Remote work: What it's like to start a new tech job when everyone is on lockdown

The coronavirus pandemic has raised a unique set of circumstances for those who have recently started a new job. TechRepublic spoke to three new hires about their experiences of digital onboarding.

Working from home: Why it takes a pandemic to improve work-life "fusion"

With most offices still firmly shut because of coronavirus, it's been a surreal and often testing time for those now working from home. But it's even stranger for those who find themselves starting a new job in the middle of a global pandemic.

I speak from experience. Having joined TechRepublic and ZDNet in April, I'm one of the thousands of people who have joined a new company during the coronavirus outbreak. Many of those people may have never stepped foot in the office they were expecting to work in, or met any of their co-workers face-to-face. 

According to tech analyst Gartner, 85% of companies are now using digital tools to onboard employees as the ongoing crisis forces them to rethink their recruiting efforts. As such, the traditional first-day induction has been turned on its head: out goes the handshake marathon, coffee machine tutorial and traditional welcome drinks at the pub; in come group Zoom meetings, email introductions and two-hour calls to IT support.

SEE: COVID-19: A guide and checklist for restarting your business (TechRepublic Premium)  

Technology means most of what is needed when you start a new job can be done remotely – on the admin side, at least. Far more difficult is replicating the social aspects of office life, meaning businesses have had to think creatively – often by encouraging apt use of video-conferencing software and other communications tools.

"My first week especially was almost fully booked with one-on-ones and group calls, and I was very much encouraged to show my face and speak to everyone," says Neda Kinduryte, a front-end engineer at used car comparison site, heycar.

Kinduryte joined heycar in April, not long after the UK imposed its country-wide coronavirus lockdown and long before there was any talk of when offices might begin to reopen. Having not met any of her colleagues before heycar's London office closed, Neda made the most of the apps at her disposal.  

"Normally in a new job, you'd meet people in the kitchen, the lift and other random places as you get to know everyone you work with," she tells TechRepublic.

"As that's not possible right now, I've been arranging video one-to-ones, group calls and dropping emails and Slack messages to as many people as possible just to say 'hi', understand what they do and how it all pieces together."

Jack Mattock, a marketing executive at Totaljobs, also found himself grappling with the nuances of digital onboarding when he joined the company in late March.

Mattock says the onboarding process itself had been fairly painless as Totaljobs had been planning to test remote working before the lockdown began and had most of the tools in place to run his induction remotely. However,  Jack – like many others – wonders whether the relationships he's built so far are as strong as those he'd make had he started out in the office.

"I have developed fairly good relationships with my colleagues [but] whether or not that's as good as it would have been…probably not," he says. "There's less of those little conversations across the desk, and really developing something personal with that person. You get to know people less this way."

One of the things that has helped Mattock are daily "stand-up" meetings with his team, as well as virtual departmental quizzes and coffee breaks. "You end up meeting a lot of people in a way that you would at the bar, or at the pub after work," he says. "I think that's helped."

Some people's circumstances have been more trying. Nadeem Rafiq was due to return to software company AspenTech in a new role after leaving the company 15 years ago, only to have his start date delayed after contracting COVID-19.

Rafiq's illness was quite severe, landing him in hospital with pneumonia the week before he was due to start. "When I had to make the call to say I wasn't able to start, I wasn't actually able to speak because my breathing was so bad," he tells TechRepublic.

"I had to use a bit of tech on my phone – a text-to-speech app – and I had to literally type what I wanted to say, and the phone did the speaking for me. AspenTech were very understanding, but I was actually off sick for the first two weeks of the job."

Rafiq did, thankfully, make a full recovery. When he was eventually able to start work, he too found the cultural nuances of home working more challenging than the technical ones.

"When you have people who are experts in particular technology and you're trying to come up the learning curve and learn that technology, there's no substitute for being able to tap someone on the shoulder and say, 'can you show me this?'" he says.

"It slows everything down. Yes, you can ping someone on Skype or Teams and arrange a meeting, but it's not as quick."

The Zoom phenomenon 

Rafiq, like many remote workers, has also had to quickly adjust to the new video-calling phenomenon, a practice he says was non-existent in his previous job. "It's one of those things that you have to get past feeling self-conscious and just do it," he adds.

Of course, apps already play a large part in the way we communicate in our day-to-day lives. With that being the case, these digital services are starting to play a larger role in our professional lives.

"I'd say our generation are reasonably used to living in this way, when you spend a lot of time communicating with people digitally anyway," says Mattock. "In that sense, it feels quite normal."

Kinduryte also appears to have found remote work easier to get to grips with than expected, pointing out that much of the work she does doesn't require her to be physically on-site.

She also views her situation as an opportunity to test a way of working that might be considered a new normal in the future.  "The work I do is not about the physical location – I can do my job from any place, especially with the rest of the team only a call or message away to help if I need it," she says.

"I've enjoyed starting my job virtually as it's been a challenge but has also shown me technology can be used to make it feel as if we are all in the office even if we're in our kitchens or living rooms."

SEE: Top 100+ tips for telecommuters and managers (free PDF) (TechRepublic)    

Mattock ponders what more flexible-working policies could mean for working remotely. "In future, why can't I go to Lisbon for a week?" he jokes. "They're on the exact same time schedule – I could wake up, work, and then in the evening I could go to the beach!

"That's something I never would have considered in the past, but I don't see why I couldn't do that now – and there are definitely people who are going to be thinking the same thing!"

Adjusting to the new normal

With the UK government now hinting at a return to the workplace in the not-too-distant future, many are beginning to wonder what office life will look like in the post-pandemic world, including whether or not there will be a permanent office to return to.

Whatever the case, the daily routine of drifting from the kitchen to the desk and back again has become a normal part of life for some, with many relishing the opportunity to work in more comfortable surroundings without the daily rat race,

"I actually enjoy a slower pace while working from home," says Kinduryte. 

"Lengthy mornings, no crowded tube, chatty calls with the colleagues. I think it's nice to slow down sometimes."

Working from home also has the benefit of being comparatively distraction-free, meaning you can get more of those annoying tasks out of the way that would usually be thrown to the wayside in an office environment.

Rafiq has found this extra time particularly useful for plowing through induction materials. "Being able to lock yourself in a room rather than in an office has allowed me to get on with getting a lot of this training out of the way, in a very quiet environment – well, as quite as a house with three children who are not at school can be!" he says.

"Being an old hand at working from home, you can often get more done in three hours at home than you could in six hours in an office in a given day, because you can just get your head down and focus, without too many interruptions."

That being said, having work so close to home presents its own challenges, with recent studies highlighting the difficulties remote workers face in switching off from work. "It is sometimes difficult to get away from the computer, because it's right there," says Mattock. 

"I'll hear a notification on my laptop, and because it's right there, I'm back in. There's a sense of having to be aware of getting away from work."

There's also the prospect of meeting your colleagues face to face for the first time, and hoping that strong digital relationships translate into the real world. "Meeting everyone through video calls has meant I've seen inside almost all my new workmates' homes so I've learned about their lives pretty quickly," says Kinduryte. 

"I've met pets, children and partners, I've also seen everyone's taste in decoration, posters, books and more which reveals so much about them as people.

"However, even with all of this, I am interested to see how different (or not!) everyone is offline."

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