How to Start a New Job Remotely, According to Experts

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After being out of work for a month, Selina Gabriele was excited to start her new software engineering job at Amazon in June. But due to a mailing address error on a digital onboarding form and unclear email messaging between her and her point-of-contact at the company, Amazon sent Gabriele's computer to the wrong place. Her start date was delayed by a week.

While she waited for her first day, she was also been stressing about how to make a good first impression through video calls. The company has given employees the option to work from home until at least October. "If they can't hear or see me well, that's going to be a frustration on their end and I don't want that to be a factor in the impression I make," says Gabriele, who had only met her boss online and had yet to be introduced to her teammates.

Although unemployment remains high, the U.S. economy added 2.5 million jobs in May. Some organizations, particularly those in business and professional services, the federal government and big tech, are hiring. That means thousands of people like Gabriele are faced with the prospect of joining a team of people they've never met and have no immediate prospect of meeting, except from behind a laptop.

That creates a vast social experiment in which new employees have to find their way without being able to pick up on cues about the organization's culture, patterns of people's movement and myriad other telling details about how it operates on a regular basis.

In face-to-face encounters at work, people naturally develop awareness of others by picking up on non-verbal cues. Co-workers who share the same office, for example, get a sense of each-other's daily moods, habits, and activities. Eventually you learn each other's quirks and communication styles, making it easy to work together and get things done.

But when you're starting work remotely, that co-presence and awareness doesn't naturally happen, making it harder to communicate with and understand the dynamics of your team.

There are strategies, however, that new employees can use to not only get to know their co-workers, but also communicate effectively so there aren't misunderstandings.

When it comes to getting to know your team and making a good impression, "try to engage as best as possible, even if it feels intimidating as the new person" says Dr. Tsedal Neeley, professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at Harvard Business School, who's been studying remote working for 18 years. "Don't recede in the background when it comes to group meetings and conversations."

This means not multitasking during calls, like finishing an email or checking the news while also taking a Zoom call with your team—a state psychologists refer to as continuous partial attention. This practice often leads to failure at the task you're trying to perform–in this case, getting to know your colleagues and having them get to know you–and can leave you feeling exhausted.

Neeley also encourages new employees to create a shortlist of colleagues they want to meet, and then inviting them for 20-minute virtual coffee breaks. "Do it using a video call. See them. Let them see you. Manage your introduction in that way so that you're not invisible," she says.

Keeping calls short not only respects your co-worker's time, it also keeps down fatigue. Continuously working to pick up on non-verbal cues like facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language is taxing, according to a 2014 human-computer interaction study.

Despite these shortcomings, video calls are important when you're new because it allows your colleagues to understand your way of talking and your personality so they can better interpret text-based messages in the future, says Dr. Arthur Markman, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin.

"If I say 'hey can you help me with this?' you hear my tone of voice and the way I asked it. If I write the same words, you don't hear my tone of voice," says Markman. "And so every request that's written sounds more direct than the same request when you say it."

Understanding how others talk can also avoid false assumptions about a terse email or Slack message. "Early on, one of the things that happens is you're worried like 'am I doing ok? Do my colleagues like me? Does my boss like me?' and so you start reading the tea leaves on the basis of things that have no real signal value," says Markman.

Video chat can also make new employees self-conscious. A 2017 study found that the visual feedback of a speaker's face in a video chat can increase self-awareness and lead to a decrease in the use of words expressing certainty, which serves to make the speaker's message unclear.

For this reason, it is best to be explicit and direct about everything, says Markman, who published a book last year on advancing your career, with a section dedicated to working remotely. "You can say 'here's what I'm assuming, and correct me if I'm wrong', and that helps a lot. And in emotionally charged or difficult conversations over Zoom, it's the same thing. You have to over communicate," says Markman.

Compared to face-to-face conversations, resolving conflicts over video chats can actually reduce people's emotional arousal and encourage more satisfying conversation to resolve conflict, according to one 2017 study. But this study was conducted with people who had already known each other.

For new workplace situations where you don't know your colleagues, Neeley suggests being redundant when communicating online.

"You want to make sure that people get and remember what you want them to get and remember. So if you have even a brief call with someone, you want to do redundant communication, which is different than if you had an in-person exchange with someone. Follow up with a quick email summary."

A 2009 psychology study found that our ability to remember conversations we've had over phone or a lagging video call are not as memorable as in person chats. Following up helps people see and better remember your message.

Although spontaneous talks by the watercooler and introductions to new colleagues in the break room have now been replaced by scheduled, structured meetings online, there are upsides to starting work remotely that new hires can take advantage of.

"The amount of good that is out there right now is astronomical," says Neeley. "As much as you may be concerned about being visible and welcomed into the firm, the leaders and members of the teams and every organization that I've encountered are as eager to welcome you." So take advantage of people wanting to make you feel welcome, and invite them for that virtual chat.

A more understated benefit to starting work remotely is that you will be adding a skillset to your resume that could in greater demand in the future. Being able to start professional relationships online and adapt to remote relationships, and remote productivity is going to be increasingly important, says Neeley.

"The virtualization of work is here and it's here to stay. So don't treat this like something temporary," Neeley says. She calls this the era of digital transformation. "Embrace it. Learn how to do it extremely well. As opposed to thinking this is going to be one and done. Put your heart in it and try to do it as best as possible."