What it’s like to apply for — and start — a job during the coronavirus pandemic

During the coronavirus pandemic, online job interviews have become commonplace.

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When IT support analyst Nick Lancaster was made redundant in April due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, he felt hurt and shocked. “My manager … said, in just a few words, that due to Covid-19, I was being let go and that was my last day. I was to return all equipment to the office,” he told CNBC by email.

“I felt I had earned more from my service than just a clinical dismissal phone call. It all happened so quickly,” he said. Lancaster had been with his employer for 17 years. But, later that day, he set to work finding a new job.

Back in 2003, the last time he was looking for work, the process was simpler. “I saw an ad in the newspaper, wrote to the company, went to an interview and usually got the job in that first meeting,” he stated.

Making applications during the pandemic turned out to be an arduous task, especially with more candidates competing for fewer roles.

“Every day I would get up at 5am and read through the automated job listings I’d been sent. On average I received four or five listings. Each listing contained perhaps 15 positions and usually there were just one or two that I could apply to. For the next several hours I would apply for those jobs,” Lancaster explained.

He would submit his resume and fill out long application forms; he even created a spreadsheet to track each role he had applied for.

Personal branding

To boost his chances, Lancaster asked for feedback on his resume from peers and revamped his personal website to show his capabilities. “I learned about ‘personal branding’ and had a brand logo designed that I could use on all my correspondence and applications. I even had a freelance BBC presenter record a short promotional video for me that I put on my website and LinkedIn,” he told CNBC.

Four months and 200 job applications later, Lancaster landed a senior-level IT role at a heavy-equipment manufacturer in the U.S. Midwest. And while much of the application process was similar to how it was before the pandemic, Lancaster has this tip for video interviews: “Always look at and talk to the camera. Don’t look at the screen. You want to make eye contact with your interviewer, just as in a physical interview.” He added that dressing appropriately and checking what is behind you to make sure it doesn’t distract the hirer are also important.

Interviewing remotely means it can also be harder to get a sense of what a company’s culture is like. But Mike Hudy, chief science officer at recruitment platform Modern Hire, says asking pertinent questions via video call can help.

“Paying attention to how hiring managers answer your questions can give you a great deal of insight into the company’s culture, how they operate, how success is defined, and which traits matter most,” he told CNBC via email. He also advocates rehearsing responses before the interview and logging on to video calls early to avoid any technical glitches.

Remote roles

Starting a new role remotely can also be a strange experience. When Lisa Roscoe landed a senior-level job at London-based ad agency Isobel in February, she had no idea she would be joining the company in a pandemic — and would be working from home for the foreseeable future.

Weeks of lockdown turned into months — employers were able to ask staff to return to workplaces from August 1 in England, but many firms still have staff working from home.

Despite this, Roscoe said she feels part of the company. “Now, it feels as if I have been working with these people forever,” she stated.

Video calls with clients weren’t a problem for Roscoe, who was used to these before the outbreak; the harder part was getting to know colleagues. She overcame this by talking to co-workers, asking whether they preferred to communicate via email or phone, for example. “There’s no rulebook, or induction document or onboarding that can give you that information.”

Virtual drinks and games, a comedy evening via video and regular updates from the agency’s founders have helped Roscoe settle in. Her advice for those starting a client-facing job remotely? “I would say, not to kind of worry too much about the business side of it in your first week. Try and set up calls and talk to everyone more on a personal level.”

Public relations executive Michael Phillips accepted a job at London agency Velvet in February, but when the pandemic hit the U.K. in March, he was concerned the offer might be rescinded. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case and he started his new role in April, working entirely from home due to lockdown restrictions.

“It certainly made for a very surreal beginning to a job,” he told CNBC by phone, adding that the agency had a thorough onboarding process to make him feel welcome.

But aside from the managers who interviewed him, several months later he still hasn’t met his co-workers or clients, which in a people business like PR is a challenge. “You lose the emotional side of your interpersonal relations, which PR is very reliant on,” he stated.

Both Phillips and Roscoe talked about missing bumping into colleagues for those “watercooler moments” they would get in an office situation. “The serendipity of the office is so important. There is a big hole from working remotely … a lot of businesses will have to find ways to nurture those things which are lost from this experience,” Phillips stated.

And with candidates flooding the market, jobseekers can expect employers to rely more on tech platforms during the application process, stated Modern Hire’s Hudy. “Companies are relying heavily on science, like pre-hire assessments, to determine which candidates are the best fit for the jobs that they have … We’ve seen the adoption of our (online) assessments increase by over 4x over a similar period from last year, even though some of our clients have stopped hiring altogether.”

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