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Starting a new job during lockdown?

Panic stations people.


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Benjamin Giles

3 years ago | 8 min read

Starting a new job is unsettling at the best of times. So starting a new job in the middle of a global pandemic should therefore be worse by an order of magnitude. Imagine then being my mother, a chronic worrier, who found out that both her children would be starting new jobs on first day of the UK’s enforced lockdown. Panic stations people.

Code Red. DEFCON 1.

Panic stations people.

So when I started work on the 24th March this year for Unibuddy, one of the fastest growing EdTech platforms in the world, I was expecting a few challenges and hiccups.

Essentially, I thought it would all be difficult! I’d never worked remotely, but I’d known from the start of my job hunt that Covid-19 would have an impact on how my working life at Unibuddy began.

All four rounds of the interview process were conducted via video call, but I think naively I wasn’t prepared that the foreseeable future would be completely remote, or certainly without a physical office in some shape or form.

You’d think that as a software engineer I’d be used to working on my own for significant periods of time. Before the lock down, I had always known that I could simply pop to the office the next day to catch up with friends or ask someone for help on a certain aspect of my code (usually asking colleagues why my Python tests were failing!).

Working from home had always been a way for me to do some deeper work and give the middle finger to the commute. In short, a luxury.

What my friends think being a software engineer and working from home is like 😆

But this was different, all of those freedoms had been removed and the lockdown, combined with working remotely, presented a number of immediate hurdles to overcome before starting work.

Ones that in all honesty I’d never considered would have been a reality. These included:

  • How would I get my laptop/work station?
  • How would onboarding work?
  • How would I meet my colleagues, let alone get to know them properly?
  • How would I get constructive feedback? I’ve always found it easier to read body language and tended to over analyse the context of written feedback.
  • But most importantly, when would I get to do Friday drinks with my new team mates?

Would that Friday feeling be gone forever?

So how has it actually been?

Before I started, Unibuddy had never remotely onboarded a cohort of new starters from across different business functions. Let alone eight of us, on the same day, across three different continents!

Strangely enough (and no I’m not saying this because I’m now gainfully employed) its actually been one of the smoothest starts to a job I’ve ever had.

MTV Cribs: Episode I — Home Work Station.
I honestly can’t believe I was concerned about getting a laptop in time to start work. Yes OK, I’m an engineer - I suppose you may think that’s the one thing I would worry about. But in hindsight I never should have given it a second thought.

An hour or so after I signed my contract at Unibuddy I was presented with a Google Doc of recommended work items and a generous budget to equip me with whatever I needed to comfortably work at home.

I’m sure this is the same at a number of other companies, but what I’ve been really amazed with is how often I’m asked is everything ok with working from home, how was my work set up and did I need anything else? In fact I think it’s been brought up at nearly every company huddle so far.

MTV Cribs: Episode II —For the 99th time, how does this work again?
Onboarding as an engineer usually has a set workflow. Here’s your laptop, these are the best practices we adhere to, set up your local environment, there’s your first ticket. If there’s an issue you get a senior engineer to help you out, they know what’s best to do in a given situation.

Yet at Unibuddy I’ve been encouraged to contribute to and challenge the status quo, point out different ways of doing things and find gaps (of which there have been very few I might add) in resources or how knowledge is shared.

To give some context, on my first day I’d already created a new page in the tech team’s onboarding wiki in Notion. Job done, no fuss ✅. I’m not bringing this up to highlight a flaw in the process, it was refreshing that my opinion seemed to count from day one and nearly three months in, still does.

MTV Cribs: Episode III — lets grab a coffee …
Obviously working remotely means you don’t get to meet your colleagues in person, perhaps you have to work a little harder to have a conversation with them that’s not about work and it’s certainly not as easy to have those informal, off the cuff conversations about what you got up to at the weekend — although admittedly it’s ground hog day for most of us so why bother asking 😂.

Since I joined, I can’t count the number of times people have reached out to say hello, put a virtual coffee in the diary or are just happy to chat at the end of a Slack call.

We’ve also got Donut pair programming sessions, team quizzes, regular stand ups, design planning sessions, coffee mornings/ huddles, tech lunches and Spanish speaking coffee club, which admittedly I know nothing about, but I’m sure if I was capable of speaking a foreign language (we have a number of people at Unibuddy whose English isn’t their mother tongue) they’d invite me along too …

MTV Cribs: Episode IV — Honestly. Tell me straight. How am I doing?
This has probably been the biggest surprise for me so far. The feedback cycle in general has been really impressive.

The pace of learning and workload is currently just enough to push me outside of my comfort zone (as an engineer with c. 2 years commercial experience), with regular opportunities for constructive input from those more experienced in the code base than myself. Most importantly for me, being remote doesn’t seem to have impeded my learning in this regard.

I also wanted to highlight one of our Engineering team’s key values, collaboration in a safe space.

This means to value your team mates’ input and the opinions of others agnostic of hierarchy and to listen in order to understand each other, rather than to simply respond.

This has been so valuable in enabling me to ascertain how I’m doing in getting up to speed working at Unibuddy, whilst also enabling me to identify areas I’m able to improve in.

MTV Cribs: Episode V — Where are my beer googles?
Finally, those Friday drinks, man do I miss a pub garden. My wife is getting bored of me listing the ones that we’ll be going to when the lockdown’s eventually over. And I can see that this is something that’s important at Unibuddy as well.

No not specifically drinking, but being social, being part of a team and celebrating the week’s wins.

Every Friday we have a 5pm Zoom call with upwards of thirty people chatting at any given time, all with a drink of choice in hand (alcohol is optional) and chatting about the week’s wins. I’m not sure I know of many companies where that many people are willing to jump on a video chat at the end of the week to hang out.

Come on, something must have gone wrong?

You’re right, it’s not been just plan sailing since day one and in all honesty, I didn’t know whether to include a section of things I’d found tough to get my head around.

Strangely enough these are day to day activities which I hadn’t ever perceived would be an issue, or were arguably very normal in a pre-lockdown world. I’ve outlined a few of these below, with some context on how I’ve tried to get around them:

  • Slack messages can seem more blunt than a conversation in person, especially if you don’t know the individual sending it. I’ve found that sending a message back to the individual asking for them to clarify what they mean, or suggesting a quick video chat, usually gives an opportunity for both parties to come to a middle ground, clears any anxiety that there’s an issue and more importantly puts everyone on the same page.
  • Instant messaging is there for quick responses, so we may as well benefit from it to remedy any lingering doubts.
  • Silence in a video chat can make you feel uncomfortable, as you don’t follow the natural ebb and flow of a conversation. I think everyone who’s working remotely and using video calls is finding this at the moment. Am I on mute? Is my video on? Is my internet unstable, again? Ways I’ve found to mitigate this are to always know the keyboard shortcut for unmuting on the video call service you’re on, to hard wire your laptop into the router (especially if your partner/ housemates are always on the wifi) and to make sure you’re in an appropriately lit room.
  • Slack is always on, work is always in your living room (I can see my desk set up from the sanctity of my sofa) and it’s hard to detach from work. I’ve actually got around this by removing all work apps/emails from my phone (read Make Time for more on this) and am now undertaking a commute to and from work — in essence at the start and the end of the day I leave the living room and go for a 30-45 minute walk around my local park in Crystal Palace to have a faux commute home. It breaks up the day for me, allows me to call or voice note with family/friends and provides a degree of separation between work and home life. I’d strongly recommend doing the commute if you’re finding it hard to get away from work.

In summary

I’ve been thinking how to finish this for a while, how to summarise nearly three months that have gone past so quickly, been incredibly enjoyable and fun, and even though it’s been remote, has led me to feel very included as part of a wonderful team.

In all honesty I wasn’t sure what to expect from Unibuddy, and so if company culture is the product of a company’s values, expectations and environment, then I really believe Unibuddy’s company culture is exactly the right fit for me, even if being remote lasts a little longer than I’d like it to.

I’m yet to step into the office (I’ve been assured there is actually a physical building with four walls, a ping pong table and coffee machines), and to tell you the truth I’m ok with that for now — although ask me that in a couple of months time and you might get a different answer!

If you’re looking for a new job, we’re still hiring and I would highly recommend that you consider Unibuddy for your next role!

This article was originally published on medium

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