As if starting a new job wasn’t already daunting enough, you may now be faced with the challenge of starting a new job remotely, without ever meeting your colleagues in person. This might be happening during the coronavirus pandemic—and hey, if you’re getting hired during a global health crisis, there’s one thing to be grateful for—or after it, as more companies adopt remote work models.
If you’re new to remote work, the prospect of a virtual first week and month can bring up a lot of anxiety. Your usual tricks for proving you’re a standout hire aren’t applicable here: Gone are the days of chatting at the office microwave and reading body language. Plus, showing off a skill can be difficult when there’s not much space for spontaneous brainstorming and connection.
Still, there are some strategies you can use to underscore your value in your new role, even if you’re getting started from afar.
“Ultimately, you get ahead by getting a pulse on the culture,” says Lawrese Brown, founder of C-Track Training, a service that develops personalized learning experiences to foster trust, respect, and success in the workplace. In an in-person meeting, you’ll often get a clue into the company’s culture by observing the way in which people ask questions or how managers solicit feedback in a group setting. Without the typical IRL clues, you’ll need to readjust your strategy for getting a feel for your company’s less tangible innerworkings.
The word “culture” can be ambiguous, so here’s another way to consider it: “Culture really is about what makes you productive and how you build relationships,” Brown says. If you can tap into the nuances of an organization’s culture, you can be more effective in anything you do there and make a good impression early on. When thinking about your new company’s culture, you might try figuring out the answers to the following questions:
- How do people share ideas here? Does your company foster a “no idea is a bad idea” environment, or do people share their ideas only after they’ve formed a pitch that outlines a path to success? Gain an understanding of how creativity happens at your workplace and you’ll be better suited to portray your brilliant thoughts in their best light when the time comes. You might need to rummage through a few different Slack channels or emails to get a feel for whether your teammates work off one another’s stream-of-consciousness chats or if things tend to be a bit more formal.
- How do people ask questions here? Are your colleagues quick to ask specifics after a manager provides a prompt? Or do questions happen in one-on-one meetings? It’s wise to get a feel for how people dig for information at work. It’s possible your company fosters a nurturing hand-holding environment, but, on the other hand, leaders may prefer when employees do their research before presenting a query or problem. Understanding best practices for asking questions at your company will help you manage your time, as well as everyone else’s. And when you adapt to the company’s communication style quickly, your thoughtfulness will shine through, instead of the fact that you’re new and have a lot to learn.
- What won’t people do? “Part of culture is what people won’t do,” Brown says, adding that you can take note of this by tuning in to silence and discomfort. For example, when people share, do they interrupt one another on Zoom? When are long pauses in conversations most deafening? And what kind of moments do you notice that cause leadership to skirt a question?
Paying attention to all of this behavior can key you into your workplace’s etiquette and inform your own behavior. It will help build trust and foster connection, even if you never do meet in person. And you’ll give your colleagues a comforting sense that they’ve been working with you forever, or better yet, that they don’t know how they ever got things done without you.
In pre-pandemic, in-the-office days, small talk was possible in an endless number of settings: You and a colleague might find yourselves together in an elevator or grabbing for the same mug in the communal kitchen. We need these personal interactions, however ordinary they may seem, to build trust with one another, contribute to a greater feeling of community, and lay the foundation for productive working relationships.
But now, “there isn’t small talk,” says Art Markman, Ph.D., professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Bring Your Brain to Work: Using Cognitive Science to Get a Job, Do it Well, and Advance Your Career. Communication tends to focus on getting your needs served by another person. “With things like Zoom, everything is pretty transactional,” Markman says. “If you’re trying to onboard effectively, you need those informal interactions that are not necessarily organized to get to a particular goal.”
Combatting these types of soulless transactions can be tricky, but it is possible. Markman suggests scheduling several video meetings with people at your organization that don’t come with a specific agenda attached to them. And, importantly, you can make them 10 minutes a pop; while most calendars default to 30-minute or hour-long meetings, there’s no reason to abide by these arbitrary timeframes. Keeping it short will also take some of the pressure off.
Speaking one-to-one with a new colleague allows them to put a face and voice to your name. It’s humanizing. “A lot of interactions are email interactions and the way you write a request is generally more direct than the way you would say it if you were asking somebody for it—your tone of voice and facial expression convey something,” Markman says. “If people can’t hear your voice [in the email] because they don’t know you very well, everything becomes more direct and less friendly.”
As a new remote employee, Markman says, you need to humanize yourself to your colleagues. “You want to make sure you’re recognized as somebody whose requests are worth responding to,” he says. When you develop a rapport with your colleagues, they’ll recognize you as a human being who shouldn’t be ignored rather than a digital entity they can easily dismiss. You’ll be able to spend less time wrangling responses and have more to show for your work, which will convey to your new boss and team that you’re someone who can build relationships quickly and get things done.
As eager as you may be to get some virtual facetime in with everyone on your team, you’ve got to read the (virtual) room. Some people may be receptive to an invitation to a Zoom party of two, while others may prefer talking over the phone or messaging by chat. This new type of remote work “asks people to take initiative to value connection in ways they didn’t have to at the office,” Brown says. “Now we’re saying [connection] has to be fostered and intentional.” While connection is critical for an organization to perform effectively, the means by which people feel most connected isn’t one-size-fits-all.
What you don’t want is for your enthusiasm for your new role to come off as a nuisance rather than a benefit. While you are deserving of more time and guidance when you first start a job, you’ll want to remember that most companies are still figuring out the kinks in making the onboarding and remote work experience beneficial for everyone. And for some people, this process has been exhausting: Workers who went remote during the pandemic faced high rates of burnout, so you’ll want to be cautious in respecting your colleagues’ time and comfort levels.
If a colleague seems iffy about meeting by video, offer a few other ways the two of you could get to know each other. Making a good impression isn’t just a matter of how you tackle your job duties; it’s also about how you treat the people around you. Being mindful of their boundaries and preferences will show them that you’re perceptive and considerate. Plus, it will help them feel more authentic in their relationship with you and, ultimately, reduce the feeling of transactionality in your relationship.
The comfort and trust you build is what ultimately cements your value as a team member and makes your colleagues grateful to have you on their side. Here’s another tip that can help you get there.
Brown says you can make conversation feel, well, conversational, by focusing on something that your coworker shared during a meeting. Something like, “Hi, I was so excited by that idea you mentioned today, I would love to hear how you first came up with it,” will be received better than a standard, “Hi, how are you?” The former is more likely to make your counterpart feel engaged in the conversation and believe you are engaged in the work. When you communicate that you want to learn more, you’re showing your human side and permitting your colleague to do the same.
Don’t be so quick to try this move on everyone, though, especially if you don’t really mean what you say. You want to make sure you’re being authentic in your interactions. “‘Authentic’ can feel broad, but think about what you really care about and connect with people on those values,” Brown says. “The trust will come.”
A connector is “someone who knows all the people you should know in order to make things happen,” Markman explains. Whether you’re remote or in the office, putting in time and effort to build a real relationship with that person who seems to know just about everyone is one terrific ticket to success: If you get this person on your side, you’ll be able to accomplish a lot at work, and that won’t go unnoticed.
You can (and should) ask your manager or a peer who they consider the connectors in the company to be, and then make a point to build a relationship with them by humanizing yourself through the techniques mentioned on this list.
If it feels like you don’t have room to store a big bag of tricks up your sleeve to impress your new team from a distance, remember: You were hired for a reason. You’ve already proven your value in the interview process. Consider your first few months on the job an opportunity to build relationships. Your new coworkers will comprehend what an asset you are to the team—and you’ll probably be happier, too.