We are all experts at waiting for our turn. At the dentist, at the doctor, we know the waiting room etiquette: check your email or Facebook account, try to find interest in the very old magazine selection or perhaps pass the time watching the cooking or news show on the waiting room screen. If you came prepared, maybe you brought along a good book. And when you are simply passing the time until your name is called, these are appropriate pursuits.
Waiting for an interview is a similar situation; you are waiting for your turn to come, sometimes alongside other people who are there for the same reason. The magazines or the cooking show might even be identical. Yet if you spend your waiting time the same way you would when waiting for your turn in the dentist’s chair, you are missing out on a great opportunity.
Instead of passively waiting your turn, consider the opportunity to wait for your interview as a chance for some detective work. You are actually at a workplace that you think you might like to call your own. What can you find out that will help you both decide if indeed this is a good place for you, and improve your chances of getting the job?
Be a fly on the wall
Take a look around the room. Are there any employees present? There may be a receptionist, perhaps an intern or two, people may come and go in front of you. Try and get a sense of the office style and atmosphere. Are people polite and formal? Relaxed and friendly? Tense and insecure? It’s amazing how much you can discover about what it would be like to work somewhere by having an opportunity to sit unmolested and observe. You can use the information you glean both to sense if this would be a good fit for you, and to adapt your own interpersonal style to the workplace norms when you go in to the interview.
One way to gauge how pleasant a place is for its employees is to watch the eye contact (or lack thereof) among the people that you see. As a general rule, the more eye contact is made, the more friendly and respectful a place is. Another way to assess the atmosphere is to watch interactions (if they present themselves) between senior and junior employees. This can tell you much about the degree of hierarchy and about relationships between tiers in the office.
Communicate with the locals
If appropriate, try to have a brief conversation with a staff person who appears to be free to talk. You certainly do not want to be perceived as disturbing them at work, so use your common sense. For example, when you arrive, you can smile at the receptionist, say hello, and ask how s/he is doing today. A bit of chitchat can serve a dual purpose: it can create a positive impression (and the boss will often ask the receptionist what s/he thought of the people in the waiting room); and you can glean interesting information about what it’s like to work there. But again, keep it brief so as not to be perceived negatively.
Competitors or colleagues?
Then there are the other candidates, who may be sitting near you and waiting for their turn. Don’t consider them your competitors; think of them as colleagues, and try to strike up a friendly professional conversation. A person you meet in the interview waiting room may be able to connect you to a different job or to a valuable contact. Of course, here too, be quick to notice if your counterpart prefers not to talk, and don’t impose an unwanted conversation.
Active waiting as a frame of mind
Besides all this useful information, the most important benefit of active waiting is psychological; it will transform you from passive to active mode, energize you, and help you feel in control of the situation. This will come across to your interviewer when you turn finally comes. You will be perceived as more proactive and friendly if you have been in an active waiting mental space during your wait.
After your interview, don’t forget to say a friendly goodbye to the receptionist as well as anyone else you have made contact with before you went in; you can also ask the receptionist about next steps and get his/ her contact information for follow up purposes.
Bottom line: the interview waiting room is an opportunity for making connections, gaining valuable information, and most importantly, for getting into a proactive, confident and friendly frame of mind. Don’t waste it staring at your phone screen.