Sep 1, 2020

The c-word: starting a new role during covid

Image from Shutterstock

As summer starts to fade and the autumn evenings begin to get shorter, many of us are likely to have noticed that ‘back to school’ feeling bubbling away.

Children are returning to schools as they reopen (‘hurrah!’ I hear all the parents shout!). Equally, for many adults who have taken a different direction in recent months, or faced furloughing and redundancies, there are also potential, hopeful, new opportunities on the horizon in the form of pivoting strategies, new roles, or even new career paths. Sound daunting? I hear you.

After two years of enjoying the freedom of self-employment and a year of maternity leave, I’ve been lucky enough to join the team here at Unleashed; but this isn’t just another ‘I’ve joined a great new company’ LinkedIn article, I promise! (although let’s be clear…I have joined a great company!)

I struggle hugely with imposter syndrome (magnified by the fact that I had a baby last year!) This means that usually the thought of a new role, at such an awesome company (did I mention that Unleashed are really great?), would have had me fretting and flapping like a fish out of water. Cue the usual voices in my head: “I’m not going to be good enough”, “I need to work really hard to prove myself”, “Why have they chosen ME to work here? I’m going to be found out!” …You get the idea.

The point is this: had my onboarding experience not silenced these voices, you can guarantee I’d be questioning if I had made the right decision. As it turns out, it’s quite the opposite. In fact, it’s by far the best decision I’ve made in a long time.

So what exactly is onboarding and why is it so important?

When it comes to onboarding, many of us think of checklists, getting people set up in the system and showing them “how things are done around here”. That’s all well and good, but frankly, it’s a bit transactional and while it’s important to remove these functional blockers for new joiners, this isn’t going to make any newcomer feel especially valued. Actually, most of what I’ve just mentioned is known better as “orientation”: the induction of a new hire that typically focuses on their first few days in the organisation, so they can get ‘up and running’ as quickly as possible.

Onboarding, unlike orientation, is a much more involved and deeper experience, with experts suggesting that it includes an employee’s journey up to a year after joining the company. According to, it should also expand to include pre-boarding before the first day on the job. (More on that later!)

With many of us now working remotely, having a thorough and positive onboarding experience is undoubtedly even more crucial. We can’t naturally “see and absorb” the culture that we otherwise would as a result of being in the office and many of us don’t expect to meet our colleagues in-person for a while. It was the same for me.

I’ll admit that I was dubious at the start. How could I feel part of the team when I hadn’t physically met everyone? How will I do things the “Unleashed” way if I’m not physically with the team? The answer is simple: communication and collaboration (or as our Managing Partner, Hannah likes to say, “aggressive collaboration”!) At Unleashed, we’re in constant contact (which doesn’t mean hours and hours of Zoom calls!) so it never feels like we’re working on our own, and neither does it mean that our collaboration is exhausting due to an overload of virtual communication. Our collaboration is strong, because it’s based on constantly learning from each other.

I know what you’re thinking. Our focus is all things People + Culture, so of course we were going to get our own onboarding right. This is true, and yet you don’t have to be an expert to make an onboarding experience a positive one…. so we wanted to share the love and in particular talk about building connectedness and relatedness into all onboarding experiences (in the pandemic, and beyond!)

Here’s the good news — it’s actually pretty easy, and who doesn’t love a handy list of top tips!?

  1. Love at First Sight.

Remember my earlier point about pre-boarding? Well, I first connected with Unleashed founder, Anouk in April last year. Anouk’s response when I told her that I was six months pregnant was “Baby!!! That is soooooooo exciting! Does 4.30pm work to meet for herbal tea?!” I’d already had such a warm interaction with her over LinkedIn that I couldn’t wait to meet her in person. It sounds daft, but given the fact that she’d given an hour up of her time (knowing that I wasn’t in a position to start a new job anytime soon with a baby on the way!) already made me feel important. The meeting didn’t disappoint and I was pretty much in love with Unleashed after my first cup of tea with Anouk. I then met Hannah and Liz a couple of weeks later and I knew from that moment that it wasn’t an “if” but a “when”.

For the next year, I followed the team on social media and kept up to date with the awesome things they were doing. I also met up with the ever-growing team a couple of times whilst I was on maternity leave, which genuinely felt like catching up with old friends. I was desperate to be part of the team, and as cliché as it sounds, it all started from that first interaction. Moral of the story: first impressions do count. Make it a positive one!

2. Be Flexible: Make it Work for Everyone.

The start of lockdown was tricky for many companies, with so much uncertainty ahead due to Covid (aka ‘the C word’). Rather than thinking “we can’t possibly hire anyone right now”, Unleashed did the opposite and said “how can we bring Jo on in a way that works for all of us”. I’ll never forget the phone call from Hannah on a windy Friday morning when I was walking my dog. What I thought was going to be a catch up on how we were both doing was actually an offer for me to join Unleashed — and specifically, to join in a way that worked for both of us.

Because of the C-word, client work at Unleashed had become more unpredictable. Despite this, the team came up with a way to navigate this with a gradual onboarding process — that way I’d be in a great position for when I did get my first client. This also worked perfectly for me, as my husband and I were juggling childcare (with nurseries being closed) and I wasn’t able to work full days. Doing a few hours each week at the beginning meant that I was able to work around my son’s naps, and again, the fact that Unleashed were being so flexible really made me feel valued. It also gave me something to look forward to, after what had been a difficult few weeks…

My Grandma had recently passed away from Covid and my mother-in-law who lives a long way away in Australia had been diagnosed with lung cancer. I almost cried when Hannah called me that morning! Truly, finding a way that works for everyone and being flexible really can make all the difference.

3. Manage Expectation AND Think about Feelings.

This sounds so simple, but hear me out. To give context, Hannah sent me a detailed onboarding plan prior to me starting, explaining what was happening each week. Here’s a cool example of one of the weeks:

  • The Vibe (understanding what great looks like)
  • Who I Was Meeting (Anouk and Hannah)
  • What To Expect (space to talk about what I need to do my best work and how Unleashed can support that, and crystal clear expectations around the role.)

Sidenote — the doc was even titled “Welcome To Team Unleashed, Jo!”, rather than your typical “Onboarding Plan” — yawn!)

As trivial as this sounds, it made me feel excited for my first day rather than nervous, because the team had clearly put some thought into what my first few weeks would look like. It felt even more special, because given that I’d been in contact with Unleashed for so long, it would have been easy to think that I didn’t need much of an onboarding plan. In other words, think about what your new employee might want to know, but also how you want them to feel in their first few weeks.

Put yourself in a new joiner’s shoes. What’s going to make their experience feel really special? How will they feel part of the team and culture? What do they need to feel fully confident and equipped to do their job well? I was lucky enough to have an onboarding plan that had thought about all of these things.

4. It’s Onboarding, not Orientation.

In previous roles, I’ve been introduced to my clients on Day 1 with promises to deliver work, without really having a chance to learn the ropes. Whilst this might be quicker or feel more efficient in the short-term, it definitely isn’t! It felt like I’d been thrown in at the deep end, and made me afraid to ask questions for fear of looking like I should already know everything. In the long-term this made me feel overwhelmed and simple tasks took a lot longer than they needed to.

This time, because there was no expectation that I’d be working with a client right away, it allowed me to focus on getting to know the team and culture properly. This meant going through the culture deck with Hannah (in intricate detail I might add!), having 1:1s with the whole team (and getting to know them as people — not just learning about their roles!) as well as shadowing some client sessions. Psychological safety is key here. By fully understanding everything Unleashed — from our ‘morning hellos’ to how we run team meetings, I’m confident that when I do partner with my first client, I’ll be able to fully be myself, use my own style and put boundaries in place — whilst delivering great work. Again, it sounds so simple, but it’s things like this that can stop us from burning out later down the line.

5. Communication and Collaboration.

This doesn’t have to mean getting Zoom fatigue from endless check-ins with the team. A great example of collaboration here at Unleashed is that we give and receive feedback on all pieces of work, via Slack. It keeps us in close contact with each other and was invaluable for me in learning about the great work we do with our clients. Even though I was new, the team immediately welcomed — and asked for — my opinion and this additional, fresh perspective. I felt like my view mattered, from day one.

Another Unleashed-ism is sharing some personal stuff about ourselves, such as what matters to each of us, our values and how we like to work (e.g. are we early birds or night owls? Do we prefer written or verbal feedback?). We call these our “Readmes” and they help to ensure we understand and get the best out of each other.

I presented my Readme to the team last week. It felt exciting and vulnerable all at the same time. It was even a little bit emotional — but in a good way! Knowing that we’ve been totally honest with each other builds trust right from the start…

See ya later Imposter Syndrome!

So there you have it. I’m two months into my new role at Unleashed and I love it, but I promise as I said at the top, that this really isn’t the point.

Instead, this is a transparent description of an experience that I truly hope is a call to arms for companies, especially at a time when it’s likely that everyone starting a new role, joining a new team or setting new goals has been through the ringer, thanks to the C-word.

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