Illustration of working from home. (Shutterstock/Nattakorn_Maneerat)
Sometimes Cara Tocci feels like she is living in an underground bunker in a very strange world, like a character from the television series Lost.
During this very curious moment in human history, Tocci started a new job as vice president of global corporate communications at sneaker and apparel giant Foot Locker.
“I’ve never even set foot in the office or met my colleagues in person yet,” says Tocci, who is working from her studio loft in New York's Greenwich Village. “Everything has been on Zoom. It’s definitely the oddest new-job experience I’ve ever had.”
After shedding about 22 million jobs since March, the US economy added more than 11 million of those back, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But for many corporate jobs, workers have not return to a physical office quite yet. Tech giants like Apple and Amazon are eyeing an early-2021 return to office life, Google is aiming for next July, and some – like Twitter and Slack – are even suggesting that the work-from-home shift could be permanent.
As a result, recent hires often are working from home, which means employee learning, socializing with colleagues, integrating into teams and starting on projects are all taking place in a fully virtual environment.
“New employees always want to hit the ground running and feel like they’re making a contribution right away,” says Tracy Brower, a principal at office design firm Steelcase and author of Bring Work To Life By Bringing Life To Work.
"But right now they are feeling betwixt and between, and uncertain about how to make connections," Brower adds. "It’s a real challenge in terms of motivation and retention.”
Onboarding is always a tricky process. Here are few tips on how companies can make employees feel welcome from a distance – and how just-hired staffers can navigate this bizarro world:
Take the initiative
Typically in a new environment, employees tend to be deferential, letting longtime staffers take the lead while they quietly observe in the background.
In 2020, you need to adjust that strategy, because a barely-there presence is not going to cement your status. “As a new person you won’t be top of mind, because people don’t even know about you yet,” says Brower.
Counter that dynamic by taking the initiative in establishing new connections. Set up one-on-ones and virtual coffees with key people, and then follow up later to maintain those relationships.
Find a mentor who is familiar with the ins-and-outs of how the company operates and has a vested interest in seeing you succeed. Network with everyone else who started work this year - it is a unique bonding experience, so use it to your advantage.
It is not easy – especially for introverts – but aggressive connection-forging will kick off a “virtuous cycle” of being invited onto more and more projects, Brower says.
It is not quite the same as grabbing a drink at the local bar after work, but you can and should socialize with new colleagues now. If you are just talking shop all the time, they are not getting to know the full you – and you are not really getting to know them.
Just ask Jeanne Schad, leader of the global talent solutions practice at workforce consultants Randstad RiseSmart. Her company is offering a number of “Airbnb Experiences”, where staffers do cool things together – even if it is over a Wi-Fi connection. They went on a tour of an olive grove in Croatia, did “laughing yoga” with an instructor in Portugal and took a master class together on making the perfect cup of coffee.
“All these things help onboard new members of our team, and let you get to know people in a different way,” Schad says.
Turn turmoil to your advantage
In normal times, companies often have strict formulas about how onboarding is supposed to go: Your interactions might be limited to your immediate team, for instance.
In 2020, old protocols might have gone right out the window – and that can open up some interesting opportunities, across different silos of the firm. “New employees aren’t yet established, and your personal brand isn’t known within the company,” says Schad.
Since you are unformed in the eye of your employer, you are "somewhat amoeba-like, and can be whatever the company needs you to be," Schad adds. "That can absolutely work to your advantage, compared to an employee who has been there a long time and feels stuck in a job description.”