A new job or internship this summer is increasingly likely to be a remote position making it difficult to engage with and impress a new boss and coworkers. But although current work-from-home mandates across industries and jobs do change the newcomer experience, they also offer opportunities for new employees to make a sterling first impression, says Trevor Foulk, a management professor at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.
“You have an opportunity to manage that better than you might have otherwise because it comes in smaller, more planned chunks,” says Foulk, who has studied the science of first impressions in the workplace. “The key is to be intentional about it.”
Rachel Loock, a career and leadership coach at Maryland Smith, agrees. She and her colleagues in Smith’s Office of Career Services have been giving advice to students and professionals on how to stand out when starting a new position remotely.
“You can shine as much as you would in-person, you just need to put more thought behind it because you don’t have the benefit of seeing everybody every day in a work environment,” she says.
Foulk and Loock have this advice to make a great impression from home:
Understand expectations. Start off with a meeting with your boss to understand the expectations for you and your role, says Loock. Clarify deliverables, timelines and specific deadlines. Ask how often you’ll meet with your supervisor and whether you should schedule those check-ins.
Be transparent. “There’s no harm in being upfront with your supervisor about your work-from-home situation, but don’t use it as an excuse,” says Loock. “Communicate any sort of conflict or issues as they arise or ahead of time, if possible.”
Just ask. You won’t have those chance encounters in the hallway or at the watercooler to make observations. “It’s still really important for you to learn the norms, the culture, and the dos and don’ts of your new workplace,” says Foulk. “Think through all of the things that you might just have picked up on being in an office setting in the first week or two, and explicitly ask those questions. This will be a way to shine. You’re communicating to your new employer, ‘Look, I really, really do care about being part of the team.’”
Don’t make assumptions: Ask what time people typically start and end their days, when you should be at your computer, and what you should wear. Ask your direct manager who would be the best to answer your questions. And don’t make assumptions. “Imagine not asking, and then being in a Zoom meeting and referring to the CEO as ‘Jim,’ only to hear later everybody else refer to him as ‘Mr. Roberts.’”
Show yourself how you want to be seen. When somebody has no information about you, small things can become a huge part of what they think about you, says Foulk. “If you show up for your first couple of Zoom calls with your new team, and behind you, there’s your unmade bed with a pile of laundry, these are now the subtle signals you’re sending that become very difficult to pull back even when we go back to normalcy.”
If you’re using a video conference platform, make sure you’re in a quiet area of your home, free of distractions, says Loock. Have your camera at the right height, make sure the lighting is good – in front of you instead of behind – mute yourself when you’re not presenting, and be cognizant of your body language and facial expressions during the meeting. Think about what’s in the background.
Pay attention. “Listen and observe, maybe even more so than you would in an office space, because you’re not going to be there all day long – it might just be a weekly 30-minute Zoom meeting,” says Loock. Observe how your colleagues interact with one another and approach projects.
Be a team player. “Be polite, friendly, helpful – all the things you’d want to do in person,” she says. “This will also go a long way toward building relationships with your colleagues. Bring positivity and enthusiasm to virtual meetings and phone calls. You may have to be extra mindful about how you show up in those meetings.”
Put yourself out there. Participate in any company-organized virtual coffee klatches, lunch-gatherings, happy hours or other social events. Use them as a way to get to know people and to let them get to know you, says Loock.
Make an extra effort. Things that used to just happen naturally – like an impromptu lunch outing – can’t happen right now. Forming those relationships will require more effort, says Foulk. Reach out to a few colleagues to suggest a Zoom lunch, coffee chat or happy hour. Loock encourages newcomers and interns to set up informal, informational interviews with colleagues. Sometimes a short list of questions emailed ahead of time can get the conversation going.
Be proactive. Check in with your manager or others on the team as often as you can until you hear you’re doing it too much. “It’s more likely that people are going to wonder why you’re not doing it than why you are,” says Foulk.
Think about your colleagues’ perspectives. Foulk says try thinking about what you’d want from a new employee if you were the supervisor or another person on the team, then figure out the best ways to work with your new team.
“In this environment, the single biggest piece of advice I would give to anybody – but especially a newcomer – is to engage in the practice of perspective-taking,” says Foulk. “Keep in mind that you’re not the only one stressed out by this situation – this is difficult for everyone. Having a new employee or teammate that you can’t see, coach, get to know in person is also stressful for your new supervisor and coworkers.”