More young workers will be starting their careers remotely

Gen Z is the first cohort to start their careers as part of a remote or hybrid workforce. Here’s how to help first-time employees thrive.

By Hillary Richard — June 24, 2021

After months of searching, recent Syracuse University grad Chloë Arambel began her first job at the Brand Agency in October 2020 from her childhood home. Navigating a full-time job against the backdrop of the pandemic, without having ever set foot in the office, came with a learning curve. She wondered how she would be trained, how she would learn what to do, whether she would understand (or even like) the industry, who she would talk to on a daily basis.

With a number of companies announcing some employees can work outside the office indefinitely, it’s clear that fully remote or hybrid work is here to stay. The 2021 Work Trend Index analyzed data from Microsoft 365 and LinkedIn usage to find that 73% of people from various industries want permanent flexible remote-work options. This means that Gen Z (the oldest of whom are turning 24 this year) is the first generation to start their careers remotely on a vast scale, away from the coworkers, mentors, and office cultures that typically define early work experiences. The pandemic is their outlook-defining moment, according to the Center for Generational Kinetics, so the lessons they take away and the practices they develop now will follow them throughout their careers.

By 2030, Gen Z will be a third of the workforce in the United States, so ensuring that they get the best start possible and are set up for success is in every company’s interest. Reliable internet access and a comfortable place to work are the relatively easy part. The rest is a bit experimental. Some 60% of Gen Z professionals say they’re struggling — with motivation, isolation, collaboration, and work identity — which indicates that their adjustment to remote work isn’t as simple as being tech savvy.

“New hires have many of the same needs, whether they start remotely or in an office. They want to know what’s expected of them and how they can contribute. They want to meet people and feel included. They want to be recognized and bring value to their team. So we take a whole-person approach,” says Luciana Duarte, Global Head of Employee Experience at HP.

Challenges for young employees

Unlike mid-career and senior-level workers, Gen Z hasn’t yet developed work habits or strategies and isn’t used to working standard business hours. There are fewer organic chances to find a mentor at work or to socialize naturally online, and collaboration tools can’t yet replace in-person teamwork. It’s harder to learn the subtle (and even the not-so-subtle) professional norms that go along with each company’s environment. Like anyone starting out, they don’t yet know what they don’t know.

Illustration by Grace Kim

Gen Z comes to work with more liberal ideas of professionalism and a strong desire for authenticity and work/life balance.

Sympathetic leadership is important for this group of new hires. Juliana Martins, who started a new job at a healthcare firm during the pandemic, spent most of her first two days reading through self-guided onboarding documents that she found hard to digest. She was confused and overwhelmed with this solitary setup. But once she began working on projects with her new team, she learned more on the fly. The company’s lack of open communication and personalization stuck with her, however. She found it hard to form bonds at work, which left her feeling isolated.

“Everyone was nice, but I believed most people were too busy to talk to me. It’s daunting to send an email to someone higher up, asking for their time just so you can ‘get to know them.’ In person, the dynamic might have been better understood,” says Martins, who quit after six months and changed industries.

“Remember, these new hires are unable to observe how other colleagues are behaving in a physical environment and unable to pick up on nonverbal cues,” says Amanda Augustine, career expert for TopResume, a résumé consulting agency. There’s also the basics of business communication and logistics. She recommends sharing any ground rules in the first one-on-one meeting with a new hire, including start time and end time, how and when to communicate about days off, rules for contacting someone outside office hours, and the preferred method for messaging and communication. Managers should also discuss the type of impact a new hire should have on the organization, any 90-day objectives, and expected behavior with clients and colleagues. 

“Empathy and concern are no longer just ‘soft skills’ that are nice to have. They’re critical to helping employees feel valued.”

— Nicole Morris, executive consultant, Vaya Group

There are three key aspects of onboarding someone remotely, according to HP’s Duarte. First, the social aspect focuses on how a team connects and builds a digital community. This is especially important for Gen Z, who left their former communities (often college) behind and now look to the workplace for friendships and relationships. Second, there are the nuts and bolts of doing the job: clear expectations, tools and resources available, and support mechanisms. Third is mentorship, which provides a less formal version of guidance, full of feedback and pointers. Mentorships encourage employees to develop in their careers while allowing them to trust someone at work who cares.

To inspire loyalty and enthusiasm remotely, HP uses a buddy system, daily online updates with resources for different demographics, and an open-door policy. The company also encourages employees to join employee resource groups to help them build a sense of community at work. This is in addition to an in-depth onboarding program that aims to acclimate and support new hires by sharing company history, culture, and strategy — along with checklists and resources covering more mundane (yet important) tasks.


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In the United States, a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work with Gen Z, who grew up in diverse types of families and households, and are highly individualistic. “In the past, people thought of employees as resources who happened to be human,” Duarte says. “When we think about people more holistically, we make better decisions, including how to best welcome a new team member who happens to be starting remotely.”

Learning how to do their job

Gen Z comes to work with more liberal ideas of professionalism and a strong desire for authenticity and work/life balance. Providing on-demand access where workers can learn at their own pace is important to Gen Z’s success. This generation is more likely to acquire information and new skills as they need them, in smaller, more manageable chunks, rather than studying training manuals or attending all-day presentations. 

While everyone learns differently, people beginning their first full-time job remotely can benefit from a more hands-on approach. Managers should focus on teachable organizational skills like time management and developing a structured schedule. In the beginning, consider moving weekly check-ins to daily contact in order to help new hires develop routines and avoid stagnation as they navigate their new roles. It’s important to define what success looks like for each task — even going so far as to break down the first several projects into steps. Be clear about all expectations and goals, both for the company and for the person.

The prospect of upward mobility can seem like a minefield to new hires. Encourage them to be proactive and network (and explain the best ways to approach that remotely). Make sure they know about all the career resources available. Chat about how they envision their career path (or next steps), and help them see how that could look within the company. Then, be clear about the steps and growth required for a promotion.

Absorbing workplace norms

Whether someone can gel with a group remotely is tougher to determine, but leadership and personalized guidance are crucial to a successful virtual office.

“Workplace norms are really the informal way in which work gets done around here, and guess what—that means it’s how people act every day that sets the tone,” explains Nicole Morris, executive consultant at Vaya Group, a talent management consultancy. Small actions demonstrate priorities and values better than any written manual or code.

Maintaining an environment of transparency and open dialogue in a remote office is key, but the medium matters. Managers should offer regular feedback to both reinforce good behaviors and correct any bad habits, but they should do it via video or phone.

Morris recommends a less buttoned-up approach that shows self-awareness and vulnerability to help Gen Z see their place in the company long term. Allowing time for small talk during meetings and getting personal helps humanize remote colleagues. Indicating family reasons for time off (daughter’s soccer game, vet appointment, dinner with parents) and encouraging everyone to take their vacation days can show Gen Z that the company values a holistic work/life balance. This generation is more open to discussing mental health and personal anxieties, so encouraging them to take care of themselves and modeling healthy habits make them feel safer and more confident.

“Empathy and concern are no longer just ‘soft skills’ that are nice to have. They’re critical to helping employees feel valued,” says Morris.

For the first three months at her new job, Syracuse grad Arambel had a weekly standing call with colleagues to cut down on emails and mimic the type of chatter that might occur in an office space. She appreciated the open communication, which helped her absorb the company culture in the same way she would have in an open plan office. A few months (and many phone calls, scheduled and unscheduled) later, she began to feel more confident in her work. While she still hasn’t met most of her coworkers in person, she formed connections by texting, talking to colleagues on the phone (for a more personal touch), and following them on social media to develop relationships.

But none of this is a foreign way to communicate. “I only have a few vague memories of the time before touch screens and iPhones,” says Arambel, who notes that a good part of her daily routine has always been online. 

With the right support system and resources, individualistic Gen Zers will be a critical component of a work environment that benefits the entire company. The rise of the remote office has changed plenty about workplace culture — just in time for the arrival of Gen Z, who will undoubtedly evolve it further.