New workers can struggle with remote communication – but it doesn’t have to be this way

Dr Helen Hughes reveals the difficulties faced by those starting out in the remote working world

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Lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic made working from home a necessity. Now, in the post-Covid world, business leaders are facing tough decisions. Should we continue with remote working, and to what extent should we expect employees to return to offices?

These dilemmas have ramifications for young workers in particular, for whom the pandemic has been their only experience of the workplace. Throw your mind back to the time when you were first learning to navigate the politics, culture and norms of working life, without prior experiences to compare your situation to. Now imagine going through the same thing in a hastily created home office, connecting with superiors and co-workers exclusively or predominantly through a computer screen.

As social distancing restrictions were relaxed in Great Britain, Rishi Sunak, the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, warned people just starting out in their careers that their prospects could be damaged by remote working. His comments caused debate, and a little controversy, in the business community, but we do know that workplace learning is affected by working from home, and that bricks-and-mortar office environments are valuable resources for young employees.

Since June 2020, I have worked with colleagues on a project aiming to understand the barriers and opportunities that students face when undertaking 9-12 month paid internships involving remote or hybrid working. Our findings include evidence from interviews with 25 interns as well as the analysis of questionnaires and essays written by 182 interns.

Of course, we were met with a wide range of responses. Some expressed very favourable experiences with remote working, others reportedly hated it, and many had a more moderate view incorporating positive and negative aspects.

The challenges most interns faced, with regards specifically to being new to employment, could be condensed into four key areas: the impact on workplace learning, isolation from the rest of the workforce, difficulties with communication and networking, and the increased importance of being proactive.

On the whole, interns reported being well-prepared to tackle the tasks of their job by employers. They felt it took considerably longer to learn. On average, participants spent about 15 per cent of their overall internship in the same physical space as colleagues, with most interactions taking place via ‘quick online chats’.

Some believed this hampered their ability to ‘learn through osmosis’ – something  afforded by a physical office environment, where they could pick up on snippets of information from colleagues. Difficulties were also reported when working out how their day-to-day work fitted in with the rest of the company, and working out who were in positions of seniority and how formally to address them.

Furthermore, employees spoke about the challenge of feeling committed to an organisation they interacted with entirely, or almost entirely, online. They struggled to feel a part of the firm, and were often reluctant to reach out to co-workers, not wishing to be seen as needy or time-wasters. This led to misunderstandings with higher-ups, for example, who expressed dissatisfaction that they were not being kept in the loop by interns about their daily projects. From the interns’ perspectives, they were showing respect to their employers by trying to present as capable, intelligent and independent workers.

Problems with remote communication, such as having fewer social cues and engaging predominantly in task-related conversations, also caused interns to perceive networking as harder in a remote workforce than a face-to-face one.

Being proactive, therefore, became of paramount importance both to learning the ins and outs of the practices, behaviours and culture of a workforce, and to building connections with peers and superiors who could act as mentors.

None of these challenges are insurmountable though. Managers and business leaders should think about how new starters will learn how their role fits in with the wider company and build ways to help them meet other people. Consider ‘anchor days’ and hybrid work patterns to encourage employees just starting their careers to meet and learn from a variety of people.

Partnering interns up with a more experienced workplace buddy can help them acclimatise quickly to the behaviours and culture of the workplace. Buddy schemes can also provide new recruits with tips on how to improve their visibility without coming across as overly demanding, and provide a person whom they feel comfortable asking ‘silly’ questions to.

New employees often need help developing techniques for approaching uncomfortable topics with fellow colleagues, so provide them with strategies and be vigilant for conflicts in the workplace, which can easily fly under the radar when managers only connect with their staff by having quick online catch-ups.

It’s important to teach new employees the expected etiquette when using different forms of communication and encourage them to have informal conversations. While not directly conducive to task completion, informal interactions build bonds between co-workers and commitment to the organisation – some new starters did not appreciate the value of this.

Finally, be cautious not to overdo it. The flexibility provided by a hybrid working scheme is highly valuable to employees across career stages, and mandating office work can be counter-productive to your culture. Besides, forcing interns into the office all day every day will only be beneficial to them if others are in the office too.

Early career employees are perfectly capable of developing the skills and commitment necessary for a promising future, but it is important to be aware of these challenges and to proactively design onboarding and integration in hybrid work environments.

Dr Helen Hughes is a chartered occupational psychologist and an associate professor at the University of Leeds