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Let’s face it – few of us are going back to the company office any time soon. Depending what part of the country you are in, chances are you were all excited to be heading back (even a few times a week) in September. Then that got changed to January – maybe even March – of next year. We are blindly throwing darts at a moving target, without any control over the outcome.

That’s enough ambiguity to make your long-time staff members a bit stressed, but they have the benefit of knowing what to expect in the physical workplace when a return finally does happen. What about those brand-new team members who have been onboarded during the pandemic, who have never even actually set foot in your offices?

We can all remember the usual experience of starting a new job. Getting dressed up for our first day, the excitement of getting to the office and meeting all our new team members, learning to find our way around the space – not to mention the expensed fancy lunch with your boss. There is always so much to learn in the first few days – so many people and things to keep straight in your head – that it can be exhausting (and exhilarating), especially when you’re starting your career. These are some of the moments that start to define your experiences in the working world (both good and bad), or your experience with a particular company.

In the world of virtual onboarding, we have to make extra effort to provide a welcoming experience for new employees, regardless of how experienced they are in their careers. And when it comes to those just starting out, we have to recognize that relative state of vulnerability and extra need for attention. Here are some ways to help engage your workers in both cases.

Socialize, socialize, socialize

As a leader, make sure to schedule time for socializing with the team. Although it takes more effort, schedule short meetings with new employees and each of your team members to introduce them personally. And, just as we would in the office, make sure new hires have a compatible “onboarding buddy” who takes extra care to check in with them on a regular basis.

The move to remote work may have nixed regular Friday-afternoon “social hour” with our colleagues months ago, but such moments are essential for a new employee to begin to feel part of the wider team, and for current staff to get to know their new teammate. Structured “get to know me” sessions can help break the ice, with more experienced team members starting off with a short intro (one minute or less!) before providing a fun fact and offering the new person an example of things they can ask others questions about. At the outset, be sure that you don’t put your new co-worker immediately on the spot by asking them to take the lead on telling the group about themselves. Instead, let others model the approach first.

Keep colleagues connected

Even if others on the team don’t feel the need for such socializing, the new employee very much does. Continue the process by encouraging other team members to show up for any scheduled socializing, and keep it fun and light by playing an online game, or having people talk about an interesting nonwork thing they did since the last session. It’s about building connections and making the new person feel welcome – not another check-in meeting about work.

If you don’t already have one, consider setting up a real-time virtual chat environment (there are a wide array of online messaging platforms to choose from) that keeps employees connected on a social level – such as a virtual water cooler or break room. This isn’t about co-ordinating work, but about maintaining a sense of being part of the wider group, especially as we remain away from the office for much longer than anyone expected. Encourage team members, including newcomers, to share informally by asking for recommendations on a favourite TED Talk, funny cat video, or interesting news story of the week – all the types of things we’d naturally talk about and share if we were having coffee together at the office or going out for an after-work drink.

Above all, remember what made the difference for you when starting your own role, and use the tools at your disposal to make the work culture as fun and engaging as possible in the virtual office as well for those who are new to your organization.

Eileen Dooley is a talent and leadership development specialist and leadership coach based in Calgary.

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