Starting a new job is a stressful life event at the best of times. Throw in a global pandemic and the prospect of working remotely for the foreseeable - having potentially never met anyone from your new place of work face-to-face - and the task is even more daunting.
And for organisations there is fresh urgency to think through their approach to onboarding new hires. Successful companies know that keeping hold of talented people isn't easy and key to doing so is building a strong tie between the organisation and the individual. It's not hard to understand that new starters with no experience of an organisation may feel more disconnected from other employees and company culture when working in isolation at home, purely communicating and collaborating through digital means.
This isn't an article in support of urging people to return to the office in droves. Far from it. There are a huge number of benefits to remote work - flexibility, productivity, reduced hours spent on a commute, etc. However, just because these benefits exist, employers shouldn't take for granted that a sensible WFH policy means that new hires will stick around.
A lot of people ‘go to work' not just for the money or to be productive, but to feel part of a team, for socialising and to align themselves with a purpose. So, what should we be thinking about as we adapt to our new working environments and bring new hires into the fold?
What does culture look like now?
Some argue that culture is an impossible thing to define, but I'd hazard a guess that we all know a ‘bad' work culture when we see it. There's no culture playbook for all organisations - it often depends on sector, geography, organisation size, etc. However, when you're working in a distributed way it's a much more difficult task to impress upon employees what exactly your company culture is. If you haven't already, now is the time to think clearly about what this looks like and what it means.
Define it as much as possible and clearly articulate to all employees - including new hires - how you're going to achieve it. Whether that's to do with holidays, working hours, employee resource groups, management support, training, charitable work - understand how you're going to define your culture in a distributed environment and articulate that clearly and early on. Culture is the fabric of an organisation and it needs to be fostered more than ever before.
Build in extra time for interviews
From the people I've spoken to, doing interviews from home is in some ways more convenient. If the interview doesn't go to plan and you're unsuccessful in getting the role, it feels like less of a waste of time doing it from the comfort of your living room. It also presents the opportunity to have notes hidden off camera and for candidates to feel at ease in their own environment.
However, for companies it would be all too easy to schedule a 30 minute Zoom meeting, turn up and ask some questions, get some answers, and never really get a sense of the person you're speaking to. Think about building in some extra time for a more casual discussion and try and build a human connection from the get go - this will be beneficial to both parties.
Be wary of information overload and death by PowerPoint
Digesting and retaining all the new information to do a new job effectively is not easy. On the one hand, making all of this information digitally available to new hires (do this!!) means that resources are always there to refer back to. However, it would also be tempting to tell a new starter to spend a week or two getting familiar with all the documentation and putting them in front of days' worth of PowerPoints.
Some of that is fine, but it's also important to keep the human touch as much as possible when onboarding. The best lessons are often learnt via other team members that understand the ins and outs of how an organisation works and the task at hand. Don't deprive people of that opportunity just because they aren't in the office.
Get social and make space for impromptu conversations
As noted above, a new employee will most likely feel connected to an organisation whey they feel connected to its people. That's much harder to do when working remotely and via digital tools - but it's not impossible. The importance of human connection and team interaction can't be lost. A number of contacts I've spoken to this week have reported positive experiences as new starters and cited the emphasis placed on socialising and team bonding by their respective companies. This could be after work group chats, virtual happy hours, company activities via video call, or even creating water cooler virtual spaces for drop in chats. One manager also explained to me that she is making a point of making her diary available to all her team members and being clear to them that they can just drop in for a chat in those moments.
All of those natural interactions in the office now require some structure and process - which is frustrating - but they need to become ‘the norm' across virtual platforms. This may take some getting used to, but it's worth the effort involved. Also, encourage people to talk about things other than work across work platforms - people may feel uncomfortable having trivial conversations on the work instant messenger, but this is all part of building relationships to last.
Consider a buddy system
Having a distributed team levels the playing field in many ways. All of a sudden the most junior person on the team has the ability to attract the same attention as the most senior team member. However, starting in a new position when working remotely presents a whole new set of social challenges. Who are your allies? Who should you be asking questions to? How do I get information when I need it without taking up the whole team's time?
A buddy system could work well, where you pair new starters with more experienced team members, allowing bonds to be formed, for information to be shared and for a ‘safe space' to be created, so that the new joiner knows they have someone they can go to for guidance.
Consider inter-team meet and greets
One complaint I heard this week from an employee that has joined a very large British company is that they are working in a very small team and they feel like they don't have insight into who the people are across the wider organisation. This is a problem, both from a social integration perspective, but also from a knowledge sharing perspective. In an office you can casually over time get to know people from marketing, sales, operations, whatever, and get an understanding of who they are and what they do.
Working virtually means you may never get broader insight beyond the few people you need to work with every day. Organisations should consider cross-team collaboration - whether that's bringing new starters into wider projects, or just encouraging social activity beyond the core team. Again, this is all about creating a sense of an ‘organisation' whilst working on your own at home.
Make senior people available
Knowledge sharing and mentoring are still important to the growth and success of a company. Access to senior team members and leadership is key to learning and development, not to mention creating an inclusive work environment. It's important to note that this could also require some learning on the part of senior leadership too, which may not be that used to engaging in collaboration that requires ‘soft skills'.
Simply put, make those people with the greatest amount of knowledge and experience available to those that need to learn. Do this regularly and consistently and realise it's both to the benefit of the new starter and to the performance of the company as whole.
Make space for introverts and extroverts
This is a difficult one but it's an important point. There are pros and cons to working remotely, both for introverts and extroverts. Working at home, virtual interactions and losing the in-person office dynamic can play to both an introvert or an extrovert's strengths/weaknesses. However, not being in front of a person all day and understanding how they best operate makes it difficult to know what works best for them. Those leading teams just need to consider the nuance around this, deploy some emotional intelligence and think about how to get the best out of an introverted or extroverted new starter.
Make sure your processes and technology work!
Whilst the headline of this article highlights that most of this isn't really about technology, I couldn't leave it off the list completely. Make sure you've got your processes set up to handle distributed collaboration and make sure you've got the right tools, platforms and equipment in place to ensure that your new starter can hit the ground running. It's worth reading my colleague Phil Wainewright's piece on digital collaboration for more insight into this.
Technology is a great enabler for distributed work, but I think that over the next few years the organisations that will be the most successful are the ones thinking beyond tech. It has always been the case, but work is truly now a people problem. How to keep people engaged, productive, happy, learning and growing. And that starts from the moment you bring someone new into a team.
Side note: thank you to everyone that shared their experiences with me to help shape this article! It's hugely appreciated.