How can virtual new starters feel more connected to their company? asks Tray Durrant

Remote working during the pandemic has prevented some on boarders and employees from being able to dive deep into a company. There is also limited opportunity for learning through osmosis, which particularly affects more junior staff. Both have the potential to result in a skill shortage in 12-18 months. What can companies and candidates do to level up?

One of the biggest challenges of working from home during the COVID era has been the onboarding of new employees, and employee engagement generally. Companies quickly adapted to changing induction programmes and onboarded candidates via Teams and webinars to try to integrate individuals into their company culture and working practices. While it has certainly prevented the moments of ‘accidental creativity’ by the water cooler, and limited opportunities for social interaction and the making of new friends in the workplace, training and hard skills themselves have not suffered.

Companies have been agile and have quickly replaced the tangible elements of training by inducting new employees online. This has been great in terms of learning who’s who, how the company’s internal functions are set up, the marketing strategies and best practices – all of which are well documented. What is interesting to note is the loss of soft skills, particularly at the junior end of the market.

Fundamentally, all executive support employees need to offer a balance of hard and soft skills. In terms of hard skills, they should be proficient in problem-solving, quick thinking and strategic planning to produce first-class resources that provide the executive with all relevant information at their fingertips. On the soft skills side, a positive mindset and the ability to navigate a myriad of scenarios and conversations, be proactive and reactive and initiate and manage up are all characteristics of successful senior support roles.

The ability to communicate, and to acquire people skills, is truly an art form, and whilst some people have an innate ability to interact effectively, it is one of those skills which is often honed through practice. Interacting on a Teams call is not quite the same as getting together face-to-face, reading non-verbal signals and mirroring others’ actions.

Many junior staff who may have offered ideas and made constructive input in a face-to-face meeting might stay quiet on a Teams call, especially when you add in the extra dimension of potential technical glitches. Often, while remote meetings get done and the points are actioned, it is what hasn’t happened or what wasn’t discussed that is lost.

It will be interesting to see, as more time is spent in the office, how the culture of individual businesses changes. With existing employees, culture can be maintained to a degree when remote working, but that becomes harder and harder as new hires are made and full teams aren’t all in the office at the same time. One scenario would be for this to evolve into workplaces becoming more homogenous across all industries. The skills required for a certain sector, for example, are often strikingly similar across competing companies in that industry – what has historically set companies apart, however, is of course the differing culture that is unique to each business.

One of the things that helps candidates and businesses to ensure new hires assimilate into the heart of an organisation is seemingly straightforward ‘getting to know you’ exercises. It is good during the onboarding process to get more people from different functions within a firm to showcase their department or, where appropriate, set up shadowing days or half-days so new starters get a real feel for that area, the business and the people that work there. It’s also good to set tasks and challenges that allow the new starter to ask questions, to discover for themselves who can answer their specific questions. Anything that allows existing employees and new starters to become engaged directly with each other is of benefit, especially if they are in departments that will be working together.