Featuring Vera Song
After my trip to the middle of Patagonia devoid of any cell phone signals in mid-March, I turned on my phone at a small bus terminal in Chile and the world turned upside down. Spring break was extended for one week. All classes were moved online for the rest of the semester. My then fiancé was notified to work from home indefinitely. Isn’t this a little too aggressive? I thought to myself. Things will probably stay under control and we will go back to normal in a couple of weeks. How naïve I was!
Then comes April. The email that contained my offer from Achieve Partners popped on my phone screen as I was hopping in the living room following the HIIT workout app. Although I played hard to get for two days, I accepted the offer mentally at that moment. As a first-generation college student and an immigrant, as grateful as I am for how much I have accomplished with the support of loved ones and selfless mentors along the way, I experienced first-hand the struggle of transitioning from college to the workplace. College was great in teaching me independence and critical thinking, as well as Renaissance artists and differential equations. However, it didn’t prepare me to plan for my career or succeed in my first job as a consultant. I’m a huge advocate for the value of higher education, but I also believe that students deserve to be well-equipped to kick off a sustainable and meaningful career that can pay off the $100,000+ student loans. In my application essay to Wharton, what I wrote under my long-term career goal is to make higher education more accessible and outcome-driven.
So you can probably imagine how pleasantly surprised I was when I found out through my Mosaic Fellowship matching that there is a private equity firm that does exactly what I am passionate about. Achieve Partners is a private equity firm that invests in staffing and services companies in areas with large and growing skills gaps and embeds what we call a “last-mile training” model. Students are hired out of college for their potential and aptitudes, and the portfolio companies of Achieve will provide classroom and on-the-job training to pave the way for a career with a six-digit salary in one or two years. To put it all together, our aim is to put 100,000 workers into good first jobs over the next ten years.
Fast forward to June, despite my wishful thinking of moving to New York City for the summer, I ended up buying a new desk to put in the bedroom and clicked open the Zoom link for my first day of onboarding. Awkwardly smiling on a Zoom background with all the wrong lighting, I met with everyone on the team. My fear and trauma of being a recent college grad came back to haunt me. Remote working was still new for everyone, and it was certainly the first time the Achieve team had to onboard someone virtually as well. Starting a new job is daunting, not to mention doing it in a format that no one has quite figured out yet.
I spent the first two or three weeks being excited but also bewildered. One day, during my weekly calls with other Mosaic Fellows, several of us shyly admitted that we had no idea if we were working too much or too little or how we were performing. Without an office where you can physically see your colleagues, it’s impossible to know when people are leaving work, or to drop by someone’s desk just to ask a quick question. Should I call them? How do I know if they are busy right now? Is it ok if I sign off for the day and go to dinner now? These are new challenges from remote working that most of us never had to deal with before.
After the initial trial and error period, I summarized the things that eventually helped me work more effectively with my teammates. In a world where remote working may stick around and more companies will face virtual recruiting and onboarding, I hope this can make the transition easier for whoever is reading this:
- Align early on the best communications method and cadence for each team member. Technology makes our lives so much better and remote working possible, but the omnichannel communications can get complicated. Some people prefer emails. Some only check them every three or four hours. Some people think texting is great. Others would rather just knock it out over the phone. You can judge me as much as you want, but I hate using Slack. It may not be necessary to put it down on a piece of paper, but knowing the best and most comfortable way to reach out to each of the team members when I need inputs has saved me a ton of time wondering.
- Set expectations and pulse check frequently. It’s a conversation that nobody likes, but the earlier it happens, the easier everyone’s life is going to be. How many hours am I expected to work during a normal and a busy week? What are the expectations of me, i.e. what does it look like when I’m performing versus not? Dancing around these questions doesn’t make them disappear, and the result is that I ended up both exhausted and anxious. My first feedback session also ended up to be such a relief. It was nerve-wracking, but also reassuring to know if things are on track and what I need to work on more.
- Keep a high level of transparency. Transparency is always important, but working virtually makes it even more so. It comes in many different formats. a) Be transparent about what you don’t know. I wouldn’t say there are no dumb questions, but not asking them is dumber. b) Be transparent about your capacity. Sometimes it’s hard to keep track of who’s working on what especially when people are working from home, and for many, the line between life and work blurred even more during this period. Raise the problem if you are working too much, and let your teammates know that you need to leave the “office” to take your dog who ate something he shouldn’t have to the vet. c) Silo-ed conversations happen more in a remote environment. It takes some extra effort to keep everyone on the project informed on the progress and next steps.
- Spend time connecting on non-work related stuff. As much as I love my 15-second morning commute from the bed to the laptop and working in yoga pants (I hope my colleagues are not reading this), one thing I miss about the office is the connections and friendships that emerge from getting to know each other beyond just the work. From the chit chat next to the coffee machine about your weekends to complaining about wedding planning during lunch, these spontaneous interactions are curtailed by the calendared Zoom meetings. It is nice to recreate these moments by either spending 5 minutes of the meeting talking about something unrelated, or intentionally putting down a one-on-one check-in or team happy hours.
Up till today, while I’m still working part-time with Achieve, I haven’t met any of my colleagues in person. It’s amazing how we can develop connections without ever having met face-to-face in this unusual time. I sure hope that I will meet all of them in the near future and this pandemic will be over soon, but until then, we are all learning to adapt to the new ways of working while investing to disrupt the traditional employment model.