Few would argue that the lockdowns and furlough wrought by the global pandemic have been tough on everyone, especially those who were just starting out on their careers.
But many put that time to good use and are now emerging with additional skills that look set to benefit the agencies and brands they work for.
Here, George Goldberg, Advanced Insights Manager and Data Engineer at Hearts & Science shares how he spent his time out of the office after only just joining the firm…
The government’s recently ended furlough scheme will, in time, become little more than a distant memory.
It was hard to see it that way at the time though. While being paid to stay at home might sound good on paper, the reality can be very different.
By the third lockdown two in five furloughed employees said returning to work would improve their mental health.
There’s a lot to be said for the structure offered by the nine-to-five and simply for being able to spend time with your team.
You learn so much just from being around more experienced colleagues in terms of specialist skills, strategic and interpersonal best practice.
My personal specialism lies in data and analytics and I was thrilled to find an employer in Hearts and Science.
Its vision for data and analytics and enthusiasm for agile marketing approaches was something genuinely different and exciting, and in the advanced analytics team it’s inspiring getting to work at the intersection of media and technology.
And then that was taken away from me.
Furlough left many ambitious young people in agencies – myself included – in a holding pattern that we never imagined we’d find ourselves in so early into our careers.
I was fortunate that Hearts was sympathetic to my frustrations and didn’t want to leave staff out of sight out of mind.
While the conditions of the scheme meant I wasn’t able to do any actual work, they listened to my concerns and supported me as far as they possibly could within the boundaries of government guidelines.
In practice, my team leader took the time to check in with me on a regular basis and helped me build a self-directed study programme.
We’d periodically catch up through Zoom to consider and advise on how I might fill any gaps in my knowledge.
Learning the right tools to deliver better outcomes
A typical working day for me might include demystifying bespoke datasets, increasing their accessibility for solving our clients’ problems, or automating the insights from custom research projects.
Given the nuances of different systems – and how quickly these evolve – it’s a role that doesn’t stand still.
I didn’t want to get left behind during my unexpected downtime. My plan was that I would return to work with new skills, rather than playing catch-up.
Hearts paid for me to take a number of distance learning courses and my line manager also suggested books like PostgreSQL: Up and Running to help me upskill.
However, information overload can quickly set in if you aren’t putting the theory into practice on a daily basis.
Here, ‘how to’ guides – whether on YouTube or on specialist blogs – proved invaluable in providing real-world case studies of how these tools are used in practice.
In the end, I actually came to appreciate the time I was able to put into solo study. And while I certainly missed the team working aspects of my job, the ongoing support and advice from my colleagues meant I could confidently use the headspace to learn about new data solutions.
Now that we’re spending parts of the week back in the office, I have been able to share the most useful elements of what I’ve learned, expanding our data engineering capacity whilst bringing further structure and scalability to my insight role.
Since returning to the workplace, the new skills I have learned paid dividends in my own career development. I’ve been able to extend my role in media modelling projects, presented my own data analysis, and felt more confident in providing consultancy to clients.
Mentorship didn’t end during furlough
The individual hardships of the pandemic were harder to separate from working life. Furlough was hard for many young people, particularly during the lockdowns.
Many of us live in smaller properties, often in house or flat shares, away from family and friends.
As such, informal check-ins with the senior team at Hearts & Science, didn’t just help my own wellbeing, but they kept me motivated too.
I was able to make a proactive choice to hone my skills, rather than just watching Netflix, because I knew I hadn’t been forgotten and they wanted me to keep progressing.
I still had a career and a life outside my ever-more-familiar four walls.
While the impact of this support from the leadership team should not be under-estimated, what was equally important from a mental health perspective was structure.
I built a daily routine that reflected a normal working day. I’d wake up, have my lunch and finish at the same time I would pre-furlough.
Maintaining a sense of normality and purpose ensured I remained grounded, my career might formally be on hold, but I never felt unanchored.
A learning journey should never really be over
It felt a luxury to be able to dedicate my time to study again during the furlough. I really enjoyed building up my knowledge base and I’d be disappointed to have to give that up due to pressures on time or headspace.
What I’ve learned since is that it’s possible to negotiate time to allocate to self-directed study if you can make a case for how this will benefit your business and clients.
It’s worth supporting younger talent in their career aspirations and formal training through an apprenticeship programme or elsewhere is, of course, hugely valuable.
However, sometimes just giving staff a little time each week to get their hands dirty with data and coding outside of a client context can be just as useful.
While I sorely missed working with my team during the furlough, the resources I tapped into – which I wouldn’t have had capacity to do otherwise – proved invaluable in future-proofing my career as a data engineer and will help to deliver greater value to my clients.
With that in mind, agencies working through how to overcome the current talent deficit should look to their own people first, and consider what training, internal, external – or indeed self-directed, can help them fill the skills gap.