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Losing a job is never easy, worse still is the thought of having to quickly dust yourself off and re-enter the most challenging labour market in living memory. But workers — and companies — are adapting to “the new normal”, as recruits are brought on board virtually.

Diana Del Campo, a recent MBA graduate from Atlanta, Georgia, was one of those who just over two months ago suddenly found themselves unemployed. In the midst of lockdowns, the US economy shed 20.5m jobs and the marketing agency she was working for closed.

“You hear it happen to other people and you don’t think that it will ever happen to you until it does,” she says.

She then interviewed in March for a senior analyst role at The Home Depot, a DIY retailer. The position was then put on hold, but after six weeks of silence — and an apparent sharp rebound in hiring — she got the call: a hiring manager invited her for a four-hour video interview over videoconferencing app Webex. It consisted of a one-hour group interview, an Excel test, case study and a final interview with her prospective team mates — all done virtually.

She got the job and put in her first day working from her couch at home. Now, more than a month in, she has yet to meet any of her colleagues in person.

As the vast majority of knowledge workers have been forced to work from home, interest in remote working opportunities has spiked. From March 1 to May 23, LinkedIn saw a 60 per cent rise in the volume of its users searching specifically for remote working opportunities.

Line chart of Growth in the volume of LinkedIn users looking specifically for 'remote' jobs (%) showing Remote work search

This has been mirrored by a rapid shift in attitudes among workers. More than two-thirds now favour some form of remote working policy, according to Skillcast — and employers are increasingly at ease with the idea. A recent pulse report from PwC reveals only 26 per cent of chief finance officers are now concerned about losing productivity due to remote work, compared with 63 per cent at the outset of the pandemic.

Tsedal Neeley, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and author of Remote Work Revolution, says studies prove remote working is a net benefit for businesses, but companies are still worried about how best to communicate their norms and values to new recruits, who are onboarding from home en masse. 

And it is not just those adversely affected by the pandemic: recent graduates have started to enter the workforce, while others are switching companies or careers. 

Virtual starters

Each year, the Japanese ecommerce giant Rakuten typically hires 800 college graduates. As a substitute for the traditional “office walkaround”, Hiroshi Mikitani, the company’s chief executive, has started inducting new employees through Zoom meetings, where he shares stories about the founding of the company.

At Clifford Chance, a law firm, recruiters have fast-tracked a new onboarding system that aims to ease joiners into their new roles online, two weeks ahead of their scheduled start date. As of mid-May, the company had used the system to add at least 25 staff. 

Tsedal Neeley of Harvard Business School
Tsedal Neeley of Harvard Business School © Handout

“It was the smoothest onboarding I’ve ever had,” says April Brousseau, who recently joined Clifford Chance to head up its global innovation practice. The firm has also provided a £400 stipend to allow all of its employees to buy technology, chairs, desks and other equipment, she adds, which was useful in setting up her home workspace. 

On Ms Del Campo’s first day, she recalls two FedEx boxes arriving at her front door — one with all her equipment and another with her welcome kit, which she was not expecting. 

Employers should send their workers small artefacts that represent the company, says Prof Neeley, because something as simple as a mug with a picture on it can “create a sense of belonging” and help build team cohesion.

“Once I got the kit, I really felt valued and part of the team,” says Ms Del Campo. “On video calls, I could see people drinking out of the same water bottle and taking stuff out of the same backpack.” 

Her new boss also set aside time for a meet-and-greet lunch, where he sent Ms Del Campo a $25 gift card from GrubHub. She ordered food to her apartment and the pair chatted casually over a video call. Ms Del Campo feels these kinds of interactions have helped humanise her and her colleagues, who may have to take a break during the day to entertain their kids or walk the dog

The usual rules still apply when assembling an effective remote team, says Shane Snow, an entrepreneur who co-founded Contently, a content marketing platform. Employers should look for candidates that exhibit three main characteristics: ability, integrity and benevolence. 

Steve Safier, interim programme director of human capital management at the Columbia University School of Professional Studies, agrees. New hires must be reliable, he says, but they must also care for the wellbeing of the team and its constituent members. Without these qualities, it is difficult to build up trust and grant the necessary autonomy to make remote working productive and successful. 

Tech management

Prof Neeley says that if a manager feels they need to monitor their team “it’s a reflection on your insecurity as a leader and manager, and not anything else”.

“You need to honour flextime as best as possible, give trust freely, and equip people with the skills and resources . . . to achieve their goals,” she says.

That can be tricky online. Conversations between colleagues that would previously have occurred during a coffee break now require someone to have an idea and then set up a virtual meeting. “Everything that needs to be done now is more intentional,” adds Mr Safier. “It’s like dancing to an instruction manual as opposed to just dancing, and that takes more mental energy.”

Steve Safier of Columbia University
Steve Safier of Columbia University © Images by David

But it is also important not to overuse certain modes of communication, such as videoconferencing, which both Prof Neeley and Mr Safier say has led to the phenomenon of “Zoom fatigue”, when an email would suffice. 

Instead, what is most valuable for a company is the capacity to create informal spaces for employees, whether a dedicated Slack channel for hobbies and interests, or a buddy programme for new hires. 

At law firm Allen & Overy, Tarek Dawas, the global head of resourcing and mobility, describes how some colleagues have set up a voluntary “tea for three” initiative, where three people are randomly assigned to take time out of the day for a virtual catch-up over a cup of tea. 

Perhaps this, too, is part of the new normal. In working remotely, the formalities of office life are stripped bare. On a recent LinkedIn post, Ms Del Campo shared the story of her job hunt and received a welcome from two dozen new colleagues to Home Depot’s “orange family”. 

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This article has been amended to show that LinkedIn saw a 60 per cent rise in the volume of its users searching specifically for remote working opportunities, not 160 per cent.

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