Starting a new job is hard. So is being made redundant. Working from home during COVID-19 makes both even harder
Clinton Elliot was philosophical about being made redundant.
When he was told via video meeting that his position was no longer needed, the Melbourne-based communications professional saw it as an opportunity find a new job where he could expand his skillset.
Nonetheless, he says the experience would have been different had it not happened during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m sure that I would have had a chance to see people in person and say goodbye, which would have been a really nice thing to do,” he says.
Instead, when he went to the office to collect his personal items, it was “a total ghost town”.
He also missed being able to talk through the experience in person with friends and family.
“Leaving a workplace that you’ve been in for a while, it can be really defining for who you are,” he says.
“And then to lose that sense of your identity, particularly when you also can’t have that sense of identity you normally would from socialising with friends face-to-face, it is a challenge.”
Given the restrictions currently in place, Clinton says his former employer handled his redundancy well and he felt supported throughout the process.
But Gabrielle Harris, the chief executive of management consultancy Interchange, has seen plenty of instances where redundancy has been done badly.
“I know of examples where 20 people have been laid off in a day and it was done by email,” she
“In one case, an individual found out from a colleague that they were no longer employed because they weren’t on their email that afternoon.”
She says that sort of lack of care from employers “scars people”.
“It knocks their confidence and, going into a market that is not prosperous, I think that that is concerning.”
Navigating ‘rules’ around empathy
Ms Harris says caring for people during the redundancy process is important for both the individual being made redundant, and for the company’s brand — but there are risks as well.
“Particularly in Australia, when you when you look at our legislation from a redundancy standpoint, there are some challenges with really bringing empathy to the fore,” she says.
“There is a rulebook around … the things that you’re allowed to say and not allowed to say.”
But it can be done. Ms Harris gives the example of one person who was made redundant from an organisation this year after working there for a long time.
To help that person “bring some meaning to that experience”, they organised a virtual cocktail party.
“They sat around and told stories about that individual and the meaning and the purpose that individual brought to their working lives, and it was really special.”
What about starting a new job?
If leaving a job during a pandemic is stressful, starting one can also have its challenges.
Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, points to research into two ways of “onboarding” a new employee.
The first was to teach a recruit “how things are done around here” through videos and the like. The second was to take advantage of their fresh perspective to change the company for the better.
The problem in a work-from-home environment, Dr Bernstein says, is that “one of those is easier to do virtually than the other”.
He says it’s easy to put together videos that explain how a company functions and what management’s expectations are.
“It’s much harder for me to ask you to come and explain to everybody your strengths and how you can really have a deep impact on this organisation quickly — and have [other] people trust that’s the case — if we don’t have a lot of high bandwidth interactions, which tend to be easier in person than virtually.”
While it’s harder, it’s worth doing.
The research showed that employees who were welcomed in a way that allowed them to express their individuality stayed in an organisation longer than those who were indoctrinated into an established company culture.
Personal connection and ‘coffee roulette’
Ms Harris says those companies privileged enough to be hiring right now need to be taking advantage of the new employee’s “fresh set of eyes”.
“It’s not just about you enforcing upon them what they need to do, it’s also about how you are learning from them — so those early interactions become really important,” she says.
She says her consultancy has learned that one-on-one communication is the most effective way of doing this.
“Lots of faces on Zoom can be very intimidating,” she says.
Both Ms Harris and Dr Bernstein advocate for creating a structure whereby new employees have a series of meetings with individual members of the existing team.
Ms Harris’s organisation does this with a game called “coffee roulette”.
“We’ve got a virtual Wheel of Fortune, if you like, and we spin the wheel and whoever’s name it lands on, those two individuals catch up and have a coffee in that week.”
If you’re starting a new role working and the company hasn’t set up these sort of catch-ups for you, you might need to take things into your own hands.
Ms Harris says talk to your boss first and get a list of everyone you’ll be working with and their contact details.
Then, work through the list.
“Be proactive, contact your peers,” Ms Harris says.
“Ask them, ‘What’s it like to work here? What are the unwritten rules that I need to know to be successful in this organisation? What’s your perspective of leadership here? And how do I succeed in doing the job that I’m here to do?'”
“If you’re proactive in asking that information, people are very open to opening up and giving you a whole lot of intel that you wouldn’t have otherwise.”
It’s exactly what Mr Elliot has done since starting a new role at a different organisation.
“I like to get people’s phone numbers, if I can, or chat to them on Microsoft Teams to have a bit of a face-to-face meeting and just get to know what they do and how they work,” Mr Elliot says.
He says his new boss gave him a “cheat sheet” detailing the people he’d need to talk to and what he should discuss with them.
He feels lucky to have started with the team at the same time as another new employee.
“[It] was nice, to have that sense of learning together when you have a buddy who can go through the process with you.”