Has the typical 9-5 workday changed for good? For many, waking up early to pack lunches and commute to work has become a thing of the past during the pandemic. Our “normal” routine of showing up to the office early, with coffee in hand, has become a distant memory after three months of working from home.
Since COVID-19 began, many employers have had to implement work from home orders to protect employees. Although businesses are opening slowly, there are still social distancing recommendations and health concerns that keep people at home and limit the number of workers in an office.
Sara Garvey, associate director of corporate relations, and Alexander McKelvie, associate dean for undergraduate and master’s education and professor of entrepreneurship, provide their expertise and address the concerns that new graduates and industry professionals may have about the “new normal.”
What trends should graduates expect to see as they get hired for jobs?
In this new landscape, we’ll see more workers gaining autonomy when they are at home. With independence comes unique challenges and expectations. McKelvie comments, “Through remote work there is a greater emphasis on trust that a person will do their job and do it with the same effort. Traditionally, there is a level of supervision where a boss can walk by an employee’s desk, but not in this environment. This puts emphasis on people being professional and responsible employees, even though they are outside of the ‘direct oversight’ of their supervisor.”
At a recent virtual pop-up workshop for students and recent grads Alicin Welsh, assistant director in the Whitman Career Center had a few recommendations to make telecommuting easier. She recommended, “Setting up a desk and your monitor. Establish something that feels like a real workspace. Most people are new to this virtual world. Use your resources and ask how people are being successful.”
McKelvie adds, “Working from home also impacts communications. They now need to be more deliberate, rather than spontaneous. You’re going to send emails and schedule times to meet instead of bumping into people in the hallway or in the line for coffee. Hopefully, that will make communication more streamlined and efficient. The downside is that those random ‘bump ins’ are pretty productive in sharing information and also helping people feel part of an organization.”
Working from home has some beneficial aspects such as shortening commute time, reducing company expenses and providing schedule flexibility. McKelvie explains, “People who work in Manhattan may commute over an hour to and from work. If you can save that commute time and put it into work instead, it could impact the cost of living and be better for your company.”
Employees who work for companies that originally were in high-cost metropolitan areas may find themselves working from home longer because their employer can save money on real estate and office costs. This trend is seen especially in areas like Silicon Valley with tech companies and startups.
“I think you have to expect that some companies are going to transition to virtual work permanently,” says Garvey. “A recent graduate that I spoke with was hired to begin in-person in July, but the company just moved out of their offices and went virtual permanently. More and more companies will be doing that, especially for certain positions and locations.”
What are corporations doing to balance productive and satisfied employees?
McKelvie explains the unclear expectations that working from home may pose; “It creates blurred boundaries between what is personal and professional. When are you at work and when are you at home? Can you work from your bed? Psychologically speaking, this blurring can cause stress and strain because there is no disconnect from work and home. This might lead to challenges in mental health.”
He adds, “There is already enough strain for people who have a likelihood of becoming a workaholic or having burnout. Constantly being on-call is not helpful. This is why some places put in rules that after-hours employees should not be communicating with each other.”
Although new employees do not always feel like they have a lot of leverage to negotiate or request favors, Garvey reminds new hires to self-advocate and seek clarification at their new jobs. “You need to establish boundaries very early or you can get stuck in a place you don’t want to be in. For example, if your boss sends an email out at 9 p.m., it is not out of line to ask them their expectations about responding right away, or waiting until the morning,” she says.
Garvey explains, “Some leadership might say you’re never off the clock and others may be more conscientious of work-life balance. You have to assess if that approach aligns with your personal work style and life priorities and see it’s something you can sustain long term.”
Balancing new boundaries and the right to disconnect can be hard and some employees may feel isolated, stressed or even anxious given the conditions surrounding COVID-19 and other current events.
Garvey believes personal check-ins and non-work-related interactions are beneficial to an employee’s wellbeing and satisfaction. She shares, “My team does lunch together once a month, it’s not work related, it’s all personal. These things are important as mental health check-ins. Companies that do that will have employees that are more connected to their team and willing to work harder for their team. Giant national corporations are even doing happy hours together with their colleagues and you laugh and chat about things that you wouldn’t always in a work setting.”
What challenges does working from home pose for entry-level workers specifically?
About one-third of American’s are working from home in the wake of COVID-19. Although telecommuting is not rare anymore, it does have its own unique challenges for recent graduates entering the job market.
Garvey acknowledges, “I think it’s scary to go into the work environment in general and to not have face to face interaction is very intimidating. If I were 21 it would scare me. You’re doing something you’ve never done before and in a new way.”
She encourages entry-level employees to reach out to colleagues for help and reminds students that staying focused and self-disciplined is important. “Set up meetings with people you may not necessarily cross paths to learn from them about who they are and what they do at the organization,” recommends Garvey.
McKelvie adds, “A lot of graduates were looking forward to office life, building mentors and gaining rapport with people, but now this is much harder. Finding coaching and mentoring is hard, so new employees have to be proactive in seeking that out.”
One area that younger professionals may notice a dissonance in is communication between more senior-level leadership and themselves. McKelvie explains, “Cross-generational conflict and how we want to be approached could be different. When we have older CEOs and executives, they may have a different expectation of people’s soft skills, compared to younger generations that may not meet the older generations’ norms of appropriate professional communication and using technology as part of that.”
Garvey shares an example of a communication problem one of the corporate partners disclosed. She recalls, “The CEO of a company I spoke to said that the one thing he does not allow anyone to get away with is a work video call where someone doesn’t turn on their video. In a work world, you should be sitting at your desk and have your video on. You need to be presentable and professional. The way he looked at it was, if you don’t turn your video on, it is disrespectful. You couldn’t be present enough to have your video on.”
Garvey suggests adapting your communication style by making use of email, phone calls and other mediums. She says, “Communication is not just writing, you need to be smart about those soft skills. Using different communication mediums can be good. You may need to be thoughtful about that depending on the message.”
Whether a student is searching for a job or beginning a new position, the uncertainty of work can be frightening. Some individuals may also feel frustrated with the markets and eager for answers.
“Something that is hard for students to understand is that the industry doesn’t know what’s happening either. Some of them are waiting for a new start date or haven’t heard back from a particular job. Employers are not doing this to try to keep you hanging, there are so many regulations that people are trying to digest in their industry and job. Students want to know concrete answers, but things are very fluid,” Garvey says.
If you have any concerns or would like to talk to someone, lean on the expertise and resources that the Whitman Career Center can provide. The career team will be available virtually throughout the summer and beyond as a resource for all students and alumni.
Learn more about how the Whitman community is adapting to the impacts of COVID-19.