It was a Zoom meeting, and one of the participants, the owner of a small company, mentioned that he recently had hired a new employee. This employee, like everyone else in their organization, was working from home because the company had closed its offices during the pandemic. In fact, the new employee had been interviewed, hired, and onboarded without ever meeting in person with anyone at the company.
If you’ve had to hire people during the pandemic, you probably can relate. And you no doubt have felt some concern about how such transitions might go given all the unpredictability involved.
A new job, even if it’s a transfer within an organization, requires intentional care to ensure everyone gets off to a good start and is then positioned for long-term success. But many of the traditional onboarding best-practices have had to be scratched, tweaked, teleconferenced, or otherwise altered because of the pandemic’s disruptions.
Glaringly absent for the last 18 or so months, of course, is the heart-to-heart connections that only come with personal interactions. Developing personal connections, it turns out, is extraordinarily difficult when everyone needs to wear a mask and stay at least six feet from each other. Or when all you see of other people is their waist-up personification on a computer screen.
You might learn a few details you otherwise wouldn’t know – they have a cat, their son likes to play with a toy light saber, or, if they have photo background, that they’ve vacationed in Costa Rica – but it’s mostly surface-level stuff. You don’t develop a deeper understanding of their histories or their dreams for the future; nor do they develop that understanding about you or others on your teams.
This get-to-know-you deficit poses a real challenge for organizations, especially since many will stick with a remote or semi-remote structure.
In my experience, the most important thing new hires need is time – time with their immediate supervisors and time with their peers and direct reports. The sooner and more deeply you get to know new employees under your care, the better you can serve their needs and build the type of trust that is essential to shared success. And the sooner and more deeply they get to know the people they regularly work with, they better they will all work together.
So as vaccinations go up and COVID-19 cases go down, some of the most important decisions leaders will make involve how they will personalize – or re-personalize – the new employee experience.
For me, it must start with two best practices:
Meet with them – in person.
When I was CEO of Prologis during the worst days of the Great Recession, we hired a new head of our European operation. We had fires to put out all over the place, and there was a temptation to send him an email with a long list of immediate to-dos and tell him to get after it.
Instead, I flew to the UK and spent time with him – including time at his home with his wife and two sons. The boys were both pre-teens, and I’ll never forget wrestling with them in the family’s living room. We all got to know each other on a personal level that evening, and I believe it strengthened our bond at work, which was critically important as we dealt with difficult decisions in the months that followed.
Whenever possible, my wife and I both developed personal connections with my direct reports and their spouses (if married). We invited them over for dinner or went out together so we could visit in non-work settings, building friendships that shaped our lives and the course of the company.
There are many ways to accomplish this, and it doesn’t always have to be so individualized. I have a friend who is the dean of a business college, and he and his wife host an annual cookout for new faculty members and department heads. He speaks briefly about the culture of the college, but the rest of the evening is socializing, and that’s where the culture he describes begins to take root in the new employees.
Building relationships with new employees is never a one time, one thing event; it’s a process, and it always works better when it includes time and in-person discussions.
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Send them on a listening tour.
When I hired new managers or leaders, a big part of their first 30 days was spent meeting with other people, not so they could talk about themselves or their vision but to ask questions and listen.
Because Prologis is a global operation and leaders typically interact with counterparts in other countries, this often was a significant investment in time and money. But it was invaluable for them to meet their direct reports and peers face-to-face while they listened to their perspectives about everything from operations to strategies to culture.
One of the benefits of any difficult period in life is that it teaches you lessons you can apply going forward, and many best practices that were adopted during the pandemic will stay with us for years to come. But isolation should never become a best practice. Organizations that build strong relationships across their workforce will have a competitive advantage in how they plan and execute. Building those relationships begins with the onboarding process, and it never stops.
As travel and other restrictions lift, make sure your key new hires are meeting – and not just by video conference – with the people they will depend on and who will depend on them. Remote workforces and virtual meetings aren’t going away because they often are efficient and effective. But they should never become the default option because relationships will always matter.