Tips for starting a new job remotely

Since many organizations went remote in 2020, many people have been starting new jobs remotely.  As a freelancer and independent consultant, I started my first remote gig in 2016.  And even before that, as someone who worked at an organization with partners nationwide, I frequently worked with colleagues who spent 50% of their time on the road as well as with people scattered across the country and whom I still haven’t met in person.

However, many people are still starting new jobs remotely for the first time – as I was reminded when a friend recently asked for advice before their first day. 

Consider the organizational and team context.

Has the team always worked fully remotely, or have some of the team members worked together in person?  Or, is the organization working in a hybrid form – you’re fully remote, but not everyone is? 

Teams that have been remote from the start tend to have designed all of their internal processes around being a distributed team.  While organizations that made their digital transformations as a result of the pandemic have figured out a lot of things by now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the team you’ll be working with isn’t still relying heavily on relationships that had been built when the team worked together in person.  And depending on how a hybrid environment is set up, people who are in office may forget that things still need to be done differently for teammates who are remote.  For example, that the team is no longer all within one time zone.

Also consider that, at a large organization hiring lots of people, they’ve had more opportunities to iron out the remote onboarding process.  Smaller organizations that may only hire 1-2 new people a year may still be figuring things out.

Be more proactive and intentional in building relationships.

It used to be that your manager could simply walk you around the office on your first day and you’d meet most of the people you needed to meet that way. Then maybe you’d have some meetings set up with the key people you’d be working with over the next couple weeks.

Like all of the tips I’m mentioning, relationship building is something you want to do regardless of whether you’re starting your new job in person or remotely.  However, you’ll want to be even more intentional in both meeting people (and asking them whom you should meet with) and in building relationships with those folks.  On the other hand, it may also be easier to meet with people who normally would have been located in different offices or who traveled a lot.

Here’s a thread that shares a great approach to meet and greets:

If you find it hard to remember to circle back with people, and especially if your organization is large and dispersed, consider taking notes on any suggestions they made (e.g., to talk with such and such person) or insights they shared, and put a reminder on your calendar for a couple months later to let them know how that suggestion worked or how that insight was helpful.

Learn the time zones—and that these are not the same as working hours.

One major mental adjustment for people who are not accustomed to remote work or working with people who are not collocated is remembering that people may be in different time zones and/or may have different working hours.  And for those of who have the flexibility, we may be trying out new structures, like only having meetings during certain hours and reserving other time for heads down work.

Perhaps everyone in your organization lives in the same region and is simply working remotely during the pandemic.  But even if they are, this doesn’t mean they didn’t decide to take a couple weeks to visit family and work from a different part of the country.  And it doesn’t mean that their hours are the same as if they would be commuting to and from the office.  I know someone who starts his workday at 5 so that he can be done when his kids come home from school.

It is always a good idea to ask about general working hours or about preferences for scheduling meetings.  For example, although I start working earlier, I usually try not to schedule meetings before 10 a.m. so I can get some focused time in first.

Figure out how to make use of existing tools and practices to communicate about your time zone and work schedule.  Some people include their time zone next to their phone numbers in their email signatures (if phone numbers are shared).  Shared calendars are useful for conveying working hours and availability for meetings—however, different teams and people have different norms around this and in how shared calendars are used (if at all).  Often, it’s best to explicitly discuss this with the people you’ll be working with most closely.

Find out how the team shares information.

Speaking of how teams use shared calendars, if they do, it will be helpful to understand how teams share various types of information.  Some teams are better at explicitly articulating this and cover it during onboarding, but in general there are usually things that tend to be things that people take for granted because they’re simply used to it.

  • How is information shared differently at the team and organizational levels? 
  • Do they use a chat or messaging platform like Slack or Microsoft Teams?  If so, what gets shared publicly or within team channels vs. via private message?
  • How does the team use shared calendars?  Are there calendars for work deadlines, editorial calendars, when team members are out, etc.?
  • What gets shared in team meetings vs. email?  Are there shared meeting notes?
  • Are people expected to share back with the rest of the team after attending a webinar or a conference?
  • Where are files stored and shared, and what are practices around that?
  • Is work often done in public or collaboratively, or do people typically work on their own before sharing the final product?

Ask about communication preferences—and share yours.

And of course, it’s helpful to ask your colleagues about their individual communication preferences.  I’ve worked with people who loved a quick Slack chat, others who preferred the phone for something that required back and forth discussion, and some who preferred email or scheduled meetings, and still others who were okay with a spontaneous video call.

It’s also important to communicate your preferences, both towards the beginning and per individual instances – such as asking if you could hop on a call after the 5th email in as many minutes.  Some questions to help you get started:

  • Are you okay with sharing your phone number?  (This may depend on other factors like whether your employer gives everyone a work phone/phone number, whether colleagues are good at understanding time zones, etc.)
  • If you’re okay with sharing your phone number, is this for certain instances (e.g., a quick text to tell me your Internet went down before our meeting) or can folks treat this like a work phone number and call any time during business hours?
  • Are you okay with spontaneous phone or video calls?  Would you like a quick message to ask if now’s a good time?  Or would you prefer to get a request and schedule a time?
  • Are there platforms that work better for you?  (For example, you have a hearing impairment and prefer video calls so that you can use captioning.  Or you just went to the dentist and can only type until the novocaine wears off.)
  • How will you communicate times when you are working but need to focus?  (The office equivalent would be closing your door, if you normally keep it open.)

It should go without saying, but since people still seem to do this: If you’re a manager and want to quickly chat with a direct report, please please please mention the topic so that the other person doesn’t have a panic attack.  There’s a vast difference between, “Do you have a few minutes to discuss how the presentation went?” and “We need to talk.”  (Also a good idea even if you’re not the other person’s manager.)

What else?

Is there anything else you would advise for someone starting a new job remotely for the first time?  Drop a line and let me know.