Onboarding remotely can leave newcomers with a lot of blanks when it comes to company culture. Here's what you need to be mindful of.
The American anthropologist Clifford Geertz is famous for introducing thick descriptions as an ethnographic tool.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A relearning that will to some extent also force the newcomer to establish a new script for interacting with co-workers.
Making newcomers confident in taking on responsibilities is a central aim of onboarding efforts. I’m sure you would agree.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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