Onboarding Online: Our Experiences Beginning a New Job Remotely & How COVID-19 is Impacting the Future of Internal Communication

By Nick Rosenberg and Ben Williams

T-shirt or dress shirt? How do I get on Zoom if I don’t know my computer password yet? Do all Zoom calls require video? Does that mean I was wrong when I picked “t-shirt”? How can I add value? What is expected of me on day one?

You may not realize it, but these are some of the questions new hires grapple with when starting a new job in our new remote “normal.” We sure did.

As the newest members of Breakwater Strategy, Nick and Ben spotted openings, applied, interviewed, onboarded, and began our new roles remotely. We have never seen our office and aren’t sure when we will. When we interact with our new coworkers, it’s via computer screens and headphones, Slack, and email. Thankfully, our BWS colleagues were excited, friendly, and eager to embrace us newcomers, but our experiences onboarding online made us think of how different and challenging that process can be.

To be clear, we understand we’re the lucky ones. Lucky enough to deal with these new challenges. Lucky to have found work during a time that has created incredible economic shocks and skyrocketing unemployment. But, in this “new normal,” and as the job market crawls to a recovery, many will have to adapt to a world where finding and starting a new job happens at home. New hires and managers will have to adapt and address the challenges and questions that arise in that environment. Chief among them, how do operations and internal communications evolve and how should employers adjust onboarding to set expectations and set new hires up for success?

The pandemic has introduced new uncertainties into that process, but organizations that understand the evolving landscape and take steps to respond to challenges, will position themselves and their new employees for success.

Getting Started

Telework’s accelerated adoption presents challenges for hires and the staff tasked with incorporating colleagues into their new “office” environment. Perhaps most noteworthy to workers in the “knowledge” space are challenges in communication created by substituting in-person relationships with video conferences, phone calls, emails, and instant messages – and all of the unanswered questions about protocols and practices those challenges present. Amongst all the changes associated with a new job in “normal” times, now even more mundane questions like unwritten conventions for work hours, protocol for “being online” and available outside those hours, dress codes, or language can cause added stress and anxiety.

Between his Zoom interviews and first few days at BWS, Ben wrestled with a few of these “critical questions.” Chief among them: what’s appropriate attire for the “BWS office” when that office is also the kitchen table that serves in key roles including his partner’s “office,” a dinner table, a staging area for junk mail to be recycled, and the safe-zone for his new puppy when the resident cat is spotted. In our first few weeks, we weren’t sure if all Zoom calls would incorporate video or just certain conversations. Did all client calls require video? Does that mean we should throw on a button down or a sweater – or was the t-shirt put on to take the dog out appropriate for the day’s meetings? At his old firm, many of Nick’s calls were audio-only. Adjusting to implicit “Zoom etiquette” was easy enough but seeing himself on screen for hours every day was a bit jarring – and necessitated, in his own words, a significant haircut.

While we quickly got up to speed by following the lead of our coworkers, it’s this kind of ambiguity that is bound to challenge new hires as remote onboarding becomes more commonplace. Internal communications about appropriate Zoom protocols like video and appearance will help new staff, and while a memo on company attire may seem a bit over the top, finding space for overcommunication and creating an environment where seemingly mundane details are quickly clarified, can clear potential roadblocks and help employees hit the ground running.

Building Culture & Aligning on Expectations

Without the typical conventions face-to-face interaction, seemingly minor questions like those above can take up time and mental capacity. Pair those with more traditional questions, like what is expected of new hires in their first weeks, months, or year in new roles, and you see another challenge of onboarding online. Aligning on expectations is crucial, but it may be more challenging to have frank conversations about topics that would normally arise organically in-person when operating from afar. For companies that are growing, removing workers from a collaborative office environment may complicate efforts to develop firm culture and require more dedicated planning rather than relying on organic growth.

At BWS a pre-scheduled series of open, frank, agenda-free Zoom orientation conversations with each of our new colleagues began to give us a sense of firm culture. Paired with a handful of planned virtual happy hours – BYO cocktails highly encouraged – the typical “water cooler” conversations had been replaced, and we were able to learn more about our firm’s operating style, culture, and colleagues on a more personal level. It’s still a work-in-progress, and much slower going than typical relationship building, but the integration of these conversations in the orientation process made a positive impact on our first weeks. Establishing intentional time early-on for new employees to “meet” their team will help them begin to build real relationships with colleagues that will lead to better teamwork and a sense that new hires are a part of the firm culture. As we continue to settle into the new normal, there might even be opportunities for employees to connect informally outside of work to build report or for groups to gather in some capacity – albeit with the appropriate social distance.

Setting expectations and keeping tabs on the employee experience is an additional challenge of onboarding online. In our new environment, distractions like family, pets, and roommates have forced everyone to make adjustments. Creating space for employees to juggle the responsibilities of a new job, while also taking care of themselves is vital, and firms can establish new norms that account for the unusual challenges of working from home.

To align on expectations, track capacity and monitor overall well-being, it’s key to replace traditional office-based, open-door policies with space for regular check-ins. Creating an “open-Slack” policy probably won’t cut it. Luckily, upon arrival at Breakwater, our managers offered weekly check-in calls to do just that. This time is safeguarded from distractions and interference, if possible and has served as a great space to get clarity on expectations, current projects, and to share ideas, pain points and opportunities for growth.

Going Strong

Despite the best efforts of managers and employees, beginning a new job remotely adds new challenges to the typical work of getting up to speed and contributing in the near term. Incorporating hires in day to day work is a timeless economic reality, and timelines are likely further extended when taking that challenge online.

It’s important for firms to rethink expectations, trust themselves and their hires, and set early and attainable objectives for new staff. While business success and high-quality work ultimately drive expectations, firms should be prepared to revise their definition of what success looks like in the near-term for remote hires. Establishing “quick wins,” even if they seem minor, helps a new hire build confidence, while doing the legwork of getting incorporated larger-scale projects.

As remote work continues to trend up, employees are bound to run into some of the same questions we did in their first weeks and months on the jobs. The most forward-thinking firms will reconsider existing strategies, adapt internal communications, and adjust onboarding processes to address new questions and set up their new colleagues for immediate and long-term success. In doing so, not only will organizations help employees hit the ground running, but firms that show they understand and care about the challenges facing new employees will receive outsized reputational benefits and position themselves as leaders in their field.