Starting your first graduate job in lockdown

With many graduates starting jobs during lockdown, the challenges posed by taking on your first role after university have been amplified by what feels like a thousand times.

While many experienced workers would be happy starting a new role because of their previous experience, graduates walking out of university have had to not only learn about their new role, but master a huge list of additional skills too – and mostly without actually seeing anyone face-to-face.

We spoke to Will Crookes, who graduated from University of Leicester with a degree in International Relations in the summer of 2020. Having worked part-time at Waitrose throughout his studies and while searching for a graduate opportunity, in January 2021 he started his first graduate role at boutique management consultancy thevaluecircle as a business analyst, having done all of his interviews by videocall and never having met any of the team. Will gave us his tips for other graduates (or indeed, anyone!) who finds themselves in the same situation.

The challenges of graduates working remotely

Will’s reflections on starting his new entirely remotely mainly centred around the additional skills he needed to learn very quickly. Clearly in an office environment, new members of the team pick up on culture by what they observe from others. But that’s not possible when your working environment is a desk in your bedroom or a spot at the dining room table.

One of the major things Will said he had to get to grips with was when to ask, and when to give it a go.

“Working remotely just makes you get on with it,” Will says. “In an office you might have turned around to ask a colleague a quick question, but as you have to actively make a choice to get in touch, I’ve found I tried more to get on with things and just have a go.

“Luckily thevaluecircle’s culture very much encourages trying, getting it wrong, and learning as a result, so that’s made it a safe space for me to have a go.”

Will’s experience of working in Waitrose throughout his university studies meant he had been trusted with quote a bit of responsibility there, so he wasn’t new to work, or to working in a team. But he said that the difference between retail, when you day is planned out and the tasks and rhythm are relatively predictable, and consultancy is the dynamism of the working day.

“Developing my independent thinking and also my own process for managing a constantly shifting and changing workload have been other challenges linked to starting work entirely remotely. I imagine in an office there may have been a bit more structure, with daily quick catch-ups. We start and end the week with a team call, but so much can change due to client demands that I have to be able to flex my approach and my plan.

“If I’m not starting the day with a call it can be easy to waste time wondering what to get started with, so I’ve had to develop my own process of managing my priorities and slotting my work around the things that are fixed in my diary.”

It’s also a skill to spend so much time alone, Will thinks. And as university didn’t do much in the way of helping him understand himself as a person – his preferences for extroversion versus introversion for example, or exploration of his values – much of that has been a steep learning curve too.

David Cockayne, managing partner at thevaluecircle, has been impressed with how Will has settled into his first “proper” job.

“We recruited two business analysts during lockdown without meeting either of them in person. I knew we’d need a more structured induction programme to help them feel settled, but as a small business we also had to balance the workload and the fact they needed to start being productive pretty quickly!

“Will has been so impressive, coping really well with working remotely, working to build strong relationships with the rest of the team, and flexing his style to accommodate the fast-paced demands of our growing business.”

The benefits of remote working after leaving university

While there are additional challenges associated with starting a new role from your bedroom, Will points out there are plenty of positives too. There’s no commuting time or cost, so you have more time and more money in your pocket to do with as you wish.

Will uses some of the time he would have lost to commuting as an opportunity to read a bit more about the industry he’s joined. He points out that he wasn’t really sure what he wanted to do after university, other than something linked to policy and strategy. As he’s so early in his career, Will wants to make the most of his experience but also of the opportunity to explore as many different routes and options as he can.

Will also points to some of the challenges of virtual working actually becoming benefits in terms of the skills he has developed after just a few months – independence, how to structure his day and prioritise workload, ways to create rapport via phone or video call, and a growth mindset which means he approaches getting things wrong through the lens of how to get them right next time.

Tips for starting a job remotely

Overall, it’s been a really positive experience for Will, helped by joining a small, fairly flat team without strict hierarchies and a caring approach to management. This ensured he was able to get help when he needed it, but also encouraged developing independence.

When I asked him about tips for others starting a role where the work is mainly remote, he suggested three things:

1. Become comfortable with reaching out to your team members, manager or more senior people, and also with the various channels that are used. Will’s team heavily uses WhatsApp, for example. Being confident in the ways you stay connected is a skill you need to develop

2. Don’t over-complicate things. For Will at least, his experience of virtual working has been much simpler than a lot of the information out there would have you believe. Yes, it’s different, but if you’ve never worked in an office you don’t know what that’s like to compare the two situations. Don’t get hung up on the idea of all the issues with working virtually, instead spend your energy figuring out what you need to make it work for you

3. Understand people’s tone and styles. Will points to written communication – whether messaging apps, emails or text messages – as a place where tone of voice isn’t always obvious. It’s especially important to be mindful of what could be driving a quick response via message which feels brusque, but is actually just that person being efficient. He points to an example of a manager answering his WhatsApp query with “Y” three months into his new role. By this point he understand that meant – yes to everything you just asked, please crack on! Although the same manager would not have responded that way at the start while Will was being thoughtfully introduced to the organisation, the short message also demonstrated a level of trust that Will could intuit what was needed and get on with things

For help and support finding your first graduate role, get in touch to book a free chemistry session by calling 07765 894040.

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