Remote Onboarding

Post #111 by Laurie Aznavoorian

An old man turned ninety-eight
He won the lottery and died the next day
It’s a black fly in your Chardonnay
It’s a death row pardon two minutes too late
Isn’t it ironic … don’t you think

No need to get into the chorus of that Alanis Morissette song, we heard it enough in 1995 to subject ourselves to it again or stomach another debate about whether these examples are situational or literary irony. For the record, they are not irony, but unfortunate events makes me think of personal experiences I’ve had over the past few months. In fact here are a few ideas for additional lines:

You resigned from work to start a brand-new job The very next week a pandemic hits the globe It screwed your going away drinks and made onboarding a bitch Isn’t ironic… don’t you think.

Colleagues who sat beside me in the past know I’m a kinesthetic learner, one who acquires knowledge through actions and repetition. It is only through incessant questioning of co-workers that I have managed to grasp the basics of computer operations; and accountants in more than one architectural practice can attest I’ve never truly mastered the nuances of timesheet coding.

Now with Stage 4 restrictions for those lucky enough to live in Melbourne, there’s no going to the office, masks are required, no outdoor strolls lasting more than an hour and an 8:00pm curfew to boot. Before stage 4 my husband and I took turns choosing who would work from home while the other went to their office to avoid dualling Teams meetings.

Now it’s us full time with Saucy Pissweak, our cat. For me the absence of a captive colleague at the adjacent desk to ask how do you …is devastating. Don’t get me wrong Saucy’s smart and clever enough to run from the room if Mike Pompeo or Mitch McConnel appears on television when we watch the US news, but these advanced feline skills have done nothing to facilitate rapid onboarding in the new role.

Researchers have identified onboarding as one of three critical activities for organisational health that have suffered during this pandemic. While it is important, the reference has nothing to do with the silly things like timesheets that I’ve joking about, you can learn that if you bother to read the new employee pack. This refers to the transfer of tacit knowledge such as how things are done around here, who is who in the zoo and the ability to be steeped in company vision, history, process and culture.

The second activity is the ability to develop what they call ‘weak ties’, relationships that occur between teams and connections you make over time waiting to heat up your leftovers or kicking the photocopier. These shallow or peripheral contacts are vital for innovation because they enable exaptation to occur. That is when characteristics from one process are applied to another. In our world it might be a workplace designer chatting with a health care designer about materials that are more hygienic.

The third activity is leader’s ability to observe and foster relationships among their team that are likely to produce benefits for the practice in the future. Perhaps this is the most important as it accounts for the invisible spark you see when creative people riff off each other. One last activity mentioned did not make the list of those deemed critical, which is surprising given the role it plays in career development – remote work makes it difficult to schmooze, make small talk, arse kiss and brown nose.

What this research and our own experiences reminds us is something we learned studying architecture or design; space matters, especially spaces that foster human connection. Human beings want to belong and feel a connection to their colleagues, for many this is a key motivator for going to work – along with a pesky mortgage, car payment and habit of wine guzzling.

In an article arguing the importance of keeping and returning to offices post Covid INSEAD adjunct professor Gianpiero Petriglieri talked about the anxiety he felt when he didn’t have an office, he acknowledged much of this was performance driven, a manifestation of a fear that you hadn’t made the grade, achieved your numbers or look the part.  

He was talking about a physical office but has since reflected on this in response to many questioning the need for any office. Anxiety he argues can become existential, leading to a fear that our job has no meaning. Furthermore, “when we take the office away every performance becomes existential, anything you do becomes an expression of who you are…You may find this happening to you, as office after office closes around the world and our professional lives start feeling far more precarious.”

It’s a bit heady, but the part about performance becoming existential struck a chord. I felt this when I was asked to present myself to my new colleagues on a Teams call. Staring at a laptop with dozens of still pictures and mute icons activated I talked about where I had come from and what I hoped to achieve in my new role.  

The plan is to start small, begin with a tiny task, eliminating a single word from our conversations – that word is staff. I envision a world where we refer to employees differently. This initiative has deep roots going back to my childhood. My brothers and I often called each other names when we were young, our favourites were turd or retard.

Our working-class parents rolled their eyes. They had their own Rat Pack lexicon comprised of dandies like broads, dames and a plethora of racial slurs that peppered everyday conversations. They saw no harm us calling one another turds or retards in fact sometimes they did it too. But those were innocent times, now we are woke. Apart from the word turd, which we can all agree will never lose its timeless allure, we’ve retired many words that were once commonplace. Isn’t it time to call our co-workers just that: co-workers, teammates or how about people?


Gianpiero Petriglieri, “In Praise of the Office.” Harvard Business Review, July 15, 2020

Ethan Bernstein, Hayley Blunden, Andrew Brodsky, Wonbin Sohn, and Ben Waber “The Implications of Working Without an Office.” Harvard Business Review, July 15, 2020

Nathan Furr, Jeffrey H Dyer and Kyle Nel, “When Your Moon Shots Don’t Take Off.” Harvard Business Review, January-February 2019