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3 Biggest Stumbling Blocks for Culture in Virtual Onboarding

When I think about onboarding and the challenges brought on by working remotely, I think the biggest stumbling block is conveying company culture. Why? 1. Most people find it hard to define “culture.” 2. Most companies, while they may have explicit values, haven’t thought about how these trickle down to culture. 3. Culture has all too often been used as an exclusionary social tool to make people of different backgrounds/beliefs feel out of sync with their peers and this, rightly, makes people fearful about being too prescriptive with culture. Tack on the pains of being physically distant from your colleagues and you have a perfect storm.

By breaking down each of these issues, we can design onboarding that strengthens teams, enhances positive behaviors, and makes newcomers comfortable and productive.

  1. So what is culture?

I’d define it as the values, norms, and behaviors that define how you do business. Some examples of pieces of information you might pick up explicitly or implicitly on your first few weeks at a job are:

  • What projects have been delivered and at what speed, what was valued (e.g. speed over perfection or vice versa)

  • What happens when you fail, is that information embarrassing or a tool for learning

  • The hours people work, is it ok to go for a run in the middle of the day, etc...

  • Cadence and style of communication, how often are people checking in with each other, how acceptable is swearing

In every organization there are answers to these and other similar culture defining questions that are outliers and that contribute to the definition of a company’s culture. And in a “normal” office environment, you’d see these behaviors happening and learn from them, but now so many of them are invisible to anyone not directly involved.

It’s worth asking relative newcomers as well as “old hands” what they think the cultural outliers are to understand where you might need to be explicit about what people can expect in their new work life. Like so many things in a virtual office, culture needs to be more explicit. So write out a manifesto or a playbook for it, spell it out to make it easier on people. (this goes hand in hand with the explicit values in point two) Your goal is to make new hires feel like they can fit in and become a part of the team. Frankly, these are just good manners, welcoming people by giving them transparency about the cultural codes they can expect.

2. How do values turn into culture?

Value statements, usually a collection of hopeful but sometimes vague beliefs and philosophies that are designed to be a north star for the company. Something you can hold actions to and say, does this FEEL right. But this is not the same as culture. Culture is the everyday actions that define how you do business.

Values can turn into culture by hard work, by luck, or not at all. After working within your team and organization to understand what cultural norms exist in your company, the next necessary question is to ask whether these align with the stated values and mission of the company. If your company mission is, say, move fast and break things, but your team functions in a way that values perfection over speed and saving face over learning from mistakes, your culture and values are mismatched. This is confusing for all employees, but especially newcomers who may not be able to deal with the disconnect. Map the culture from part 1 to the values and make sure there are no disconnects. Then codify this in onboarding meetings, playbooks, and/or the company handbook. In a distributed workforce, documentation is King/Queen!

3. Don’t let culture be a weapon

We can’t ignore how culture can also make people feel excluded. Just one example- think of a traditional banking culture, with very late hours, how does this work for working parents, both men and women. No one wants to live in that world anymore. And in a virtual setting, harsh suggestions of fitting in can stick out more when new hires have less information to glean from being in the same office.

After you’ve mapped out what your culture is, how it aligns to your values, the last step is to make sure this doesn’t leave anyone out. Ask yourself, in conjunction with a group of people representing different perspectives, what about this might now work for some people. You can’t please everyone, but you have to be certain ignorance isn’t causing you to exclude valuable team members. The massive overhaul of working norms that came with the pandemic are a perfect time to implement changes that welcome diversity. New hires are going to expect this, a more open and welcoming workplace, and onboarding is a good place to start.

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