Starting a new job during COVID-19

Debs Majumdar
By Debs Majumdar | 10 June 2020
Debs Majumdar

Starting a new role is challenging at the best of times, but how about at the worst of times? Debs Majumdar joined GroupM in the newly created role of general manager, product, three weeks into lockdown. He shares what it’s like to start a new role and hit the ground running – remotely.

In a career first, I started a new role remotely, at a new company, just before COVID-19 fully came into effect. In my role as General Manager of Product at GroupM, so far, I’ve only met my peers and colleagues via video conference, but there’s a number of silver linings in the COVID-storm that’s ensued. Throughout this recent experience, I’ve realised a few things:

  • Traditional corporate rhetoric focuses on employee well being, we’re now seeing which companies are practising what they preach
  • Meaningful relationships will always be the corner stone of everything you do, professionally and personally
  • The societal norm has significantly shifted, self care isn’t a fad, it’s encouraged and endorsed by our leaders
  • Remote working works, so long as everyone’s achieving together

My onboarding process was a sea of PowerPoints and screenshares. I set up my corporate Microsoft 365 account and threw myself in head first.

Traditionally, your first few weeks in a new job is like a slow & steady bike ride; you gradually meet your stakeholders, learn the systems, observe the politics and immerse yourself in the culture. You adopt the pace and adapt to the conditions accordingly.

In contrast, from my observations starting a new job remotely is likened to a road train screaming toward you at 100 plus kilometres an hour.

Pivot, side step, grab on and jump on board… or be roadkill.

I mean this in the most positive way.

I’ve always been proactive, never one to wait around for someone to show me the way, I’d rather find it myself and accept help along the way from those who are willing and able.

Little did I realise this mindset and approach primed me – and many others – for the COVID workforce.

Sure there wasn’t a HR welcome pack and tote bag awaiting me at the office – in fact I actually haven’t been in the office yet and instead I’ve been on home turf since day one.

Instead of the usual introductions to partners and stakeholders alongside my new team, I reached out to everyone I could, irrespective of seniority or title. I learned about their business and found out how I could help them, and not the other way around. In turn, my remote based induction was one of empathy, mutual respect and an old fashioned mindset of let’s get this done.

Translate: it’s business as usual, but like never before.

There are challenges when starting a new role in this fashion – just as there are challenges for established teams and people who have been with their company for years adapting to this new normal. But I’ve been with GroupM for a little over a month and I can genuinely feel the energy, buzz and culture emanating from my MacBook Air each day. Whether it’s from our programmatic and addressable TV teams, from our agencies MediaCom, Mindshare, Wavemaker and Essence or from updates from GroupM and WPP’s leadership in the regular all-staff town halls where I join the thousands of colleagues that make up WPP’s myriad agencies in Australia.

There’s no offseason in advertising.

A week before my start date, COVID cases had spiked, lockdowns took full effect, the ASX was in freefall and toilet paper was a rare commodity. I called my soon-to-be manager to get a lay of the land, with full expectation that my GroupM role would be over before it even began, like the horror stories I’d started hearing elsewhere.

In fact, he painted a picture which was quite the opposite. I needed to start, yesterday.

It’s never been more clear, that brands don’t just want solutions, they expect it. An Unruly study in April, cited nearly 80% of 18-24s increased the time they spent watching online videos, with almost half preferring brands to communicate to them through in this format.

More than a third (34%) are looking to advertisers to make them feel while a further 15% of Australians want brands to provide a sense of continuity and normality.

My role as GM of Product sees me lead a talented group of data engineers & product managers to develop new commercial opportunities to help our clients do just that.

Business plans have had pivots of seismic proportions recently, and everyone at GroupM and its agencies are relishing the new opportunities being uncovered. We’re working hand in glove with our clients to get the best results, while working with our publishers and vendors to ensure we’re maximising every dollar.

Starting out in any new role, there are uncertainties about the company you’re joining, and how much of what was promised will materialise into reality. Six weeks at the company and my observations have found GroupM and its agencies go well above and beyond. Both the promises and my expectations. Our clients’ business, is our business. And in turn we share successes and for some, we also feel their hurt.

Now it’s been nearly eight weeks, and I still haven’t physically met anyone in my team or my peers. Nonetheless I feel like I’m now part of the (virtual) furniture.

Each week we have a Town Hall, a virtual gathering sharing industry insights and other internal news. We share our tips for staying sane during isolation, we celebrated when Hannah had her baby, MediaCom’s CEO Willie Pang, ran us through his agency’s strategy in his active wear and a band that formed during iso, made their musical debut.

Likewise, in a new job there are always questions over who you are working with – and who you are working for. In such uncertain times, I’ve found the leadership from CEO Mark Lollback both refreshing and brutally honest. He, and other senior executives, all strangers to me 8 weeks ago, ensure they’re transparent and authentic in all their messaging. Both about the health of the business and our clients, but also regularly, and genuinely, encouraging its several hundred strong staff to prioritise their family and mental wellbeing. I hear what they say - but I also feel it.

For me it’s been a tight rope balancing act of being ‘the new guy’ and absorbing as much as I can through an onslaught of one on one video conferences, managing my time to ensure I’m delivering and supporting my team but also managing everything else in my life.

I’ve also been simultaneously home schooling my five and 7-year-old. My wife is a surgical nurse and often works long hours, most recently preparing her hospital for layers of contingency plans in the wake of COVID. Throw in social isolation, and some weeks it’s a potential pressure cooker for mental health disaster.

I want to reiterate the word potential. A study by mental health provider Ginger found 88% of workers experienced moderate to extreme stress over the past 4-6 weeks. Among those more than half noted losing at least 1 hour a day in productivity and 32% lost two hours.

In another recent survey, nearly seven in 10 workers now say COVID is the most stressful time of their professional career, far greater than major events like 9/11 and the 2008 GFC.

I heed Mark’s advice. I take walks, check in on extended family & friends, meditate, watch Tiger King and play Lego with the kids to decompress.

I’m by no means complaining. Six weeks ago, I wasn’t sure this career move was going to turn this way at all. I’m extremely grateful to find myself not just employed, but engaged in my job, surrounded by energetic, talented people tackling a massive challenge head on, and able to look after my family.

Many of my friends and former colleagues haven’t been so lucky.


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