It’s natural to have first-day jitters when you start a new job. But what happens when your first day is remote? What if many days after that are also remote depending on how long the company keeps folks home as a result of the coronavirus? And what if you aren’t able to meet your manager and colleagues in person for a while? How will you get to know your coworkers, get up to speed on how to do your job, or even know who to contact when you have questions?
As companies move their employees to remote work to stem the spread of COVID-19, new employees will likely be onboarding virtually. Instead of the typical half-day orientation where you pick up your laptop, supplies, and paperwork, and then enjoy a welcome lunch with your new colleagues—and the next few weeks of bumping into new people around the office as you get your bearings in your role—all of this will need to be handled from a safe distance.
For companies that already have a lot of remote employees, this might not be a big deal. But for organizations that aren’t accustomed to having employees work from home, let alone welcoming and training them from afar, the onboarding process and everything that comes after could be a little bumpy.
“It’s scary to try to make a start with a new company in this environment,” says Carla Bevins, assistant teaching professor of business communication at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business. She recommends that new employees remain flexible and patient. “Keep in mind that the company hired you for a reason,” she says. “Give yourself time to onboard and to become comfortable working in this new strange environment.”
Here are seven tips to help you navigate starting a new job remotely.
1. Prepare for a Different Type of Onboarding
When Stacy Yu started a marketing position on March 17 at a global membership association for infectious disease professionals in Washington, DC, she and her manager met at the office but sat six feet apart. Her manager attached the laptop to a projection system and showed her where to find documents on the shared drive, explained what her role would be and how to reach out to IT if she had a problem connecting to the network.
In contrast, Hannah Smith, who was hired as a communications manager for a nonprofit membership association also in Washington, DC, started her new position remotely on April 1. The organization mailed a laptop to her home and then her manager onboarded her virtually using Zoom.
The point is that logistics might be handled differently depending on policies at your new company and the fast-changing public health situation. Consider reaching out ahead of time to find out what the process will look like in your case. You can send a quick note to your recruiter or HR contact and/or email your new manager to say you’re aware the company is doing remote work at the moment due to the pandemic and ask how they’re handling the logistics of onboarding in light of the situation.
2. Understand Expectations
You might want to take some extra time to understand your manager’s expectations on everything from individual tasks to your overall onboarding, especially if you’re starting a job that wasn’t intended to be remote, says Heidi Parsont, CEO and founder of TorchLight Hire in Alexandria, VA.
Since your manager and colleagues won’t be working in the same building, you can’t just stop in to ask a quick question and they can’t help you course-correct in real time quite as easily. So you’ll want to be proactive and make sure you understand your role and the tasks you are working on. Whenever you discuss a new project, for instance, be sure to ask when deliverables are due and how your boss would like to receive them.
As you try to ramp up from afar, check in to see if there are any tools, systems, or processes you need to learn about, when you should plan to be up to speed on them, and whether there’s any training you can access remotely or someone in particular you should reach out to for help.
During your first week or two, make sure to go over what goals you should be looking to hit in your first 30, 60, and 90 days. Your boss may have sketched out the beginnings of such a plan for you or you might be able to put one together yourself based on your early conversations. Regardless, review the plan with your manager to ensure you’re on the same page.
While you’re both learning to work together remotely, your boss might want to check in with you more frequently than usual but that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t trust you, Parsont says. You can work to build that trust by setting clear expectations and then meeting (or exceeding) them.
3. Learn How Your Team Communicates
While you, your manager, and your coworkers are all working remotely—perhaps for the first time—it’s especially important to find out how everyone prefers to communicate, so you know whether to monitor your email, Slack, or another channel your team relies on. (Keep in mind that your colleagues might still be figuring out their preferences as they adjust to new routines.)
The team Yu works with prefers to use a corporate chat system that allows users to indicate if they’re available, in a meeting, or offline rather than using email for all their interactions. Knowing whether your colleague is online or in a meeting sets the expectation of when to expect a response, she says. “We also use videoconferencing for meetings as much as we can so there is some level of human interaction,” she adds.
If your colleagues are inundated with email, ask if they’d prefer a call or instant message for quick questions, Smith suggests. “Asking through email extends the timeline because people have to see the email, read it, and respond,” she says. “People often forget how easy it is to pick up the phone and ask,” especially if it’s a simple question—such as, “What’s the date of our next board meeting?”—and if that missing information is preventing you from completing a task.
It’s especially important to get on the same page regarding communication with your boss. For example, do they like to get one-off questions as they come up in email, via chat, or by phone or video call? If it’s the latter, do they want a heads up in advance? Or would they rather you collect a batch of questions before coming to them? Are there times of the day or week that they like to do heads-down work and don’t want to be disturbed?
Having a sense of your new coworkers’ communication preferences will make it easier and more comfortable for everyone to get to know one another and foster positive and productive interactions. And you’ll be able to lean on people to learn the ropes without ruffling any feathers.
4. Ask for More Information
If a coworker reaches out by email or chat with an assignment or task, see if you can schedule a phone call or video meeting to discuss the project, Parsont says. Ask them questions to better understand their role, what they need you to accomplish, and what their priorities are, she says.
This will help you understand how your work relates to larger projects and goals within the organization, allow you to fulfill their request as best you can, enable you to get up to speed more quickly, and ultimately make it easier for you to succeed at your job.
Send an email that says something like: “Thanks for sending over this task. Can we hop on a brief phone call/video chat and talk about it? I’d like to get more context for the assignment to better understand what’s needed and how I can get this done most effectively.”
5. Remind People Who You Are
Starting a new job always involves introducing yourself to a lot of new people as they learn who you are and what you do. That process might take a little longer and require a bit more effort on your part when you start remotely, even if your manager or HR sent out some kind of introduction email.
Because you won’t be casually running into your colleagues in the office kitchen or in the elevator, it might be necessary to reintroduce yourself and remind your colleagues of your name and role when contacting them by email or participating in a conference call or video meeting, says Adam Smith, senior consultant and executive coach at Right Management in Arlington, VA (no relation to Hannah Smith). That’s especially true for folks outside of your immediate team. And it’s easy: Before making your comment or asking your question, simply state your name and mention you’re new to the company.
6. Keep Your Tone Clear and Neutral to Start Off
Until you can gauge your colleague’s personalities, it’s a good idea to keep the tone of your emails and other communications relatively neutral. Be careful about choosing “Reply All” and avoid using too many abbreviations, jargon, slang, and emoji, Adam Smith suggests, at least at first.
In your first days and weeks, pay attention to how your manager, teammates, and other long-time employees talk to one another and use that as a guide.
And whether you’re writing a note or speaking to someone, make sure the reason for your communication is clear. For instance, it might be useful to flag your emails by including the words “Question” or “For your review” at the start of the subject line.
During a video or conference call, speak clearly in complete sentences and be specific about what you want to discuss or ask. For instance, if someone brings up a topic that applies to your work and you want to ask a follow-up question, clearly state your name and explain that you want to get more information to help you complete a project you’re tackling as part of your new role.
7. Get to Know Your Colleagues and Find Work Buddies
Consider asking your manager to send out an announcement that you’ve joined the team along with a note that you would welcome phone calls or video meetings to get to know your colleagues better, Hannah Smith suggests. Whether or not they do, you can certainly reach out to folks you know you’ll be working with to introduce yourself and set up a chat.
You might want to keep the organizational chart or the team page handy during phone and video meetings over your first several weeks for easy context. Then follow up with colleagues afterward to set up virtual coffee chats to ask questions about their roles, the projects they’re working on, and what they think you should know about the organization, as well as to share a bit about the work you’ll be doing.
If you’re worried about finding a trusted colleague to ask questions or to bounce ideas off, consider thinking back to the people you met and talked with during your interview process and reaching out to them, Parsont says. Or “if you find someone who is chatty on a call, try to expand the conversation by asking them about themselves,” she adds. Build a rapport and find shared experiences by asking questions beyond the scope of your work, such as: What do you like to do when you’re not working? What’s your favorite book or movie?
If you find a colleague you click with during a larger meeting, invite them to a one-on-one virtual coffee chat, Blevins says. “Just because you’re not face-to-face doesn’t mean you can’t reach out and create these relationships,” she says.
Starting your job remotely at a time when your manager and colleagues are also getting used to working from home—and you’re all dealing with a lot of other stressors during a global pandemic—might make it a bit more difficult to hit the ground running. And it might take longer before you feel comfortable socially at your new organization.
However, there are proactive steps you can take to make the transition a bit easier. Give yourself time to feel part of the team, Bevins says. “Everyone needs a little bit of flexibility and a whole lot of patience.”