Answering questions in this time of upheaval

Looking for a new role? Read this advice on answering interview questions during these challenging times.

Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace

Are you looking for a new job right now? Unfortunately, the pandemic and associated global economic difficulties have led to significant numbers of people having to look for work in uncertain circumstances.

Interviewers often focus greatly on current and recent events. As a result, here is some advice on answering interview questions relating to these present, uncertain times.

‘When working from home, how do you maintain your productivity?’

If interviewers are looking to hire someone for a role that may either be entirely home-based or involve a significant amount of working from home, they want to know that you can work productively without succumbing to distractions or being interrupted at home. So be sure to explain the steps you have taken to create a work environment that allows you to work efficiently.

If you live with other people – or have young children in the house – you may need to speak briefly about the additional measures you have put in place to ensure that you can do your work proficiently. For example, many clients I work with have talked about having taken steps such as:

  • buying noise-cancelling headphones
  • setting up a home office in a spare room
  • negotiating with family members rules for when quiet is needed
  • doing work that requires concentration either very early or late in the day (for example, when young children may be asleep)

There is not one answer to this interview question that will be right for all people. How would you personally respond to the question? In constructing your answer, ensure that you can convey to interviewers that you are able to do your work just as effectively at home as in their office.

‘What difficulties have you experienced in working from home?’

There is a trap implicit in this interview question. If you describe too many difficulties, then interviewers may become concerned that working from home may not be suitable for you.

As such, be prepared to list only one or two relatively minor difficulties. However, immediately go on to explain how you have conquered these small impediments so that you can work effectively.

Answering this interview question well requires a tactic that is similar to answering the question ‘What is your biggest weakness?’ It is a good idea to speak only briefly about a relatively small weakness before going on to explain how you have dealt with it so that you remain completely productive in your work.

For example, a candidate might say something like, ‘I do have a family who have also been at home during the day. But I set up a home office and applied soundproofing panels to the walls of the spare room. In addition, I have taught the members of my household when I can and cannot be disturbed – and they have responded very well to that.’

‘During the pandemic, what have you done to improve your skills or knowledge?’

In many countries, the early stages of the pandemic involved various forms of lockdown or stay-at-home orders. Many people had much more time on their hands. If you are honestly able to speak about any self-development or learning that you did during this period, you can create a more favourable impression – that you are self-motivated and determined to improve yourself.

Self-development does not have to relate directly to your work. However, strong candidates may be able to speak about further reading or free online courses that they took in topics such as history, psychology, economics, and politics. Learning or improving an additional language is also usually seen by interviewers as a worthwhile self-improvement activity. Providing practical or emotional support to colleagues or family members and friends may also demonstrate that you are a helpful, considerate person.

‘Why were you selected for redundancy?’

By asking this question, interviewers may be trying to understand if there were any personal reasons you lost your job – for example, if managers did not like you or did not rate your work. The best way to answer this question is to explain how your redundancy was part of a wider restructuring or cost-saving programme. An even better way to respond to the question would be to mention the numbers of other people who were also made redundant.

A candidate might say something like, ‘Nine of us were chosen for redundancy simply because we were the newest joiners. I am still on very good terms with my previous line manager and he specifically said when I left that he would be happy to provide me with a very good reference.’

‘What have you learned about yourself during this period of uncertainty?’

Remember that interviewers are most interested in your ability to do the job, so be sure to respond to this question talking only about things you learned about yourself that help you to do your job well. Employers want to hire people who are resilient, self-motivated and adaptable in the face of stressful circumstances, so a good answer should emphasise some of these qualities.

An example of this kind of answer would be, ‘All of the unexpected alterations in my working patterns and way of life have reinforced for me how well I can cope with change and uncertainty. I’m pleased to say that I adapted very well to working from home. I get on with my work but also reach out to colleagues and clients by telephone and video calls whenever necessary.’

‘Would you prefer to work from home or return to an office?’

By asking this question, interviewers may potentially be concerned that candidates may have become too used to working at home and may no longer wish to commute or work in traditional shared office spaces again. A good answer may be to point out the advantages and disadvantages of both working arrangements – but also to highlight your flexibility on the matter.

A sample answer might go along the lines of the following: ‘There are pros and cons associated with both working from home and the office. I am more productive on solitary tasks when I work from home. However, it is a lot easier to communicate and have team meetings when we are physically in the same space. I have no preference as I know I can work effectively in either setting.’

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