Starting a New Job During COVID-19? Here’s How to Navigate the Virtual Workplace

"There is now a whole other set of cues about what’s acceptable or expected,” says Carly Cooper, adjunct professor at USC Bovard College.

In this uniquely challenging and unprecedented time, you’ve landed a new job.

Although you’re taking a big step in your career, the lingering COVID-19 pandemic may mean doing so without ever leaving your home.

On your first day, you most likely won’t meet your new boss or co-workers in person, and sharing an office could either still be in the future — or no longer be an option.

It’s a situation familiar to many people who have been hired in the past year, and companies continue to adjust to the new virtual workplace.

So how do you best fulfill expectations and connect with your fellow employees when you’re performing your duties miles away from each other?

Introductory Matters

One of the most important ways to set yourself up for success in any new job — especially one you’re starting during COVID-19 — is to build relationships with your manager and co-workers.

But since we’ve all had to adjust to the pandemic, “what you’re doing to stay connected with people in your personal life may also be helpful in your professional life,” said Carly Cooper, adjunct professor in USC Bovard College’s online Master of Science in Human Resource Management program.

Whether you’re looking to set up a virtual coffee meeting or an online happy hour, be creative when asking your new team to connect.

“You might also send an introductory email sharing a few details about yourself,” suggested Cooper, whose experience includes heading initiatives for the international bank Barclays and major tech firms SAP, Gartner and Infosys.

“Communication is key,” said Eryn Mack, a fellow USC Bovard faculty member and director of Cultural and Organizational Effectiveness at TruAmerica Multifamily, a Los Angeles-based private equity firm.

“After getting your offer letter, it’s important to form relationships with your team and your hiring manager to understand their expectations of when and how work is performed. Establishing partnerships as early as possible is extremely important,” she said.

In today’s workplace, everyone should strive to be more intentional, said Jamie Latiano Jacobs, who brings to her USC Bovard courses expertise stemming from co-founding the firms High Performanceology and GigTalent, along with being a past president of the National Human Resources Association.

“Ask who the key stakeholders are and proactively set up meetings. Have questions ready so you can get to know them and their role, how they will interface with you, and what advice they have,” Jacobs suggested.

Meeting Expectations (and Learning What They Are)

Mack admitted that getting to know your new manager remotely isn’t always easy, and you may have to consult your boss’ calendar to carve out a recurring time to connect.

When that time comes, be ready, Mack emphasized: “I think coming to the table with prepared questions that you’ve submitted in the calendar invite is important because it allows your direct manager to have time — if possible — to be ready with the level of feedback you need.”

During these meetings, Cooper suggested setting goals with your supervisor for periods ranging from 90 days to the next year. That way, you can understand both “the explicit goals and the implicit assumptions.”

Of course, you’ll have to figure out some of what’s implicit on your own. This may include the expected manner of dress for video meetings, or whether to have your camera on or off, and when to use the mute button.

“There is now a whole other set of cues about what’s acceptable or expected,” said Cooper, who now leads communication and transformation for Vianai, an artificial intelligence startup.

Some groups may even prefer to conference by phone. Whatever the norms are for your new employer — and for each group within that company — you’ll adjust within the first week or so.

Understand, too, that expectations go both ways.

“You were hired for your experience and qualifications,” Cooper noted. “The organization’s goal should be to help you be successful.”

Communication Channels

When it comes to communicating, clarity is as vital as proactivity, according to Jacobs.

“Companies can’t read minds,” she said. “Nor can they provide one-size-fits-all solutions because everyone is unique.”

Communication should also involve letting your co-workers get to know you. Since virtual meetings through Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Google Meet have become the primary means of conferring, a subtle way to convey a bit about yourself is by adding a virtual background.

Whether that’s an image of a family vacation spot or your favorite sports team, it shows “that you’re opening yourself up to engaging on a different topic,” Cooper explained.

Since any organization will have informal as well as formal channels of communication, learn what they are. In addition to Zoom and its peers, your colleagues might keep in touch through instant messaging apps like Slack or WhatsApp.

For instance, there could be an informal chat group about what people are watching on Netflix, Cooper noted. There may also be more formal channels that relate to specific clients or projects, so ask your co-workers how they stay connected to people and projects.

New Schedules

From family illnesses to noisy pets, working from home carries more risks of distraction than toiling at a dedicated office. Within your first week, be sure to let your manager and colleagues know what your days look like.

“Explain the windows of time when you’ll get work done because you have a life with additional responsibilities,” Mack said.

This is yet another area in which clear communication is crucial. Otherwise, “if people believe that you’re not working or not engaged, they will come to their own conclusions,” Mack warned.

Jacobs agreed: “Be transparent. If you are dealing with challenges and other duties due to COVID, I would be honest about them and ask for what you need.”

Most companies understand every employee’s situation is different and that many are taking care of young children or helping out with kids’ schoolwork while working from home.

And even with those snazzy personalized backgrounds, “most people are dealing with some form of Zoom burnout or fatigue,” Jacobs said.

Jumping on Board

Even before your first official day, you should take the initiative and full accountability for success in your new job.

“If you work remotely, that time between hiring and starting is important to understanding what you’re supposed to do on day one and in the first week,” Mack said. “And you can’t always rely on the person who’s onboarding you because they have their own job to do.”

It’s also important to remember that boldness is a virtue, Cooper said — especially in a changing business environment: “A lot of people are piloting and prototyping different things. Don’t be afraid to be that person who throws an idea out there.”

Personal Connections

If you do run into struggles while balancing work and home life, understand you’re not alone.

With so many people working remotely, “everybody hopefully has more empathy about its challenges,” Cooper said.

Virtual or otherwise, making those personal connections with your team members is vital to fostering a positive and supportive workplace environment.

Learn more about the online MS in Human Resource Management program at USC Bovard College today.

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