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Managers, here's how to bond with new hires remotely

Worried about engaging interns and new employees in a hybrid world? Research by Iavor I. Bojinov and Prithwiraj Choudhury shows how "virtual watercooler" sessions can make all the difference

Published: Sep 13, 2021 12:17:53 PM IST
Updated: Sep 13, 2021 12:39:48 PM IST

Managers, here's how to bond with new hires remotelyThe 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
Image: Shutterstock

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.

“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.

The program has been a means for bringing in new talent for the firm, since about 75 percent of the interns typically accept offers to join the company. But the firm’s leadership wondered if remote work would change all of that. Would the interns be able to build ties with their peers and supervisors? Would they miss out on mentoring opportunities that might affect their performance or their ability to receive job offers?

In the experiment, involving 1,370 summer interns in 16 cities where the company has offices, the researchers looked at three types of remote interactions: interns jumping on “virtual watercooler” Zoom meetings with other interns and senior managers; interns sending written questions that senior managers would later answer; and intern group research project meetings in which interns would gather online for 30 minutes to work together without managers present.

Contact with managers is key

The researchers found that interns who shared Zoom time with senior managers were 4.7 to 7.3 percent more likely to be offered a job than the other two groups who didn’t have regular online contact with supervisors. (What’s more, interns had a 9 to 13 percent better chance of receiving job offers if they interacted with managers of similar gender or ethnic origin.)

The virtual watercooler sessions with managers also improved the job performance of those interns by 7 to 10 percent. And, based on an end-of-internship survey, the interns who had these informal online chats with managers reported greater ease in contacting others for help, better opportunities for career enhancement and mentorship, and higher overall job satisfaction ranging from nearly 3 to 5 percent.

“The survey measures suggest that the virtual watercoolers may have facilitated information and advice sharing, which possibly enabled the interns to improve their job performance and career outcomes,” the paper says.

Will companies embrace remote work long term?

Despite the seismic shift many companies made to remote work during the pandemic, some business leaders remain concerned about adopting the model permanently. For example, IBM CEO Arvind Krishna has said he expects 80 percent of the company’s employees to work either in-office or in a hybrid model after the pandemic—and he cited the reduced quality of informal interactions in the workplace as being the reason he’s resistant to allowing workers to remain fully remote.

But Choudhury hopes the study results quell concerns, since the findings show virtual chats can be just as robust as in-person gatherings. “Now it’s going to be hard for a company to say, ‘We’re not sure Zoom will work in building broad connections,’” he says.

A company can give an employee the choice of where to live, even if there’s no company office there. This is what digital nomads do.

That’s a message several companies, including Twitter, Deloitte, and the web-integration company Zapier have already embraced, as they plan for remote work on a long-term basis.

“We have had remote work for decades, but this is completely new,” Choudhury says. “Now you can work from anywhere. A company can give an employee the choice of where to live, even if there’s no company office there. This is what digital nomads do.”

The key takeaway of this new research, say Choudhury and Bojinov, is that setting up regular informal contact with managers is valuable—and it’s especially important for newly hired workers. In fact, Bojinov recommends: “Go to your remote workers first.”

“Managers have to be careful of ensuring that their remote employees get as much attention and opportunity for those casual sessions as in-person employees,” Bojinov says. “That’s not something managers had to think about [before the pandemic]. Now, they do.”
About the Author

Lane Lambert is a writer based in the Boston area.

[This article was provided with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.]

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