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audrey malo/The Globe and Mail

The pandemic has razed many pillars of modern office life—from the notion that nine-to-five offices are the ideal conduit of productivity and that teams must breathe the same air to foster camaraderie, to the now-unimaginable obligation to shake hands in crowded conference rooms.

Now it’s after another stalwart: career ambition.

A sense of resigned stasis is permeating the white-collar office dwellers of the knowledge economy, infecting previously high-achieving, highly educated ladder-climbers for whom “career” has been interchangeable with “identity.” Look closely: Erstwhile keeners aren’t putting their hands up for extra assignments. They’ve given up on networking. They’ve cut-and-pasted last year’s goals into their career plans. Their spark is dimming, if not entirely gone.

“It’s a hard-won lesson for the goal-setting American worker: that as much as you might love your work, work won’t love you back,” declared writer Kelli María Korducki in a New York Times essay that went viral this summer. “The pandemic changed the way people work and how they view work,” Vipula Gandhi and Jennifer Robison wrote in a summary of recent Gallup research into the mood of American workers. “Many are reflecting on what a quality job feels like, and nearly half are willing to quit to find one.”

The sentiment is similar north of the border: 28% of respondents to a recent study by recruitment agency Robert Half said they had “a shift in perspective” due to the pandemic that has spurred the desire for more “meaningful or fulfilling” work. And nearly one-quarter of Canadians surveyed by LifeWorks (formerly Morneau Shepell) said the pandemic led them to consider a job or career change.

This ennui matters, whether people actually quit or not. Ambition is the shadow currency of today’s workplace, prompting folks to do extra, stay late, go above and beyond their job description, with the implicit understanding that doing so will advance their career. It’s the real reason a lot of businesses have often been able to “do more with less.” So when an employee loses their drive, it creates a very real management challenge.

Whereas burnout can be blamed on the unpleasant realities of pandemic life, lost ambition strikes differently. For starters, it’s more pernicious. It’s less temporary, less easy to soothe with extra vacation days or free massages; it’s a symptom of existential crisis, not circumstance, which requires a deft managerial hand. And that’s tough, since most managers are themselves feeling unmotivated. A new survey by LifeWorks and Deloitte Canada found that 51% of respondents are considering quitting, retiring or taking a less demanding job.

So what can managers do? First, avoid dismissing the situation as a pandemic blip. It’s unlikely that COVID-19 is the only factor influencing employee apathy.

Second, re-emphasize the “why” of the work. Most jobs aren’t glamorous, but almost all can be connected to some broader purpose that may have been forgotten by a staffer sequestered in a basement home office. An honest, human conversation about the importance of a project or launch won’t necessarily turn a Troy Dyer into a Tracy Flick, but it might remind them of why they chose this path. “Reversing the tide [of apathy] in an organization requires managers who care, who engage and who give workers a sense of purpose, inspiration and motivation to perform,” Gandhi and Robison write in the Gallup report.

Finally, be open to the uncomfortable possibility that the era of the overachiever might be done—at least until the pandemic is behind us. The ambition drain probably won’t last forever, but it’s here now, and ignoring its causes or penalizing those experiencing it will benefit no one. Sometimes good enough really is good enough. If we can get used to taking Zoom calls from our laundry rooms, we can get used to that.

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