Integrating new team members into “office” culture while working remotely is understandably daunting for companies and managers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ annual American Time Use Survey, only 24 percent of employees did some or all of their work from home before the coronavirus pandemic. The shift to full-time work from home for many companies has created a huge managerial learning curve in an unprecedented time.
The good news is that when it comes to onboarding, managers and HR leaders can worry less about the getting-to-know-you sessions (although, they’re still important, and we’ll get to that) and more about making sure their new hires understand their jobs. In June 2020, InHerSight asked women what they would be most nervous about when starting a new and temporarily remote position during the pandemic. Getting up to speed is the number-one concern, with 45 percent of women indicating it would be their top priority.
“I’m still learning the job and not needing the bonding as much,” says front-end developer Maude Mensah Simpson, one of InHerSight’s own new hires during the pandemic. She started in March, after interviewing with our team in-person before COVID-19 began.
We asked her to share with us her experience, what’s working and what’s not, to gain insight into what all companies, ours included, can do better in real time. We also tapped Jessica Russell, vice president of operations at CureMint, whose background is in culture-building and talent acquisition, for advice from the HR perspective. Russell has spent the past 11 years recruiting, hiring, and onboarding employees at multiple companies with blended on-site and work-from-home teams.
Creating a virtual onboarding experience
Russell says onboarding virtually has all of the same touchpoints as onboarding in person:
Introducing the new hire to the team
Completing paperwork or administrative tasks
Making sure the new hire has and understands all of their technology
Assigning tasks that inform the new hire on the background of the company, its values, and its personnel structure
Ensuring the new hire gets time with each person in charge of each department
But she recommends altering the steps to warm up the virtual experience. Instead of writing an email or Slack announcement on the first day, invite your team to a quick video chat to welcome the newcomer, or do so during a regularly scheduled morning standup. Then, use a work management program such as Asana or Trello to organize the new hire’s onboarding tasks. This allows you to easily follow their progress without micromanaging.
Russell also recommends filling up the new hire’s calendar, as onboarding can be isolating. “A lot of the first week is legitimately watching some videos,” she says. In addition to setting up 1:1s, invite hires to already scheduled meetings.
Simpson says meeting invites, in particular, eased her onboarding experience with InHerSight. “In the first few days, [my team] made sure to include me in everything,” she says. When our tech team checked in with her, it wasn’t just to see how she was faring personally. It was to ask if she wanted to be involved in certain projects. She likes that they tapped her expertise so early on.
When you’re remote, “It’s easy to forget you’re on a new team,” Simpson says, but “Daniel (Stapleton, her manager) had a packet of things for me to do. It was like a treasure hunt.” Among the activities was scheduling 1:1s with the entire team, including InHerSight’s CEO Ursula Mead. “Talking to people in 1:1s was especially good for me because I’m an introvert,” she says, and it helped to know that Mead was open to meetings in the future if she wanted or needed them.
Getting questions answered
Only 7 percent of women said that when starting a new job during the pandemic, bonding with their team members would be the top priority, and that makes sense. Most women are carrying a heavy workload at home during COVID-19. They likely don’t have much bandwidth to worry about being part of remote office culture.
Still, it’s important that new hires get to know their coworkers—and not just because people with strong work ties are, according to Gallup, more engaged, produce higher-quality work, and have a higher state of well being. Forming connections is an essential part of learning in a new environment; they need to feel comfortable asking questions and collaborating, and that comfort starts and ends with relationship-building.
Russell says, during onboarding, companies can help new hires understand office dynamics by assigning them “onboarding buddies,” or someone to get to know who is not their boss or on their team. She also recommends:
Having new hires schedule 1:1s with people beyond their direct team
Making the extra effort to ensure people who aren’t physically together can have shared experiences
Using the most public option (like public channels in Slack) to communicate as often as possible so everyone stays in the know
Being open to jumping on a call during dedicated office hours
That dedicated time is something that Simpson says has been incredibly important in helping her join the InHerSight team. Initially, she shied away from asking questions when she didn’t know something: “I felt like I didn’t want to interrupt the flow, so I ended up making a list of things to ask during my 1:1s.” A meeting every two weeks with her manager has given her a comfortable way to fill in the blanks.
Simpson says her direct team has also been very open about their willingness to answer questions whenever she has them. “Just knowing that people are there to answer has been helpful,” she says. During meetings, they often stop to ask whether she understands their work jargon or the backstory on a project, which keeps her from having to follow up so often.
The one thing she wishes she knew more about was people’s meeting or communication preferences. Simpson is unsure whether coworkers prefer quick video chats to direct messages on Slack. “Knowing that I have the option to do either would be nice,” she says.
Russell’s solution to that problem is to set designated video call hours, like from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. If a teammate is online at that time, then everyone knows they’re okay with a video call. Russell says companies should encourage videos to be on as often as possible: “Facial expressions are important. You need to know people are paying attention.”
Connecting as a company
As far as connecting new hires with the rest of the company, Russell says CureMint has opened up their meetings: “Normally our daily standup wouldn’t have everyone, but because of the circumstances, we invite everyone to attend.” They had to rework the structure of the meeting, but the change is meant to keep the entire staff informed and engaged.
Simpson says InHerSight’s optional 30-minute video hangouts three times a week have been vital to her getting to know personalities. She often tunes in just to listen. “I like that it’s low-pressure,” she says. “It’s the closest thing I have to getting to know everyone like we would in an office. Even if you don’t speak during one meeting, you know there’s another one coming.”
There are other special touches that can create a warm welcome: Russell says asking the new hire to answer some non-work-related questions, like their favorite hobbies, passions, or other fun facts can be a jumping off point for small talk among team members. Our team at InHerSight asks these questions of all newcomers, and our own answers are visible to the rest of the company:
What’s your favorite junk food?
If you could be any animal, what animal would you be and why?
If your life were a movie, what actor would play your character and why?
For the record, Simpson’s favorite junk food is a trio: Twix Dark, french fries, and Chinese food. Welcome aboard.
About our sources
Jessica “Jruss” Russell is the VP of Operations at CureMint, a dental procurement software company headquartered in the American Underground in Downtown Durham. She has 11 years of recruiting, hiring, onboarding, and retaining people ranging in age from 16–61 years old.
Survey of approximately 1,600 women in June 2020.
InHerSight is a company ratings platform for women with ratings and reviews of more than 120K companies in the United States.