How to Prepare for the Post-COVID World of Work

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Wednesday, March 17, 2021
Bob Slater
Professor of Practice, Kenan-Flagler Business School, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill
Nick Slater
Attorney, Entrepreneur, and Writer
Photo by iStock
Seven pieces of advice to help the class of 2021 find jobs in a market drastically altered by COVID-19.

To the graduating business school class of 2021: It’s understandable for you to be feeling more than a twinge of anxiety as you complete your final semester of studies. You have arrived at your future, only to find a hollowed-out version of what you envisioned when you carefully and perhaps excitedly chose your major, specialized master's program, or MBA concentration just a few short years ago. With the economy so unsettled, you’re likely wondering if your preparation will be rewarded.

You might be worried that the companies in your field of interest aren’t hiring—or whether there will be a job waiting for you at all in this COVID-19 economy. Adding to your worries is the fact that the pandemic has altered the rules and realities of the workplace. You are entering a strange new world of work indeed.

You cannot control the pandemic, nor can you completely control the outcome of your job search. So, instead, focus on what you can control—the effort you make and the attitude you bring to the job-hunting process.

Know What to Expect

Today’s business school graduates face any number of obstacles to finding jobs that that past student cohorts did not.

Few, if any, face-to-face interviews. Part of the business school tuition “bargain” is the opportunity to meet with recruiters who come to campus. But this usual channel for finding jobs is not available, as interviews are now virtual.

The need to impress employers over virtual interviews. What it takes to build rapport virtually is different than what it takes to do so face-to-face. Many students are uncomfortable over video calls because feel they lack a “sense of presence” over digital channels. They also are more distracted and self-conscious, as they worry about ancillary matters such as their backgrounds, lighting, or on-screen appearance.

An interrupted hiring cycle. Not only are the usual hiring cycles inoperative, but many recruiters are possibly not being transparent about whether positions are actually open—or, if there are open positions, when they will begin.

And while job seekers tend to have a greater sense of urgency than recruiters, COVID has widened this chasm. When students do land interviews, they may not hear back from companies and aren’t sure how to push the process along without offending. They are left to wonder about the cause of the delay—is the company unsure of its hiring needs, or did they perform poorly in their virtual interviews?

Uncertain start dates. Even when students receive and accept job offers, they still might not have jobs. Due to the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, some have received offers only to have them retracted, and others have had their start dates pushed back multiple times.

Remote work. Finally, the reality is that most business students who land jobs in 2021 will start working in virtual, remote environments—they won’t set foot at the actual job site. This leads them to wonder whether companies are committed to their employment—whether their jobs are “for real”? Given today’s economic uncertainty, they might feel as if they should look for back-up jobs, even after they receive offers and start work.

Make the Most of the COVID Situation

1. Find—and use—every resource your school provides. Most schools have made their career services options virtual during the pandemic, so take advantage of every networking, mentoring, coaching, and professional development opportunity available to you. Contact every employer in your field of interest that you can.

2. Accept that you may not work in a trendy office—or in any office. In the best of all possible worlds, you may have hoped to work in an office with gym equipment, ping-pong tables, a coffee bar, and eccentric co-workers who would keep you entertained and motivated. Now that the world has gone remote—and some businesses are considering keeping it that way—you might need to change your expectations. For the near future, you might see your co-workers in person only occasionally. Which leads us to our next piece of advice:

3. Strengthen your digital presence. Regardless of how quickly the vaccine rolls out and physical distancing restrictions are lifted, businesses will likely never be the same as they were pre-pandemic. Now that online conferencing technology is vastly improved and more accepted, businesses will be relying less on travel and more on virtual meetings. In this new reality, you’ll need to sharpen your digital communication skills. It is hard to imagine anyone rising to a leadership position without this emerging competency.

4. If necessary, apply “down.” By that we mean that you should consider applying for positions below those for which you are qualified. Then, you can try to renegotiate the salary and benefit package based on your skills.

This calls for flexibility on the part of both you and the prospective employer. For example, a company might have an open senior analyst position. If you are an MBA student, you might apply for the position, even though you are overqualified. If you receive an offer, ask if the company would be willing to hire you with the next title up, such as senior associate, with compensation more commensurate with an MBA’s prior work and educational experience. This could be a win-win situation. The MBA lands a job, and the employer hires a candidate with value-added long-term potential.

Further, if you discover that full-time positions are not available, consider seeking out a virtual internship or part-time job so that you can allow potential full-time employers to “try before they hire.”

5. Expect more autonomy. It’s not all bad news. In the new world of remote work, you might have more autonomy than you ever expected from your first job. Certainly, supervisors will expect you to produce, and they will check in regularly to nudge you along. But with remote work, you will not be in your cubicle with someone peering over your shoulder.

Of course, with great autonomy comes great responsibility, to tweak a Spider-Man phrase. Make it easy for your manager to keep on top of things. Monitor your email, text, and phone messages frequently so your manager doesn’t have to wait too long to receive a response to questions or instructions. Even better, routinely keep your boss informed, by sending “FYI—no reply needed” emails that outline the status of your work in progress or as it has been completed.

6. Be prepared to get vaccinated. The graduates before you never had to worry about having to be inoculated before they started their new jobs, but employers are likely to expect you to get your vaccination before you come to work in person. If you are debating whether to get the vaccine, know that your personal views are just one part of a larger picture. For U.S. based job-seekers, an employer can require to you show proof of vaccination, especially if you will be going to a physical workplace, with some caveats. Check the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s COVID-19 guidelines to understand its take on mandatory policies. It’s best to get the shot as soon as you are able.

7. Don’t expect your dream job. Finally, know that it’s not unusual for fresh graduates to experience some initial workplace disappointment. We know how difficult it is to face the fact that, after studying for years to pursue a specific career, the post-graduation reality of that career does not mesh with pre-enrollment expectations. Mundane daily tasks that no one mentioned in your courses can become a drain on your energy, especially on top of other pandemic-related stressors.

That said, don’t ditch your first job at the first hint of dissatisfaction. Be sure to give your chosen vocation and job position, and the investment you made to get there, a fair shot. Even if your first opportunity after graduation ends up not being your dream job, what you learn there will prepare you to make the moves—sometimes up, laterally, or even down for a time—that will get you to your desired destination.

And, remember, maintain your confidence and perspective throughout your job search process. As a member of the class of 2021, you have learned to navigate one of the most challenging times in history. In the process, you have acquired skills that will serve you well in the future world of work.

Both Bob and Nick Slater are the co-authors of Look Out Above! The Young Professional’s Guide to Success.

Bob Slater
Professor of Practice, Kenan-Flagler Business School, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill
Nick Slater
Attorney, Entrepreneur, and Writer
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