Joining an agency during lockdown: I will get to know the culture later…

By Philip O'Connell, Lockford Search on

I recently completed a research project into the onboarding of new employees for an MSc in Organizational Psychology. Although the main focus of the study was not on the impact of remote working, as the research was carried out in 2020, the lockdown inevitably coloured the findings and highlighted the dramatic effects that physical remoteness can have.

The experiences of the individuals within the study made me stop and think about how we approach the onboarding of new staff in this relatively new and unfamiliar way of working. Although the more senior joiners possessed the experience and confidence to thrive, and in some cases took advantage of the circumstances, less experienced newcomers undoubtedly suffered.

So what was the overall sense of the findings and what should agency leadership consider?

onboarding online - woman waving at laptop

Junior experiences of separation

“I just focus on completing my weekly tasks”

For the more junior newcomers in this study, remote working slowed down the process of onboarding and narrowed its focus. Many in the study became very task-oriented and eschewed opportunities for broader learning and integration. It was about mastering a narrow set of tasks and not exploring the wider organisation.

“I am looking forward to getting back into the office to meet everyone”

Agency organised, ‘Friday fun’ really just helped to solidify a very small set of relationships, rather than broadening newcomers’ perspectives and networks. New joiners focused on building their relationship with their line-manager and others in their immediate team. As a result they noted that they felt less involved and knowledgeable about the wider agency.

Many were waiting to return to the office before expecting to experience and understand the agency’s culture. For them the onboarding process had been put on hold.

A licence for senior starters to make changes

“It helped me to focus on making changes without the usual barriers”

For some of the more senior newcomers it allowed them to sideline existing culture and norms more easily, and pursue an agenda of change. Interpersonal relationships, an appreciation of company culture and insights into everyday matters were less important.

“Hopefully, I am making the right calls”

Individually, this approach may have carried fewer consequences, but for the wider organisation this could lead to problematic situations and many acknowledged that while this allowed them greater freedom, it was potentially dangerous as they were working in their own bubble.

A number of these senior new employees were not waiting to understand the business culture, instead they were focusing on how they felt it could and should be changed.

So what does this mean agency leadership should consider?

Junior starters: providing additional support

Many junior newcomers did not feel that they had a sufficient voice to proactively reach out to other teams. It is therefore important to replicate those informal channels that exist in an office environment. Some things to consider would be:

  • Extending learning objectives beyond immediate tasks related to their role.
  • Supplementing the opportunities for joiners to get to know the wider agency. This will stimulate learning and imbue a greater sense of belonging.
  • Training line-managers to understand the extra significance of their relationship with their new starter while working remotely.
  • Building additional networks and encouraging wider agency teams to proactively engage with new joiners to support cross-departmental mentorship and participation

Senior starters: agreeing what matters

The challenge for agency leadership to onboard senior newcomers is very different, but no less important. As these joiners can exert considerable influence, there is an important balance to be struck here in respecting the old while pursuing the new. Some things to consider would be:

  • Determining what cultures they want senior joiners to challenge and what they feel is important to learn and respect.
  • Including these assessments within the recruitment process to ensure that expectations and attitudes are aligned during their selection.
  • Remaining open to change and reassessing these assumptions with these senior joiners in order to retain flexibility over time.

Remote working – here to stay

Addressing these challenges is important and should not be considered merely an ephemeral, passing question that can be stored away within our troubled memories of 2020. Regardless of the length of this interminable lockdown and the ongoing disruption to our normal lives, it seems reasonable to expect a greater level of remote working will become much more common in the future.

We therefore need to reflect upon what this means, not just for existing staff, but those yet to join. After all, agencies are the sum of the connections of their people, new and old, and they need to make sure that a strong culture remains possible, even as their teams evolve and as their individual physical interaction and proximity reduces.

About the Author

As an experienced recruiter and trainer, and Director of Lockford Search, Phil helps marketing agencies identify the best finance talent available in the sector.

After a successful career spanning many years working within independent and network agencies as a CFO, Phil moved into finance recruitment in 2013 and set up Lockford in 2016. Based in central London he supports numerous small and medium sized businesses throughout the city and across the home counties.

Possessing an MSc in Organizational Psychology Phil offers a broad service and works with hiring teams to refine their selection processes in order to identify the right candidates. He also uses his expertise and substantial experience in recruitment to support individuals looking to improve their performance at interviews by offering one-to-one coaching and training.

Phil also sits on the board of directors at the CMA.

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