What’s it like to start a job amid a pandemic

Despite a feeling of disconnect, personal losses and technical difficulties, the pandemic has pushed companies to adopt inclusive, better practices.

With the coronavirus pandemic impacting industries across sectors resulting hiring freezes, lay-offs or stagnancy, the last year has been a particularly uphill climb for those in their early twenties and starting out with their careers. While some managed to get a foot in the door and a semblance of a career, others faced revoked offer letters, demotions and salary cuts.

“They couldn’t afford to pay what they had initially offered to us as full-time employees. We took it because people were losing jobs left, right and centre,” remembered Aastha, a 24-year-old recent MBA graduate who had been hired through her college placements by a public relations firm.

When the first lockdown was imposed her joining was delayed, and she said that “there was no answer as to when we’ll eventually join”. Two months later, when she was finally onboarded, her role had changed to that of just an intern.

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Broken promises and salary cuts

Poushali, another postgraduate who had also secured a position at a brand consultancy firm through her college placements, had to hunt for another job in August 2020. The company backed out of their offer, despite repeatedly reassuring her for three months of confirmed employment.

Another 23-year-old MBA graduate, who had completed her course in human resources by the end of 2020, recounted a horrific experience with a consulting firm. “In the interview, they told me there are at least 100 employees. There wasn’t much information on Google, and I never got a chance to visit the office. But I took the job, only to find out that the firm barely had 15 employees, and I was expected to handle everything as the HR executive, without any formal training.”

However, when she expressed her wish to leave, the company refused to pay her for a month’s work.

Similarly, a 24-year-old post-graduate in mass communication, who recently completed his two months at a production house, told indianexpress.com he was contemplating resigning, because he hadn’t even been paid for his first month yet. “When I called up the accounts guy, he told me he didn’t even know who I was. I didn’t have an offer letter to show him, since I was told by HR that I’d have to wait for offices to resume,” he added.

Feeling disconnected

A study by California-based survey and analytics company, Perceptyx, revealed that those hired in the middle of a pandemic are more likely to quit their jobs, due to a failure in ‘connecting deeply’ with the organisation.

“Employees who join organisations are quite excited about the organisation and that excitement translates into higher levels of engagement for the first year of employment. This ‘honeymoon’ period is missing for those who onboarded during the pandemic, and they are the most at-risk of disengagement and likely turnover,” the study stated.

“I have never seen these people in real life, and there’s a rapport between all of them since they have been working together for at least a few years,” said Aastha, who had trouble navigating through the ‘office politics’ and figuring out equations between different seniors.

Sanchit, 24, a software engineer at an IT firm for ten months now, said he doesn’t have any friends at his workplace to help him out. “It’s very difficult to make friends without having a face-to-face interaction. The immediate seniors have been very kind but if you’re stuck at a minute problem, you don’t want to ask them. You’d be expected to solve it on your own. Since I was a fresher and had never worked before, it took me a long time to figure out the framework,” he added.

A senior director at a communications firm stated, agreeing, that engagement ergo motivation among employees have fallen drastically. “Man is a social animal. Not being directly connected to the people you work with largely affects motivation. In Indian work culture, videos are mostly kept ‘off’ even during team meets, so people have not seen their teammates for a year,” he said.

However, he found that a quick workaround is to encourage everyone to keep their videos on. He even initiated a fun activity to integrate new employees into the team, where they are asked to introduce themselves creatively. “One young guy who had just graduated out of college made a ‘day in his life’ film. Instead of introducing themselves, the rest of the team introduces each other funnily,” he explained.

He added that a lot of their clients had asked them to prepare digital onboarding kits that summarize the organisation for their new employees. He noted several CEOs and team leads have shifted from addressing their employees through monthly e-mails to a video shared on WhatsApp because seeing someone on your screen helps establish a personal connection.

Faizan, a senior recruiter at a telecommunications company, said he encourages weekly check-ins with team leads as new joiners are hesitant to put forth their problems.

“The biggest problem every manager has is to keep the morale up,” the senior director added, stating that the deaths in the family, or being personally affected by the coronavirus has impacted workplaces.

A marketing lead for a popular fashion brand said he has interviewed candidates who seemed “zoned-out” and preoccupied with what was going around them. As a mentor to several fresh graduates in the fashion industry, he added that he had picked up a sense of hopelessness amongst the pass-outs since the jobs are scarce. Several job seekers have lost touch with their work and have to train again, he stated.

In reference to a candidate he is in the process of hiring, he said, “It’s unfair to expect her to orient and train herself for the job while sitting at home. I will assign her research work in the beginning and hopefully, be allowed to train her at the office.”

Faizan asserted that the pandemic has changed the perspective of the candidates, as they now want to know if there will be flexibility in working remotely, their hours and whether the job will allow them to have a healthy work-life balance. “There’s also a different kind of admiration for the job because they are so scarce,” he added, “people are willing to sacrifice personal time.”

Several employees new and old have had to work overtime or lunch at odd hours, as the lockdown has blurred the lines between work and personal time.

Faizan, who’s also a mental health counsellor, explained that those new to their jobs would have to unlearn the habits they have developed while working from home and settle into a new environment when they begin working from an office. “They will have to find a new balance between personal and professional life… You have to start from scratch when you finally meet your team and adjust yourself accordingly.”

But not all is lost…

Despite a feeling of disconnect, personal losses and technical difficulties, the pandemic has pushed companies to adopt inclusive, better practices.

Kartik, 24, a new recruit at an analytics firm, said he preferred giving his interviews over a video call, since he didn’t have to make multiple visits to the different companies he had applied to. “For the interview process, it (online call) is more convenient. Especially for those, who are nervous about giving face-to-face interviews,” he added.

Rajat, 24, a newly-hired investment banker, appreciated that the frequency of team calls has increased. “My mentors and the whole team have been very conscious. They even call us directly to ask if you are stuck somewhere or need any help,” he explained, “people are really considerate, they don’t second guess you if you’re facing any trouble.”

Poushali said a new HR “help desk” system has been deployed by her firm since employees are unable to ask questions in-person. The help desk raises a ticket when you enter a query, and the person concerned gets back to you in some time.

The pandemic has also pushed all companies to turn to digital practices.

The senior director at the communications firm said clients had asked to convert any changes in their policies, such as new guidelines, to a digital kit that could be distributed via e-mails to everyone, with short explainers and visual aids.

The Perceptyx study also acknowledges this “process and structure” were added to the transfer of knowledge, which was “often communicated person-to-person” and was “error-prone.” “Converting job training to a digital or individualised format improved the quality of the tactical job training. Pandemic hires were 25 per cent more likely to say they were provided with training to do a quality job and 21 per cent more likely to be satisfied with the training they received.”

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