Cait Gillespie started her job as a senior production planner at Calvin Klein in January, the deadliest month of the pandemic. After months of virtual meetings with new bosses and co-workers, she anxiously awaits the day of their first in-person introductions.
“It’s so funny because I don’t know what to expect,” she says. “Do we hug? Do we give each other a handshake? Will these people be taller than me or shorter than me? It’s so strange.”
Gillespie, 27, is one of thousands of workers who’ve started a new job during the Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, according to a survey of 2 million U.S. adults by research firm AnalyticsIQ, roughly 28% of working-age Americans changed jobs last year. This segment of the workforce is charting a course through unknown territory, facing previously unheard-of workplace assimilation challenges.
For Gillespie, the key to fitting in from afar has been constant communication. “That’s the only way you are going to learn,” she says. “It’s scary when we are all so isolated.”
Toni Irving, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, knows the feeling all too well. Irving started her current position last June and says her remote orientation and first few weeks on the job were “a little disorienting and frustrating.”
Without opportunities to spontaneously meet new colleagues while walking to a meeting or grabbing a cup of coffee, those who’ve started new jobs remotely are automatically at a disadvantage socially, she says. Instead, they’ve had to make connections in a more formal way, scheduling time on co-workers’ calendars. While initially daunting, this may actually lead to more meaningful relationships in the long run.
“There is a newfound familiarity people are having with one another as a result of this,” Irving says. “People are now in hoodies and T-shirts; you see their cat. You become acclimated to the personalizations of their life on Zoom that you wouldn’t have otherwise had access to.”
Upon returning to the office, Jennifer Chatman, a professor at Berkeley Haas, says employees who started while remote should make an effort to reach out to their colleagues and make face-to-face connections.
“They should absolutely seek to introduce themselves to as many folks as they have established relationships with as possible as quickly as possible. Get to know them all the way,” she says. “We don’t know how tall people are; we don’t know what they like to eat for lunch; we don’t know anything about them, really.”
But employers have a role to play, too. Irving cautions companies against taking virtual onboarding for granted, recommending that human resources managers create a “2.0 onboarding” program to help pandemic-era hires adjust to life in the office.
And as important as it will be for leaders to check in with their new workers, they’d be wise to do so with all employees, especially those who took on managerial roles while remote. The office return can offer leadership an opportunity to recognize them for their heroic efforts during the pandemic and think more deeply about their corporate culture.
“In some ways, all employees are a little bit new right now. People have been gone for a long time,” Chatman says. “It’s almost like being given the gift of a second chance.”