Illustration by Lara Borovcic-Kurir

Observation no. 1: Culture is read in between the lines. Not while taking turns speaking on Zoom 

The American anthropologist Clifford Geertz is famous for introducing thick descriptions as an ethnographic tool. 

The many layers of meaning that “natives” - in this case, your well-established team - seamlessly interpret in everyday life have to be described in detail to make proper sense to outsiders. 

His most famous example is that of a wink. 

A wink can have multiple meanings: Being flirtatious, signaling a shared secret, revealing irony, giving a soundless signal to a conspirator, being an involuntary tic, etc. 

Company culture is just the same. Knowing how to decipher team dynamics is at the basis of smooth cooperation. 

Zoom is all well and nice, but not for allowing the finer nuances of my friend’s cultural intuition. 
Illustration by Lara Borovcic-Kurir

Being forced to take turns talking on Zoom distances us from a vital part of our social interaction: Intuitively recognizing our co-workers’ lines of thought and interacting with this spontaneously.

For some, this might feature as a perk: Avoiding interruptions and sidetracking. 

It does, however, also add a layer of formality and politeness that emphasizes the roles we play.  

Culture - even company culture - lives undetected in the everyday actions of the people that carry it out. And when we are only allowed to see a fraction - and a highly staged fraction at that - we will lack vital information on how to decode the culture we’ve landed in. 

Observation no. 2: We all perform roles. And they won’t be the same at the office and on Slack

Illustration by Lara Borovcic-Kurir

Social scientists often talk of how we are performing different versions of our “selves” depending on which stage we are standing on: Giving the financial statements to the board, having a difficult conversation with your kid’s teacher, or going to a bar with friends all require different performances to succeed. 

In this context, the office and an online platform respectively allow for two very different performances. 

The most important thing being distance and tempo: Communicating in writing or in more or less scheduled calls allow off-stage time in-between. Time to write up a reply, time to rethink your reply, the option to unmute, and a screen to hide behind, etc. 

(Although those same screens also provided insights into what used to be separated from our professional selves and forced a new merging of home-self and work-self. But that’s another story.) 

Seeing everybody in real-time offers an entirely different set of data. 

This is telling for how this second chapter of the onboarding process will not only involve learning but also relearning

A relearning that will to some extent also force the newcomer to establish a new script for interacting with co-workers.

Observation no. 3: Not knowing the culture means more risk. And more risk means less initiative

Making newcomers confident in taking on responsibilities is a central aim of onboarding efforts. I’m sure you would agree. 

Whether we like it or not culture has a lot to do with power. 

Soft power, yes. But power nonetheless. 

And what is at stake in team dynamics is what french sociologist Pierre Bourdieu described with the word doxa: A set of truths that is dominant within a certain group. 

Knowing those truths and mastering the skills that go with them can translate into influence, popularity - basically a secure position within the group. 

The risky side of doxa is, of course, going against it: Not knowing or displaying the right skills, the right understanding of a problem, or not honoring the right people. 

Illustration by Lara Borovcic-Kurir

Maybe especially because they aren’t formalized they require an even greater personal skill for detecting potential pitfalls. Notably, because there will be a difference between the presumed and the practiced version of your company culture

And when further handicapped by not being able to decode the culture in real-time, newcomers need a hand! 

Managers and senior co-workers play an important role in functioning as gatekeepers for how to confront hierarchies and rules of engagement within a team. 

But even these will not be able to provide a roadmap for things that they to a large extent only have tacit knowledge of. 

So basically: newcomers might need a break. And they might need time as well as guidance to restart this learning process after joining the office.   

Conclusion: Expect those bumps and smoothen the landing

Awareness is king! 

What I’m suggesting is that newcomers that have joined the company while working remotely will require a new stage of onboarding when eventually joining the office. 

Here’s what you can do to smoothen the landing:

  1. Expect a new type of confusion from the newcomer (even when he or she isn’t that new anymore).
  2. Know that this is an integral part of what culture is and how culture is learned.
  3. Make time and provide help for this new learning process.   
  4. Embrace the questions and uncertainties that come with it. 
Written by
Sigrid Leilund
Content Specialist

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