parameters are largely in someone else’s hands. Sure, you can be great at your job and deliver consistently or beat revenue targets, which helps make you valuable. But it doesn’t make you invincible.
If there’s no guarantee of any job, there certainly aren’t any guarantees about the conditions of your job at any given time, or that they will remain static. Change happens. You change with it or you choose to do nothing. It might just happen around you, or it will happen to you.
Humans are actually very good at change, though we’re equally good at resisting it. Dealing with change is often hard and a lot of work, no question there. It can cause a lot of stress, especially when it’s not positive or welcome. Some of that stress can be avoided, at least in a work context, by being observant and proactive.
Changing with the times can often be a good thing. It can mean learning and growing and tackling bigger, more interesting challenges. (And making more money.) At the other end of the spectrum it can mean just doing what you’re told and acting out of fear to keep your job. But not because doing so brings any great benefit.
Many humans don’t live life preparing for major change. (Raise your hand if you have six months’ worth of living expenses saved, an emergency kit tucked away, and an up-to-date resume.) We tend to cross those bridges when we come to them. Things are all right at the moment, so why worry? Plus, we have other things to do.
Sometimes that works out OK, sometimes not. We can do better.
Change comes for us all. Sometimes when it’s overdue and you need a kick in the pants to move on. Sometimes blindsiding you when you’ve gotten where you want to be and things are going really well. Sometimes when you’re already trying to navigate other changes. Some of us are the catalysts of change for others.
Usually it’s better when you initiate the change. Upgrading your skills or education. Working toward that promotion. Applying for that new job. Even volunteering for a severance package. Changes that involve working toward your goals or at least getting out in front of things give you more room to manoeuvre. They keep options open.
There are plenty of other kinds of change that may not point toward your goals, aren’t your choice and are out of your control. Mergers, acquisitions, massively accelerated growth, layoffs, IPOs, operational pivots. Any or a combination of these can leave you somewhere new and unknown, somewhere you hadn’t planned on, and possibly somewhere you don’t want to be.
So what do you do when you didn’t sign up for this?
If change has been announced but not yet implemented, or if the start of it is still recent, don’t freak out. You’re not going to know exactly how things will play out and when. It’s unlikely even senior management has all the answers yet.
Yeah, I get it, you’re probably already freaking out a bit and having knee-jerk reactions. Even more likely if you’ve never experienced major change in your work life before. But unless you’ve been explicitly told you’re losing your job or something, there’s a reasonable chance changes may not even affect you that much. There’ll probably be some chaos to come, but you can handle it.
Just stop, take a breath and give it a bit of time. Listen a lot, ask questions when you can, and think. Think about the best-case scenario – what do you need to do to make that happen? Think about the worst-case scenario – what can you do to mitigate its effects?
Yes, it probably feels like a lot is out of your control, and it is, but it’s unlikely the sky is falling. Remember that the one person who’s going to take care of you is you, whether you lean into or out of this change, so think smart and take time if you can.
Maybe changes have begun, maybe they affect you, maybe not. Ask yourself if you actually have to do anything. Perhaps there are changes to the company or even your department, but not so much for you or your work. Maybe you lost some co-workers you like. That sucks, but at the end of each day when you leave or log off, how do you feel? Have you cried anywhere?
You might not be a fan of the changes, and it always sucks to lose workmates you like, but if things are still fine for you, generally, do they really need to change? Work doesn’t need to be a passion or a calling – for most people, I’d argue, it isn’t. Were you really invested in the status quo, or are you just having a hard time embracing change?
Do your passions exist outside the office? Are you OK with the company, your team and your work, but you just don’t love it all right now? Are they still paying you? Perhaps you don’t actually need an exit strategy. At least not right now.
Change often also means opportunity. Things move around, there are usually holes left, and expertise can be very valuable because those who have it provide stability in an unstable time.
What can you gain control of? Not in an archvillain way (though I don’t judge your career goals), but what do you want to be in charge of? Perhaps there’s something you want to start doing that the company hasn’t been doing. Maybe such an opening has appeared. What can you help build or rebuild? In addition to being patient, it’s a good time to be strategic.
In a related vein, if you feel the itch to make a move, could it be an internal one? Something less of an upheaval than quitting? Maybe the changes were just in your department, but you could make a lateral move to another team that’s doing interesting work, or has a manager you like. Or perhaps a new team or department is being set up. It would probably actually benefit the company not to entirely staff it with new hires. Domain knowledge is valuable.
Or maybe, yeah, this is definitely not what you signed up for. Perhaps you got laid off, or you don’t like what your job has become, or the chaos shows no signs of resolving, or you just can’t live harmoniously with your team or manager, or your leadership is unethical. Could be a lot of things, but it’s time to go.
First, good for you for realizing and accepting that. It’s not easy, and the actual decision to leave is even harder. It’ll be hard work preparing for and finding a new job you will like. Now, job hunting while you still have a job is usually less stressful. Just be careful about it while you’re still working at your company, and don’t let down the team you’re still on. Until you’re actually gone, you still work there.
That said, the only person you’re ultimately responsible for is yourself. Perhaps you’re a manager who has done a lot to protect your team and help them thrive, and they may well lose that when you leave. That sucks, but it’s not a reason to torpedo your opportunities or mental health.
Or perhaps the company tries to tempt you to stay with a counter offer. Money fixes things less than we often think it will. Also, beware claims that things will change and be much better. Will they? Does the company have any track record of fixing major issues promptly in ways that stick? It’s vanishingly rare. Your gut reaction that it’s time to go is probably right.
Living in interesting times isn’t easy, but there are ways it can be beneficial. It helps to train yourself to keep an eye out for change. Not to always expect the worst, but to remain aware of what’s going on around you, how things change (because they always do), and how you feel about that. You always have some control, and you are always going to be the one who most looks out for your interests. Remember these things and you’ll come out OK.
Now go update your resume.
M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.