How I navigated a new job during the coronavirus pandemic

Smart phone with hands-free kit on yellow background

Old-fashioned phone calls are better than e-mails for getting to know new colleagues during lockdown.Credit: Getty

In February, six weeks before Britain’s coronavirus lockdown began, I started a new job as the deputy head of the Department of Life & Environmental Sciences at Bournemouth University, UK, having moved from the University of Southampton, UK, after 11 years. I had a head start in getting to know my new role in ‘normal’ circumstances, but the coronavirus restrictions created some significant challenges during a period in which I was just finding my feet. Drawing on my experience, here are some tips for those in a similar situation.

Build confidence and support by talking, not e-mailing

I previously had a fixed-term, part-time job at the university, but, because I had only worked with a few people, I didn’t know my whole department. I was really worried about integrating with all of my colleagues, particularly those working in disciplines that I was unfamiliar with. My first challenge was to establish the feasibility of undergraduate coursework. After sending a mass e-mail to department members, I started phoning or video-calling lecturers to talk through ideas. That helped me to meet new people and forced a rapid introduction to many of my colleagues. It also meant that, instead of seeing what my colleagues are studying subject-wise, I learnt about different skill sets in their disciplines and how they assess students.

Talking to, rather than e-mailing, my colleagues was hugely helpful: we got to bond over some of the challenges we faced early on in the pandemic, such as childcare responsibilities or finding a quiet place to work at home. I got to know everyone much faster than I would have done over e-mail, and I hope it helped to build confidence in our new situation very quickly. However, working remotely means you see individuals, not relationships between people, and those have been harder for me to pick up.

For instance, it is difficult to see which colleagues work really well together as a result of their complementary skills, and who could tackle a particular task with ease. I’m still struggling to learn who are the introverts, the extroverts, the thinkers and the feelers, particularly because we communicate differently online and in person. I have found that following colleagues’ Twitter activity has helped, because people express more opinions and thoughts on social media than in e-mails.

Ask the ‘awkward’ questions

During leadership meetings, I learnt not to worry about regularly asking awkward or dumb questions — such as what a common acronym of a university committee or process was (the ‘three-week academic turnaround time’ for marking, for instance, is abbreviated as 3WAT). The answers to these questions highlighted other issues, such as the need to increase the turnaround time when, for example, we extended student coursework deadlines because of the Easter break.

Build new networks

Two years ago, I worked at home a lot while on a placement away from university, and, to start with, I felt lonely. So when it came to home-working this time, I recognized the importance of building your network quickly. It is easy for colleagues to be unaware that you exist, or that you are struggling with something that others might take for granted. For me, the latter instance occurred when I was exploring the university’s virtual learning environment. I found that because I was not on a particular teaching e-mail list, I was missing out on training sessions. I don’t normally volunteer to increase my e-mail load, but this time it was certainly worth it! I found that getting a mentor helped a lot, too, because it helped me to join the dots between the online training and putting it into practice.

I also started an online seminar series aimed at departmental staff and research students. An established postdoc helped me, and was brilliant at building a bridge between the tenured academic staff and the postdoc community. I ensured that there was plenty of time for questions for maximum interaction, which worked really well. I found another postdoc who had also recently started at the university. Like me, she was struggling to find out about her colleagues, and asking her to give a talk introduced her to the department and opened up networking opportunities.

I’ve also set up virtual tea breaks to get to know people, either one-to-one or in small groups. I’ve found I am listening and asking more questions, because I need to use more imagination to learn about someone’s research when I can’t draw pictures to communicate ideas or make notes so easily.

Networking in the wider community has been harder — for example, getting to know various professional services. I feel I have lost colleagues from my old university, but have not yet replaced them with new colleagues. Organizational charts and structures that allow me to work out who’s who have helped, but it is going to take time to get a more rounded feel.

Remember your previous connections

I found virtually recreating my old university office immensely helpful for maintaining my confidence and for continuity. I’ve asked my former colleagues how they have handled similar situations, which has helped to share ideas.

I have also found it helpful to think about parallel situations and systems in my previous university, and then apply them to the new one. This was particularly useful when dealing with an exceptional-circumstances policy that allowed students to apply for an extension when their coursework was affected by coronavirus restrictions. However, on one occasion I typed out an e-mail to a student noting the policy of my previous university, not the new one. Thankfully I noticed the error before sending the e-mail.

Starting a new job remotely is an ‘in-at-the-deep-end’ experience. It’s taking me longer to join the dots, but I have had plenty of new experiences, and I am incredibly grateful to be at the start of a five-year contract in these turbulent times.

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