Commentary: The weird and disorienting uncertainty of starting a new job under COVID-19
In the time of coronavirus, when starting a job normally is unrealistic, adjusting expectations may be the key to surviving – and thriving – in a new workplace.
SINGAPORE: On my first day at work at CNA on Apr 1, I went to the office to set up my work laptop, attended an hour-long HR orientation via video conference, and then promptly went home to begin my work from home (WFH) arrangement.
In the following two days, I met two teammates to familiarise myself with some work processes.
Our brief meetings happened prior to the circuit breakers kicking in. If I had known these instances would be the only physical interaction I’d get with my team in the weeks, even months, ahead, I would have overstayed my welcome to make tedious small talk until they begged me to leave.
None of the restrictive measures surprised me – the COVID-19 situation had been gradually worsening in Singapore.
What did throw me off, however, was the weird and disorienting uncertainty of starting a new job in these times.
RECOGNISING MY PRIVILEGE
The COVID-19 pandemic will cause Singapore to enter a recession this year, resulting in job losses and lower wages, noted the Monetary Authority of Singapore’s (MAS) latest half-yearly macroeconomic review released on Apr 28.
In my personal network, a friend was unexpectedly retrenched from her travel company, while several more in the arts and entertainment industries turned to food delivery jobs as their primary means of income vanished.
Witnessing them suffer severe losses induced survivor’s guilt. After all, at least I had a job. Then again, neither guilt nor forced gratitude is productive.
These are unprecedented times. No one has any blueprint of what to expect or how to regain some semblance of control over their lives. The only thing that’s more certain is the importance of kindness and empathy towards each other – even if you might not understand someone’s struggles.
LACK OF PHYSICAL INTERACTION
I had to fundamentally adjust my expectations of a new workplace.
I quickly realised that seemingly inconsequential aspects of work, such as an office to get to every day or the standard morning routine of boarding public transport by a specific time, gave me a sense of certainty I’d taken for granted.
I still get the fresh slate that a new job heralds. This includes getting acquainted with the rules and routines of a new team and figuring out what I add to their culture. But getting your bearings right can be a weird experience without physical contact.
I was introduced to my team via our weekly meeting on Zoom – a platform now synonymous with work discussions or catch-ups with good friends. But there is no in-between, such as a virtual equivalent of catching your colleague’s eye when you meet them along the corridor or making coffee with them in the office pantry while discussing our weekend.
As someone who relies heavily on non-verbal cues to get a sense of someone’s personality in professional interviews and personal relationships, I have an unusually deep appreciation for small talk.
With an office, returning to the same physical environment every day cultivates a sense of security and certainty, and a known space to get to know new colleagues over time.
READ: Commentary: COVID-19 could make remote working a permanent feature. That has several implications for firms
TOO MUCH TOO SOON?
Getting thrown into a WFH arrangement from day one removed the gradual intimacy a newbie gets to establish as they find their bearings, making me feel like I had to immediately perform like a seasoned employee in all aspects.
When you’re working remotely, the absence of visual cues that indicate you’re a new hire, such as looking clueless or being more guarded, might result in unrealistic expectations to meet certain standards from the get-go.
People probably understand that subconsciously. But as newbies, we tend to get into mechanical action to try to impress.
One friend who joined a tech company attended all her hiring interviews and HR orientation online. When she first got on a Zoom call with her boss, she immediately launched into work so much so that her boss had to ask her to slow down and talk about herself first.
Another friend, who took on a corporate communications role in the public sector, didn’t meet her team either, and felt less comfortable with asking for help frequently, as a new employee would.
In person, it would be easier to gather if she was bothering her colleagues by observing their tics, such as whether they break their gaze before answering a difficult question.
Moreover, conversation with someone new might be stilted. While silence creates a “natural rhythm in real-life conversation”, it “makes people uncomfortable” when it happens over video call, said Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor at INSEAD, who explores sustainable learning and development in the workplace, in a BBC article.
These issues probably wouldn’t matter as much if you’ve interacted with your colleagues in person. You’d have an existing understanding of their character and behaviours.
The standard teething pains of beginning a new job might be reinforced by the uncertainty of living through a global crisis.
Yet, we can still control how we respond, such as helping newbies settle in better or existing employees cope with the newfound disorientation that comes with a lack of physical contact.
Perhaps an upside to these circumstances is a greater focus on mental health in the workplace.
A friend’s boss and other leaders in her company have begun signing off emails with hotlines for mental health organisations that they tie-up with, which employees can call anonymously if they need help. The simple practice reassures employees that their company cares for them.
Another way to prioritise mental well-being is to draw firm boundaries around working hours. As Sean Scott, a new software engineer at Duolingo, writes in Fast Company: “(Their) employee experience team did their best (to establish boundaries) … by sending out helpful tips, such as setting an alarm at the end of the work day.”
At the same time, new hires might be driven to prove themselves to make an impression. Like myself, Scott admits feeling “less productive” and “worried constantly about not meeting (his) team’s expectations”.
Thankfully, even though Scott “couldn’t stop the nagging feeling that he wasn’t keeping up”, his manager reassured him he was “doing great”.
Finally, perhaps COVID-19 provides us a chance to embrace vulnerability in the workplace.
One way is to emphasise transparent leadership, according to Sally Stetson, principal and co-founder of executive search firm Salveson Stetson Group.
“Leaders need to communicate on a regular basis to both reassure employees and provide them with ongoing updates that may change the way the employee and the company operates,” she said in an interview with HR Dive.
Knowing that even our bosses are grappling with constantly evolving situations comforts new hires like myself. Their vulnerability makes us feel safe to make mistakes which help us grow.
This is where new employees like myself could also seize this opportunity to address our insecurities and weaknesses, and find ways to build rapport with bosses and colleagues.
I learnt that a couple of weeks ago, while speaking with my boss on a story outline. I felt strangely uncomfortable. After we hung up, I realised that discomfort was vulnerability. I often struggle with asking for help, and this period of working remotely has only made me extra cautious about coming across as needy.
But having a team that doesn’t laud excessive independence made it easier for me to seek help and have the occasional check-in with a boss or colleague. This slowly eased me out of my stubbornly self-sufficient bubble.
Still, the minute I get to return to the office, I am going to relish every moment of having to pack myself onto an MRT train by a certain time so I won’t be late for work.
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Grace Yeoh is senior journalist at CNA Insider.