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The new normal

A look at recent graduates in a mostly remote world

man wearing a mask works at a laptop
April 28, 2021

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the summer 2021 issue of ASU Thrive magazine.

It has been more than a year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. In a matter of days, many businesses, schools and other organizations were forced to take operations remote to slow the virus’s spread.

ASU students had to connect with their professors through webcams, halt their extracurricular activities and, for the graduating Class of 2020, hold a virtual commencement ceremony. Despite the challenges, graduates made the most of their situations.

We checked in with the Class of 2020 to see how they have adapted to working in such a unique environment — with some not having set foot into their offices or met their new colleagues in person. What we’ve found is that this resilient class has been able to apply their skills with agility and grace.

Practice with remote technology 

ASU’s online tools allowed last year’s graduates and future grads to practice remote collaboration and communication, said Blake Ashforth, Regents Professor and Horace Steele Arizona Heritage Chair at the W. P. Carey School of Business. The online experiences gave 2020 grads deep hands-on learning with various remote technologies ahead of experiencing it in their professions.

“I think it’s a good proving ground because the skills generalize well to the workplace,” Ashforth said.

That practice with remote communication is something that Arnold Chi Kedia, ’20 MAS in geographic information systems, believes helped set him up for a smooth transition into the pandemic workforce. Kedia says that he and his classmates helped each other practice remote interviewing ahead of graduation. He bonded with his classmates in his cohort, and they helped him feel less homesick for his family in Cameroon. By the time Cox Communications hired him for a position that is remote because of the pandemic, between classes at ASU and his managers at Cox, Kedia felt equipped to tackle his work assignments while working from home. 

Arnold Chi Kedia working from his home office

Arnold Chi Kedia, ’20 MAS in geographic information systems, works from his home office mapping cable routes.

Stepping up to help new hires

Businesses have had to pivot in many areas during the pandemic. Companies have had to revamp their onboarding process to ensure that new hires have the right equipment and virtual remote training to do their jobs, said Chris Camacho, CEO of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council. Businesses made the changes quickly, going from an average of fewer than 20% of work-from-home positions nationally to more than 70% during the pandemic, according to Pew Research Center.

With the pandemic, employers in the Valley also have made sure to improve their training and mentorship programs, said Camacho, adopting one-on-one support systems for new hires and introducing times for colleagues to socialize online.

Kedia says that is one of the areas of focus for Cox Communications. His managers sent him home with multiple monitors, along with the company’s computer, to ensure he could easily see and manipulate the maps he works with all day. His managers also have gone out of their way to ensure that new hires can ask questions and get any necessary guidance and direction, he says.

Adapting to an unprecedented time

Another example of a recent grad who successfully transitioned into the remote workplace is Cooper Newnam, ’20 BSD in industrial design. During the summer before his junior year, pre-pandemic, Newnam interned with VBX Solutions. That led to his current full-time professional role at the same company, where he is a packaging designer for brands such as Nespresso, Tiffany & Co., Chanel and Lululemon.

He says that making the transition was easier because he already had established in-person relationships with his colleagues.

“I love the people in the creative department a lot,” Newnam said. “I feel so welcomed and … like my skills are being used the right way.”

Not having those personal connections can be challenging, Ashforth said. Graduates hired into pandemic work-from-home environments haven’t had many face-to-face interactions with their colleagues — casual conversation, staff holiday parties and other company events. 

Kedia agrees and says that one of the challenges of graduating into the work-from-home environment is not meeting colleagues and managers face-to-face. “It’s hard to read people online,” Kedia said. “The company understands that and has meetings so that people can talk about their weekends and to make the work environment friendly and let people get to know their co-workers.”

Kedia added, “I’m so glad I transitioned from school and could understand how to use the online communications technologies before going remote on the job.”

For some, working from home makes separating work and home life difficult, Ashforth said. Work-from-home workers may need to schedule breaks away from the computer and shut down their work laptops to “clock out” of the work mindset.

Kedia uses these tactics plus others to help improve that separation, such as taking his lunch break away from his desk, stretching regularly, often video calling with his family during his lunch break, and making it a point to go hiking several times a week. He enjoys the flexibility of working from home and the time saved by not commuting. But he does look forward to when Cox Communications begins bringing his team into the office at least some days each week.

Cooper Newnam works at a coffee shop

To mix up his work-from-home routine, Cooper Newnam and his dog, Oslo, work from downtown coffee shops several days a week.

As for Newnam, although there are aspects of in-person work that he misses, he enjoys many parts of the work-from-home environment.

“It’s kind of half-and-half for me,” Newnam said. “I like in-person work for the social aspects of being in the office, but then I also like being at home.”

Pros and cons of working from home

Though employees have adjusted to the remote workplace, the pros and cons of this “new normal” have surfaced as this experiment continues.

Siblings Afra Nawar, ’20 BS in electrical engineering and computer science, and Farhan Rahman, ’20 BS in electrical engineering and computer science, both double majored in the same programs and graduated in May 2020. After they interned at Intel during their last semester at ASU, they met Honeywell executives at an ASU-sponsored career fair. Honeywell offered them interviews for full-time positions, and then full-time employment.

Despite working at the same company, the two have different experiences.

Nawar is a software engineer and her team is not required to go to the office. In fact, Nawar has not even set foot on the Honeywell campus since starting her job. 

On the other hand, Rahman, a member of the integrated flight systems team, has been in a hybrid situation working three to four days a week on-site since being hired because his projects require specialized equipment. 

Because of their contrasting experiences, Nawar and Rahman have gauged the benefits and challenges of working from home.

“I think there are pros and cons to both,” Nawar said. “It is hard to not be able to see your people … so it takes a little extra effort to pinpoint what it is you need to learn, and also it takes an extra effort to reach out to people. I would say those are the challenges. But one of the things that I really do like about working from home is that you save a lot of time on commuting.”

Rahman and Nawar both live in Chandler, about a one-hour drive to the Honeywell site.

Afra Nawar and Farhan Rahman

Sister and brother Afra Nawar (left) and Farhan Rahman at home in Chandler. Nawar is a software engineer and her team is not required to go to the office. Rahman also works for Honeywell but has a hybrid workweek.

“The pros of being on-site are that there are other engineers there that I can walk up to their desk and ask them for help,” Rahman says, “and it makes it easier to pick up on things and move up within your group. You can have a face-to-face interaction, and it makes it a lot easier to learn things and get involved with projects.”

Andrew Nguyen, ’20 MBA from the W. P. Carey School of Business, says that being on-site has been beneficial, sometimes even critical to his position at Kaiser Permanente. He is part of the elite Kaiser Permanente Administrative Fellowship program that allows him to work with various executives and their teams — a different executive and team each rotation. He started at Kaiser in July 2020, and during the first rotation, was involved in helping to coordinate COVID-19 testing and increasing the availability of virtual physician visits.

Because of the work’s nature, he worked out of the hospital or at vaccination sites. 

His second rotation will involve a mix — some days in the office and some working from home. Nguyen says the reason that he went into health care is to positively impact people’s lives, especially marginalized groups, and to help health care become “more inclusive and provide equitable care for equitable outcomes.”

“Graduating into the pandemic is challenging, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for someone like me who wants to learn all aspects of health care administration,” Nguyen said. “Also, there has never been as quick of a change as there is now in health care. This has positioned people like me well for a long career in health care.”

Andrew Nguyen

Andrew Nguyen stands outside his new workplace in Southern California.

The future: A more flexible working environment 

Deborah Salon, associate professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, conducted a survey in collaboration with her colleagues at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

The most significant finding showed that workers are more likely to continue working either fully or partially remotely after the pandemic. 

“I think a lot of it is because people are finding that remote work is maybe not what they want to do every day if they have a choice, but something that works well for them at least some of the time,” Salon said.

Many recent graduates are hopeful that the new remote environment will stay available in some ways after the pandemic.

“Thankfully, this is a new experience for all of us, including the industries,” Nawar said. “I think they’ve done a really good job at adjusting to it, both universities and our industry. I’m hoping that there are a lot of benefits that come out of this experience as well.”

One thing’s for sure: The Class of 2020 graduated into a unique time. And they are making the best of it and using the opportunities and challenges to soak up as much as they can from peers, mentors and colleagues. 

Salute to front-line workers:  Check out a tribute to Health Heroes who were needed in the workplace throughout the pandemic.

Story by Kristen Apolline Castillo, sophomore in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Top photo: Cooper Newnam, ’20 BSD in industrial design, interned with VBX Solutions during his junior year, before the pandemic. That led to his current full-time professional role at the same company, where he is a packaging designer for brands such as Nespresso, Tiffany & Co., Chanel and Lululemon.

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