Q: I will start soon at a new employer where everybody is working remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic. The job I’m leaving is remote too, so I’m not worried about the work. I’m more concerned about the social and relationship-building aspect of changing jobs.
I am curious what I can do to integrate myself at my new workplace when the normal ways of meeting and getting to know co-workers — in-person gatherings, lunches, coffee breaks, passing in the halls, etc. — are not available. I am a little shy and do not see myself as a great networker, even under non-pandemic circumstances.
Right now, my plan is mostly to reach out directly to people for quick social calls and video chats. Do you have ideas for other ways I can build these relationships while we are all working from home?
A: Ordinarily the idea of randomly buttonholing strangers for contrived social encounters strikes me as awkward and off-putting. But then again, up until about a year ago, so would the idea of spending half my day grinning blindly into a tiny webcam lens while a colleague’s cat gives me the Butt Hello.
Just as being the new kid in town gives you the perfect cover for fumbling names and asking lots of questions, the pandemic has given us all the perfect excuse to not just embrace the awkwardness, but to bond over it.
“If we level the playing field and know that everyone is struggling … and ask people how they are actually doing … that immediately opens up the conversation to something more real,” says Susan McPherson, a communications specialist and author of “The Lost Art of Connecting: The Gather, Ask, Do Method for Building Meaningful Business Relationships,” which will be released this month. In her 100% remote consulting firm, McPherson encourages new hires to make 10-minute appointments with five colleagues during their first week — and nudges current employees to make a point of welcoming the new people.
Managers can also build community among their teams by adopting and encouraging the use of tools such as Donut, Slack’s answer to the virtual watercooler, and by involving everyone in planning office gatherings and events, which McPherson has done with her employees.
Once you have those opportunities, McPherson says, the goal is to “try to learn one non-work-related fact about someone” and “be prepared to share one non-work-related fact about yourself.”
McPherson notes that asking someone what their “go-to Netflix series” is or the last article they enjoyed can tell you volumes about their interests and personality without getting too personal.
But if your shyness prevails, or you’re entering a workplace that isn’t really in sync with the virtual vibe — too much work, too little time — you can still get to know colleagues the old-fashioned way.
Build on current connections. Ask your new supervisor and team members to let you “sit in” on video meetings and calls outside your immediate work group so you can learn faces and names. They might even take a minute to introduce you during the meetings, which is why it’s a good idea to ….
Tune your pitch. Be ready with a short spiel, including helpful skills you have that might not be obvious from your job title (“I’m always happy to offer a quick proofread, and I’m a great teammate to have on Star Trek Trivia Night”).
Lurk. But only for work. If your office uses any kind of internal social media platform, use it to monitor what’s happening around you. Connecting to colleagues on LinkedIn or another work-related external platform is a good idea — but keep your nonwork social media activities walled off for now, and remember the four c’s of making contact: Be sure you have consent, use the appropriate channel, respect the context of your relationship, and make sure your cause justifies the contact.
Cultivate sources. There’s always someone in the office who knows the leverage points in any department, who can tell you the best people to contact — or avoid — when you need something done. Find and befriend that person. (But be wary if the ratio of personal gossip to productive intel seems too high.)
And, as in real life, give it time. Good work and genuine curiosity will carry you far — and smooth the transition back to a world of screen-free coffee breaks.