If you told people in 2019 that many job seekers would be conducting employment interviews with a suit and a tie, but with pants optional, that meetings with HR would be held virtually, and that training would become on-the-job rather than in packed conference rooms, many people would have been thrilled. This hasn’t been the case, however, since many of the positive aspects of starting a new job remotely have been outweighed by the emerging difficulties of COVID-19.
As a therapist, I have seen a significant uptick of clients struggling with job-related stressors that are directly related to COVID-19. Perhaps the most prominent among these anxieties has been starting a new job amidst the complexity and uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The challenge of starting a new job can be broken down to three main issues: how we learn, how we interact, and how both fit together.
How We Learn When Starting a New Position
Our brains are wired to generalize information and categorize it quickly. Think about a child learning to talk — they first learn the word “dog” and apply it to all four-legged furry creatures. The child is then corrected by a helpful adult and taught to differentiate between a “dog” and a “cat” — dogs bark and cats meow, for example. They learn that four-legged animals have different, specific words associated with them. The learning process happens organically; first we generalize and then differentiate, then generalize again thousands of times a day. In the virtual world, we aren’t able to get additional contextual information to supplement our learning, and it has a direct impact on how we are able to learn and integrate new information.
Think about the office environment. Your coworkers talk about their job, then you generalize and add their information, about a client or vendor or strategy, into yours. You gradually learn the roles within your team and integrate all those personalities into your sense of how the team works, who can help with what parts of an idea for a campaign or initiative you’ve dreamed up. Each time this process happens, you integrate information from a larger context of your role and job duties into the specific tasks that help you accomplish your job.
Compare that with learning your team and their job duties in a virtual environment. You aren’t picking up subtle differences within those roles and duties — and it can really impact how you retain the information you receive. What might have taken a meeting or two could now take several weeks to fully understand.
Interactions in the Workplace
Our brains are wired to make assumptions and generalizations about our colleagues and attach emotional meaning to them. A smile, a nod of the head, or a welcoming stance can do wonders to improve our self-esteem as we are going through the process of generalizing, differentiating, and learning. Likewise, perceived rejection or indifference from our colleagues and coworkers can negatively impact our concept of self.
In an environment lacking sufficient nonverbal cues, like an office experience consisting only of Zoom calls, we spend more time trying to assess the emotional meaning of the limited interactions we get. Take asking a question, for example. In a typical office environment, we might lean over a cubicle wall or stop by someone’s desk to ask a question. We get an answer and go about our business. In contrast, with a virtual environment, we might open Slack or Teams and DM someone, wait for a response — sometimes longer than we expect — and only then we are unable to assess what our receiver thinks about the question. And sometimes intuiting the meaning behind text can leave us more confused and uncertain than before we asked.
How Learning and Interaction on the Job Fit Together
The inability to generalize about and integrate newly received information and the lack of contextual nonverbal communication for feedback contribute to what is often referred to as ”imposter syndrome.” This phenomenon describes a psychological pattern of feeling like a failure, or not good enough to complete certain tasks.
Many people experience imposter syndrome at certain points in their professional life, but the added stressors of managing employment during a pandemic make overcoming those self-deprecating thoughts and feelings especially challenging. It is difficult to seek positive feedback from coworkers and supervisors, feedback that we would typically receive in a face-to-face environment. Without this positive feedback, it is easier for our own negative thoughts and self-doubt take over.
How to Start a Job During the Pandemic Right
Good communication is key to overcoming the challenges of starting a job under these extremely extenuating circumstances, here are a few steps to improve virtual communications with your team:
- Be clear with your supervisors regarding ways to improve positive and negative feedback.
- Request one-on-one meetings with team leads and coworkers.
- Rate your questions on a scale of A-B-C priorities with “A” being immediate responses needed, “B” being questions that can wait for a weekly one-on-one, and “C” being questions that you will research yourself for answers.
Besides clear communication with your team, it is important to keep your own thoughts in check. Focus on your skills and abilities. It is important to remind yourself that your organization saw your abilities, evaluated you as the best fit from the dozens if not hundreds of other applicants, and hired you — a significant investment. Talk to friends and family and establish a good support system, people who understand the struggles you might face.
Lastly, make sure you are taking time for yourself and spending time on activities that recharge you. When starting a new job most of us have a tendency to give all of our time and energy to this new mission, but that can be especially difficult when our office is our home. Make sure you have a good space in your home for work. Take breaks if you need them and try not to multitask.
Most importantly, be kind to yourself as you navigate through a new job. And, if you need more support consider online therapy, a convenient and inexpensive way to get the help you need to start off a new job on the right foot.