The abrupt transition to home working for many last year was not plain sailing. As Covid restrictions came into force, many companies struggled to shift their working practices all online, and only after a year or so into the pandemic have many become as efficient and smoothly run as they were in an office environment.

It’s safe to say those companies who are likely going to continue working in some hybrid format have come to grips with working in a virtual team, providing their services remotely, and being just as productive in their home offices. However, in my teaching, coaching, and consulting practice, I am hearing from many leaders who are fearful about what these remote working challenges will mean for the future culture of their teams.

A strong culture is important in an organisation, it cultivates meaning for employees, and brings teams together, but how we build cultures in a remote working world is completely different, especially with new employees who start in the organisation in a home environment.

Companies need new strategies to convey and inspire culture in their new employees. But how can they do so, in a completely different environment? The academic jury is still out on the effectiveness of these approaches, but these experiments may help people learn and embrace culture under today’s new working conditions.

Roll out the virtual red carpet

If your organisation doesn’t have a formal welcome event for new hires, consider creating one. Think about the resources that will help them get to know the company, its history, and values. Have a package of information about the company’s strategy, key client analytics, product portfolio, etc. 

If possible, organise a virtual tour of production facilities or offices in the relevant geographical areas. Make sure to share what, in your private opinion, sets the company apart. Add a few personal comments from leaders and a selection of employees through pre-recorded videos or live streams.

Set culture learning targets

Spend time with the newcomer in establishing objectives for the onboarding period. Include in the plan the expectations about developing relationships, acquiring specific knowledge, and getting up to speed on tasks. Make sure that you leave some room for the new hire’s own onboarding objectives and culture learning tasks. Agree on the rhythm of check-ins and ways of asking for help and support.

Draw the map

Understanding and navigating organisational relationships are critical for newcomer success. An actual map of these connections can be drawn from internal sources – such as a role description, workgroups, and committees, or documents related to a job handover – and from external ones, such as contracts with a supplier or information about a relationship with a critical client.

Review the map with the newcomer in detail, including the basic norms and principles of interactions therein (e.g., the degree of formality in communication). Using this map to make personal (online) introductions will help them and the others start on the right foot.

Organise a ride-along

Think about taking the newcomer with you to (virtual) meetings that would help them better understand your plans and concerns. Let the person shadow you in interactions at your level so that they quickly see the bigger picture, recognise the way you work with others, and get a glimpse into the power and politics of the organisation. If appropriate, have the newcomer shadow customer calls or virtual visits. Run a debrief discussion with a newcomer after the event.

Bring in a buddy

Coach the existing team on their role in onboarding the newcomers. Ask for volunteers to serve as a “buddy” for the person, but don’t leave it completely to them on how to serve in the role. Ask for their ideas on how they could have benefited from having a “buddy,” and add some of your own expectations for the process.

Become a storyteller

Share (and invite your team to share) with the newcomer some stories about people, clients, products, or critical moments that have had an impact on you, the team, and the organisation. Incidents that have triggered strong emotional reactions, such as extreme pride and joy, can be especially compelling. Add these stories to some of your regular team meetings or individual check-ins, or organise “story time” as a dedicated, virtual, team-building activity. You may also want to bring in members from another function or part of the organisation to share their stories.

Listen to what they say about you

When supporting or denying a request, agreeing with the newcomer’s ideas, or asking them to do something differently, provide an explanation, and, when doing so, try to make a connection to the cultural aspects that you want them to learn. At the same time, don’t shy away from discussing with the newcomer what they find positive or challenging in their learning of the organisational culture and adjustment to the new work reality. 

Ask about what they have noticed and how, in their opinion, culture plays out in the work-life of your team and organisation. Don’t miss an opportunity to see if there is something in the culture of the organisation that might become an obstacle to future success.

Though these are just experimental ideas, they can give you insight on how your organisation’s culture is going and may strengthen the future culture, regardless of the setup (online, offline, or hybrid) of your team.

Konstantin Korotov is a professor of organisational behaviour at ESMT Berlin. 

This article was first published in People Management on 29 July 2021.

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