When starting a new job means... crossing your living room
It’s Sunday night. You set out a nice shirt, you even iron it for a change. Maybe you add something else: earrings or a tie. Pulling open one more drawer, you contemplate the final item, and settle on… your best sweatpants.
After all, tomorrow marks the start of a new job, but you’re not leaving your house, and your colleagues will see you from the shoulders up, a new head on their video calls.
What is it like to start a new job in a virtual world? How do you get to know your new colleagues and learn about the all-important ‘company culture’? Wait, what even is company culture right now? What should you be doing in your first weeks to begin to settle in?
While it can be easy to focus on the transactional and dive right into the job to be done, you’ll get much farther in the long run by exploring the above questions. Based on my work supporting teams in building strong communities, here are five things you can do to immerse in your new work world.
1. Begin by ‘looking in.’
Set up one-on-one time with as many of your new colleagues as you can. Aim for an hour, so it’s not rushed. Approach this time not as a way to learn what work is happening, but to learn about them. Ask questions like:
What was your path to getting to this point in your career?
When was the moment you knew that you wanted to work here?
What do you hope to achieve by working here?
What keeps you energized outside of work?
And share your answers, too. You’re discussing less about the particulars of the job and more about motivation — who you both are as people. This will get you a long way later.
When I worked at design firm IDEO, we would do this at the start of every advisory relationship. It helped us get the measure of the people and the place. Knowing everyone’s hopes for their own careers helped us to help them. And, it’s surprising what an accurate picture of an organization — including its strengths and its foibles — you can get by starting with motivational questions rather than tactical ones.
2. Bring your whole self — somebody has to be vulnerable first!
It can be harder in a virtual world to develop more meaningful relationships. Whether with friends or colleagues, real connection comes through vulnerability. Think about when you first bonded with your best friend: chances are it was in a moment of challenge or a shared trouble.
Everyone you meet will have work wobbles and uncertainties, but rarely will they come out of the gate with them. If you share your own such stories, it makes it so much easier for others to contribute theirs.
What does vulnerability look like at work? It can be honesty about things like:
A time you failed at a project
Changing career paths and having to start over
A job that was all wrong for you and what it felt like to show up there daily
Even getting laid off (increasingly common in the pandemic, reducing the stigma immensely)
And why is vulnerability important at work? Haven’t we been hired for our strengths? While whole books have been written on that, the short answer is: we build strong relationships through mutual trust. Trust begins understanding each other.
Understanding comes from shared emotions: a series of rapid promotions yields pride and joy, a fallout with a boss surfaces shame and faltering confidence. While not everyone has had rapid promotions or fallings out with bosses, I’ve yet to meet someone who hasn’t felt pride, joy, shame, or faltering confidence. More than experiences we’ve been through, it’s shared emotions that connect us.
3. Get curious about culture — sideways.
In addition to getting to know the people, you want to know what makes this place tick - what are the stories of lore? What are its imperfections?
But asking people to talk about the company culture makes them grasp for whatever’s on the website. You don’t want what’s on the website. You want what it really feels like.
Instead, ask this: what’s a story that encapsulates the spirit of this organization for you?
When I worked for IDEO, that story was this: to support a client in agriculture, I traveled with my colleagues to rural India, to a small city about which even my Indian colleagues had to ask for information (the response was a mystical ‘intense village, bro!’). It’s not an exaggeration to say that it was a planes, trains, and automobiles adventure to get there.
Our team was able to make a real difference in that community with our work. And early one morning, I joined one of my teammates on a walk through the village. As we ambled the dusty streets, we met people I’d never otherwise have had the chance to meet. When we stopped for chai (traditional Indian tea), my friend facilitated a conversation between me and some local women (he spoke their language, I did not). While the full tale is much longer and richer, the short story is this: at IDEO, I was able to have positive impact on people’s lives and had access to experiences that would have otherwise been completely out of reach for me.
You’d find none of that on the website.
4. Design your own opening ritual.
Speaking of culture, many companies are struggling to port their in-person culture into the virtual world, leading to gaps. In virtual meetings, many rush straight into tactics, losing the opportunity to get to know people (and their motivations) better.
When helping companies to create new products, designers always start with this question: what do customers really need? Because customers are people, the most successful products consider not just tactical needs (e.g., I need to save for retirement) but emotional needs (e.g., I feel behind in saving, so I’m going to put this off because thinking about it makes me feel ashamed).
Guess what? Our colleagues are people, too. And they always have both practical and emotional drivers at work. Those first few minutes of every meeting are a great way to get a sense of what’s going on in their lives that may be impacting how they show up at work. Chatting is not just social, but a real benefit to working well together.
To start with people not tactics, design your own opening ritual. Pick a thought-provoking question and ask it while everyone’s arriving (it can help to call out specific individuals). Don’t announce it, just do it.
Some questions include:
What’s inspiring you right now?
Tell me about an object in your space and why it’s there (either point to an object or have them pick one, like the newest)
What’s the best thing you learned during the pandemic?
5. Set good boundaries.
While much of immersion is learning about the place and the people you’ve joined, this is also a great time to establish who you are in this new world. Now —at the very beginning of a new job — is the time to decide what boundaries you want to set.
If you join a company with a four-day work week, ask yourself: are Fridays really off limits for work? If you have small children, are early evenings spent with your kids? If so, block your calendar immediately. It’s far easier to create a boundary where there is none than to move a line already etched in the sand.
It may help to think about what you are saying with those guardrails. In my business, I stress the importance of recharge as critical to productivity. When I’m out of the office, I need to be out, not ‘available for emergencies by text’. Rarely is anything in the business world an actual emergency (barring a disaster that puts peoples’ lives at risk). Acting otherwise would erode what I stand for.
Boundary-setting applies to your working rhythm as well. Are you best focused on strategic work early in the day? Block out your mornings. Do you need a recharge to avoid the afternoon slump? Put a calendar hold in the early afternoon to take a walk or do what you need to to reset.
To set good guardrails, consider:
What are my boundaries between work and home life?
What is the setup under which I flourish at work (when to focus, when to recharge, etc)?
What constitutes impact for me at work and what are the conditions that make me most likely to achieve it (or, on what am I judged and how do I best deliver)?
While there will be meetings you need to attend and the considerations that go with collaboration, you start way ahead by being clear on your own needs. This is not selfish. You know what supports you in giving your best at the office: incorporate it from the get go.
BONUS: Be Danish.
We end with a way to make a small impact on the people and the place in your first week. In Denmark, tradition is to bring your own birthday cake to the office. In that spirit, think about your favorite welcome ritual (at work or elsewhere) and bring that! You’ll be letting people know a little about you — and evolving traditions a teensy bit. It might help to think about what you hope to experience culturally and use this as a chance to experiment.
When I joined IDEO in London, my very first ‘meeting’ was breakfast with my two new mentors at a yummy café where we chatted about how to be successful. The message that sent was cultural, not only in the advice they gave (‘find your key collaborators’) but in the choice of setting and pace. A virtual version could be to send favorite breakfast foods to a colleague or two with whom you want to build a relationship and plan a morning meeting with them. And in our Singapore office, we used to welcome new team members by doing escape rooms, a brilliant way to get to know people and to develop trust.
As you read through these ways to settle into a new job — or to help ease the path for a new hire — what may become apparent is that, while they speak directly to our work-from-home world, they’re smart steps to take in any new job. How many of us approached our last new job with such thoughtfulness?
So, whether your next first day has you pulling out sweatpants, jeans or even a suit, consider being intentional about how you get to know the people and the company, and how you want to structure your days to give your best.
Amy Bonsall is the founder and CEO of nau, a business focused on increasing the humanity in workplaces. She’s also an IDEO alumna and she’s training to be a meditation teacher. Sign up to receive new posts directly in your inbox.