So, what was it really like starting your first ever job outside of university during the COVID-19 pandemic? No site visits, no colleagues at the next desk to answer questions, no physical interaction, everything being virtual. Virtual colleagues, virtual inductions, virtual calls, virtual site walks.
It’s hard to believe now, looking back. I didn’t even meet my manager physically until a year into my graduate scheme, not recognising him on the first time of meeting – not helped by his face being covered by a mask!
How it all started
My first day as a graduate project manager arrived and it wasn’t what I had imagined. The picture had built up in my head over the past few years: walking through the office doors, being greeted by the excitement of a thriving industry and company, introducing myself to all my new colleagues. But that was not the case.
Instead of an office, it was my bedroom desk and a laptop, with my housemate popping in at 8am to say good luck on my first day. Not quite the hustle and bustle I’d expected, but none of this even crossed my mind, as the current circumstances meant that I was one of the exceptionally lucky ones to even have a graduate job at such a difficult time for the industry and world. The day ended with a virtual team drinks with some games.
Two years on, this seems very much like part of the past. It’s quite incredible how fast we’ve transitioned out of the COVID way of life, back into normality for most people. But I’d not experienced this ‘normality’ before, and only now am I starting to recognise the value of physically working with colleagues, meeting face-to-face, being out on-site, undertaking site walks and being able to visualise project work.
When I started, it didn’t seem like my development was being limited by COVID restrictions but now I can see what I was missing. Almost all the project issues I have now are resolved through a site walk, bringing all the different parties together to work through a practical solution. In fact, I insist on being on-site almost every day now, working with some fantastic clients. It’s almost as if I’m playing catch-up on time lost.
I must say, sitting next to my colleagues, and having the ability to just swivel the chair around and ask a question, is invaluable. This is even more important as I am someone who comes from a non-cognitive background, without engineering or construction experience. But the practical elements of the job, and not being fully desk-based, have become the reason I love it. They really form the basis of project management and make the job unique.
So, what lessons can we learn from this? I believe that the whole COVID experience should be utilised as a learning experience. As we start to see an influx of new graduates in the construction industry, we should ensure that they’re getting out on-site to see project work being undertaken. Now that we’ve seen numerous companies transition to flexible or even fully remote working, we in the construction and project management sector should promote new graduates attending the office whenever possible – it’s a huge aspect of softening the learning curve.
It’s the combination of textbook and on-site learning that will ensure that incoming assistant project managers are well equipped for the step up to project manager. Since COVID, many employers are reporting recent graduates are missing crucial skills, possibly related to limited internships being available over the past few years.
So, to all those welcoming new graduates, be aware of the limitations they’ve had to overcome in the past few years and work with them to maximise their performance and learning. We must do this; it’s our duty.
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