When Andrew Jacobson was hired as a financial analyst for Northwell Health in Westbury before his May 2020 graduation from Adelphi University, his expectations of his first professional job didn’t include spending the workday in his childhood bedroom.
"I started fully remote in mid-June and it really felt like there was no transition to work life because I spent my entire last semester of school on Zoom all day at home five feet away from my bed and then essentially just doing the same thing, but for a company this time," said Jacobson, 23, of Albertson. "It wasn’t what I imagined after I experienced in-person, part-time jobs and two internships during college where I was able to make new friends. That socialization was something I was looking forward to."
Like Jacobson, many new hires anticipate the watercooler talk to connect with co-workers, as well as career development opportunities like popping into the boss’s office to ask a question and seizing moments during meetings to impress. But for employees who began a new job virtually since the start of the pandemic, especially recent college graduates, those newbie experiences have been complicated.
The result is a loss of socialization through which innovation, collaboration and connection are more likely, according to Janet Lenaghan, dean of Hofstra University’s Frank G. Zarb School of Business in Hempstead and an expert on human resources and management. Another loss, she said, is access to the kind of information and ideas that take place during the side talk before meetings.
"What’s crucial, especially for a young employee right out of college who may need more support around remote work, is that the employer really invest in onboarding to ensure that both their remote workers and their in-person workers make those connections with each other and both feel equally valued," Lenaghan said.
Amanda Augustine, a career coach with TopResume, a resume-writing service, who is based in Brightwaters, said the challenge extends to hiring managers and human resources staff. "How do you bring people in and make them feel a part of this culture and connected when you don't have casual, random encounters on the elevator?"
What has helped employees this past year have been meeting ice breakers like the game Two Truths and a Lie, and virtual events like happy hours, wine tasting, comedy and magic shows, scavenger hunts and even holiday parties. Technology platforms have also kept workers linked.
Augustine said there are solid business strategies for ensuring these connections are made: Successful onboarding leads to employee retention.
"It’s always a concern when employees feel disconnected because there’s a greater probability that they may start job searching and you don't want to lose great talent," she said. "It's in your best interest to invest in some initiatives that are going to keep people happy and invested in the organization, because if not, you're going to find yourself trying to fill that role again pretty quickly."
Even so, the virtual experience may be a smoother transition for people who have had previous jobs, particularly if the employee has already experienced going from in-person to remote. Carley Weinstein, social media manager/producer at Stony Brook Medicine, had been at her last job five years before they went fully remote, so when she started her current job in December, she said it wasn't a complete culture shock.
"But I'm an incredibly social person and when I start something I really like to get to know people and I didn't really have the opportunity to do any of that when I first started," Weinstein, 27, said. "Orientation and all of my meetings were virtual starting out so it made it difficult to get to know people at first."
She said her team has gone out of their way to create opportunities for socialization, like a virtual holiday party and informal conversations in meetings.
As for getting comfortable with her new job, Weinstein, who now has a hybrid schedule, said, "There are various virtual tools that make it possible to communicate so I have never found it challenging to collaborate with my supervisor or anybody else. But I think if I hadn’t had the virtual experience at my last job, it would have been more challenging."
Jacobson, who has also been pursuing a virtual master’s in business analytics, found an upside to his situation as well. "I think being fully remote stripped away all the physical adjustments to a new office culture and allowed me to focus on learning my new job," he said. "My office will soon be a hybrid environment, and I am definitely looking forward to actually meeting the people I have been working with in person for the first time."
But as both new and experienced workers head back to offices they may all be on equal ground, said Erin Lau, human resources expert with Insperity, who is based in Manhattan and Jericho. "It’s kind of their first day all over again, because now they've gotten acclimated to doing their job and working with the people that they've met over the course of the year virtually," she said. "Now they have to transition to figure out what that looks like in person."