On winning at the beginning: how to start a new job well during the pandemic and beyond

Career development / Culture and values / Learning and development
Phil Purver
By Phil Purver | 24th November 2020

Shaking hands with the new boss and being shown around the office was a rite of passage for new starters before the pandemic. Breaking the ice over a round of tea and asking colleagues questions every two minutes was all part of the settling in process.

But how are those starting a new job during lockdown finding the transition? If you're navigating the first few weeks of a new position, it could be easy to feel you've drawn a lousy hand. Introductions over Zoom and working in isolation have the potential to make for a second-rate initiation. But what if there was a different way of looking at the situation? Perhaps a more positive way for new starters to see themselves as pioneers of a new way of working.

If you tuned into our recent online conference on Lessons from Lockdown Leaders, you'd have heard Dr Phyl Hughes, Co-Managing Partner at H2Pro, predicting that the current state of flux is no short-term blip. Dr Hughes explained that even without Covid-19, the next decade was always due to be a time of massive upheaval and change within the workplace. Covid-19 has merely accelerated this.

With this in mind, anyone starting a new job during the current circumstances is laying the groundwork for future generations. 'Fourteen-year-olds today starting new jobs in 2030 will look back at how we used to work and laugh,' said Dr Hughes during her fascinating session on Facing New Strategic Choices.

But perhaps even trailblazers need a steer sometimes? Luckily, Sarah Hobbs, Managing Director of Talent and Potential, has done extensive research into how new starters can land on their feet during the lockdown and beyond. She curated her findings into 15 tips which she shared during our recent webinar: New beginnings: starting new jobs well in turbulent times.

Sarah's research suggests that relationships during lockdown are becoming more transactional. People are only calling colleagues for a reason, rather than to chat as they may have done in the office. This lack of small talk can slow the getting-to-know-you process. To combat this, Sarah suggests doing your homework, so when the opportunity to talk to a new colleague arises, it’s easier to grow the conversation. Have they written any LinkedIn articles? Do they have a blog? Are they active on social media? All these mediums offer fuel for discussion. As long as you don't stray into very personal topics, colleagues are likely to be flattered by the interest.

In the webinar chat function, participant Paul Hockey, founder and owner of TalentShift HR,  offered hope with his experience of playing online games. Paul played World of Warcraft in the European Guilds from 2006-2010, with hundreds of participants from all over the world who he’d never met. ‘A lot of learning can be gained from video gaming clan culture and how they work,’ he commented. ‘Businesses may end up embracing video gaming tools such as Discord, which is now the standard tool for the video gaming community to build communities, induct new people, and encourage social interaction.’

During her research, Sarah was surprised to learn that in the current circumstances, many people feel it's essential to remain neutral when starting a new position. Aiming to be bland can feel counter-intuitive, but this thinking has some merit. In an environment where body language is inaccessible, and humour is easily misinterpreted, seeing how the land lies and being respectful of existing dynamics is a safer bet. Save any 'out-there' opinions until you've built rapport.

Sarah's research also suggested that looking for low hanging fruit can be a useful starting point. Identifying areas where you can make quick improvements and deliver early will enable you to add value from the start. Not only will these deliverables provide an opportunity for interaction, but they will also reassure team members that you're a safe pair of hands.

Sarah emphasised the importance of establishing a routine of daily calls with your team and preparing well for these meetings. Making the most of daily catch-ups will enable you to get to know your colleagues quickly and establish a strong foundation. Now more than ever, people have off days and busy periods, but regular well-planned check-ins will boost engagement and balance out the daily ups-and-downs.

Another strategy, when starting a new job in the current circumstances, is to go in with a direct approach. Asking colleagues what they want you to achieve and what difference they are hoping you'll make can be a useful way to cut to the heart of their priorities and get a handle on their point of view. On the flip side, it can also help you to manage expectations. If there's been a restructure, or your new position is part of a pivot in priorities, being up-front about your focus and purpose can help establish trust.

On the subject of expectations, Sarah was unsure about advice she came across that suggested new starters should lower their expectations about what they can achieve in the current circumstances. Sarah preferred the more positive spin Paul put on this in the chat area. ‘I think it is not about lowering expectations but setting different expectations to achieve,’ he commented. While it's tempting to set the stakes high in a new job, a sense of realism is vital for the sake of sanity.

A practical tip Sarah shared during the webinar struck me as very useful: she suggested sketching out a rough visual map of how people are formally and informally connected within a new organisation. Before home working, new starters would have absorbed this information via osmosis, as people congregated in passing, nipped in and out of offices and interacted in meetings. These allegiances are more challenging to decipher online. A visual tool can help.

Another way to fast-forward relationships is to turn on your camera for every call, make sure your name is visible and keep introducing yourself. Sarah shared an incident she'd come across in her research when a new starter felt unwelcome during a meeting because people seemed stilted and uncomfortable. It was only after being at the company for several weeks that he realised people had mistaken him for a new client rather than a team member — a reminder that helping people put a face to a name has never been more critical.

So if you're feeling lost on your first day, remember, everyone is in finding their way in uncharted territory at the moment. And in the words of the pioneering computer scientist — Alan Kay — 'the best way to predict the future is to invent it.'

The recording of the CareerBurst webinar: ‘New beginnings: starting new jobs well in turbulent times' is available here.

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