Joining at a distance: Five things missing when people start new jobs remotely
February 13, 2021
We’re nearly a year into the pandemic and, for many of us, life goes on. I’m working with companies who are recruiting and coaching a couple of people who’ve started new leadership positions during lockdown. But starting a new job is different now. This month I want to focus what’s missing when people start new jobs in a pandemic. So here are five things you don’t get in a remote working environment – and some of them have an upside.
1. Physical presence
Like it or not, we make judgments about people, often unconsciously, based on their physical presence – the way they move, how they hold themselves, their height. When we meet only on Zoom we miss a lot of these cues. This favours some more than others. If you’re tall, but not unusually so, and particularly if you look fabulous in a well-cut suit, you used to make an impact before you even open your mouth. You may not have been aware of the advantage your physical presence gave you but, trust me, it was there.
By contrast, if you’re considerably taller or shorter than average, or if you have some sort of physical disability, then you don’t need me to tell you that that’s the first thing people see. Now that everyone meets sitting down it’s much more of a level playing field, with one layer of unconscious bias removed. I’m reasonably confident that remote working will make it easier for some people to get hired and to establish themselves in their new team on equal terms without being seen as the freakishly tall bloke / that cute little woman you have to bend down to talk to / the ‘tragic but brave’ one in the wheelchair.
2. A sense of place
Normally when you start a new job, everything’s different. You have a different journey to work, find your way around an unfamiliar building, work out which coffee mugs are off limits and so on. Now you start a new job sitting in your usual chair, in the room where you did your last job and you already know where the kettle is. For some people this helps. I’ve heard of people, particularly young people at the start of their careers, who feel less anxious and self-conscious about starting a new job remotely. There’s less fear of being stared at as the newbie. But there is a downside.
Without those cues to signal that you you’ve joined a new group, just how much do you feel you belong? I know of people in new jobs who have momentarily forgotten who they work for. I haven’t seen any research on employee engagement in new starters who join remotely but I suspect it will be an area of research in the future. Wise employers will work harder to ensure that new joiners are brought into the organisation, feel part of something and understand how their jobs contribute to the organisation’s objectives.
3. Informal contact
One of the things people seem to miss most when working from home is the chance to just bump into people. You can replace meetings with Zoom calls but those chance encounters at the coffee machine or in the corridor are hard to replicate. This makes it particularly difficult for new starters to build their internal networks. First-hand accounts of people starting new jobs suggest that colleagues are going out of their way to be helpful (obviously this will vary between organisations), so that’s good news. There’s plenty that organisations can do in terms of buddying schemes and social events to help people integrate.
If you’re the new person, and particularly in you’re in a leadership role, it’s worth making deliberate efforts to get to know people rather than waiting for it to just happen. The more senior you are, the wider your network needs to be so that you understand the context in which you’re working. But often I find clients feel uncomfortable contacting busy people without a good reason. We work on creating reasons to be in touch. There are two ways to approach this (I suggest using both):
What do I need to know about and who could I approach to get their perspective on the subject?
Who would it be useful to get to know and what could I legitimately ask them about to help me to do my job more effectively?
A useful question to follow up with is “Who else would it be useful for me to talk to about this?”. When you’re in a leadership position information gathering and building the big picture is an important part of your job, so resists the temptation to just get your head down and get on with things.
4. The chance to ask quick questions
When you’re in an office, it’s easy to lean across the desk and ask a quick question. When working remotely, you have to weigh up whether it’s worth bothering someone and this can leave you struggling with something alone and spending far too long on it. From an organisational perspective, it’s worth ensuring that people have the information they need and know where to turn for help. This sounds blindingly obvious but that doesn’t mean it always happens. I know of companies, for example, who are using induction processes designed for the old world which are unlikely to be fit for purpose (and that’s before you get to companies who don’t have any induction processes at all). Make sure people know that it’s okay to ask questions. Instant messaging systems like Slack or WhatsApp may be a good substitute for the quick ‘at desk’ chat.
If you’re the one struggling with something and you’re unsure whether to ask or not, here are somethings to think about:
Would you have asked if you were in the office? If so, ask.
Do you just need a piece of company specific information e.g. which report template do I use? Ask
Could you reasonably be expected to know this already? No – ask. Yes – think about where else you could get the information or ask for a quick reminder. Keep better notes next time.
Are you stuck on a problem or do you not know how to do something? Break it down as far as you can, work out what you know and what you don’t know, note down what assumptions you’re making and then talk it through with someone.
Are you struggling to make a decision? Ask someone to be sounding board.
5. Clues to the culture
Culture describes ‘the way we do stuff around here’ and covers a lot of things that won’t be in the staff handbook. Psychologist John Amaechi says culture is defined by the worst behaviour people can get away with. You can say what you like about tolerance, respect and a blame-free culture, for example, but if everyone knows you’ll be publicly humiliated by a director if you make a mistake then that’s the real story. People pick up clues about the culture in the office but that’s harder remotely. If you’re thinking of joining company, it may be worth checking out Glassdoor reviews to be sure of what you’re getting into.
But there are deeper questions about what the culture is now because it is bound to have evolved during the pandemic and will evolve further. What do you need to know/ tell people about how you work together remotely and how you see that changing as restrictions ease? If you’re starting in a leadership role, how do you tap into the culture in order to see what kind of changes you need to make and what kind of leader you need to be?
There are pros and cons to new jobs in a remote working environment. If you’re recruiting for leaderships positions or starting in a leadership position and want to have the right initial impact, I’d be delighted to have a chat: firstname.lastname@example.org