What should you wear to a virtual job interview? Working from home for eight months may mean you can no longer fit into your smartest office attire, but I heard this week that jobseekers should still dress up and wear smart shoes — even though these would not be visible.
Yet another way that the pandemic has changed our working lives is that everyone from first jobbers to more senior employees must master the art of interview-by-Zoom.
I’ll come back to the shoe issue later, but how to handle online interviews was a popular question asked by Financial Times readers this week — appropriately enough during a live video Q&A I hosted with Jonathan Black, director of the careers service at Oxford university and author of the FT’s “Dear Jonathan” column.
If you’re looking for a job at the moment, you have my sympathy. Dealing with the financial pressure of losing your income is one thing, but the impact on your mental health is entirely another. By the time you progress to interview stage, chances are you will have applied for — and been knocked back from — dozens of advertised positions.
UK jobs data this week underlined just how tough it is for jobseekers, with the overall unemployment rate nudging 5 per cent. For 16- to 24-year-olds, it is three times higher, at nearly 15 per cent.
During our Q&A, graduates told us that the pandemic had wiped out the chance of any unpaid internships, let alone a full-time job, as they struggled to build up any kind of meaningful work experience in their chosen sector.
Coronavirus restrictions are also hampering the job searches of older workers. One, describing himself as a “senior hire”, said that like many professionals over the age of 50, he expected his next opportunity to come from within his own network. Yet with conferences cancelled or live-streamed, and no working lunches or coffee meetings, it’s almost impossible to meet people face to face.
Grabbing a 10-minute phone chat or Zoom call is theoretically easier to do and won’t involve any travelling time, but people said they struggled with finding an opening gambit. Nobody wants to send an email saying “Got any jobs going?” or, if we’re honest, being on the receiving end of one.
Instead of asking for a job, Jonathan recommended that you ask your contacts for advice. Everyone likes being asked for advice — it’s quite a flattering feeling. One phrase he suggested was: “I’m exploring my options right now, and I would really value your advice.” This takes the pressure off and should lead to more people wanting to talk.
During the discussion, ask if they know who is hiring and what sorts of jobs are out there — and what they look for in people. Are there a couple of other people they could recommend that you talk to? This is more likely to open doors than firing off a CV to everyone in your inbox.
Jonathan calls this technique “information interviewing” — his advice was lapped up by many readers who were trying to move between industries and deepen their contacts in new areas. The pandemic has hit some sectors much harder than others and a big challenge for today’s jobseekers is how to emphasise their transferable skills.
Similarly, many graduates who envisaged starting off in one particular career are having to change gear and set their sights on another. But working out how to sell your skills to a potential employer is a skill in itself.
“A common theme among students I see is that they underrate the skills they’re really good at,” says Jonathan. “Because they find it easy, they think everyone must be good at it — but they’re not. So don’t undersell yourself.”
Asking your partner, friends or trusted former colleagues what they think your best skills are could prove enlightening. A friend of mine recently did a coaching course where she asked her Facebook friends to describe her in three words. However you do it, getting another perspective can help you formulate a plan — and boost your confidence.
The next challenge is proving or demonstrating these skills when full-time jobs and internships are thin on the ground. For those who can afford to take on unpaid work, Jonathan pointed out that charities and the voluntary sector are crying out for volunteers. “This gives you something to talk about in job interviews when the world switches on again, and also gives you people to talk to and a new network — making you feel more valued,” he advises.
Another great tip he gave readers was that your profile on LinkedIn shouldn’t be the online version of your CV to date. It should reflect the person you want to be and the career you want to move into.
This is something we should all be thinking about — not just those whose careers have been knocked off course by the pandemic. AI and robotics will be far more disruptive to the future of white-collar jobs than the coronavirus crisis has been, Jonathan predicts.
So how could an unseen pair of smart shoes help you land your next role? It’s a psychological boost — your virtual interviewer may not know you’re wearing them but you will. The same goes for anything that might make you feel like you’re in a work environment, like wearing perfume, for instance. The most debilitating part of ploughing through endless job applications is the feeling of a lack of control. Anything you can do to feel that you’re regaining some control over the process will help to put you in the right zone and project yourself more confidently during the interview.
If you’re looking for a job, I hope these tips help. And if you get an email from someone you haven’t seen for a while asking for advice, then you know what to do.