Long reads

How to treat young recruits properly (even in a pandemic)

25 Feb 2021 By Elizabeth Howlett

Career starters taking on their first jobs remotely have had it tough. But employers can make sure they don’t miss out on vital experience

The first day of a new job is a ritualistic experience. You tentatively meet your new line manager, the rest of the team – most of whose names you fail to remember – and you’re given a series of inductions. If you’re lucky, there is some form of social gathering to welcome you into the fold, and you start to get a handle on the company culture as the weeks progress.

But the tried and tested blueprint for those vital first few weeks has been turned on its head during the Covid pandemic, as most places of work are closed and team meetings are confined to screens. Even experienced workers starting a new job are struggling through virtual inductions, networking on video calls and picking up snippets of the culture through emojis and instant messaging. “Many of us have done some form of online working or remote working before,” says Stephen Isherwood, chief executive of the Institute of Student Employers. But what about those only just starting out?

There is, he points out, a new generation of workers who have little to no experience in a physical workplace: “Employers have taken on graduates, apprentices and early career starters who have been recruited online, onboarded online and are now working online – and they know no different. That’s the reality at the moment, so this is a tricky situation for those hiring early talent.”

It would be remiss of employers to overlook the advantages of being in a physical workplace for a new recruit in their first role, and early starters are already feeling the strain of the virtual workplace. Matthew Howard, undergraduate careers manager at Lancaster University Management School and a member of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS), says in comparison to their experienced colleagues, young new starters are on the back foot when it comes to making connections online. “Students are struggling to grasp behaviours and practices [in the virtual workplace]. A lot of what you learn in those first few weeks of a new job is by seeing what other people are doing, but they can’t mirror behaviours from more senior colleagues,” he says, speaking from experience with his own students. 

Isherwood highlights that employers must virtually plug the gap left by ad-hoc learning opportunities and general working know-how usually achieved by being in the workplace. “The challenge for new joiners, particularly those who have just started their career, is understanding the cultural aspects of an organisation, which are much harder to absorb when you’re not on the premises,” he says. “Especially the at-desk learning, the briefings you get from meetings, and all those water cooler moments that are difficult to replicate online.” 

So how can HR show young recruits the ropes – both formally and informally – in a virtual world? Employers shouldn’t be hoping for miracles when it comes to replacing face-to-face mentorship and learning, says Claire Oliver, head of HR at Troup Bywaters + Anders, which took on a cohort of 10 apprentices in July 2020. But she points out that there are digital workarounds with mentorships and buddy systems. “Our apprentices have an apprentice mentor, which is either a former apprentice or an apprentice who is further down the line in their apprenticeship journey,” says Oliver. But, she adds, you can’t replace a face-to-face relationship online: “Even just watching how your co-workers act and behave from a professional standpoint in the office can’t be replicated virtually. Technology has allowed us to set up regular touch points between experienced apprentices and our new cohort, but face-to-face mentorship can’t be replaced.”

However, Kate Ross, manager of IBM’s early professionals programme, explains that the company’s take on welcoming early professionals has enabled it to “up the personal contact” and create a community of early career hires within the business. “Unlike our experienced recruits, we invite our early career hires to introductory group video calls and Facebook groups so they can meet people,” says Ross. “If they’re too nervous on day one they can’t participate, and if they can’t participate they can’t learn. Our main objective with our early professionals is to make sure they are learning so they can perform.”

Ross says IBM’s induction period, which lasts 10 days, aims to “imbue the culture and spirit of collaboration, teamwork and self-reliance” so new starters come away feeling secure: “That’s really different from an experienced hire; you wouldn’t need to do that to the same extent for them.”

These new ways of making connections and establishing mentoring schemes are vital during the pandemic, says Lucy Everett, employer engagement manager for The University of Edinburgh’s careers service and co-chair of the AGCAS employer engagement task group, because they help to replicate casual learning opportunities. “Establishing mentoring relationships, setting up explicit buddy systems or organising regular virtual tea breaks can enable ad-hoc, casual learning to happen,” explains Everett. “We’ve all realised the benefit of those conversations over the desk or in the kitchen, and that is lacking in a virtual world. Employers need to put more thought into how they can create those opportunities.” 

Mentoring has also proved effective for Sharon Blyfield, HR business partner at Coca-Cola European Partners, who encouraged her apprentices to connect virtually. “We’ve been able to buddy up our new apprentices with existing apprentices to help them with learning about the world of work, because what they want is someone they can relate to,” she says. “Some of our existing apprentices had to do quite a bit of their apprenticeship remotely too, so they have experience of what’s needed in both a physical and virtual workplace.”

But ensuring that new hires are connected, supported and still gaining casual learning experiences is only half the battle for businesses. Remote working in the pandemic has exposed inequalities, such as a lack of a proper working environment or tools that employers should be mindful of. Elaine Boyes, executive director at AGCAS, points out that the pandemic has given rise to the potential for inequality for early talent around digital poverty. “We don’t yet know if it is going to make those inequalities worse,” she says. “Employers need to ensure they are giving everyone the same opportunities when it comes to the digital divide. But not all companies are able to provide equipment.” 

This view is echoed by Isherwood, who raises concerns around mental health and wellbeing for those not able to access suitable places to work. “New career starters have less access to somewhere where it’s easy to work from home, which is sometimes different to those later on in their careers,” he says. “It’s not just the technology, but the working environment, as they could be back home or in shared accommodation. It’s about recognising they may have different living circumstances that may get in the way of getting work done. Employers need to think about home circumstances and factor those in.” 

Oliver’s apprentice cohort was able to attend the office and meet with IT to ensure they had the correct equipment, but further lockdown measures this year have meant closing the office to those who needed it. “We did encourage our apprentices who can’t effectively work from home to attend the office when they could, but now we are in lockdown that isn’t happening,” she explains. “We have learned the benefits of remote working, but equally the parts that have lacked, so there is a challenge to make sure apprentices are progressing in a remote environment, and not just standing still.”

Looking further ahead as Covid’s new starters progress through their careers, their experiences of virtual workplaces, including digital poverty and unsuitable working conditions, while far from advantageous, could come with some positives, and it’s possible the pandemic will create a new generation of workers with different skillsets and attributes. Graduates entering the pandemic workplace, says Howard, are likely to have higher levels of resilience and adaptability. “The next cohort of new starters will definitely be the most resilient,” he predicts. “Adapting to any recruitment process, transitioning to a remote workplace and starting a new job with ease will be strong skills for them. There will be elements of remote working after the pandemic and the new starters will be equipped to deal with the new way of working.” 

Everett agrees that the experience of the pandemic, alongside completing any kind of degree or apprenticeship remotely, means they will be highly skilled in remote working compared to their older, more experienced counterparts. She adds, however, that employers “need to be mindful of the transition back to the office as it will be a very different experience for them”. 

But above all, the new generation of workers’ heightened resilience, adaptability and proficiency in remote working will be advantageous for businesses, especially those struggling with their talent pipelines. The pandemic has impacted recruitment across all sectors and, according to Isherwood, transferable skills are going to be highly sought after. “Employers recognise that the graduates they are hiring now will be junior managers three years down the line, and they will need that talent pipeline there for when the market opens up again,” he says.

“The challenge for sectors that have been hit hard will be in several years’ time, when they need people at a more experienced level. You can always recruit raw talent coming fresh out of university or apprenticeships but, when you want people with years of experience, that’s when new hires that employers make now will start to pay back the investment made in them.”

Although it’s tempting to put early careers recruitment on hold until the Covid storm has passed, if industries don’t invest in early talent now, Isherwood says, they won’t have enough experienced people to take advantage when the inevitable recruitment upturn arrives. Quite simply, he adds, “they will be in trouble”.  

Hiring career starters remotely in practice: PwC

“One of the biggest challenges for early career starters is building a network,” says Victoria Robinson, partner at PwC. To combat the difficulties new starters face with establishing working relationships and engaging with company culture while working remotely, the firm – having onboarded 1,400 graduates and school leavers since March 2020 – designed a virtual space called The Park to bridge the gap between the physical and virtual workplaces.  

“Candidates can create avatars to explore The Park, which simulates an office experience. They can go into different rooms, listen to lectures and have breakout sessions with the community,” explains Robinson, who admits she “danced on the beach” when she was last on the platform. 

Having welcomed more than 7,000 students through its virtual doors, The Park replaces water cooler moments and has the potential to deliver casual learning opportunities thanks to a proximity feature enabling users to listen in to conversations. “If you are within hearing range of a conversation you can listen in, but if you choose to walk away the conversation fades out, as it would in the real world,” says Robinson. The Park also connects students with their line manager, other employees and HR professionals to answer any questions they may have.

Robinson says the pandemic has meant early career starters are not easily able to build networks and lack the opportunity to learn by osmosis. “Even with the best will it is difficult to replicate some of those virtually, but I think they will catch up and adapt to new ways of working,” she says. “They potentially have a head start compared to people who are further along in their career and used to working in more traditional ways.”

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