February 2020 was brilliant. I landed a new job back in December, resigned, was working my notice and had been invited to go on a business trip with a small group of people from my new employer just before starting with them. I took a few days off and joined them early one morning for a three-day trip taking in Barcelona, Rome and Naples before flying home. It was the best onboarding into a new role I’ve ever had, and the icing on the cake was that the new job was only a 20-minute bike ride from home.

Everyone was lovely; I felt like I was being welcomed into a family – an Agile, forward-thinking tech family. While we were away, the situation in Northern Italy started to develop, but we didn’t really think things were going to get much worse. I started in the role properly at the beginning of March, worked for four weeks (and really enjoyed it) before joining a call one Monday morning at the end of the month to be told that I had to be let go. I was working in the travel industry, which for obvious reasons nose-dived suddenly, and as I had changed jobs at the ‘wrong time’ there was no way I could be furloughed thanks to the requirements of the Government’s Coronavirus Opportunity Retention Scheme (CJRS). Both I and my fantastic employer had no other option.

This hit me really, really hard; I’ve worked for 21 years and nothing had ever happened so quickly and with such an impact before. I took about a week to think things through, joined a Facebook group with others in the same situation and started campaigning for change in the CJRS, and that’s where I discovered Furloughed.life.

I’d made the decision to have a go at freelancing for a while (I’m a digital product manager, with a background in UX and web design and development) to give me the flexibility I needed to manage family commitments (three school-aged children, and a wife who was continuing to work full-time). I quickly set up a website for myself, started to engage in online business networking, and gradually began to find some openings. A few weeks later while looking for news articles to support the #newstarterjustice campaigning, I read this article and felt bemused that someone was enabling small tech businesses to access the furloughed workforce to gain help and support effectively free of charge – all when I had no job, no income, and was trying to find paid work opportunities.

My view was quickly reversed though after a few Twitter conversations with Manoj Ranaweera; what was on offer had been created for the purposes of the scheme, and wouldn’t have existed as paid opportunities anyway. I quickly realised that this could be an amazing way to quickly build up skills, experiences and a portfolio as a freelancer – which in turn would give me contacts and credibility, two of the hardest hurdles to clear when jumping from full-time employment into freelancing.

If you’re a furloughed employee, or like me you’re looking to keep your skills current while looking for work in a tough market, I’d highly recommend signing up as a volunteer today. I’ve been fortunate enough to pick up voluntary work with two fantastic startups; providing some general website optimisation services and advice for one while starting to plan some user research activity to help refine the MVP for a launch of another.

This has enabled me to keep my skills up-to-date, gain experience in working with very different types of businesses to those that I’m used to and most of all meet some amazing people that will no doubt become valuable contacts for the future.

Working with and meeting the Furloughed.life team has also been something that’s helped in a different way. There are regular weekly meetups, and opportunities for 1-2-1 sessions – just knowing that there are people on the end of a Zoom call, in a WhatsApp group, or in a weekly meeting has helped me to feel that I was still part of something, still valued and still needed. Having people to talk to regularly who understand the position I’m in and who want to help has been the best aspect of Furloughed.life, and it’s a massive help for my own mental health. I like to be working towards a goal, helping people to achieve their digital business goals, solving problems and making improvements. When all of that went almost overnight through no fault of your own, it hurt. But Furloughed.life has given me the focus that I need to get through this period, and some amazing new skills and experiences too!

If you’re feeling the same, need to regain a bit of balance and motivation before re-entering the world of work, or are simply looking for opportunities to develop yourself, then give it a shot. You won’t regret it.

So, as furloughed talent, we can stand by and watch as companies around us flounder and sink. Or we can throw the smallest of lifelines… and by doing so, play just a tiny part in creating the freelance customers of tomorrow.

Author: Keith Merriman

20 years experience in digital roles; from interface design, front-end coding, managing large high traffic multi-lingual websites and producing quality digital experiences with user-centred design techniques through to strategic product management roles within innovative digital business teams focussing most recently on multi-channel retail experiences, high-volume data projects (smart metering) and smart home devices.

Today, Keith is an active user of Furloughed Life working with a number of early stage technology companies as well as Furloughed Life itself.

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