How to go to work in 2020

Words: Lucy Clayton & Steven Haines

In their book, ‘How to Go to Work’, Lucy Clayton and Steven Haines share the must-know advice that no one gives you at the start of your career. Now, as young people face a host of new obstacles to traditional employment, they share their top tips for navigating the new normal in your first job.

Every year a new cohort of young people enter work for the first time. This significant moment is one step on a well-established path: school, further or higher education, a few temporary roles, the first big break and then the vast expanse of the career ladder.

Today, however, that path looks very different. Schools, colleges and higher education institutions have been closed; GCSE and A-Level timetables have been changed. For this year at least, those important rites of passage of graduation and moving away from home won’t happen for thousands of young people.      

Economists are predicting that in the coming economic crisis unemployment for 18-24-year-olds could rise by as much as 600,000, scarring their pay and job prospects for a lifetime. 

Many of the traditional routes into employment have been blocked by lockdown (like Saturday jobs in hospitality). Better qualified applicants, starved of opportunity in a squeezed job market, will push people at the start of their careers out of entry-level jobs. As a result, record numbers of young people are applying to university, as often happens when the job market is unfavourable –but even then it looks like higher education will only be partially open for business. 

The young people we’ve spoken to are telling us that they are worried, their dreams are on hold and they are back to square one in job hunting. Many have lost the entry level job they had. Many more are telling us that the current situation is damaging their prospects.

If you’re starting out in your career in the next few months, you are already in ‘the new normal’.  The usual challenges of applications, interviews, bonding with colleagues or interpreting company culture don’t go away, but many of the familiar rules to deal with these challenges no longer apply.

When we wrote How To Go To Work: The honest advice no one ever tells you at the start of your career, it was with the belief that so much of what you need to know when you’re starting out isn’t actively shared. Vital stuff like how to chair a meeting, how to ask for a pay rise, how to deal with the bad days when your best laid plans fall apart, and how to handle toxic cultures and bosses. Today, these challenges feel more relevant than ever, so here are some practical tips on how to go to work now.

1. Getting a foot in the door

At the start of your career, you’re often met by certain assumptions such as ‘all you need to do is believe in yourself’ or ‘it’s not what you know it’s who you know’. It’s true, of course, that if you lack confidence, or don’t have the personal connections or financial buffer to land that prized unpaid internship, or the upfront capital to launch your first venture, starting out can be that much harder. Yet, it doesn’t mean that confidence can’t be proved by experience or those connections can’t be made.

In a world where a lot of work is online and geography isn’t an issue, there is much greater opportunity for a diverse talent pool. You don’t need a place to stay in London or enough money to commute. Lots of publishing houses, for example, are starting remote work experience placement schemes. If there isn’t something out there at an organisation you want to work in – why not pitch it?

2. Turning up

One of the best things about being new is you get to bound in with energy, injecting a beneficial buzz into the team. Enthusiasm is contagious, so don’t be embarrassed to show some. Everyone who has worked throughout this period of change is exhausted, so being a fresh pair of eyes or legs is a huge advantage now in any organisation.

In the excitement of a new beginning, don’t forget the basics. Before you start, decide how you want to present yourself at work. Whilst this might evolve over time, start as you mean to go on. Be engaged, listen carefully, observe closely. How you show up in those first few weeks will dictate the impression your colleagues have of you for a long time.

3. Working remotely

There are endless blogs and tips about working remotely, but not so many about onboarding, integrating into a new role or reading culture from a distance. Firstly, it may be helpful to accept that this might be your dream gig, but it’s not going to be the perfect start. Instead of despairing, recalibrate your expectations. It may not be the immersive experience you were hoping for, but you will learn different, equally valuable things working in this new way.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help as you integrate from afar (your bosses will appreciate this too – everyone is making it up as they go along). Over-communicate in these first few weeks: it’s all too easy to be ‘out of sight out of mind’.

If you’re working from home, the backdrop to your video conference has now become your personal brand. This doesn’t mean you need full art direction but having your laundry drying in the background isn’t setting the right tone. Despite being at home, remember that you’re still dressing for work – not the full suit and tie, but not PJs either.

You have to create your own workplace environment now too. If you can, create a separate workspace. Keep to a routine – plan to be at your desk at set time and clock off at a set time. As tempting as it might be making coffee/checking email/feeding the cat, it’s better to be more focuse and keep track of distractions. Posting comedy dog videos on the work WhatsApp group should only take up a portion of your day. 

Finally, make time for forging relationships remotely. Keep your instant messenger or Slack channel open, ask questions and organise short calls – think of it as dropping by someone’s desk.

4. Dealing with change

Most of us struggle with change and the current upheaval is leaving everyone reeling. This is even harder if you don’t have a solid foundation of work relationships and understanding to fall back on. Be transparent about anything you’re struggling with; asking your colleagues for advice isn’t a sign of weakness. Take stock regularly and ask yourself key questions like: what do I know this week that was a mystery last week? What tools do I need to help me fill in the gaps?

Don’t panic if it takes you a while to get up to speed – the first few weeks are a time of relentless learning and there’s no such thing as a stupid question when you’re starting out. Diligently learn your role, interrogate what is expected of you and check in with your colleagues to ensure your expectations and theirs aren’t miles apart. If it’s all a bit vague, ask for clarity – don’t muddle through based on your assumptions. 

5. Loneliness at work

It takes time to build a trusted rapport. Body language, visual cues and normal workplace interaction are all limited now so it will to take you longer to integrate. Tell people how to get the best out of you and don’t despair: this won’t be forever.

What’s more, by getting good at remote working early in your career, you are building skills that are invaluable for the future.

Beyond the immediate chaos, reserve some time to think ahead and keep perspective. This is a moment of reinvention. It’s huge opportunity for all of us to reassess our priorities and our lifestyle choices.

There will be significant restructuring, consolidation of industries, and winners and losers in the market. Policy makers will be rethinking the aims and purposes of education and questioning our economic model. There will be innovation and acceleration and opportunity.

We have all been working in a rapid, responsive way for the past few months. Our task now is to move from this state to a more sustainable one.

If you’re going to work for the first time, you’re arriving at the perfect time.

Find out more about ‘How to Go to Work: The honest advice no one ever tells you at the start of your career’, via Penguin Books.

Lucy Clayton is passionate about discovering and mentoring talent. As former CEO of Community Clothing, a social enterprise with a mission to sustain and create jobs in the UK textile industry, she was honoured in the Financial Times and HERoes inaugural list of top 50 ‘Champions of Women in Business 2017’. She is a regular speaker for the charity Speakers for Schools. Lucy is the founder and host of DRESS:FANCY, the hit podcast series exploring fashion, fantasy and fancy dress and her TED talk “The True Power of a Good Outfit” can be seen on TED.com

Steven Haines
 is a campaigner for social change. Steve began his career in UK Government, working on widening access to education for disabled children. He is now Executive Director for Policy and Campaigns at the National Deaf Children’s Society. He was the Director of Campaigns and Advocacy at Save the Children UK and Global Campaign Mobilization Director at Save the Children International leading their work across 120 countries.  Steve has also worked as an advisor to the Government of Rwanda, where he helped put in place a programme to train the next generation of civil servants, and during 2015 was a Special Advisor in the United Nations Secretary General’s Office working on the Global Strategy for Women’s Children’s and Adolescent Health.