Starting a new role can make you feel like a stranger in a foreign land. HRM spoke to someone who is actually a foreigner trying to onboard during isolation.
All good employers know onboarding is not a quick process. By most estimates it should go on for three to six months. In fact, according to some experts it should last the new hire’s first year with the company.
I started with the HRM editorial team in February, I was working at the office for three and a half weeks before COVID-19 social distancing required the whole office to work from home. Unsurprisingly, my onboarding was a bit disrupted when the company had much larger issues to deal with – i.e. relocating an entire workforce.
On the other side of the world, is someone in a similar situation. Tim (name changed to protect his privacy) is an Australian who recently moved to Canada with his partner. After spending Christmas in Europe, the young couple were excited to start their new lives in Vancouver. Tim landed a dream gig with a video game company. But things have been a nightmare since.
“There had been a COVID scare in the building, the week before I started, so my immediate boss, the team I was supposed to join and some others were all told to work from home.
“Because of the scare, the people who were supposed to handle my onboarding weren’t actually in the office. So I didn’t even have a place to sit.
“They didn’t come back until four days after I started. That’s when I got a desk.”
A week after finally getting a desk, Tim’s office was told to pack up and start working from home.
HRM has previously covered how to onboard remotely, but best practice and reality are two different things. Sometimes processes are halted or forgotten about in the face of a crisis.
This article is about someone who fell through the cracks of his workplace. It’s about how giving someone a computer and a few manuals isn’t enough to make them feel welcome, which means it isn’t enough for them to start being productive. And it’s a lesson all companies need to know about just how important socialising is for onboarding.
Who’s who in the zoo?
When starting a new role that it can feel like everyone around you is an expert and you’re oblivious. Sometimes that feeling can persist (hello imposter syndrome) but more frequently it fades as you become accustomed to your place in the organisation and talk to more people. But Tim’s feeling lasted for some time.
“There were a lot of people who had just started before I started. I thought they’d been there for years but then you hear them say something incorrect and you realise, ‘Oh they only know as much as I do.’
“We didn’t have that office chit chat when you uncover these kinds of things. You begin to realise these people you rely on to know the business are really in the same boat as you.”
As Tim points out, there is so much you find out about a workplace by socialising with your colleagues and these randomly supplied bits of information can be surprisingly important. An onboarding document tells you how things are supposed to work. But your colleagues and manager are the ones who tell you how things actually work.
They tell you such information as who to ask about certain things, who keeps panadol in their handbag, and where to find the best pens.
But if you’ve been onboarded virtually, it feels too forward to send a message to a colleague just to ask how long they’ve been working at the company.
This might seem like unimportant information, but research shows that it has a huge impact on an employee’s perception of their new job. As HRM has written before, this type of socialisation might actually be a prerequisite for employees to experience a ‘honeymoon’ phase of employment – where job satisfaction skyrockets in the early days.
No time to relax
Along with knowing nothing about the private lives of your colleagues, when you only see them at work, you only know their “work persona”.
“Without socialising in an office, everyone just seems professional all the time. Everyone puts on their professional face during Zoom meetings. You don’t get the other side.”
Often the relaxed side of someone is only revealed at after-work social events or a team lunch. It’s only when you’re not talking shop that your colleagues begin to seem like normal, flawed humans.
When you’re only seeing people on a computer screen the chance to find out who they are as a person vanishes almost completely.
Socialisation in isolation
The truth is that this period of mandatory isolation is happening in a time where loneliness was already a societal problem. In a study from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, published in late 2019, it cited research that found one in three people experienced loneliness between 2001-2009 and one in four people are currently experiencing an episode of loneliness.
A few weeks ago I raised with my HR representative that I was feeling a bit lonely at work and felt I didn’t know much about my colleagues. Without any hesitation, HR and my editor helped me work out how to socialise in a socially distant world. This was made easier by the fact our company already had a few socialisation structures in place.
Unfortunately, for Tim though while some of these structures do exist, they haven’t been implemented in an accessible way.
“There’s a ‘Beer and Cheer’ Zoom meeting on Friday, but that includes the entire North American headquarters, so it gets pretty huge. They’re more of a show [than a meeting]. They recently had an American talk show host in one of them talking about how much he loves our games.
“There are apparently events in the office that haven’t been translated online. No one’s made the effort to do something on a smaller scale.“
A cynic might ask, well why doesn’t Tim arrange something? To that, I would remind you how it feels to be in a new company.
As part of my approach to remedy not knowing many of my colleagues, I decided to reach out and invite some coworkers to hang out online.
I was so nervous about asking that I went to my editor first to see if it was OK to even ask people this. Maybe that sounds a little pathetic, but the social rules are out the window now. When you don’t get a chance to learn a company’s culture knowing what’s acceptable is even more confusing.
And, in Tim’s case, he’s not only new to the company but new to the country.
“Part of me feels a bit neglected but because I don’t really know the culture, I don’t know how much socialising my team specifically does. I just haven’t had that opportunity.”
Right now it feels like there is light at the end of the social isolation tunnel. Some states have relaxed restrictions and even our company is starting to have the conversation about what moving back to the office looks like.
Tim says he’s excited to get back and to take advantage of the perks it offers. ”When you’re working from home, that free gym membership means nothing. I know a lot of people in the office would play football over lunch, that’s gone at the moment, obviously. I’m keen to get involved with that stuff.”
Not long ago I think I would have been quite hesitant to return. I feared it would feel like my first day all over again. But thankfully, through good management, I won’t feel like that. I’ve had an opportunity to get to know my colleagues as real humans and I feel I’ll return, not as the newbie, but a member of the team.