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Author Jennifer Folsom: I nailed a job transition amid Covid-19, and you can too

"Changing jobs is one of the most stressful things you can do," says Folsom. "Add this to the stress of living through a global pandemic while likely performing some type of caretaking activities, and it may seem overwhelming. But it can be done."
Jennifer Folsom, author of "The Ringmaster," a practical guide to modern working motherhood.
Jennifer Folsom, author of "The Ringmaster," a practical guide to modern working motherhood.Mary Gardella Photography

We are living in strange economic times. Despite the unemployment rate hovering at 6.7 percent after peaking near Great Depression levels, many corners of the labor market are hotter than ever. And Americans are more than willing to jump on new opportunities, with 64 percent of Americans in November saying they would consider moving jobs if approached by another company.

That’s exactly what happened to me.

Despite barely keeping my head above water while quarantining with three teenage boys, supervising virtual learning and competing for conference call air space with my husband, I found myself in an accidental job search.

After months of isolation, I decided to take my own advice and reconnect with some of my network “nodes” ― those great people in your life who connect you to other great people. I rely on my network to do my job in business development, and was fortunate to find a great group of professional women in my industry for monthly Zoom cocktails. I wasn’t looking for a new job. But, out of that group, I heard about several amazing opportunities, and eventually left a job I loved to take a risk on me.

But I felt guilty about it.

Many Americans, including members of my family and close friends, are mired in a long-term job search. It was hard to come to terms with the fact that I had many opportunities on the table, while many incredible American women (including the 156,000 women who lost jobs in December alone) were struggling to find work at all. As if looking for a job weren’t soul-crushing enough, these women were doing so while performing homeschooling and caretaking duties and living through the worst global pandemic of our lifetime.

I am proud of myself for stepping out and taking a risk. Far too often, women stay where they are comfortable. I know I have. Throughout my career, this has been my biggest regret. Scared of what might be, I stayed where I was far longer than I should have.

When tasked with doing so much both at home and in the office, many women (including me) stay where they feel they have achieved sufficient social capital to demand schedule flexibility that they need for caretaking. And with Covid-19 that’s even more important. How could you possibly start a new job and still ask for block scheduling to tag-team caretaking with your spouse while school remains closed?

So whether you find yourself unemployed or taking a leap of faith on a bluebird opportunity as I did, like most things during this pandemic, it’s a little more complicated. But with intentionality, practice, and preparation, it can be done. I am going to challenge you to embrace this time, and take a chance on you.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

It starts with your network

If you haven’t been focused on building or nurturing your network, it’s time to catch up. In fact, it’s the most important thing.

In my book, “Ringmaster: Work, Life, and Keeping it All Together,” I walk through the logistics of how to build and grow your network. It takes intention and discipline. After I met my potential new boss virtually, I reached out and asked to meet her in person, in masks, at an outdoor coffee shop. She is a highly regarded female leader in my field, and I wanted to ask her all the things. From there, an opportunity bloomed.

I was lucky to meet her in person, but in the time of Covid-19, networking probably means yet more screen time. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

But to maximize efficiency, find a networking group that works for you. Alumni associations and trade organizations are looking for ways to maintain engagement with virtual events. Find one or two, and then find one person that interests you and ask for a one-on-one. The group Zoom only gets you so far.

Grab a call, virtual drink or coffee, and see if you can grow that relationship. Other folks? Send a LinkedIn request and connect that way.

My opportunity bloomed directly from a network connection. But I had to take the first step by identifying a network “node” and finding a way to connect safely. Ultimately, the onus is on you to make that outreach connection.

Nail the virtual interview

Interviewing is a practiced art, and if you haven’t done it recently, or ever before on video, it takes planning and repetitions.

Joan Fletcher, founder of career coaching practice Winning Ways, advises her clients to practice a virtual interview with a friend who will give feedback on voice quality, posture and eye contact. “Make sure you know where to look to have good eye contact with the interviewer,” she told me.

RELATED: Mika's Know Your Value pandemic reset: Get your Zoom face on

The background should be uncluttered, and as professional as possible. I am a fan of using the “background blur” to improve my video appearance. Dial in five minutes early to make sure you are able to connect on that platform, as well as smooth your hair, check the light, and get your fidgeting out of the way.

One big advantage to the virtual interview is that you can have notes from your research right in front of you, something that’s somewhat awkward, if allowed at all, in person. Have your organized background research notes, bullet points for answers to questions you anticipate (“why are you a strong fit for this role?”) and questions for your interviewer right at your fingertips.

Evaluate carefully

As you know by now, this isn’t a normal job search. My typical advice to job seekers is to avoid questions on things like schedule flexibility or work-life balance until an offer is out. If they fall in love with you, negotiate what you want and need. Besides, you will evaluate many of these factors in your research, by talking to people in your network who are familiar with the organization.

But these are anything but normal times.

In my search, I paid attention to the details. In my Zoom interview with my new colleague, she very calmly asked if she could put me on hold while she rebooted her daughter’s laptop for virtual school. That signal, that it was okay to be interrupted for caretaking while at work, was all I needed to see to understand how my new company would approach work during Covid-19.

If someone asked to reschedule an interview or call for caretaking reasons, I took that as a sign of implicit support for the many roles women are playing right now. If I interviewed with someone who was in the office after 6 p.m. with no mention of family obligations or stepping out for a mental health break? That was a red flag.

I also took this time to ask directly about how these employers were supporting their staff during this difficult time. Was there workday schedule flexibility? Reimbursement for home office equipment? Institutional support like working parents groups? Now more than ever, these things matter.

The first 90 days

Congratulations, you got the job!

Whenever I am going through a job transition, either with a new manager or role or an entirely new job, I pull out an old friend, Michael Watkins’ “First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter.” Rereading this trusty manual helps with my mental transition to a new role, and provides a structure for how to assimilate and learn how you can add the most value as quickly as possible.

This is more important than ever in a virtual environment.

Without a cube neighbor to ask about the intricacies of IT set up or the cultural nuances of scheduling, you should approach this transition as a cultural anthropologist. How do people communicate? What is the tone of communications? Are there social norms around meeting schedules and times? Don’t be afraid to ask.

I appreciated that in my new role as vice president of growth at ICF Next, I was assigned a “buddy” who touched base with me daily to fill in the gaps, check on me and make sure I was getting assimilated quickly. My team also assembled a list of important stakeholders with whom I’d need to meet and scheduled these meetings on my behalf before I arrived. This simple step in employee preparation reduced a lot of my anxiety of what I should be doing those first new weeks in my new job.

One surprising upside of starting a new job virtually is that it was largely absent of “first day jitters.” I didn’t have to worry about the logistics of a new commute, where to go when I arrived or how I’d eat lunch. I was mostly focused on what time I needed to log on!

In fact, I didn’t even know the physical location of my office until I googled the address for my onboarding paperwork. Contrast that to a typical Washington, D.C.-area job search that lives and dies by the length and pain of the commute. In the time of Covid-19, all bets are off.

Changing jobs is one of the most stressful things you can do. Add this to the stress of living through a global pandemic while likely performing some type of caretaking activities, and it may seem overwhelming. But it can be done. And, as I can attest from week two of a new and exciting role, it can be great.

Jennifer Folsom is vice president of growth at ICF Next. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband Ben and has three teenage sons. Her practical guide to modern working motherhood," The Ringmaster," is out now.