Starting a new office job in a remote, COVID-19 world

It was about six months ago when COVID-19 started rapidly moving across the US, announcements of stay-at-home orders appeared, and individuals began retreating into their homes. Since then, we’ve done everything in our power to adopt a new normal—not only in our personal lives but professional as well. We walk around the block before and after work to try to simulate a commute, take virtual 30-minute workout classes during our lunches, and have Zoom happy hours with co-workers so we can celebrate our weekly wins—even if we weren’t physically together when the project wrapped.

As remote work has become the new normal for many office workers across the country, we hear a lot of buzz around tech difficulties, the importance of staying connected with co-workers, and maintaining a company culture through a screen. But one topic that has yet to be part of mainstream conversations is onboarding and starting a new job remotely. While hiring freezes were frequent in early spring, many industries are opening back up and are hiring people to join their remote teams. When I accepted an offer in late June, my excitement for the new job was also met with some apprehension. I was worried it would be hard to learn and I’d struggle to get up to speed as fast as was necessary. I didn’t know how I was going to build relationships with my new co-workers if we weren’t grabbing coffees or hanging out in the office. I wanted to be a positive contribution to the agency’s culture but wasn’t sure how to do that through a Teams call. After accepting an offer for a dream role, I stopped and thought: wait—how is all of this going to work?

I just wrapped up my first month at Northbound and I was pleasantly surprised with how onboarding and training went. My original anxieties have dissipated and I’m happy to see my relationships with my co-workers strengthening every single day. If you’ve just started a new position or are looking to hire new teammates, check out these five pieces of advice below on how to make remote onboarding as smooth as possible.

Set up virtual coffees

My first day of work, Northbound’s Director of People and Culture, encouraged me to set up 1:1s with everyone on our team. While it seemed a bit daunting at first, I’m glad I followed through on her advice. I was able to put names to faces rather than just seeing them pop up on all-staff emails. I got to hear about how long people had been at the company, the clients they partner with, and the work that makes them get out of bed in the morning.

I also asked each team member to tell me about something they like to do outside of the office. This led me to find teammates who share commonalities with me like attending school in Boston, living in Capitol Hill, and writing as a hobby. I’m sure I would’ve eventually learned all of these things while making coffee together in the kitchen or riding up and down the elevator to lunch. But because we’re not physically together, it was necessary to find a different and faster way to make those connections.

Ask for the things you need

I quickly realized that since I wasn’t sitting in a pod of desks, no one knew what my work set up looked like or how I was completing tasks. If I was in the office struggling with a project or looked uncomfortable in the office, I’m sure someone would have offered to help.

But because that is not the current reality, I had to take a moment to evaluate what I needed to be an efficient and effective member of the team. While I initially thought I’d be able to get by with my Surface, I learned that the nature of my work really demands I have a second monitor.

I also knew that being remote meant I was missing out on traditional brainstorming practices. Rather than huddling around a whiteboard and moving pictures and words around for inspiration, ideation was happening solo. When I talked to my manager about this, she mentioned a book in the office that is often referenced during naming brainstorms. She offered to order me a copy and it showed up at my door the next day.

People are willing to give you the things you need as long as you ask for them.

Ask about hours

When working in an office, it’s easy to understand what the flow of a day looks like. If I were in Northbound’s Belltown office, I would’ve quickly learned that most people show up between 8:00 and 8:30 and that they usually eat lunch together in the common space. Seeing as I had never been able to observe these practices, I needed to ask about them. What time am I expected to log-on? Is it OK to take a 30-minute lunch break? Should I change my Slack status before going out for my afternoon walk? How late do people send emails? What seemed like an awkward conversation helped me feel more at ease throughout the day. My manager shared what hours look like, as well as new practices that have been adopted since remote work began. For example, I learned there was an agency-wide agreement to block an hour in the middle of the day for lunch, errands, or anything else people may need to do.

Patience is your best friend

The learning phase is moving slower than usual simply because everything is conducted through a screen. For example, I’m not able to swivel in my chair and ask my partner if she’s already begun building a deck or if she’s heard from one of our clients. Agendas that could typically be reviewed on a walk back from lunch now need to be penciled into calendars.

I think patience would be wise advice for anyone starting a job in an office in a “normal world.” But I think it’s even more important right now when people are working remotely, COVID-19 is still a legitimate threat, and the social landscape changes every day. From teeny apartments, to kids out of school, and lousy wifi connections, everyone is doing the best they can. I continuously remind myself to grant patience to myself and my new co-workers.

Learn about the company’s projects

Many agencies have their work on display in their offices. This helps ground employees and visitors who come into the office. For me, besides the research I’d done to prep for my interview, I knew very little about all of the different project happenings at Northbound. I’m not walking past conference rooms and seeing bits and pieces of slide decks or overhearing conversations in the kitchen. Besides the work I zone in on every day, I don’t have a vast understanding of what else is happening. Similar to my 1:1 intros, I’m currently meeting with people from other client teams to walk me through case studies and layout what current client relationships look like. Each time I see client work, I feel more a part of the team and that I can speak confidently about everything Northbound has to offer. It inspires me to see how my co-worker’s creative thoughts come to life and it reminds me that even though we’re not physically together, I’m grateful I get to call them my co-workers.

Here in Seattle, it looks like remote office work will be around at least through the end of the year. We’d love to hear about other remote onboarding experiences. If you have stories or resources, please share them below.


Faye Kim | Strategist

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