Social Onboarding in the Age of Remote Working
How the social aspects of joining a new team have changed since we started to work completely remotely
Socially speaking, starting a new job is a lot like going to a new school mid-year. At first, the only thing that you have in common with your classmates is the classes you take while they have an entire social system and hierarchy that you have no clue about. You don’t know any of the slang, or who is friends with who and you have no idea what happens during break time. On top of that, all the inside jokes get lost on you the moment they’re brought up. It takes some time and considerable effort for you to manage into a social group and learn how to navigate your way around the new school and its underlying jungle rules. And it’s important to do so, because if you don’t you’re missing out from a huge part of the school experience, not to mention, it’s also very lonely.
Similarly, joining a new team shares some of these qualities — maybe not on the same scale, as things are hopefully less intense than they were back at school and the need for social belonging is not as prominent, but nonetheless a workplace is still a “miniature of society” in a lot of the ways a school is. There’s always a team of people who get along well with each other, the ones who are not very approachable, or the ones who care a lot about their football teams; and then there are the inside jokes and past incidents that get attached on specific people and are frequently mentioned in meetings, or the common understanding about situations or persons that are not explicitly shared, but nonetheless known across the company. And of course, there are your potential allies and friends, who are waiting patiently for you to discover them, and fill the void of your meme-less workday with… well yeah, memes.
Existing for (at least) eight hours a day in a shared space with a group of people, however big or small, is often enough to get to know the people that you are working with, even on a basic level. It happens during water-cooler chat with people from other departments who you wouldn’t have talked with otherwise, it happens during endless meetings with your team, it happens on recruiting people for coffee breaks when you decide to try the new artisan coffee place next door, and it happens on Friday beer gatherings at the pub down the street and Christmas parties where after a couple of drinks you can finally see everyone’s true colours. I call that last one “initiation ceremony”, because after surviving something like that you can’t but be officially a member of the shared collective.
Of course, all this happens on the premise of a “shared belonging” in a very much physical sense, in a situation where people are actually people with bodies walking around a building, and not green dots on a sidebar or rectangular videos from the waste up. That is exactly why, joining a new team remotely, under the current circumstances is a particularly interesting social endeavour with a particular set of challenges and opportunities.
I was lucky enough to have joined an amazing new company recently that cares a lot about the wellbeing of its employees, and I gathered some observations on what is like to join a new team mid-pandemic, from a psychosocial perspective (as one does). And as remote working is proving to be a way of working that is here to stay, it’s worth exploring some of the social aspects and challenges we are called to learn how to navigate.
Knowing thyself and thycolleagues
The need to work entirely remotely has fundamentally changed the perception of what is “worthy of knowing” for a person you’re working with these days. It’s almost funny how much more we know about our teammates now that we’re all working from our homes, without knowing much at all — we get glimpses into other people’s homes, we know who they live with and how many pets they have, which during different times would be borderline TMI material, but at the same time we know too little about them and how they are as everyday people.
And it’s not like we spend less time with our colleagues than before — we still spend a considerable amount of our day chatting with them on Slack or being “online” in the same space they are while existing in a completely different social situation.
I know, random information about people like who is into football and who is into horror films might not seem relevant for you to do your job right (and most likely they’re not) but at the same time it’s very useful when you want to establish a social connection with anyone, let alone people you are just now getting to know. It could also prove to be useful when you have to write birthday wishes to one of them or choose someone to DM the funny comment you were dying to make on something that was said on the previous meeting. Saying “I owe you a coffee” to someone you don’t even know how (or if) they drink their coffee seems a lot less personal of an offer when you want to ask someone a favour or thank them for something.
Likeability & Performance
“Do these people even like me?” is a valid question that can come to mind more frequently now that we only know each other from the waste up in 15' heavily structured meetings and repeated “did you do anything nice over the weekend” kind of questions. It’s hard to say, especially when joining already formed teams (that may or may not know each other in real life too) — a lot like joining an online game, it’s much easier to form your own group with people you know offline, or join a completely new one, than just jumping in an already formed group that has been playing together for months. In order to get “accepted” in such a group, you have to prove that you are a good player, say something that will be considered funny or relevant according to the preset social cues made by the group, and avoid messing up all in the span of the first couple of games or so.
We are a lot more forgiving to minor mistakes or awkward situations when they come up offline rather than online — mostly because online everything happens faster and in a more target-concentrated way.
We are going in calls for a specific reason, we talk because we have something to say or ask, we reach out because we have an end-goal, there’s a lack of organic interaction that rushes decisions such as “this person is good or bad at their job” and slows down decisions such as “this person is likeable”.
When joining a new team remotely it’s really hard to figure out if you’re doing ok according to the set standards — you don’t know what the set standards are. Like when you join a new school and you have no way of knowing if all of your classmates are A* students or if they’re all repeating the class. You don’t know if they are extremely competitive or if they thrive when working together. It’s not easy to infer these things the first time you meet them, and it’s definitely not easy to do so when you only see them and talk with them in very particular and structured 30 minute settings where the goal is to go around a circle and say what they have been working on.
Sense of Belonging & Identity
A widely accepted notion in the study of human psychology, is that people’s well-being is inextricably linked with the connection to others.
A sense of belonging can help people experience psychological stability, life satisfaction, and meaning.
And although the effects of belonging are generally overlooked in places outside our “personal lives”, research has shown that feeling excluded at work can have adverse effects not only on the employers but on companies as well, like a higher rate of turnover and a significant increase in sick day taking. According to a 2019 study published in Harvard Business Review, feeling isolated at work can lead to lower organisational commitment and engagement, yet 40% of people reported feeling just that, regardless of the millions of dollars spent every year on diversity and inclusion initiatives. Now, if we amplify the isolation with current terms with the world being isolated in all areas, I wonder how the numbers add up in 2021.
Tackling feelings of exclusion in the workplace include giving attention to things like enabling the building of allyships, using empathetic ways to create experiences that can include everyone and make people feel like they are part of something together, encouraging healthy interactions between teams etc. Naturally, when working together in a physical spaces, opportunities to foster such initiatives can also happen organically, but when everyone is working remotely it requires careful planning and organisation, walking on a delicate balance: do too little and people might feel isolated and excluded, do too much and you’re treading in “zoom fatigue” territory.
A sense of belonging also comes from a shared sense of being — identifying with what you’re doing or where you are. However boring or temporary a gig might be (be it working at a coffee shop to pay for college, or working in retail because we are millennials and the economic crisis is not a joke, or working in a company in the field that you studied but not in the area of your interest) the amount of time spent doing just that is too much to escape adapting part of your identity. Whether it’s by identifying as part of a team (that makes the job suck less), or as part of the company’s goal (because you support what they’re trying to achieve), or as part of a general, bigger understanding of “what is like working in retail” or “what is like working in corporate” a part of yourself is destined to be connected, at least for the time being, with the job that you currently hold. And, believe it or not “another millennial with anxiety, bad posture, and an affinity for coffee, spending 18 hours a day in front of a screen” is a very good example of what this is. A shared identity does not have to be cultivated under the same physical space (even though it helps), and it’s one of the easiest things that can help you feel part of something and relate with your team during when you join.
Everything aside, joining a new team remotely during a global pandemic can do stuff to your mental health that joining a new team under normal circumstances wouldn’t do, starting with the anxiety that comes with the need to perform well and for this to be acknowledged, even more so than before — I think everyone acknowledges that finding a job during these times is incredibly hard, therefore it comes with additional expectations and additional stress to “not f*ck it up”. Adding this to the general isolation and complete reshaping of what work-life balance means, things can get messy pretty fast. When you work where you sleep, and when the “new environment” just means “new work laptop, probably identical with the previous one just owned by a different company” the mental capacity needed to be productive and also sane doubles. I mean, Headspace is cool, but I think we’re asking too much of it sometimes.
Becoming part of a team is an elaborate process and sometimes it can take some time, especially when it happens remotely. It doesn’t end after the presentations of the teams end or after the first couple of weeks when everyone stops checking on the newbie and expects them to be fully adjusted and acclimated. There are a lot of ways to accommodate these new social needs on top of the technical aspects that need to be taken care off (and are challenging on their own) with virtual onboarding, some of which I was very glad to experience with my own onboarding when I joined a new team in March:
- Buddy System
I got assigned a buddy even before I officially started, they sent me an email letting me know that they will be my “buddy” and will virtually show me around as well as be my point of contact for any support I might need when I started. It was really cool to know that something like that was in place, and that there was someone who I could go with “noob” questions and potentially become friends with. I must admit, I didn’t really talk to my buddy much after my first couple of weeks (mostly because I didn’t want to annoy them) but I find the whole system a genius way to get to know people and not feel lost.
- Virtual Coffees
One of the things I appreciated the most during my first couple of weeks, was people messaging me on Slack to introduce themselves and tell me to reach out if I needed anything, as well as offer 15–30' virtual coffees to get to know each other. I met a lot of people who I wouldn’t have the chat to meet otherwise this way, and it was a great way for me to feel included and accepted as part of the wider team. It doesn’t have to be a long meeting or a structured one — just saying “hello” and talking a bit about yourself (in whatever context) can do the trick just fine.
- Frequent all teams meetings
I doubt that many people will be with me on this, as everyone loves to hate these meetings, but for a newbie it was (and still is) a great way to get in contact with the people who we don’t interact with frequently, at least by associating faces on the screen with names. Additionally it gives you perspective on the context of the team, how big it is, the dynamics, and it’s a good way to talk about wider issues and engage in fun activities. For example break rooms consisting of 3–4 people who don’t work together as a team with light prompts for discussion were also very useful to get to know some people better and start forming connections.
- Checking in (even later on)
It was with great surprise that I received a meeting invitation from the HR by the end of my first month with the company. By then I expected that my onboarding had finished and I had already started to feel like a regular member of the team rather than an absolute newbie. It was really nice to see that they still wanted to make sure I was finding everything okay, ask whether I needed help or support with anything and gather my impressions for my first few weeks of the wider team.
We are a social species; even when we’re working we’re creating all those little rituals that help us be more productive and feel more included: workshops, and meetings, and lunch breaks, and away days — because if we don’t we are going to crumble under the pressure of work without meaning, task without soul. And yeah, meetings suck many times, and zoom fatigue is a real thing, and some of the people only go to work to to their job and leave (which is fine but also less of the norm than we think), and there is no possible way to be liked by everyone or reduce all possible friction, but: it’s important to remember that we are also human and a big part of what makes us human is a need and an ability to form social bonds that can assist our mental and physical labour. Catering to this early on, and adapting it to the current circumstances can only enhance our experiences as team members both from the newbies point of view and the wider team’s.