This was one of the big learnings from our ESRC-funded Work After Lockdown research, which followed organisations for 18 months during the pandemic.
Staff joining organisations often felt that they were missing out on learning opportunities and struggled to build meaningful connections and amass organisational knowledge when opportunities to meet in-person were limited.
A management trainee commented: “To be honest I don’t really know the organisation’s culture very well. I only know what I know through my Teams meetings.” This was frustrating when new starters wanted to impress their managers, and a sense of dislocation could be amplified for young people with fewer working experiences to draw upon.
Organisations too lost out since it was in their interests to recoup the costs of talent investment and for new colleagues to be working efficiently as quickly as possible.
But autonomous working was more challenging for the uninitiated than for established staff: "things that would ordinarily have probably taken me an hour were taking me half a day.”
Longer-term, a high turnover of discouraged staff will deplete organisational skill bases.
In the early months of hybrid working, when organisations could operate without government restrictions, there were relatively little mandating of office presence.
Firms listened to their employees about working preferences. This has been invaluable in the planning of hybrid working patterns and office spaces, but it has also been difficult to curate induction.
Our research found that new recruits, particularly when they were younger and less likely to have homes with dedicated workspaces, had a stronger incentive to spend time in workplaces and develop connections.
Getting to know their new colleagues could be slow online when new starters lacked pre-pandemic knowledge about how project groups fitted together.
A common concern was that new starters’ careers might stall because they lacked the organisational knowledge build up by their predecessors.
It was difficult ask the questions that they would normally have done to colleagues in the workplace.
A recurring theme for new recruits was the loneliness of the office. They arrived at workplaces full of enthusiasm to meet their team, to find them relatively empty, or hotdesking next to people that they would not work with - the worst of both worlds, a noisy environment, but a disconnected one.
So what can organisations do now that they have more freedom to address induction deficits? Most offices are unlikely to return to previous occupancy patterns, and organisations have reaped a multitude of benefits in reassessing how they work, which you can read about in our report.
HR practitioners can now be proactive in refining induction and onboarding processes to reflect a hybrid environment. Our research makes a number of recommendations, which together can address these evolving challenges:
- Building different kinds of induction programmes, consisting of multiple modules to be accessed sequentially, and run in parallel with team-based induction. A more tailored approach can ensure that new recruits connect with key colleagues early on, with at least some office-based time reserved for this purpose. Add-on induction components for new recruits in their first roles can cover aspects such as organisational working norms.
- Assigning a mentor or buddy to new recruits who can help new starters navigate intangible aspects of organisational culture such as how meetings are run, email protocol, or how to navigate a mass of new administrative systems.
- Making induction a central part of managerial training, and ensuring that managers are provided with the necessary time to do the deliberate connecting with new starters that will successfully embed them within organisations.
Part of the learning of lockdown is that in a new world of work flexibility and being good communicators are much-valued qualities in managers. But being a good manager requires dedicated workload time to do justice to co-ordinating and supporting hybrid teams.
Robust induction processes that embed new starters in the organisational culture of hybrid workplaces, sustained by responsive managers, will play a key part in making a success of the next stage of organisational transformation.
Jane Parry is associate professor of work and employment at Southampton Business School