The pandemic affected all of us in one way or another (often in many more ways than one), so it's probably inevitable that COVID-19 will be on our minds for the foreseeable future. We're still processing what we've gone through (and will continue to experience) and that means you can probably expect the pandemic to remain a topic of conversation across all types of social interactions—including at work and yes, even during job interviews.
On top of your typical interview questions, pandemic-related questions can be used to identify key traits, such as adaptability or a willingness to learn. “What most COVID-related questions are ultimately getting at is: Do you have the qualities we believe you'll need in order to do this job well? Things like productivity, working under pressure, resilience, and grit,” says Eleanor Meegoda, CEO and Lead Career Coach at JobStep, which finds and applies to openings for job seekers and provides resumes and cover letters along with interview coaching.
Surely we're all very, very tired of thinking about the pandemic by now. But that doesn't mean we're done talking about it. Here are eight COVID-related questions recruiters, hiring managers, and other interviewers might ask during and after the pandemic, along with insight into what they're really getting at and advice on how to answer.
1. How Are You Holding Up? How Are You Adjusting to Life Post-Quarantine?
These types of questions are basically icebreakers. “It's the equivalent of small talk or asking about the weather,” Meegoda says. So treat it accordingly. Keep your responses general, vague, and more or less positive. It's totally fine to acknowledge the struggles of the past year or to express hope or excitement about the future. Sharing a small tidbit about finally getting to hug your mom again or enjoy a meal out is totally appropriate.
You don't need to go deep here. If you've lost someone close to you during the pandemic but aren't ready to talk about it with virtual strangers, you don't need to bring it up. You can simply say that it was a tough, sad year, but that you're doing OK and are really excited about brighter days ahead.
You'll also want to be careful not to reveal too much about certain extracurricular activities at the height of the pandemic: If you were bending the rules around local health guidelines, it's probably best to keep that to yourself. No need to mention that spring break trip you took to Florida.
2. How Did the Pandemic Affect Your Career Goals?
Translation: What are you looking for in your next role and are we the right fit?
“Hiring managers want to know that you're not just interested in a role because you're escaping a bad employer or leaving a job you hated, even if that might be the case,” Meegoda says. So be sure you're answering this question with the role you're interviewing for in mind. Did you realize that you want to work on a product that is more in line with your environmental values? Great! Feel free to mention that—provided the role you're interviewing for has such a product. Did you decide to finally take the plunge on that career change you've been dreaming about for years? This could be a great opportunity to share your journey and pitch your transferable skills.
And it doesn’t have to be anything drastic. You might say, “This last year made me realize just how quickly the economy can change and that reinforced my desire to continue to grow within my career and learn new skills as fast as possible,” Meegoda says, and go on to mention how you’d like to develop professionally or what new skills you’d like to focus on honing.
3. How Did You Adapt to Working Remotely?
What a recruiter is really getting at here is: How do you navigate unexpected changes? Companies are always evolving with new hires, technological updates, new product rollouts, and more, and your prospective boss wants to know if you can roll with the punches. “Employers ask this questions to understand: ‘Can you be resilient and learn to figure things out as you go?’” Meegoda says.
This is a classic example of a “tell me about a time” question, also known as a behavioral interview question. You might talk about how you converted your closet into a home office, mastered an entirely different way of communicating with your teammates, or unexpectedly took to working from home like a fish to water. Whatever example you decide to use, be sure you tell it within a cohesive framework, like the STAR method:
- Identify the Situation (e.g., you were thrown into remote work with little warning)
- Explain the Task at hand (e.g., you'd never worked from home before, you live in a one-bedroom apartment, and your partner is on calls all day long)
- Describe the Action you took (e.g., you and your partner made a schedule, you invested in noise-canceling headphones, and you discovered the joys of working from a previously underutilized balcony)
- Conclude with the Result (e.g., you increased your overall productivity and helped guide a new product to launch on time and under budget)
If you're interviewing for a remote or hybrid role, you can also expect a lot of questions specific to the logistics of remote work—especially around things like staying organized, working independently, and communicating with your boss and colleagues. “People used to be able to just turn their head or walk over to their coworkers when they needed to talk,” says Christina Nguyen, a Fortune 500 recruiter and career coach at Christina NM Coaching and Springboard (where I’m also a career coach!). “But now hiring managers want employees that can be proactive and reach out to people when they need something.”
4. What Have You Learned During the Pandemic?
In other words, are you able to learn and grow through the hard stuff? Employers are always looking to hire people who are creative and solutions-oriented. They want to know that you can make the most out of a bad situation.
There are a few different ways that you can answer this question. You might go the personal route and mention that you realized that you wanted to spend more time with your family or share that you learned a new skill or spent time developing a new hobby. If your answer falls along more extracurricular lines, just be sure to tie it back to learnings and outcomes. For example, you might say:
When I was a kid, I dabbled with playing the piano, but lost interest as I got older. The pandemic provided me with the time and opportunity to revisit music. I found a virtual piano teacher and started taking weekly lessons. I can now play a couple of songs all the way through and it's become a great way for me to decompress after a long day.
Alternatively, you might share that you decided to upskill by taking a class online or enrolling in a bootcamp, expanded your technical skills out of necessity and are now the unofficial IT expert among your family and coworkers, or learned new Excel skills when you took over some tasks from a colleague who was furloughed or on FMLA leave caring for a sick family member.
Or maybe it’s something you learned about yourself or how you work. Meegoda suggests you might say, “Two years ago I never would have considered a remote role. But after a year of COVID, I discovered that I can get more work done when I'm working from home. Having that independence made me far more productive.”
And please know this: It's OK if you don't have an over-the-top impressive answer to a question like this. The reality is, you might have been understandably overwhelmed with caregiving or grief or virtual schooling (or all of the above). Maybe you learned that you're more resilient than you'd ever imagined. That would be more than enough.
5. How Did You Cope with Stress During the COVID Era?
“Another version of that question is, what do you do when things get hard?” Meegoda says. This is another great example of a behavioral interview question—which means you can use the STAR method to craft a solid answer.
You might say something like:
Things were pretty hectic at the start of the pandemic, especially since I was suddenly working from home and navigating remote learning. It made me realize that I needed to take a good, hard look at how I was managing my time and to decide which tasks I needed to cut, which I needed to keep, and which I needed to delegate. I made a list of everything I have to get done during an average workweek and created a detailed to-do list. Once I made my cuts and delegations, I created a daily schedule for myself. Having a game plan and a clear idea of what my priorities are on any given day helps me to keep stress at bay. That, and jogging. Jogging helps, too.
Note that it's perfectly acceptable to swap “jogging” for “binging true crime documentaries” or “learning to needlepoint” or whatever it was that helped you decompress and take care of yourself.
6. How Do You Feel About Returning to Work in Person?
This is now a common logistical question. Interviewers are genuinely trying to gauge whether or not you're going to be open to returning to an office after working from home for so long.
“Most of the COVID-related questions I ask are logistical,” Nguyen says. “Depending on the nature of the job and local ordinances, some hiring managers might ask if people would be comfortable working in person now or in the near future.” If a recruiter is asking this, it's likely that your manager or the company as a whole is hoping to hire someone who can come into the office on a full-time or regular basis.
Depending on what type of setup you're looking for (in person, hybrid, or remote), you'll want to be sure to clarify: Will there be an option to work remotely? Will you need to be in the office full-time or is part-time an option? “If you want to go back to an office, you might say, ‘I'm very open to going back into the office once things are fully safe, I would love to hear about your company's return-to-office plans,’” Meegoda says. If you're angling for a hybrid work setup, you can ask about the company's policies around working from home a couple of days a week. You could say:
I really value in-person collaboration, but I've found that I'm at my most productive when I work from home. Ideally, I'd love to find a role that will allow me to balance both in-person and remote work. What are your policies on hybrid arrangements?
7. How Do You Feel About Working Remotely Indefinitely?
Translation: You won't be able to join us for impromptu meetings or team happy hours. Are you OK with that? “We ask people if they are OK with working in a different location from the rest of their team because that would often mean not being able to go to happy hours, office events, parties, and other things that tend to make your work experience more exciting,” Nguyen says.
If an interviewer is asking this, it could be an indication that the company is moving toward permanent remote work for at least some of its roles. So it's worth asking what their long-term plans are—especially if you have strong or non-negotiable preferences around remote work.
8. What Is One Good Thing That Came Out of the Pandemic?
Ultimately, hiring managers are looking for people who are going to make great team members. They want to know that when things go sideways, you'll be resilient enough to push through challenging times, open enough to learn something along the way, and optimistic enough to find the silver linings.
That said, questions like this are tricky at best and triggering at worst. If you've experienced a COVID-related loss or hardship, being asked to identify something good that came from it could be incredibly painful. While the spirit of this question is well-intentioned, I think we can all agree it's not a great one to ask. But that doesn't mean it won't come up during your job search (nor does it mean that the person asking is trying to bring up any bad feelings). So it's worth having an answer prepared.
Maybe the pandemic made you realize how much you value time with your family. Maybe you picked up an awesome new hobby. Or maybe you think it's great that so many people finally started paying attention to racial inequality.
And if this or any other question trips you up, know that it's OK to take a moment to gather your thoughts. “When you get a question that stumps you, stall for time,” Meegoda says, “You can say, ‘That's a great question. Can I take a second to think through my answer?'” she says. “Allow yourself a moment to come up with an organized train of thought.”
A Few Pandemic-Related Questions You Should Be Asking When It’s Your Turn
Asking questions about how your prospective employer navigated the pandemic can tell you a lot about the company culture. Were they flexible and accommodating? Was the business agile enough to adapt to the changing economy? What will be expected of you and what should your priorities be if you were to come onboard? It's also a great way to demonstrate your genuine interest in the role.
Here are a few ideas:
- How did the pandemic affect you and your team?
- How did your team adapt to COVID-19?
- What strategies did you adopt to make working remotely more effective?
- How has COVID-19 affected the company culture?
- What impact did the pandemic have on the business?
- How has the pandemic changed your team or company’s goals and priorities?
If you’re interviewing for a remote job specifically, consider asking these questions as well.
Bonus: Ask, “How Are You Holding Up?”
This won't always be appropriate, but if you feel like there's an opening, it doesn't hurt to have a genuine human moment during your interview. Chances are, if your interviewer is asking a lot of COVID-related questions, the pandemic is on their mind. “Recruiters and hiring managers are also going through this, so they may be asking COVID-related questions in part because they're still processing the events of the past year,” Meegoda says. Emotional intelligence is a very desirable skill, so feel free to demonstrate empathy and compassion—if and when it feels right.
When COVID comes up during your job search, remember that this is still a professional interview—and you don't need to bare your soul. “When employers ask these questions, they're trying to determine if you have the traits of a good team member, like grit, resilience, self-reflection, adaptability, and a willingness to learn,” Meegoda says. “When in doubt, tie your answers back to one of those qualities.”
Talking about the pandemic can be tough, but if you know what to expect and are able to get to the root of what your interviewers are asking, you'll get through it. You might even come out the other side with an empathetic boss, an ideal remote or in-office setup, and a great new job.