Furlough Thinker

I’m Joe Miller, I’m a civil engineer and project manager and I’ve worked in the industry for over 12 years.

I have the pleasure of sharing with you here my story of finding meaning from being without my day job for a few months earlier this year, while on furlough, in a way that made me more employable and a lot happier in dealing with the challenges of the past few months.

I hope it might provide some ideas for you to make the most of this time, whether you have been put on furlough, have the potential of redundancy, or have otherwise had your life and career disrupted by Covid-19.

2020 – a dream come true?

I joined my current company January 2020, full of energy for the new opportunity and quickly managed to secure a role on a major infrastructure programme with one of our major clients, Heathrow Airport.

This was exactly the sort of opportunity I came to the company for and for a month or so, I was on top of the world with the role – it was a dream for a couple of years finally come true.

Unfortunately, when Coronavirus took hold we were badly hit. At the same time, Heathrow’s expansion programme was challenged in a high court appeal and resulted in a huge reduction of our team in just a few months. Shortly after my role was demobilised I was put on furlough – not the quite the change I was looking for.

A paid extended holiday you say?

Not exactly. Not knowing how long I was going to be off for caused a huge anxiety in me. I couldn’t make any length of plan that I knew I could stick to as it could change at very short notice. I had aspirations of studying for a mini MBA, but I know this level of commitment would be too much as I could be back in full time work at any time.

It was made more challenging as I was unable to communicate around the business about getting a new commission. My only opportunities were going to come from what people knew I could do or would be good at, which being very new at the company was difficult as not many people knew me or what I was good at. All I could do was write my CV every time it was requested and hope for the best.

I felt very stuck. To me it was like getting out of furlough required jumping through hoops to get to the next train. The trouble was not knowing what hoops would get me back into work and into a role I was going to enjoy.

Digging lots of small holes

I started looking at short courses which I could do in a week or so and build up a few extra skills which might help my CV. At this point I struggled even more as the amount of choice, even for free online courses, was staggering. I ended up starting loads of courses as everything looked interesting, then not having enough time to get any of them done and feeling drained. My need to feel productive in using the time to progress my career was being stifled by a severe lack of direction.

It got to the point where I felt quite desperate with the situation, which was impacting on my family life. Being at home was meant to be of help with spending more time with my wife but

instead my mind was just creating drama.

I decided to share this because I think a lot of professionals may find anxiety when this sort of situation is imposed without warning. It leaves us feeling quite vulnerable and without social contact with others, it’s quite easy to get into a negative state of mind. I became aware that my perspective was becoming toxic for me and it’s at this point that I realised I needed to look after myself and get some help.

Changing my mindset

At the point of feeling most drained I decided to take a week off from all training, LinkedIn use and other networking and just rest my brain. All of this worrying was not getting me anywhere and what I really needed was self-care to get myself back into a productive state of mind and support from the right people.

I found a mentor in my company to explain my frustration. I was so grateful to have made this connection with such a wise person who could give some much needed advice. Firstly, he made me realise I needed to realise how much of a gift this time was. Rarely in one’s career are we given the time, without asking for it, to reflect on where we are and where we are going and put a plan together. Lesson 1: Be grateful for whatever you are given.

The other important thing he suggested I do is relax a little. This is something I can struggle to do sometimes, often trying to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. It turns out that this was one of those times. So, I made a commitment to myself not to work too hard while I was off. This was going to be one of the longest paid holidays I was likely to ever get and I became determined (finally) to enjoy it. Lesson 2: Relax.

At this time I came across Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ‘Address to the class of 2020’. If you have seen it, please view. Arnie shared with great humility his story of a time of crisis last summer when he was hospitalised. He lost a huge amount of strength just a few months before going on set for the latest Terminator film, which could have ruined the shoot. But what did he do? He made a goal to be on set on time in September 2019 and crystallised it in his mind with so much belief and focus that it became inevitable that it ended up happening. Lesson 3: Clarity and focus can make you unstoppable.

Gaining clarity

After my week off, I started focusing on using my time as wisely as possible, starting with gaining clarity on where I wanted to go in the next few years given everything that was going on in the world and in my life. I didn’t know how long I was going to be on furlough for, so every extra day was going to be a gift I could put to good use.

So, I started reflecting on all of the options I had for my career now and which ones I wanted to pursue, and more importantly, why? I kept asking why until something emerged that I didn’t expect, my personal passion and value. These were things that I had read about years ago as things that drive your career, but I had only a vague idea what mine were until now.

Taking focused action

So now I had a good idea what my passion was and could articulate it well, but I started to realise this wasn’t enough on its own. I was reading “The Four Hour Work Week” by Tim Ferris, which is all about how to make time for the things you love and it became apparent from this that I needed goals aligned to my passion. Lesson 4: Have goals otherwise you will never be in the driving seat.

This is something that had been nagging at me for some time, but I had only made half-hearted attempts to write goals. However, having spent a few weeks confused after exhausting myself trying so many different things, the only way I was going to be able to pursue what I wanted and not get lost in the information and opportunity feast we have in front of us today, was to get my own goals so that I could filter what was right for me and what was not.

So, I reflected for a while and came up with some things I wanted to do. I wouldn’t go so far as to say they were life goals, but they gave me enough focus to make good use of the time on furlough in learning some new skills.

I then came up with a 1 month rolling plan for how I was going to week-on-week take focused action towards these goals with study, blogging and networking. Lesson 5: Take focused step by step action towards your goals.

Declaring victory

The biggest thing I gained from listening to Arnie’s speech was the idea of “declaring victory” every step of the way to your goal. This means creating mini goals and quick wins as you go to create a cycle of virtue. My mini goals were mainly around training still, but the training that I knew would enable me to do the things I was looking to do in my next role and also things that would allow me to help others.

Training I undertook:

1. Change management – understanding the process people go through when they experience change of circumstances and environments, I felt was really important in helping me.

2. Lean 6 sigma – this provided me with a systematic method to help diagnose problems my clients are facing and help them address them.

3. Business and marketing – learning more about the mechanics of business to help me do my role better commercially.

4. Train the trainer – I have always wanted to deliver training courses and facilitate workshops and whilst I’ve done a few without any training, I knew they could provide more value to people.

A course at a time and at an aggressive pace in case I had to drop one of them. Lesson 6: Celebrate along the way.

What else?

With a less stressful mindset about the outcome of getting a role and instead prioritising having a healthy state of mind no matter what, I also decided to do things that were good for my home life – unfinished DIY projects from a year ago, additional cleaning and cooking and for me, as an essential, yoga every day. Lesson 7: Discipline builds a stable mind.

Building new habits

One thing which I had never really got the chance to do but really wanted to was to create useful social media content and build my personal brand. I was stifled by the feeling of not wanting to share an opinion about the professional world and not feeling like I had much to say.

In reality I had a lot of opinions and insights from my experience, so I decided to start creating conversations through sharing these regularly and building up my network around this. Never before have I had so many quality conversations with such a range of professionals, nor had I seen so many opportunities arise from it.

I found that sharing my insights actually helped me have even better insights. The process of writing down an idea and analysing it from industry and analogy distilled my thoughts more and more. I was teaching myself as I shared. Lesson 8: Good teachers arise from excellent students.

It also helped me understand where I add value as a professional – this is when it dawned on me what my personal brand is. For anyone reading this who is trying to understand what their personal brand is, you can read and reflect by yourself for months if you like, but is likely that until you observe yourself doing what you are doing and question why you do it, that this will be revealed to you.

Once I realised what my value proposition was, it became a lot easier to write CVs for roles. Rather than being a struggle to communicate the value I added, it was obvious. Lesson 9: Know thyself.

Then finally, it happened

Lesson 10: Detach from the outcome, focus on the process and the outcome will come to you naturally.

Working all of this process through eventually took me to the role I am in now as a programme manager and project executive. It’s a great step up for me from everyday project management to project leadership, allowing me to shape and influence the direction of projects through working with stakeholders strategically.

Wrapping up

Most people who have found themselves without their day job out of the blue will naturally be challenged by this to some extent. It’s ok to feel insecure and anxious about this initially but the sooner you can take steps to transform this anxiety into something more helpful for your long-term well-being, the better you will be for it. If you think you need help in that, get it and start taking control of building a better future for yourself.

So, if you’ve still got more time on your hands right now, can you use it to help you get on a faster track?

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