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Five lessons learned from being onboarded virtually to a new job.

Woman working from home

If you told me at the start of the year that I would begin a new job virtually, I would have laughed you out of town. But then again, so much has happened this year that I could never have expected or prepared for. I was lucky enough to have had flexible jobs in the past that allowed me to work from home often, but the idea of working 100% remotely seemed like a distant dream. Fast forward to July 2020, and I’m starting a new role as an Advocacy Manager at a non-profit, from the comfort of my home. 

Usually, when I start at a new company, I have a good idea of tasks that I will do in my first few days: familiarizing myself with my new surroundings, setting up my desk, reading company policies and handover notes, trying to get to know my new colleagues — the usual. This time I didn’t know what to expect; I was walking into the unknown. I wanted to make a good impression on my first day, so I spruced myself up and put on a semi-formal shirt. In the end, I only had one meeting that day, and it lasted a little over an hour; then I set up my email address and gained access to the drive, and I started my designated reading. 

If I’m honest, it was quite lonely and anti-climatic. The next day was better. I met the rest of the team, got a better sense of my responsibilities, and started getting stuck in. It’s been an interesting journey, with bumps, adjustments and some wins — but three months in, and I finally feel fully integrated. Here are some lessons I learned along the way:

1. Find time to bond with your new colleagues

One thing I took for granted was the importance of casual conversation with coworkers when establishing a rapport. In this not-so-new normal of virtual meetings, phone calls, and occasionally the odd voice message — communication is a lot more direct and mostly work-focused, making it harder to form bonds. How I miss small rituals, like taking coffee breaks with colleagues and discussing upcoming weekend plans. These things are often seen as insignificant and unproductive. However, it’s in the small details that connections are formed, and team bonds are strengthened. In-person, these informal office interactions happen organically; for many, these moments are almost effortless. In a virtual setting, recreating these moments requires intention. 

I quickly realized that two one-hour team meetings a week were not going to cut it when building relationships. I decided to schedule individual meetings with the whole team, asking them questions about their roles and getting to know a little about what they liked to do outside of work. These one-to-one check-ins weren’t a one-off. I didn’t have a rigid schedule in place, but periodically I would catch up with my teammates. Slowly those discussions morphed from small talk to meaningful conversations and personal anecdotes. I cracked it. 

2. Take notes during your introductory meetings

Now, I’m not talking about wishy-washy half-written notes; I’m talking about comprehensive notes that you can refer to when you get stuck. I’ll admit this one I learned the hard way around. I’ve never been the best live notetaker; I like to give people my full attention, and I find that I become distracted when taking notes. In your first few weeks in a new job, it can feel like information overload — and though, in person, you can quickly clarify any points of confusion without too much disruption, in the virtual space, getting clarification on something can take a lot longer and leave you feeling disempowered. 

I soon sharpened my note-taking skills with the help of the note-taking tool, Google Keep. Each meeting, I would capture the date, who I was meeting, any context that I needed to remember, step-by-step instructions for critical processes, and any resulting actions. Before, when I used to capture notes, I would feel pressured to hear everything once. This often led to incomplete and sometimes tricky to understand notes. To improve the quality of my notes, I had to stop being afraid to interject and ask for something to be repeated or clarified. Eventually, I started taking better notes, and they soon became tools of empowerment when getting on with independent work. 

3. Create a designated workspace 

In my previous job, I had been working from home permanently since mid-March, and I didn’t have a designated workspace. I didn’t feel I needed one — I knew my job like the back of my hand and could get on with my tasks anywhere. When I started my new job, I realized this wasn’t the same. When you are processing lots of new information, it’s helpful to be in a controlled environment with all the resources you need in close reach. While I had my ‘home office’ set up in the corner of my living room, it wasn’t a great spot for natural light. After a little reshuffling of my living room, I found a new area for my workspace that had a clear and aesthetically pleasing backdrop for video meetings and adequate natural light to get on with my work.

4. Set healthy boundaries to avoid burnout 

As a new employee in an uncertain job market, eager to please is an understatement, but it’s important to remember the well-known quote: start as you mean to go on. While it might feel tempting to burn the candle at both ends, it creates unsustainable expectations and rapidly leads to burnout. I decided to create a daily routine; each morning, I start the day with some form of physical exercise, have a coffee and read the news before logging on for the day. I wanted to avoid that all too famous wake-up and rush to the computer; I didn’t want my life to feel subsumed by work. It’s not always feasible due to working with colleagues across time zones, but I also try to take a clear lunch break and get some fresh air.

Having a designated workspace also made it easier to hold myself accountable to draw an end to the day. I deliberately placed my TV out of sight so that I couldn’t have it running in the background, reducing productivity and lengthening the workday. This doesn’t work for everyone, but I definitely appreciate being able to log off while there are still a few good hours in the day.  

5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from your team

The last and arguably most important lesson I have learned is not to be afraid to ask for help from your team. As a new team member, it’s easy to feel like you are overloading your colleagues with questions when you are face-to-face in the office, and since you talk less in the virtual world, every email, instant message, call or text can make you feel like you are being a nuisance. Unfortunately, it’s a necessary evil. Sometimes we have to fight the instinct to figure everything out alone to avoid making unnecessary mistakes and improve our productivity. That said, it’s important to be mindful of people’s time and their preferred style of communication. Early on, I made a note of my colleague’s preferred time for meetings, how I should contact them for in-the-moment questions and issues, and also in the event of emergencies and urgent matters. This helps to shake off any feelings of guilt and gives you the answers you need to do your job and do it well.