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The coronavirus pandemic upended what starting a new job looks like, with office-wide introductions and water cooler conversations replaced by virtual onboarding guides and Zoom or Slack check-ins.

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Madison Sameshima has been working for experiential learning platform Riipen since last summer, when she joined the company’s people and culture department as an intern – but she still has yet to meet her colleagues face-to-face.

Even though she was joining the team remotely from Thunder Bay, Ont. – Riipen’s offices are in Vancouver and Toronto – Ms. Sameshima said her manager and colleagues made her feel like a part of the team, by clearly communicating expectations and providing key contacts if she needed help. The company also hosted numerous virtual social events, from intern lunches and ask-me-anything sessions with department heads to company-wide socials and trivia nights.

“Usually you’re in the office and you’re able to meet people, but that’s a little bit more difficult remote,” said Ms. Sameshima, who graduated from Lakehead University in August with a master’s degree in human resources and is now a full-time coordinator at Riipen. But “there were all these opportunities to get to know people outside of our direct work [and] outside of talking directly about work, so I think it’s really fostered a sense of belonging even though I was completely remote.”

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The coronavirus pandemic upended what starting a new job looks like, with office-wide introductions and water cooler conversations replaced by virtual onboarding guides and Zoom or Slack check-ins. But for many new grads in Canada, the process has an additional challenge: starting their first career-track job, they may not know what to expect.

“For new grads…this might actually be their first professional job, so this is why it’s important when onboarding to set clear expectations so that they feel comfortable navigating their new role and the organization,” said Alice D’Abreu, founder of Toronto-based human resources consultancy Monday Morning. “For a new grad hire this is such an exciting moment in their lives so you want to match that enthusiasm with an experience that allows them to move through the process with ease, leaving them feeling set up for success.”

Ms. D’Abreu suggests employers and managers clearly outline company policies and practices around time off, working hours, the dress code for virtual meetings and even smaller things that they might take for granted, such as email etiquette, managing calendars and professional conduct in meetings. Managers should also encourage young hires to ask any questions they have, she added. “These are things that someone new to the workforce is likely to learn organically in an in-person setting with way more ease. … We have to be more intentional about it when working remotely,” she said.

Vanessa Leeman, a graduate of Algonquin College’s paralegal program, said clear communication from her supervisor and immediate colleague helped her feel like a part of the team during her six-week co-op placement in the federal department of finance. Her placement was subsequently extended until July 2021. “In the first few weeks [they were] making sure I was in email chains for all the right information, and that I think was a big thing,” she said.

However, she noted, getting to know the organizational hierarchy and people outside of her immediate team was more of a challenge. “At first I kind of felt lost at sea and floating, because you don’t know who to contact,” she said. “The longer I’ve been in this placement, the longer I’ve been doing the work, the more clear it’s become in terms of how the team operates and functions, but it’s still not perfect by any means.”

Ms. Leeman said she’s most looking forward to putting faces to names if she’s able to work in the office before the end of her placement. “Just the general social parts of it I’m looking forward to and hope to have, and just general right-there guidance.”

In-office socializing may not happen for a while yet, but Ms. D’Abreu said there’s plenty employers can do to ensure new hires are able to meet colleagues on other teams and foster a sense of culture and connection. She suggested new grads be offered one-on-one meetings with members of their own team, people on other teams and senior members of the organization to “build a chain of connections,” or be paired up with another employee who can answer questions they might be too embarrassed to ask their manager.

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Employers and managers can also showcase any employee resource groups and regular social clubs. “These are great avenues to meet other employees that they might not necessarily work with, but could share common interests with,” Ms. D’Abreu said.

At HP Canada, chief executive officer Mary Ann Yule said the company’s leadership immediately began thinking about helping new grads develop strong relationships at the company once the pandemic hit. In the last year, the firm’s young employee network group hosted online mentoring sessions and put out tips and tricks to support young hires, as well as held online mixers and a virtual walkthrough of the HP museum.

HP Canada makes a point of recognizing employees virtually by, for exampling, sending company-wide emails to acknowledge outstanding work. And the company asks leaders to make sure they take time for non-work related conversations during meetings. The company also invited all its Greater Toronto Area employees to the head office parking lot around Thanksgiving to pick up a turkey provided by the company and safely interact with their colleagues.

“Oftentimes you meet people by happenstance – in meetings, having a coffee at the coffee station, you start connecting on a human level. That part’s missing now,” Ms. Yule said. “So we created different memorable moments for employees where they could feel engaged.”

Back at Riipen, Ms. Sameshima – who now works remotely from Vancouver – said her own experience has informed her work onboarding other new employees remotely. She helped to make Riipen’s introductory presentation more tailored to the remote experience with videos that emphasize the company’s culture and values. She and her manager also developed a user manual to help new employees navigate communicating with their managers and receiving feedback remotely. “We were remote when I joined, but we’ve definitely learned to do the onboarding process a bit better.”

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