Oct. 7, 2020
On a recent morning, I had breakfast with 12 of our newest hires. But don’t worry — we kept our social distance.
Pre-pandemic, I used to do these breakfast meet-and-greets in-person over coffee and pastries. Today we met on Zoom over bowls of cereal, mailed out in advance as part of a new-hire welcome kit. Nothing fancy, at all — but I left feeling pretty inspired.
Why? Because I had a chance to actually get to know the people behind the resumes and, maybe, show them that company values like belonging and pride are more than words in an onboarding package.
If you’re a culture geek like me you already know that onboarding plays a huge role in boosting retention — 69 percent of employees are more likely to stay with a company for three years or more if they experience great onboarding , according to the Society for Human Resource Management. But frankly, even companies that have excelled at onboarding need to up their game now.
The reality is that in the absence of real, physical proximity to colleagues, you’ve got to get both creative and deliberate to foster a sense of belonging. After bringing in 50-plus new hires since the crisis started, here’s what’s worked for us in terms of starting to infuse and even reinvent culture.
Embrace ritual … even remotely
The excitement of walking in the door on your first day. Nervous chatter with new colleagues. That first lunch with your boss or team outing after work. That stuff matters. It goes a long way toward forming impressions about a new company and establishing new relationships
To be honest, in a virtual workplace, there’s really no way to fully recreate those moments, no matter how adept we’ve become at Zoom and Slack. I think accepting this is critical — an important chunk of work life is just plain missing in our WFH reality.
For us, the rub is that culture and belonging have always been core to our identity, not something that can be downplayed when the situation demands. So the crisis has become an exercise in looking past the limitations and finding new ways to deliberately — and creatively — share that with our new folks.
Some of this comes down to preserving small touches and rituals that might easily be neglected in an all-virtual environment. We mail out new hire kits with everything from desk accessories to t-shirts, stickers, and other company swag, with a personal, handwritten note to go with it. It can’t replace the welcome we’d do in person, but it helps to add a touch of ceremony to the momentous event that is joining a new company.
It sounds simplistic, but tangible, physical stuff can help to boost the feeling of belonging. Ultimately, it’s not about the objects themselves but it's an affirmation that connection matters.
Plan for spontaneity
One morning pre-pandemic, I was in the office kitchen and managed to spill coffee everywhere. One of our new hires walked in just as I was using, well, less-than-professional language. We laughed, introduced ourselves, and related as humans, not just colleagues. A connection, if even just a small one, was formed.
When you’re physically there to share the laughter, and even periodic frustrations and disappointments, that’s a level of bonding you simply can’t recreate online. Nonetheless, those unplanned, spontaneous interactions are important, and it’s worth investing time in recreating them.
Planning for spontaneity may feel like a total contradiction, but there are ways to encourage those impulse moments. Blocking off time for small talk at the beginning of Zoom meetings is more critical now than ever, as that’s often the only chance for casual interaction. As leaders, it’s also incumbent on us to be truly present and available in the digital context, allowing space for those spontaneous interactions.
I’ll make a point of popping into group Slack channels to add an emoji or two if someone posts something funny or to cheer on the sales team after a win. Experiencing those threads, real-time, is critical for forming shared bonds.
Again, these steps themselves aren’t rocket science. It’s the underlying time and intentionality that make all the difference, especially when bringing new hires into the fold.
Read digital body language
When we were working in-office, I could get a pulse check on all 200 of my Buildium employees with a simple, 20-minute walk-around. I used to scan peoples’ faces and could tell whether they were having a good day or drowning, all at a glance.
Ironically, this is more important than ever in a remote-work context, but way harder to pull off. For new hires, especially, there’s a real risk of feeling lost in the absence of a physical support network. Our leadership team has spent many cross-functional hours sharing concerns about keeping new hires engaged and supported, as well as the existing teams around them.
This has inspired some by-now familiar ideas and activities: an always-open “Buildium cafe” channel on Slack for socializing and small talk, Zoom happy hours, even “virtual story time” for parents with young kids at home.
But it also comes down to developing a sense for digital body language as a leader and being aware of cues that might indicate a problem — employees frequently showing as offline on Slack or cameras turned off during Zoom meetings, for example. Being intentional about watching, listening and caring is more important than ever for managers, whether dealing with new hires or existing ones.
Live your values
None of these tactics will be effective if you don’t have your company’s values nailed down ... and truly live them.
For us, the three strategic pillars of our business have long been customer loyalty, employee pride and, of course, revenue. They’re not revolutionary, but we make sure every new hire knows them. In the WFH era, this is more important than ever. Without the familiar physical signposts of culture — from office art and chit chat to happy hours — clear company values are really all that new employees have to guide them on standards and expectations.
It’s so important to not just communicate a clear statement of values but also to really live them. In the remote work context — or, really any work context — company values can’t just be a poster on the wall.
Employee pride, for instance, isn’t really about superficial perks like kitchen snacks or office parties. It’s about a feeling of belonging and showing employees how they matter, as people. Those signals can be shown in myriad interactions that transcend the physical office, from checking on remote employees to ensure they’re taking real vacations to taking time to get to know their families better via Zoom.
Integrating new hires into a remote company culture isn’t easy, and admittedly we’re still learning. But no matter how many virtual connection tools you use, you have to be deliberate about building relationships. And if that means I’ll be eating cereal out of a box every month for the foreseeable future, I’m all for it.
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