Photo by Aw Creative on Unsplash

Onboarding is never just about task management. Landing effectively in a new role requires learning how to navigate the company culture. In this piece, we offer an ethnographic perspective on challenges that newcomers might face when joining the office for the first time, and how HR and managers might address them. 

I started this job - writing content with Platypus - in the middle of the spring lockdown

Six weeks later we moved "back" into the office, and for me, that meant starting over again in a lot of ways. 

Looking back, I realize that I have actually been going through two different onboarding processes:

One, very task-focused for my first six weeks of working remotely; and another that involved taking in the culture and finding my way through social dynamics and unwritten rules. 

My personal experience made me reflect on how HR, managers, and employees all over the world will be dealing with this particular issue.

I turned my ethnographic lens onto my own and others’ experiences and reflected on what was actually at stake since starting and restarting offered such different perspectives.

Observation no. 1: Culture is read in between the lines. Not while taking turns speaking on Zoom 

The American anthropologist Clifford Geertz is famous for introducing thick descriptions as an ethnographic tool. 

The many layers of meaning that “natives” - in this case, your well-established team - seamlessly interpret in everyday life have to be described in detail to make proper sense to outsiders. 

His most famous example is that of a wink. 

A wink can have multiple meanings: Being flirtatious, signaling a shared secret, revealing irony, giving a soundless signal to a conspirator, being an involuntary tic, etc. 

Knowing how to decipher these meanings decides how smoothly you react and interact. 

Company culture is just the same. Knowing how to decipher team dynamics is at the basis of smooth cooperation. 

I was talking to a friend the other day. Like me, she had started her current job during the lockdown and was now in her 10th week of working from home. 

Like me, she had a lot of insecurities and frustrations related to that.

Mainly because, rather than just onboarding from home, she had been:

  • Trying to make a good first impression all while homeschooling,
  • Fighting for the scraps of available time with her husband, and
  • Trying to guess how to fit into established workflows and dynamics of her new team.

“It frustrates me because usually I’m so sensitive to these things: Figuring out how to talk to colleagues and getting a sense of who they are!” 

Zoom is all well and nice, but not for allowing the finer nuances of my friend’s cultural intuition. 
Drowning in the crowd can be all to easy. (Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash)
Being forced to take turns talking on Zoom distances us from a vital part of our social interaction: Intuitively recognizing our co-workers’ lines of thought and interacting with this spontaneously.

For some, this might feature as a perk: Avoiding interruptions and sidetracking. 

It does, however, also add a layer of formality and politeness that emphasizes the roles we play.  

Culture - even company culture - lives undetected in the everyday actions of the people that carry it out. And when we are only allowed to see a fraction - and a highly staged fraction at that - we will lack vital information on how to decode the culture we’ve landed in. 

Observation no. 2: We all perform roles. And they won’t be the same at the office and on Slack

A few weeks after I started I had a conversation with our CEO on Slack. And it has to be said: We have a very informal tone.   

I was joking about how he conformed to a cliché of the ever-fit, ever-balanced super Dad CEO. 

He noted how I clearly didn’t know him well enough. 

Now, being back at the office I will absolutely agree with him (sorry, Boss). 

My mistake was innocent: I was reading him, my co-workers, and social dynamics based on what I experienced on Slack and in meetings. 

Those were my only sources of information. 

Not all masks are this obvious. (Photo by Jessica Rockowitz on Unsplash)

Social scientists often talk of how we are performing different versions of our “selves” depending on which stage we are standing on: Giving the financial statements to the board, having a difficult conversation with your kid’s teacher, or going to a bar with friends all require different performances to succeed. 

In this context, the office and an online platform respectively allow for two very different performances. 

The most important thing being distance and tempo: Communicating in writing or in more or less scheduled calls allow off-stage time in-between. Time to write up a reply, time to rethink your reply, the option to unmute, and a screen to hide behind, etc. 

(Although those same screens also provided insights into what used to be separated from our professional selves and forced a new merging of home-self and work-self. But that’s another story.) 

What came as a surprise to me when I eventually joined the office, was that I needed to relearn the roles and behaviors of co-workers that I had already formed an impression of. 

Seeing everybody in real-time offered an entirely different set of data. 

Now I was seeing colleagues interact with each other and I could gather vital information from their behavior. A behavior that clearly reflected an established understanding of established roles. 

This is telling for how this second chapter of the onboarding process will not only involve learning but also relearning

A relearning that will to some extent also force the newcomer to establish a new script for interacting with co-workers.

Observation no. 3: Not knowing the culture means more risk. And more risk means less initiative

Making newcomers confident in taking on responsibilities is a central aim of onboarding efforts. I’m sure you would agree. 

Unfortunately, without the comfort of knowing that she was able to decipher the unwritten rules of her team, the friend I mentioned earlier felt hesitant to speak up in meetings. Leaving her uncertain of whether she was proving her worth to her manager. 

This makes sense. 

Whether we like it or not culture has a lot to do with power. 

Soft power, yes. But power nonetheless. 

And what is at stake in team dynamics is what french sociologist Pierre Bourdieu described with the word doxa: A set of truths that is dominant within a certain group. 

Knowing those truths and mastering the skills that go with them can translate into influence, popularity - basically a secure position within the group. 

The risky side of doxa is, of course, going against it: Not knowing or displaying the right skills, the right understanding of a problem, or not honoring the right people. 

In my own experience, this issue was vital. 

One of the things that frustrated me the most while working remotely was my uncertainty about how far I could go, who I would offend, who already owned certain agendas, and what wriggle room would be left for the role that I wanted to play. 

And just like my friend, this left me hesitant and insecure. 

When finally joining the office this was also the single most important piece of the puzzle to get into place. 

The point I want to underscore here is that it might be easy for modern, “flat” organizations to forget that seniority, established hierarchies, social bonds and power matter. Even when they aren’t formalized.

(Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash)

Maybe especially because they aren’t formalized they require an even greater personal skill for detecting potential pitfalls. Notably, because there will be a difference between the presumed and the practiced version of your company culture

And when further handicapped by not being able to decode the culture in real-time, newcomers need a hand! 

Managers and senior co-workers play an important role in functioning as gatekeepers for how to confront hierarchies and rules of engagement within a team. 

But even these will not be able to provide a roadmap for things that they to a large extent only have tacit knowledge of. 

So basically: newcomers might need a break. And they might need time as well as guidance to restart this learning process after joining the office.   

Conclusion: Expect those bumps and smoothen the landing

Awareness is king! 

What I’m suggesting is that newcomers that have joined the company while working remotely will require a new stage of onboarding when eventually joining the office. 

Here’s what you can do to smoothen the landing:

  1. Expect a new type of confusion from the newcomer (even when he or she isn’t that new anymore).
  2. Know that this is an integral part of what culture is and how culture is learned.
  3. Make time and provide help for this new learning process.   
  4. Embrace the questions and uncertainties that come with it. 
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