I was recently asked the question, “I have started a new job during the pandemic. I’ve never been to the company’s offices or met anyone in-person. How do I figure out the company’s culture? I’m worried about tripping up and not even realizing it.”

This is such a great question! And, I’m sure, this concern has crossed the minds of so many people as they’ve navigated new roles in this remote environment.

The reality is, while potentially a bit more challenging to discern remotely, the tenets of learning the culture are the same — observation and inquiry. Let me offer a few scenarios to illustrate these concepts:

  • As you “log on” for your first day of work, you notice that your calendar is booked, quite literally, from 9 am to 5 pm every day that week (observation). The first meeting you have is with your direct supervisor. So, you take the opportunity to ask if this is the norm (inquiry).

  • As you start your second day of work, you see that there has been an email string that has transpired since you “logged out” the evening before (observation). During a team meeting, you ask your peers if it’s typical to be expected to engage in communications after hours (inquiry).

  • During your third day of work, you are on a departmental meeting video call and you notice that several employees have their video screens off, others seem to be multitasking while on the call, while some are snacking away (observations). You decide to participate in a few more meetings to see if these behaviors continue to occur, and to think about who best to ask (your supervisor, a peer, etc).

As these examples suggest, learning a new culture, whether in-person or virtually, is a process of recognizing patterns and inquiring to ensure you are interpreting them correctly.

Without the inquiry process, we are left with our own assumptions. For example, looking at the first two observations, you may have drawn the conclusion that you are expected to always be available; that, in order to keep up with the workload against the rigorous meeting schedule, you’ll need to work after hours; and, that, you need to be prepared to respond to emails whenever they come in.

Through the inquiry process, you may come to understand that the company truly does believe in boundaries between work and life. The packed calendar is simply how the organization has chosen to approach onboarding in an effort to get new employees up to speed as quickly as possible, and the email had to do with a particular situation that the team had known was coming and needed to be resolved immediately.