Job Searching During a Pandemic: 9 Questions to Ask in a Virtual Job Interview

Virtual interview

In a matter of a few weeks, millions of people in the U.S. and abroad have had to make a radical shift in the way they work and interact with colleagues. As the majority of the world engages in aggressive physical distancing by staying at home in order to slow the spread of COVID-19, remote work has indeed become the “new” normal for many organizations. And, although extreme physical distancing may end sooner for some than others, many experts suggest that this mass shift to remote work is a trend that’s here to stay.

In fact, according to a recent Gartner survey of 370 CFOs across the U.S., over 70% said they intend to keep their previously on-site employees in remote working positions even after the worst of the crisis is over and things begin to open up again.

As organizations across industries and regions realize the cost-cutting effectiveness of telework and find better, innovative ways to maintain or even increase productivity with remote work, it’s likely that this new way of working will shape the job market for months or years to come.

If you’re on the job market now, here are a few key questions you should ask your potential new employer on how you can succeed in a work-from-home environment, whether for just a few weeks or months or even indefinitely:

1. How do you conduct virtual onboarding or orientation?

The first few weeks at a new job are critical when you’re getting to know your new team and also becoming familiar with new processes and protocols. Most organizations have a formal onboarding procedure that can involve multiple meetings and training sessions across different departments or with a variety of people, including HR, your direct management, or other colleagues or company leaders.

Before day 1, you’ll want to have a sense of what this process looks like and how you’ll be expected to participate in this new reality of social (or physical) distancing and remote work.

The onboarding phase is a crucial information-gathering step that can set you off on the right foot, so at the very least, you also want to make sure that you will receive the same level of support, transparency, collaboration, and guidance that you would in person.

2. Do you offer a company-wide parental time block?

One of the biggest challenges facing working parents during this global lockdown is having to simultaneously juggle remote work and childcare. In order to accommodate work-from-home parents, particularly those with younger children who need more one-on-one care, some organizations are starting to experiment with a “parental time block” policy. This allows the entire company to block off a few hours each day where employees are not expected to join or schedule meetings so they can focus on their children.

A policy of this nature can look quite different depending on how your employer implements it. Some may expect hours to be made up at other times, while others may just excuse them, and some may allow employees not to work at all during those hours, while others use it to cancel meetings but still expect work to be done. So it’s important to ask what their expectations are around your hours or availability if you are balancing work and childcare during this time.

If your company does not have such a policy in place for remote workers, it’s a good idea then to ask how they accommodate or support working parents during this time.

3. How do you build company culture and keep people connected when everyone is physically separated?

Organizations that have a history of supporting remote or flexible work may be years ahead of the game when it comes to creating a strong, successful company culture virtually. Before you accept the job offer, it’s important to know where your employer falls on the spectrum: do they already have the tools and practices in place to support collaboration, communication, socialization and transparency from afar, or is this a new landscape that they’re just starting to figure out?

It’s always a best practice in the job interview to ask a question or two around company culture, but now you’ll likely need to be more proactive in asking the interviewer how they foster a tight-knit culture and a great work environment without much face-to-face contact.

4. What type of technology is provided in order to work from home?

There may be tools or resources that are typically available to you in an office, lab, or professional setting that you aren’t set up for at home. Ask the interviewer about all of the technologies you’ll need to work with and what kind of incentives or support they offer in helping you get set up with what you need to perform your job.

Likewise, you’ll also want to ask about troubleshooting and tech support. Say, for example, you run into tech issues at home that are preventing you from working. Who do you contact? How do they resolve it quickly? What’s the fastest, most efficient way to troubleshoot problems with your equipment, software, or any other subscriptions or technology tools you’re using?

Knowing what to do ahead of time before something goes wrong can save you time and headache when it happens.

5. What are the best ways to communicate with team members?

Email. Slack. Video Conferencing. An old-fashioned phone call. Just because you can’t pop into someone’s office for a quick chat or to ask a question doesn’t mean there aren’t many different ways to connect virtually. Each mode of communication can suggest a different level of urgency or expectation around response-time, and basic communication ettiquete (or lack thereof) -- even when working remotely -- can have a big effect on your working relationships. For example, if you always demand a 30-minute video conferences for trivial discussions that could be sent in one short email or a quick chat message, your colleagues will quickly tire of the over-scheduling and begin to resent the time it takes from their workload.

During the job interview, find out about the employer’s preferred way of doing things. Do most important discussions need to happen over email? Are employees extremely active throughout the day on an inter-office messaging system like Slack and prefer that as their primary way to communicate? Or, will your colleagues become annoyed if you’re messaging them too much throughout the day? Know what the standard expectations around communicating are before you jump in so you don’t ruffle any feathers by over- or under-communicating in a way they are not accustomed to.

6. How do you collaborate remotely on shared projects, documents, or files?

This is an especially important question to ask your interviewer when you know a large portion of your workload will require close collaboration with other colleagues or departments. Find out what procedures are in place so that people can work transparently and easily on the same projects or tasks without creating bottlenecks or confusion. There’s nothing more frustrating than having multiple versions of the same project or file floating around, and it leads to unnecessary hours spent trying to sort it all out.

7. How can I be aware of a coworkers availability?

When you’re working in an office setting or in the same physical space as your colleagues, their availability is usually pretty apparent. You look around the corner, peak into their office, and you can see what they’re up to. But, without that physical connectivity right now, trying to decipher when they’re available for a quick chat, an important meeting, or just a friendly check-in and “hello” can be much more difficult.

Ask your interviewer how team members are expected to communicate their availability and if there are any instances when you can completely block off availability in order to focus only on work. Some questions to consider: Will you be expected to make your calendar visible to everyone? Will you be expected to regularly set and update your slack status with your availability or current activity? Are there times in the day when you should avoid contacting certain team members or scheduling meetings with them, and, if so, how do you find this out?

8. Is it ok if I still take a lunch break and am unavailable?

One of the misconceptions about working from home is that you have more free time and don’t need to work as much since no one actually sees what you do all day. But, anyone who has worked from home for a significant period of time knows the reality is most often quite different.

When you work in an office setting, if you run out for lunch or take a quick coffee break, your colleagues can see what you’re doing and, unless it’s urgent, likely will give you some space. But because technology enables us to be connected all of the time on our computers and phones, many remote workers find it more difficult to disconnect or take breaks. It can often seem that you’re always expected to respond immediately to messages and emails, regardless of what else you are doing, whether it’s having lunch or taking a short personal break.

But, downtime and breaks are important for your own mental health and work-life balance, especially now. As the interviewer about expectations around certain times of the day, like lunchtime or an afternoon coffee break. And, do you have to mark these times as unavailable in your calendar? Or is there a company-wide lunch break hour? Do you always need to alert your colleagues or managers when you step away for lunch or a quick break?

9. What types of communications problems have you noticed in the last few weeks, and how did you resolve them?

Successfully communicating with someone means paying close attention to things like tone, facial expressions, physical gestures, and nuance -- all of which can be very difficult to decipher in a virtual setting.

One of the most insightful (and revealing) questions you can ask an employer right now is for an example of a recent communication problem they’ve encountered because of this new way of working and how it was solved. By understanding the kinds of challenges they’ve faced, you can better prepare yourself for how you’ll be expected to communicate and the kinds of tactics you’ll need to implement to avoid any miscommunications on your end.

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