Onboarding the Remote Worker
Following on from Andrew’s blog last week about onboarding the remote worker – what do we need to do differently to ensure success?
Well, in general terms, we have exactly the same objectives: we need to welcome the new person to the team, ensure they quickly feel that they belong and are connected to their co-workers, give them the tools and expectations (policies, processes, equipment, permissions and boundaries) for them to be able to do their job, and the opportunity to learn and fit into the culture while simultaneously learning what and how to actually do what you hired them to do.
So, what has changed? In the office environment, we can ‘wing it’; people are sat in close proximity to each other – seeing and hearing. This is a great environment for spontaneity – both in terms of asking questions or checking other people are OK. We can compensate for technical issues, lack of clarity about process or tasks by dealing with issues as they arise – mini fire-fights if you will. In the standardising environment of an office, people quickly learn and become part of the culture – we learn from each other, it’s part of our survival instinct as we fit in and find our place. However, in the remote environment, it is easy for people to be out of sight and out of mind and our exposure to people tends to be in short bursts while looking through a screen. In our remote work environment, while we are striving to achieve the same things, we need to be more conscious of what we are about, bring in a little more rigour, process and discipline to our communications - both the means and content.
There are 5 points to consider when onboarding a new remote employee – although this is just good practice for any employee – whether office based or remote:
Develop a good Psychological Contract. Onboarding starts during the recruitment process, perhaps when someone first visits your website or even from first contact with your brand; at this time it is crucial to create a good psychological contract. The psychological contract comprises the expectations you create for and of each other during your interactions and discussions. Set very clear expectations for your new hire and understand what the new hire expects of you. It is important to let your prospective new hire know what it will be like to work remotely for your company – what support they will get, how they will work, explore how the realities of the ‘home office’ will fit into the needs of the company. Ensure you keep to your end of the psychological contract; your employee will be watching.
Remote workers are not ‘standard human units’. Let’s move on from thinking of humans as resources – and consider them first and foremost as people – and they are all different and in many different ways. By allowing people to work from home, we have taken away some of the ‘standardising’ effect that an office provides, and so we need to accept that that our remote worker will be more free to develop the working environment that suits them and makes them more productive. This has many benefits for both the company and the worker. It’s not for everyone, and the recruitment process should look for people that will thrive in this sort of environment. Working with a ‘less standardised person’ can also be a challenge for some manager-leaders.
It’s all about leadership. Leadership is all about ‘influencing’ a fellow human being (or any living creature for that matter). However, to do that effectively, we need to be able to get a good read on our people. When we are physically remote from each other, seeing each other on a 2-dimensional screen, seeing people only from the shoulders up, and for short burst of time, we have to pay extra careful attention to understanding what is happening inside their heads. This has become known as Emotional Intelligence. The new employee will take extra investment of time to build the relationship. But this is not just a boss – employee consideration; all staff have got to have the skills and invest the time needed to build the inter-personal connections – sideways as well as up and down in an organisation. A leader’s role is to create psychologically safe environment in which their people work and learn – wherever they are.
Learning is a verb. People learn best from other people and especially so if they are ‘doing’ what they are trying to learn. This is how children learn and it is the principle on which apprenticeships are based. We have to increasingly set an expectation with our workforce, not just our new employees, that learning is everyone’s responsibility and it is an ongoing thing. We have to set up our actual and virtual workspaces to accommodate ongoing learning – we have to give people permission to learn on an ongoing basis and also to support others’ learning. It is OK not to know, it is OK to ask questions, it is OK to share what you know – doing this also has the positive side-effect of establishing connection and the sense of belonging. For our new remote employee, we need to provide a framework, syllabus or program with some initial information about where to find some of the learning content and then set them off to explore and play, learn by doing - whether that is talking to co-workers, customers or the IT department. We need to allow them some additional time to explore; we need to have regular review sessions with them to help them consolidate what they are learning. This may sound like a high overhead, but this type of learning builds higher levels of competency quicker and more sustainably; it also creates a more motivated employee.
Communicate thoroughly – but don't overdo it. In a 2019 survey of remote workers, the top 2 issues identified were unplugging, loneliness. These can be addressed by good communication: unplugging can be helped by setting clear expectations (and guidance) about company policy with regard to working times, separation of office from home, regular discussions about progress and assuring an employee that a task is complete; loneliness can be countered by regular, scheduled individual or team check-ins where some time is spent re-establishing and maintaining human bonds - this doesn't have to take long and will vary from occasion to occasion. The key is not to overdo the communication – recent studies of remote workers have discovered that it is far more effective to have short bursts of communication where questions are asked, and solutions or answers discussed in a focused conversation and then the worker is left to get on with the task. Compare this to being in constant Q&A communication, ie through a messaging app, where simple questions are asked. This is exactly the same phenomena that occurs with any form of constant interruption - including the ‘always on’ Social Media – where a deep state of thought (and hence creativity and productivity) is evaded.
And so ... There is nothing really new in this. This is all good management practice. In an increasingly remote working world, we have to become more conscious and conscientious about doing what comes naturally to us as humans. They key is to see and operate our workplaces whether they are physical, virtual or some combination, as learning environments – whether for existing or new staff. The company that learns faster than the competition and puts that learning to good use, is the one that will come out on top.
Each of those 5 areas discussed is a whole topic in itself. Will you call me if you want to know more about how to make any of that happen?