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How to Bond with New Hires Remotely

Wondering how to bond with new hires remotely? New research suggests some pathways you might consider.

Written by: Lane Lambert (Are you the author?)

For senior managers at many firms, the shift to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic came with a huge concern: Would the loss of in-person conversations keep them from mentoring or simply establishing rapport with employees, especially rookie workers?

New research, based on a first-of-its-kind field experiment at a large North American company, provides plenty of reassurance, showing that regular Zoom chats with managers fosters solid career-building connections for new workers.

In fact, informal “virtual watercooler” sessions in which interns chat with managers regularly online significantly improve the performance and satisfaction of workers and boost the chances of hiring them permanently, according to the results of the study by Harvard Business School professors Iavor I. Bojinov and Prithwiraj Choudhury and HBS postdoctoral fellow Jacqueline N. Lane.

COVID-19 forced many big companies that offer internships to cultivate talent, including JPMorgan Chase, Deloitte, and PepsiCo, to roll out virtual programs in 2020. The study’s findings offer reassurance to the 81 percent of companies offering virtual or hybrid internships this year, as well as many firms that have been onboarding more permanent talent remotely.

“It’s a phenomenon that is catching on.”

“Our results are encouraging, as they suggest that opportunities for brief informal and synchronous interactions with senior members can enhance a new employee’s socialization to the organization and improve their productivity in a short amount of time,” the researchers write in their recent working paper Virtual Watercoolers: A Field Experiment on Virtual Synchronous Interactions and Performance of Organizational Newcomers.

With corporate surveys showing that 25 percent of post-pandemic work will remain remote—compared with 5 percent before the pandemic—many companies are already setting up frequent informal chats online to keep the communication lines with remote employees open.

“I’ve already had conversations with several companies that are considering this kind of contact, and I know quite a few companies that are starting to do this,” Choudhury said. “It’s a phenomenon that is catching on.”

Building ties remotely

During the early weeks of the pandemic in 2020, when many businesses were scrambling to cope with COVID-related lockdowns, the leaders of a global company reached out to Choudhury, expressing an interest in studying its shift to a remote model.

In a typical year, the organization, which the researchers didn’t identify, brought in about 3,000 undergraduate and MBA students to work for eight to 10 weeks at one of the firm’s locations. The interns were trained and worked alongside experienced firm employees. “The interns would literally sit next to full-time employees and watch what they did,” Bojinov says.

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