Almost three years ago to the day I wrote about a gruelling interview process that took me months to recover from. Reading through it recently it struck me how different my experience of interviewing has been during the pandemic. It’s not a perfect process and I don’t want to pretend that it’s easy, but in many ways I’ve found it easier. Being on the other side of a screen has been liberating in more ways than one.
Firstly I’m at home – now that may seem obvious but you have no idea how much time, effort and planning goes into travelling to, arriving at and being in a new space. I would have to consider how I would get there, what I would take, what the weather might be like, preprepare small-talk scripts in case of ambush, research the building, find floorplans, view on Streetview to work out where the door is, plan where to park, plan what to do if roads are closed, plan to get there stupidly early in case of variables along the route. On top of that planning I would need to run through it in my head over and over before even getting into my car. It all took energy.
Then I would have to dress the part; comfort went out the window, it was all about image, I was playing the game, smart suit, uncomfortable shoes, irritating hair clip, job done. A sensory nightmare.
Let’s not forget the other sensory issues along the way either; other people’s perfumes, bright lights, noisy environments. It was a perfect storm of additional stressors before we even get to the interview.
In the interview I would control my stims, I would make sure that my hands moved expressively and not flappily. I would keep my feet still to avoid making it look like I was deceptive or nervous. I would make face-contact by making sure I looked at the bridge of the nose of every interviewer to be certain that they all felt recognised and I appeared genuine. I would trick them into thinking that I love eye contact.
I would mask my little heart out and pay the price later. Is it any wonder that I’ve spent the past few years self-employed?
Then lockdown happened and everything moved to Teams or Zoom or some other aggressive-sounding four letter worded bit of software, and it all changed overnight. Suddenly everyone was seemingly uncomfortable no matter which side of the screen you were on. We needed to write new social rules for it all, there was no proper precedent, everyone was equally at sea.
The new interview processes aren’t perfect and I don’t claim to have extensive experience of virtual interview processes, but I’ve done a few this year and the whole thing is a markedly different experience for me.
The interviews themselves can still be difficult to navigate, they can be unclear and obtuse with varying accessibility issues and varying understanding of reasonable adjustments but there are advantages.
Firstly I don’t have to make eye contact with anyone. I’ve been told you should look at the camera but I like to read lips, it helps me process the sounds faster, and as long as I’m looking at the screen no one can be sure who I’m looking at. I don’t feel I need to think about where I’m looking as much as I would in person. People interpret different patterns of glancing in different ways and autistic people are much more likely to be misunderstood and marked down for it.
Secondly I could stim freely out of sight of the camera. I could circle my ankles in a way that didn’t move my upper body, I could hold things in my hands. Oh the relief!!! It was like a soothing balm. Whenever I thought I couldn’t answer something I would pause and stim and give myself that space to find the words.
Thirdly my travel time was walking across the hallway. I would be there five minutes before the time I was due in and join the meeting. I would double check all the connections and do a run through earlier in case I wasn’t logged in for some reason. I would make sure I had an email address to contact in case I couldn’t get in due to technical issues. I had a plan that was practical and easy. There would be no secretary or random employees popping up to chat to, it would be in and out and job done.
Fourthly, I was in my own space with my own sensory adjustments. There would be no distractions or difficulties caused by other people’s lack of sensory awareness.
Fifthly, whilst I still made sure my top half was besuited, I wore my slippers and comfy trousers in the same colour as my jacket (just in case I had to stand for some inexplicable reason, I thought my marvel pyjama bottoms might have been a step too far). It wasn’t perfect, but it was better.
The people interviewing had considered tech problems and sent through a written information guide on expected etiquette (including what to wear) and what to do if things didn’t work. This was extremely useful and helped me feel like I knew the rules.
Was it perfect? No. Were mistakes made? Yes, but all in all it felt like a step forward for me. It felt so much more accessible and I felt so much more in control in my home environment. Yes it exhausted me and the post-interview headache was a corker, but it didn’t linger for weeks.
Most importantly, all that time that I put in to preparing for the interview was focused on answering the questions and researching the organisations. I was able to invest my energy in the things that would help me do well, not just help me survive the day. That is probably the biggest difference – I was able to do the work that would matter to the interviewers.
There is still a long way to go with reasonable adjustments and creating an equal playing field, but I have never enjoyed interviews more than when I can switch off the camera, strip off the jacket, let down my hair and collapse, without having to save enough energy for the journey home again.
When the world moves on and opens up again, I don’t want to lose this opportunity to show what I can do. I don’t want to be spending my energy in the places that mean I’m never demonstrating what I can actually do. We need to learn the lessons of lockdown and keep our options flexible for the future if we really want to create inclusive workplaces.