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Starting your career during a pandemic: the diary of a management trainee

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For recent graduates, landing their first professional job in a virtual office amid a pandemic can be chaotic and confusing, as they transition from online classrooms to online meetings. As work moved online, along with all graduate programs, fresh graduates joining in any management trainee programs recently need to adapt in their ways to make the most out of the trainee programs during this formative time of their careers.

While starting at my first full-time job amid a global pandemic, I was constantly reminded of my impeccable luck for having offered a job while my peers and seniors struggled and were furloughed even. But the reality of the matter is, we not only went through assessment centres designed for the pre-pandemic era but also were further tested with our taste in curtains and getting one’s personality across an 11 by 8-inch screen while second-guessing the impact of our responses from the poker faces of an assessor, made sterner with buffering screens; a challenge no free professional coaching videos on YouTube prepared us for.

Having missed out on formative experiences like attending graduation or orientation week at the office, the transition from university classes to online meetings was almost immediate with very little differentiation.

Having survived nearly a year since then as a management trainee, here is my attempt to identify how a global pandemic might have influenced my formative year as a young professional and how it might shape my career path as I progress, supported by well-researched articles, sources and opinions from peers at similar levels.

Finding your network

I’m among the oldest Gen Z’ers who are ready to make up nearly 25% of the global workforce, from early to mid-career positions, in the next four years. Management trainee or not, initial onboarding and networking with peers and coworkers are one of the most pivotal and crucial experiences and is required to later grow up the ladder.

Hence, companies in Fortune 500 have quickly and in some cases frantically adapted to online platforms for onboarding new joiners and attempted to replicate organic office chit-chats in multiple social media like platforms. This only created further confusion and anxiety as a new joiner, trying to belong, impress and network.

What would have been colleagues sitting next to us, showing us the ropes of navigating through hundreds of unspoken organizational rules and casual lunches with cross-functional teams, who would let us in on the gossips; we are now sliding into Microsoft Teams chats, all the while praying the person on the other side of the screen is not going through an existential crisis or worse, sharing screen to present.

My personal approach here was to reach out to team members individually after any meeting or sessions with follow up questions as a conversation starter. However, that can come with the pitfall of looking overly attention-seeking, along with the common and somewhat negative perception of Gen Z’ers wanting to be catered to. But the risk outweighs the benefit of creating a network in the early days of a career despite the lack of physical presence.

Stress management

Other than the challenges of networking and building personal and professional relationships, another major challenge for new joiners in a WFH based setting is developing emotional intelligence consisting of self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills. Such skills are usually picked up from day to day office set up in pre-pandemic context, but now reporting managers and leaders need to give extra attention to train new joiner Gen Zs, most of whom have joined online office straight out of online classrooms and can easily wind up in unregulated working hours without setting personal barriers.

Being a new joiner, the overall need to prove our worth is always an all-time high, even more so during a pandemic, to show our employers that they have made the best choice and we set out to do so by accomplishing all goals at the shortest possible time, which is not always sustainable as we progress in a career with bigger deliverables. Not only can it prove stressful when working with teams to manage deliverables but also can increase the risk of reaching burnout at a faster rate than others.

Being able to see the bigger picture and prioritization can be one way of tackling our higher levels of stress, which can be made possible by regular interaction and intervention from senior management and leaders. However, such opportunities are limited now in the Work From Home (WFH) context, where we have little to no interaction with top management and executives. Hence setting the priorities straight in the early stage of project handovers and asking for specific guidance from seniors has worked for me so far.

The bright side

Now pitfalls aside, what worked for me to be an MT during a pandemic, that somewhat outweighs the pitfalls? The first major advantage is due to a WFH set-up, we can get a higher level of autonomy and independence to drive our projects and deliverables, without much intervention from the top down. As per research findings, Gen Zers’ prefers independence which ties into our higher levels of competitiveness, as we want to manage our own projects so that we can be judged from our own skills and abilities rather than compared to others. Letting our abilities shine through our deliverables are much easier when we can drive our projects independently and show results and get recognised by them.

Another area of advantage in my opinion is the seamless integration of technology to work with. Constant updates from multiple WhatsApp and Teams chats are hardly a distraction and come quite naturally to us.

With workplaces becoming more hybrid in future, managing people online will become a norm and this ability of multitasking and being on top of multiple work streams can come quite handy for us especially as we progress through a career.

And last but not the least, the frantic influx of online networking and learning platforms at work to compensate for the lack of organic interaction, paving the way to learn and drive individual interests on our own terms. These interest-based classroom and online sessions are a great way to find like-minded peers even across the globe if you’re working for a multinational organisation, which can pave the way for a more global mindset and career.

Hence lucky or not, a Gen Z has to walk the extra mile to do the job well. Much like millennials in the post-Great Recession, we as a generation are at a great disadvantage in terms of financial security. After the 2008 financial crisis and a dozen years removed from the careers of older millennials, the added generational value of millennials was lowered by 34%, earning them the nickname as the “lost generation.”

With pandemics already raging in our lives for two years and likely to continue for longer, financial security will be the core of major career movements in days to come for my generation. We can expect more fierce, driven and competitive Gen Z’ers entering the workforce in years to come, and that leaves me wondering, pandemic or not, are our organisations ready to match up to the powerhouse of Gen Z?

The author is a Global Graduate at British American Tobacco (BAT).

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