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A stylized illustration showing tall buildings at night — but instead of windows, there are phones and laptops displaying people talking to each other. Efi Chalikopoulou for Vox

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“It’s kinda like a first date”: How to make the most of starting a new job remotely

The new normal requires more work, patience, and good humor — from both new hires and the companies bringing them on.

Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Good news! You’ve landed a new job at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic has put millions of people out of work.

The bad news: You’ve landed a new job during a pandemic that’s forced millions of people to work remotely — including you. You’re not going to meet your co-workers for ... quite some time.

That’s the scenario many Americans have found themselves in for the past six months, with no clear end in sight. Major companies such as Google and Facebook told employees they should not expect to return to their offices until July 2021 at the earliest; other employers haven’t made any projections at all.

Work from home is the new normal, which means new hires aren’t showing up at the office to learn the ropes, make work friends, and figure out how to use the coffee maker — they’re at home, putting on their best Zoom face. Maybe you’ll end up doing that someday, too.

If so, don’t be discouraged: People who’ve started new jobs remotely during the pandemic told me their experience working from home is pretty similar to what it’s like for their colleagues who knew their coworkers before coronavirus. It just requires more work, patience, and good humor — from both the new arrivals and the company that hires them.

“It really hasn’t been bad,” says Joy Airaudi, an attorney who showed up to her new job with Chicago Public Schools on March 16, right before Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker closed all schools in the state. She has spent every day since then working from home. “I work with a really good group of people, and I think they feel really bad for me.”

In my very informal survey of Covid-19-era hires who work in office jobs, the key challenge appears to be the most obvious one: You have to work with a lot of people you’ve never met before, and seeing them on video calls doesn’t mean you’re really getting to know them. As a result, miscommunication happens more easily because you’re missing out on forming personal connections. Another downside is that the in-person exchange of ideas the much-embraced (and much-loathed) open office plan is supposed to foster is a lot harder to replicate when you’re remote.

So one solution is to simply make a point of chatting with folks before and after a meeting, just like you might in real life.

“I’ve always cared about people, but I’ve never been touchy-feely,” says Jason Kleckner, who in June started heading up user experience at Securian Financial, a financial services company based in St. Paul, Minnesota. “Now, when we start a meeting I ask them how they’re doing, how their family is doing. It’s something I’m forcing myself to do now.”

But Kleckner says he can do that only when he’s talking to people who work for him. When he’s communicating with peers, no one has time for small talk. “You say hi, and it’s mostly down to business,” he says. “And when it ends, it just ends.”

So you may need a more structured approach: Gather (or get someone to make you) a list of everyone you might need to know at your job, and start setting up one-on-one video chats or calls. As Kleckner noted, this is easier to do when you’re a boss, since your employees can’t say they’re too busy to meet with you.

That’s what Sean Cohan did when he started his job as chief growth officer at Nielsen, the marketing research company, in March. After spending a day at Nielsen’s Manhattan office to grab a computer and other equipment, he has been working from his vacation home and methodically scheduling 30-minute get-to-know-yous with some of the 4,500 people below him in the org chart. So far he’s knocked out 130 of them.

“I have an informal mental script,” Cohan says. “I tell them ‘I don’t have an agenda, my only agenda is to check in with important team members.’ And then I ask them about themselves.”

Does that sound awkward? It probably is.

“It’s kinda like a first date. That’s the best way to describe it,” says Chad Gutstein, a Los Angeles-based consultant who’s been setting up one-on-ones with colleagues for a new assignment he’s taken on with a company in Toronto. “It’s a little bit of a first date/first job interview.”

That mindset has been helpful, Gutstein says, because it leads him to ask the kinds of questions he’s used before.

“There are a lot of questions that I’ve used when I’ve interviewed people for jobs that I use now,” he says. “Like, ‘Who is the person you’re closest to in life?’ Okay. ‘So in their opinion, what makes you good at your job?’ Or what would they tell me if I asked that person, ‘What makes you happy?’”

If the thought of conducting mock dates or interviews with new coworkers makes you cringe, you can try other gambits. Gutstein has also invited some of his new colleagues to after-hours social events online, such as Quarantunes, a buzzy, invite-only virtual concert series hosted by Hollywood agent Richard Weitz. Watching a concert on Zoom at the same time as someone else isn’t anything like going to a live concert together, he acknowledges. But at least it gives you a shared experience you can discuss the next time you see them online.

Speaking of seeing each other: You know how weird and discombobulating it’s been to have a day full of videoconference meetings with people you used to see in real life? It’s that much weirder when you’ve never met them before.

So one approach is to shrug and hope everyone else understands what you’re going through.

“At the end of the day, it’s about showing up with your true self and really talking to people as you would in person,” says Jenny Yu, a doctor who works for Healthline, a digital health information website. Yu knew up front that she’d be working for the South Carolina-based publisher from her home in Pittsburgh, since the position was always intended to be remote.

But since Yu just started last month, she hasn’t been able to do any of the in-person onboarding Healthline would normally provide for her. She admits that meeting a completely new set of coworkers over the internet was weird. “When I first started, it was like, ‘Is this reality? Is this actually happening?’” Yu says. “People were just showing up on a Zoom square.”

Not knowing your new coworkers in 2020 also means taking pains not to upset them — it’s easier to accidentally offend someone in a text or live chat than in face-to-face communication that lets you better read nonverbal and emotional cues.

“You don’t want to say anything that could be misinterpreted,” says Michael Maiello, who moved from New York City to Portland, Maine, over the summer and started working as a proposal writer for Tilson Technology, a networking company. “It’s a slower curve before you start joking around with people, just because you don’t know how things are going to land.”

Maiello says working with new bosses and coworkers has also prompted him to overcommunicate about what he’s working on so people who can’t see him know that he’s actually working. “One thing I tried to do is to be more verbose about what I’m doing, especially with my supervisors but also with the rest of the team.”

There is a limit on how much communicating you can do, though, particularly when it comes to online video chats, which make you communicate differently than you would in person.

For instance, video chat “violates our normal use of eye-gaze,” as journalist Clive Thompson wrote in June. Think about it: If you were talking with someone in person and stared directly at them the entire time, they could find it off-putting, or worse. But Zoom forces you to do that.

“If I was in a conference room, I would never wonder, ‘What’s somebody going to think if I looked off into the corner for a while?’” says Kleckner. “But [online], you have to not only look at them, but make sure that they know that [you’re] looking at them.”

And that pressure is more heightened when you’re the new person. So Kleckner takes pains to tell coworkers that sometimes he isn’t looking at them. But he’s still listening.

“I had to send a note out saying, ‘When you see me typing during a chat, know that I’m paying attention — I’m taking notes,’” he says.

But let’s be honest. It’s a pandemic. You’re navigating the vagaries of a new job while you’re missing crucial clues about how things work. It’s going to be stressful — so maybe looking on the bright side will help.

Yes, plowing through 50 one-on-ones is a lot of work, says David Ellner, who started his new job as chief operating officer at New York-based Success Academy in April, only a week after the charter school system had gone remote. On the other hand, he says, “I didn’t have to go to the Bronx to meet a principal. I just did a call from my living room. In some ways it was easier to move around the organization.”

Ellner says that when he started, he was handed a 90-day onboarding plan that included a list of people he should meet. But he’s not under the illusion that video chats are a 100 percent effective replacement for real life.

”There’s something just tactile, lacking,” he says. But “at the same time, I’m as productive as ... ” — and here he uses a word you shouldn’t use inside a Success Academy classroom.

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