After over a year now since the initial shift to remote working due to covid restrictions, companies have come to grips with working as virtual teams, conducting remote meetings, and being productive despite their people working from home. Much of the previous office environment has been replicated in a remote working environment too.
However, as new employees are now onboarding, likely for the first time in a year or so, companies are having to try and replicate a company culture to new staff in a way they have never had to before – remotely. Having an organizational culture means all employees have a set of shared assumptions, meanings, values, norms, and expected ways of interacting. Despite being implicit, it has a strong impact on employee behavior, well-being, and productivity.
But, are companies struggling to replicate this?
Typically, an employee will have a pre-conceived notion of a company’s culture, which will be developed over time through the recruitment and selection process, and further confirmed or challenged in the onboarding experience. However, the disruption caused by the coronavirus crisis has changed all of that.
With the abrupt movement to remote hiring and socialization, online-only interactions have become the new reality for many employees. Traditional ways of experiencing and learning organizational culture have largely vanished. Formal introductions still take place, but the cultural cues gained over a cup of coffee, on a trip to visit a customer, or on a walk from the office to the subway are not there.
So, how can companies replicate this in a virtual world?
In my teaching, coaching, and consulting practice, I am hearing from leaders who are fearful about what these challenges will mean for the future culture of their teams. I am also hearing from managers and their new team members about the strategies they are now using and find helpful in their culture transmission and learning efforts. The academic jury is still out on the effectiveness of these approaches, but these experiments may help people learn and embrace culture under today’s new working conditions.
Roll out the virtual red carpet
If your organization doesn’t have a formal welcome event for new hires, consider creating one. Think about the resources that will help them get to know the company, its history, and values. Have a package of information about the company’s strategy, key client analytics, product portfolio, etc. If possible, organize a virtual tour of production facilities or offices in the relevant geographical areas. Make sure to share what, in your private opinion, sets the company apart. Add a few personal comments from leaders and a selection of employees through pre-recorded videos or live streams.
Set culture learning targets
Spend time with the newcomer in establishing objectives for the onboarding period. Include in the plan the expectations about developing relationships, acquiring specific knowledge, and getting up to speed on tasks. Make sure that you leave some room for the new hire’s own onboarding objectives and culture learning tasks. Agree on the rhythm of check-ins and ways of asking for help and support.
Draw the map
Understanding and navigating organizational relationships are critical for newcomer success. An actual map of these connections can be drawn from internal sources – such as a role description, workgroups, and committees, or documents related to a job handover – and from external ones, such as contracts with a supplier or information about a relationship with a critical client. Review the map with the newcomer in detail, including the basic norms and principles of interactions therein (e.g., the degree of formality in communication). Using this map to make personal (online) introductions will help them and the others start on the right foot.
Organize a ride-along
Think about taking the newcomer with you to (virtual) meetings that would help them better understand your plans and concerns. Let the person “shadow” you in interactions at your level so that they quickly see the bigger picture, recognize the way you work with others, and get a glimpse into the power and politics of the organization. If appropriate, have the newcomer shadow customer calls or virtual visits. Run a debrief discussion with a newcomer after the event.
Bring in a buddy
Coach the existing team on their role in onboarding the newcomers. Ask for volunteers to serve as a “buddy” for the person, but don’t leave it completely to them on how to serve in the role. Ask for their ideas on how they could have benefited from having a “buddy,” and add some of your own expectations for the process.
Become a storyteller
Share (and invite your team to share) with the newcomer some stories about people, clients, products, or critical moments that have had an impact on you, the team, and the organization. Incidents that have triggered strong emotional reactions, such as extreme pride and joy, can be especially compelling. Add these stories to some of your regular team meetings or individual check-ins, or organize “story time” as a dedicated, virtual, team-building activity. You may also want to bring in members from another function or part of the organization to share their stories.
Listen to what they say about you
When supporting or denying a request, agreeing with the newcomer’s ideas, or asking them to do something differently, provide an explanation, and, when doing so, try to make a connection to the cultural aspects that you want them to learn. At the same time, don’t shy away from discussing with the newcomer what they find positive or challenging in their learning of the organizational culture and adjustment to the new work reality. Ask about what they have noticed and how, in their opinion, culture plays out in the work-life of your team and organization. Don’t miss an opportunity to see if there is something in the culture of the organization that might become an obstacle to future success.
We have not yet reached our “post-COVID” future. These strategies on how to transmit cultural norms and create positive connections with an organization’s culture are thus still experiments. In all respects, however, giving your time and attention now to newcomer socialization can give you insight on how your organization’s culture is going and may strengthen the culture of your future organization, regardless of the future setup (online, offline, or hybrid) of your team.