Out of Office: Getting back to business post-COVID
When public health authorities around the globe enacted restrictions designed to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, many employees took their work home, setting up remote offices that allowed them to maintain physical distance, while continuing to meet their professional responsibilities. In many cases, the change enabled employees and employers to achieve a new level of flexibility, bolster work life balance, and rethink the concept of remote or hybrid work.
The results of this forced experiment have led many businesses and industries to reconsider the modern workplace permanently. For new Virginia Tech graduates, as well as those who have been in the workforce for many years, succeeding in this new landscape requires new skills.
Navigating the change involves both opportunity and challenge.
Glenn Feit starts and ends his days on the water.
The daily routine is not exactly what he expected when he landed his first full-time job as an associate product manager at LinkedIn. Feit was offered the position in late 2019, when he was a senior at Virginia Tech, just months before the COVID-19 pandemic. He planned to move to San Francisco following his graduation in May 2020.
The coronavirus pandemic changed his route. Feit learned that rather than starting the new job in an office, he would be working remotely. He decided to make the most of it.
Rather than relocating to an expensive apartment in San Francisco, he opted to stay in Virginia, find a temporary home on the water, and buy some kayaks and a jet ski. Now, he logs on each weekday from a small cottage-like home rental at Smith Mountain Lake, where his work schedule mostly follows West Coast time.
“The rent at Smith Mountain Lake is cheaper than it would be in a studio in the Bay area, even with all the discounts, so I could save money, live at the lake, and still be in the same area where my friends are,” said Feit, who is from Northern Virginia and majored in management at Virginia Tech. “It was the best decision I made, period, during the pandemic.”
But in September, Feit’s East Coast lake lifestyle will end when he moves to San Francisco to begin working in a hybrid format for LinkedIn. Although he has loved living at the lake, Feit said he wants to feel more connected with his co-workers, and he’s looking forward to living in a large city.
“It’s hard to meet people,” Feit said. “You have to be intentional about it. You have to schedule 30-minute meetings with people over Zoom instead of asking them if they want to grab lunch, so it’s a very different experience.”
Of the millions of Americans who spent at least some time working remotely during the past year, many started a new job during the pandemic. Like Feit, they’ve found pros and cons to navigating careers outside traditional work settings.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything about how people find jobs, interview for jobs, start jobs, and interact with co-workers. And some of these changes are likely to stick around after the pandemic, according to career experts at Virginia Tech.
“We keep hearing people say, ‘We can’t wait until we go back to the way it used to be.’ That world is not going to exist,” said Jim Henderson, associate director of employer relations for Career and Professional Development at Virginia Tech. “Some employees will be fully onsite, some will be hybrid, and some will be virtual.”
A work in progress
Establishing a remote or hybrid work environment takes practice and creativity. Consider these tips for success:
- SCHEDULE BREAKS. Set an alarm to remind yourself to move around or stretch every hour or so. Move away from your computer to take your lunch break.
- SET HOURS. Working from home should not mean working all of the time. Establish “at work” hours. Some businesses may be flexible with schedules for remote work, but be sure that you communicate with your supervisor if you want to adjust your work schedule.
- CREATE A DEDICATED WORKSPACE. While it’s okay to move around in your home or take advantage of the patio on a nice day, it’s also important to acknowledge and account for distractions. Be proactive with your space to avoid interruptions and to separate work from home.
- OVER-COMMUNICATE. Promptly respond to emails, calls, and voicemail messages. Keep your colleagues and your supervisor apprised of your goals, accomplishments, and challenges.
- SOCIALIZE. Find opportunities for casual communications. Set aside a little time before or after meetings to catch up with colleagues. Text with co-workers. If appropriate, use an instant messaging system to share stories and find out how people are doing.
- BE PROFESSIONAL. Pay attention to your background when you attend virtual meetings. Continue to dress for the office—even if the office is at home.
Finding a job—virtually
Career advisors at Virginia Tech work with students to guide them through the employment process. For the past year, much of their support has involved preparation for virtual job and internship interviews as well as advice for maneuvering a remote work environment.
Due to the increases in virtual job interviews, the university is installing computer monitors in its 27 interview rooms located in the Smith Career Center. These spaces will give students access to a professional environment, with reliable WiFi, for virtual job interviews and networking.
During the past year, Career and Professional Development also assisted colleges and departments with the software required to host a variety of virtual job events. These events attracted companies from California to Florida.
“[Businesses and industries] didn’t have to fly 15 recruiters to campus,” said Donna Ratcliffe, director of Career and Professional Development. “It really broadens the possibilities for recruiting.”
The current trend suggests that employers will continue to scale back travel to college and universities. Preparing spaces that are conducive to virtual interviews will be essential as students navigate the job market.
General tips for the best virtual interviews and meetings include ensuring a strong internet or phone connection, positioning the webcam so that it is level with the face, preparing an uncluttered background, and eliminating surrounding noises.
Career and Professional Development offers tools, such as educational videos with advice directed at acing the virtual interview on its website, along with resources to practice mock interviews.
Job seekers need to be proactive now more than ever, said Hannah Landers, career services and employer relations manager with the Pamplin College of Business. Candidates should be quick to follow up via email or LinkedIn after a virtual job event, she said.
“It takes even more proactive energy to make sure they [the job seekers] are being noticed,” Landers said.
With the continued push for virtual interactions, traveling to another site or city for a job interview may not be an option. Ratcliffe encourages Hokies to reach out to fellow alumni who live in cities where they are looking for jobs to ask questions about the area or the company.
One way for students and alumni to connect is through Hokie Mentorship Connect, an online platform that pairs students with alumni mentors. For more information about how to get involved as a mentor or a mentee, or to learn more about available services, go to mentoring.career.vt.edu.
Making it work—remotely
At LinkedIn, Feit is part of a cohort of six new product managers recruited from all over the world. At least once every two weeks, the six meet up remotely to chat and get to know each other. It’s been a helpful way for Feit to feel connected with his colleagues, but “it’s not the same as going to happy hour after work,” he said.
Similarly, Haley Cummings ’20, an account coordinator for 300Brand, a public relations and marketing company in Alexandria, Virginia, has attended virtual coffee dates. But since she started working for the company remotely in June 2020, Cummings has never met most of her co-workers in person. She interviewed virtually for the job during the spring of 2020.
There is a plus to her remote-work lifestyle. “I did not have to buy a new work wardrobe or deal with commuting traffic,” she said.
Creating connections to a company while working remotely takes extra effort, and some businesses are better at helping new employees feel welcome than others, Henderson said. For example, certain workplaces may offer virtual coffee hours or lunch meetings that help build relationships among employees who work from home or at other decentralized locations.
Generally, “the burden usually is on the company to make you feel welcome into that work environment,” Henderson said. “If the company doesn’t do that, [the new employee] has to be proactive in reaching out to people.”
It’s also helpful for new employees to find mentors within a company to help them acclimate. Landers encourages students whose first jobs are remote to communicate regularly with supervisors by scheduling virtual meetings often. They should respond quickly to emails and other communication and be open to all social invitations to meet co-workers virtually.
There’s a silver lining to these changes in work life, Henderson said. People often are finding more flexibility to create their own opportunities. He encourages the students with whom he works to make suggestions to employers or internship supervisors about what they can offer, both in-person and virtually.
“All of the rules are kind of up in the air,” he said. “For the folks who are proactive, there’s an opportunity to really succeed in this marketplace. In some ways, you’re uncoupling where you work and where you live, and that’s pretty exciting.”