Your first few weeks in a new job can go by like a blur. There’s a new office to navigate, new people to meet and an overwhelming amount of new information to take in. And within this whirlwind is also the niggling pressure that you make both a good connection and first impression.
Fitting in to a new office environment can be daunting, even if you’re going in on a permanent basis and will have more time to get to know the team and familiarise yourself with the landscape. But as a contractor, with the understanding that you won’t be there for long, you’re faced with a real dilemma: put effort into making short-term connections or just keep to yourself and risk feeling isolated?
The good news is it’s easier than some people might think to gain the right traction, make a positive impact and impress your new client in your first few days on the job.
When it comes to contract work, there's a lot of trust involved. And the first step in building that trust is by being honest about your abilities, experience and the scope of the work to be done.
If you read an interesting job description or hear about a quality opportunity, it's natural to want to make a good go of it - even if it might not be quite right for you. Sure, you can get up to speed on a lot of things these days with some online help, but masquerading as a specialist claiming to have for example front-end construction credentials when you’re more of a litigator or property lawyer or representing any other talent that's outside your expertise is a recipe for failure and embarrassment.
There's a reason hiring managers put various qualifications and requirements in their job descriptions - because they need them. Make sure you properly read those requirements. Whether you're a seasoned lawyer or just getting started with your own practice, it's important to understand and distinguish your core strengths and competencies, as well as areas you can relatively easily compensate for on the fly. The work will be more enjoyable and you’ll get more bang for your buck if you're able to complete projects efficiently - and you can't do that if you're constantly scrambling.
Clear expectations are the cornerstone of any project, but they're particularly important when it comes to contract work since both parties are looking out for their own interests. When the particulars of an arrangement aren't defined, the foundation of the relationship can fall apart.
If your new client sends you any equipment, don’t delay in checking it out to make sure everything’s in working order. If something’s wrong, ask your manager for IT support and follow up with them. Your IT colleague should also give you direction on setting up equipment if you’re using your own devices. Besides email, don’t forget to ask them about file sharing, online collaboration tools and anything else you might need to interact with your new team.
Whether you prefer to take literal notes or mental ones, your eyes and ears need to be open from the moment you turn up for an in-office interview. Take note of the layout and dynamics of the office and try and keep track of the people you meet, including memorising names and their positions.
Take notes during the induction and onboarding sessions. You can learn a lot from not only the information given, but the way in which it is given. Is it a particularly formal office? How loudly or softly do people speak? What do people wear? Is a hierarchy apparent? You’ll be on track to fitting in fast if you mimic what you see around you, while of course still maintaining your own unique personality!
Review as much as you can about the organisation on their internal and external website before starting and during the first couple of days of your assignment.
A contractor can ideally jump right in and hit the ground running. Just as that's not always the case for employees, it can also be easier said than done for contractors.
You'll likely have to perform a lot of behind-the-scenes legwork detailing the project specifications and scope. You need to take time to learn who's responsible for what within the organisation, how your role fits in and where you can access necessary resources. All of this takes valuable time, but it will make the core of the project much easier.
The best thing any new starter can do is ask lots of relevant questions. Obviously don’t ask them at inappropriate times, but just keep a running list of the things you want to know which you think can help you do the best job you can and understand the organisation you’re now a part of.
It’s equally important to listen and absorb as much information as you possibly can. Ask your manager who the best person would be to get a feel for the business and some background information. Once you start to meet your co-workers, ask them questions like: What did you wish someone had told you on your first day here? What’s your best advice for me so that I can really hit the ground running and make a good first impact? Do you have any tips for office etiquette? Where’s the best place to get coffee or lunch?
Remember it’s not the content of the conversation that’s important here, it’s the connection you’re making.
Clients are generally looking for new people to bring enthusiasm and fresh ideas. You want to be positive and bring some spirited energy to the role.
As much as you might want to suggest sweeping changes and big ideas right off the bat, it’s best to hold back and observe your workplace before jumping in.
When you find yourself in client meetings for the first time, just observe how they’re run. Look at the values. Are they actually being lived and breathed in the organisation? What’s working well? What would you look to change over time?
Until you can gauge your colleagues’ personalities, it’s a good idea to keep the tone of your emails and other communications relatively neutral. Be careful about choosing “Reply All” and avoid using too many abbreviations, jargon, slang and emoji, at least at first.
In your first days and weeks, pay attention to how your manager, teammates and other long-time employees talk to one another and use that as a guide.
And whether you’re writing a note or speaking to someone, make sure the reason for your communication is clear. For instance, it might be useful to flag your emails by including the words “Question” or “For your review” at the start of the subject line.
Try not to get involved in office politics. That’s a real beauty about contracting! Sure, it can be difficult to do but you’ll be more highly regarded if you avoid any politics and gossip.
It’s important you get clarity on your role and what you’re expected to achieve as early as possible into your new job.
Some of the best performance indicators I’ve seen is where people actually do a 30 or 90-day plan when they’re starting out in a new role. They’ll bring that plan to their manager and/or wider team and say ‘this is what I’m planning to do in my first 90 days’ if it’s a longer contract or permanent position. Or say 30 days for a shorter-term contract. Does this proposed plan align with your expectations of me? What would you like to see me achieve and what should I prioritise in the first three months?
Having a plan for what training and knowledge you need for your job is also a great idea. On that list of knowledge gaps to fill should be the workplace processes, culture and politics even - as well as more broadly the industry and market the organisation sits in.
Having a learning plan will also help alleviate some of that bombardment that comes with an overwhelming overload of new information.
Be visible! Get noticed across the organisation. Instead of emailing, visit your colleagues or managers, volunteer for extra project activities outside your set scope, represent your team at meetings or ask to go along so you can be more involved and meet a wider range of people.
Build relationships. It’s important you get to know your team. You don’t need to become friends or socialise outside of work hours but make an effort to be involved and friendly at work.
When working remotely, and if it hasn’t already been done, consider asking your manager to send out an announcement that you’ve joined the team along with a note that you would welcome phone calls or video meetings to get to know your colleagues better.
You might want to keep the organisational chart or the team page handy during phone and video meetings over your first several weeks for easy context. Then follow up with colleagues afterwards to set up virtual coffee chats where you can ask questions about their roles, the projects they’re working on and what they think you should know about the organisation, as well as to share a bit about the work you’ll be doing. Build a rapport and find shared experiences by asking questions beyond the scope of your work.
Even if you prefer to work on your own, making connections will help your day-to-day job run smoothly and it can also open doors for you in the future. It can take time, persistence and a bit of confidence to do all that well, but it gives you a fantastic basis to your overall relationship with your client going forward.
Some workplaces get inundated with email. Ask if your new colleagues prefer a call or instant message for quick questions. Asking through email can extend the timeline because people have to see the email, read it and respond. People often forget how easy it is to pick up the phone and ask, especially if it’s a simple question like When is our next legal team meeting? Or when has that Court matter been adjourned for?
Being proactive can go a long way and will also help with your visibility.
Checking in with your manager on a regular basis in those first few weeks is a good way to make sure you’re meeting expectations. If easy enough, have check-ins as often as once a week in the first month and once a fortnight after that – whether in person, over the phone or virtually.
It isn’t just ticking off a checklist of what you’ve been doing and where you’re up to. You also want to achieve an understanding of what you’d like your manager to do to support you.
Check on your progress. Ask for feedback. Ask how you went during your first week. If working remotely ask whether there are ways you can improve on communicating from afar. It’s important to get this kind of gauge when starting a new role - especially a remote one - to ensure you’re on the right track. You’ll also demonstrate that you’re open to constructive criticism, certainly an important quality.
Now’s the time to bring up any telling points, positives, concerns you’ve found with your role or your workplace thus far. And of course bonus points if you can also suggest a few solutions to any issues.
In your first few weeks on a new assignment you might consider keeping a diary. At the end of each day go back through your schedule and make some notes about how things went. Write down the tasks you accomplished and also the obstacles you faced. If there are particular issues that are still unresolved, highlight them. Then when you have your next meeting with your manager or a colleague, raise those issues and ask for their perspective.
Communication is key to any working relationship, but it's much easier to lose track of that communication in a contracting and/or remote working scenario. After all, you're not face-to-face with each other and there can be fewer status updates and greater misconceptions. That's why you need to go out of your way to increase communication.
The most common source of communication-related frustration for a contractor is waiting. Whether you're waiting for a resource, feedback or approval, the pace of work is bound to suffer if you can't move forward with the project.
Contractors aren't typically afforded the same standing or inclusion as permanent staff. There are barriers to how and when you can contact various people or resources - even if located on-site, but especially when working remotely. The dynamic of continually reaching out to folks by email or on the phone and not getting a prompt or complete response can be draining. It's definitely something you'll need to manage however.
To keep the communication lines up, encourage your manager to invite you to specific channels or forums in their own workspace so both parties can keep abreast of developments and stay on-track. Then they’ll know whether you’re unnecessarily waiting around or falling behind. Be sure you have more than one contact at the organisation, so if your main contact ghosts you or leaves altogether, you have backup.
As tempting as it may be to stay back for hours each night to show what a dedicated worker bee you are, I would warn against this. It’s actually one of the worst things a new-starter could do.
It’s a common mistake that people fall into and it can leave quite a poor impression. You’re potentially showing that you’re out of control or you’re not coping with what’s on your plate or you can’t manage your time effectively.
By all means dig deep and work hard! But the real danger in working 12-hour days is that you set a precedent that’s hard to work back from once you’ve settled in.
Create structure and boundaries, especially when working remotely. Establish boundaries between your work and home life. If your manager has not suggested working hours for you, select some and ask whether your plan is workable for both the supervisor and your colleagues. Try to keep these same hours each day and share with others any exceptions you are forced to make on a particular day as early as possible.
Since remote workers don’t pack a briefcases or backpack and walk out to the client’s carpark as a definite signal that the workday is over, it can be easy to just let the work hours slide into your personal time. It’s also tempting as a lawyer working on contract remotely to stretch your workdays out to accommodate every request, especially when trying to prove yourself on a new assignment where you aren’t seen in person. Some of this is understandable, but be careful not to burn yourself out. And resist the urge to send emails if you’re working late into the evening. Separation between work and home life is key.
Deliver what you promise on your CV and in the interview. If you fail on this and don’t apply your skills and experience to the best of your ability, then any additional value add you deliver will be of little consequence.
Perform to the best of your ability, do what you set out to do and go above and beyond where permitted. You’ll then be able to prove your value to the business and be in a strong position to have your contract extended or at the very least come highly recommended for future contracts. And of course it’s a great opportunity to have another referee to call down the track.
Whatever your situation is now and in the future - if you’re going into the office every day, or going in on occasions, or not going in at all - we all have our own unique circumstances, but often the challenges are the same.
Being kind to yourself is one of the most important things you can do to have a great start in a new contract. Lawyers typically hold such high expectations of what they can achieve and want to deliver in a new role, but balance it with being realistic. Don’t have too many expectations for yourself.
When starting a new contract remotely in a pandemic like now - when your manager and colleagues are also getting used to working from home - just remember that we’re all dealing with a lot of other pain points (like childcare, home schooling, parental care, less certainty and security). So, it might make it all a bit more difficult for you to hit the ground running. And it might take longer before you feel comfortable in your new workplace and workspace. Best be upfront about such at the outset.
Starting and working a new job entirely remotely is probably something you’ve never done before this year. But let’s face it: everybody’s now in the same boat.
I hope these tips will help make your transition into starting a new contract, whether in-person or remotely, all a bit easier. Give yourself time to feel part of the team. Everyone needs a little bit of flexibility, agility and a whole lot of patience which 2020 has unquestionably heightened all the more.
Greg Monks is the National Talent Manager at Orbit Legal Resourcing. Prior to moving into legal recruitment, I practised law for 8+ years (ex-Norton Rose). My global career in both legal and talent acquisition provides me with a unique perspective, a diverse skillset and a wide network within the legal industry in various jurisdictions.
If you’re interested in joining Orbit, contact Greg for a confidential conversation on how Orbit can work for you.
Orbit National Talent Manager