“Get a job!” they said… “It will be fun” they said…
A personal account on how it really feels to join the working world remotely
By Genavieve Levin | Consultant at Ferva
After 12 years at school, followed by 5 consecutive years at University culminating in obtaining my Masters degree, I was ready for the real world - the world of work. I dreamt about working with experts in my field, water-cooler conversations, a monthly salary and joining a ‘work wolfpack’ who I was going to spend at least 40 hours a week with. It was finally going to be my time (or so I thought), but it also happened to be 2020.
The build up to my first day at work entailed quite a bit of planning and preparation. It also involved an extensive amount of retail therapy, where I had to replace my student wardrobe which consisted of track pants and hoodies with acceptable adult work attire. I spent weeks debating between dressing too smart or too ‘corporate’, or underdressing and not fitting into the company dress code. This might seem like something quite trivial to people who have been employed for some time, but it felt like something really important to me and I knew that as my time at work progressed, I would navigate these types of things and find my feet.
I remember my first day of work so clearly, the 3rd of February 2020. As a nervous and excited millennial I arrived at the office 45 minutes early and sat in the parking lot patiently awaiting to be welcomed by my new team. The feeling of starting this new chapter in my life was something I had never felt before. I was eager, energised and enthusiastic to do whatever it takes to kickstart my career on the right footing. It was the thought of having an exceptional team to collaborate with, to build strong and meaningful friendships with, to learn from and be trained by, which invigorated me. I was finally able to call myself an Industrial Psychologist (even if I was just an intern) and figure out where I belonged and how I would become an asset to a business and a contributor to our economy.
Thinking back to my first month at work, it was euphoric. I worked in a beautiful, bright and fully open plan office. The office was white, clean and crisp. The design was minimalistic, full of plants and interesting art. The space excited me just as much as the people. We ate our breakfasts, lunches and drank coffees at our desks alongside each other chatting away and engaging. We could blurt out an idea or a problem we were facing and every team member could jump in and contribute. The opportunity to connect and collaborate came so naturally. At the time I did not realise how lucky I was, or how grateful I should have been for these moments because in the blink of an eye by March 20th, our business made the decision to move to working from home indefinitely due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Overnight, I found myself back at my home workspace where I had spent the previous 17 years craving a different setting. I felt lonely, demotivated, disheartened and anxious that this was my new reality. How on earth was I going to upskill myself and prove to my bosses that I can add value when I had barely had a month of work experience? I knew it was not going to be easy but I was ready for the challenge. Covid-19 was not something that I could control but my mindset, my attitude and my willingness to learn and grow in my job was.
In summary, I am proud to say “I did it” (this is where you should ‘millennial click’). In less than a year I was offered a full time permanent position within the business as a Consultant, I passed my board exams and qualified as an Industrial Psychologist. But how did I learn the skills, build strong relationships with my team and clients from my home workspace, alone? Here are my top tips and tricks that enabled me to do so:
Out of sight, out of mind - This saying could not be more true. It was so easy for my team to hand over work to me when I was sitting right in front of them everyday. It was also so much easier for me to consistently ask for work and offer my assistance in anything they were doing when we were working in person. The truth is, when working remotely, it is easy to forget about the Intern who barely has a month of experience. One thing that I consistently did was make myself available and constantly reminded my team that I was willing to help and support them in any way I could. I knew I had to prove myself to be worthy of the job and that is why I continuously raised my hand for any work opportunities and did whatever I could to deliver exceptional results. I would send GIFs on a Monday morning to our team chat wishing everyone a great week ahead, share with them a high level overview of my focus for the week and offer support on any project work they needed help with. This small act took a minute out of my week but it started a conversation, got everyone pumped for the week ahead and let my team know they can send work my way. I also checked in daily via email and WhatsApp too, ensuring nobody forgot about me. In doing so, my team wanted more and more of my input and support as they knew they could trust me.
Connect Outside of Work - The key to building relationships is to get to know people on a deeper and more personal level. This was easy to do when we were in the office through daily chit chat but was not so simple when working miles apart from each other. I would book one-on-one virtual ‘coffee (or wine) catch-ups’ with my team members at least once every 2-3 weeks where we spoke about anything and everything as long as it was not work related. I truly felt that this was one of the key factors that helped me grow closer to my team. Diarising my team's birthdays, religious holidays and important milestones in their lives enabled me to be present on those days and showed them that I cared. Whilst I took the initiative to do this, they responded so openly and with excitement and reciprocated with appreciating my efforts and TLC.
Over-Communicate - As an Intern, I entered my first year of work with lots to learn. When you are sitting in an office together, it is easy to ask questions and to get more clarity on the work you are doing. Covid-19 altered this accessibility and I often found myself sitting at my desk going back and forth about a piece of work I was expected to deliver upon. Questioning my competence, and my ability to get this done, I was nervous to ‘burden’ my team and speak up when I needed support. I quickly learnt that my team were there to help, guide and mentor me and they encouraged me to speak my mind, ask for help and raise any flags. Do not be afraid to ‘take up space’, to ask as many questions as you need answered. Your team should be your people, your work wolfpack and together you should support each other.
Google Is Your Best Friend - Google can literally answer any question you may have. Anything and everything from how to do a pivot table in Excel to the latest stats of successful leadership behaviours at work. I eventually realised that before driving my team mad with questions, that trying to solve problems myself and answering questions on my own was a game changer. I would rather go to my team with possible solutions rather than just tell them the problems I was facing and wait for them to give me the answers. In doing this, my team could rely on me to be a self-starter who is capable of problem-solving. Google was super useful in helping me to up-skilling myself too. Depending on the project I was working on, I ensured that I spent time reading and learning about it before executing the work. I would often spend time reading articles on workplace culture, radical candour or organisational structure and growth. I did what I could to further my knowledge and foundation to build upon. Take time to research, listen to podcasts or even watch YouTube videos. Make use of any and all learning opportunities, you can never have too many tools in your toolbox!
Create a Real Workspace - For some people the transition to working from home was easy and exciting. For others it was stressful and anxiety provoking. For me personally, having my workspace within my home and family space was very overwhelming and it impacted my ability to separate work from personal. I hence decided to re-create my workspace and closely replicate my desk that was in the office to the extent that I asked if I could collect my work chair from the office for comfort! Doing this allowed me to transition better daily ‘into’ and ‘out of’ work everyday, even though there was no driving to or from the office!
Get Out of Your Pyjamas - Working from home means that you can work in anything you feel comfortable in. My initial approach was party at the bottom (trackpants) and business at the top (a smart shirt). Yes, I did look quite ridiculous, and it got to a point where I felt my productivity and motivation decrease. I eventually decided to wake up every morning and put on my work clothes that I spent months shopping for. It might sound crazy - why put on smart clothes and shoes when you are sitting in your own home? I personally needed to feel like I was truly going to work everyday and I was able to wake up with a purpose and intention to get sh*t done! So, get out of your bed, throw on your best blouse and kitten heels and give it your best shot (and you will look damn good doing it)!
Be Consistent - Building trust is everything when it comes to building relationships. I not only had to build relationships with my team but also with the clients I was working with too. There is a simple way to do this - be consistent. What you say and what you do need to align. If you tell a team member the presentation will be done by Monday, you better make sure it is done by Monday. If you deliver your work to exceptional standards, this should never be compromised. If you let a client know that you will call them back at 4pm, you need to schedule it in and make sure that by 4pm on the dot their phone is ringing. When you are consistent and keep to your word, people will trust what you say, and trust your character. This is the foundation of driving a functional team and business.
Make Eye Contact - ‘Camera Off’ is Never an Option - There is no more awkward experience than having a meeting whilst staring at a black screen with a series of blocks with some letters on them - it is basically like watching the radio. Consider re-reading that - it is as crazy as it sounds! After a series of these strange experiences early 2020, our team made the conscious decision that every meeting required cameras on. It did not matter if it was a team meeting, a client meeting or even a new business meeting - we demanded to see the faces behind the letters and wow did this make a difference. At first, I felt shy to ask people to do this, but once cameras were on and we were able to talk as ‘face to face’ as possible during a global pandemic, the ability to connect was in a different league. This helped me with my team, with building relationships with clients and in holding client teams accountable to paying attention in remote meetings or workshops, instead of responding to emails.
Starting off my career remotely was probably one of the biggest challenges I have yet faced. But in the same breath, it was invigorating, eye-opening and rewarding to be a part of history. The opportunities are endless and the workforce is only going to continue to evolve going forward. We are all capable of riding the wave, and coming out on top!