A Flying Start: Supporting employee wellbeing and building psychological safety from day one.
Five ways to support a newbie
Take a moment and cast your mind back to a first day at a new job. How were you feeling and what were you thinking about? Where was your focus? The organisation's vision? Quarterly reports? Or the location of the toilets?
The topic of supporting new employees is one that often rises to the surface in my work with clients.
I pay close attention to individual experiences, and I also think about my own ‘first day of a new job’ stories. I will share with you.
I had an interesting experience many years ago, on the first day of a new role. I arrived first (early, as usual) and parked up waiting for someone to come and open the office. It was a good start overall, with a warm and friendly welcome. However, two comments in particular stood out to me and shook me a little.
‘You are parked in [senior colleague’s} space’
As you know, I arrived early to an empty car park. There were no markings or signs to indicate that any spaces were officially reserved - because they were not! My initial response was feeling embarrassed, and that I had parked ‘in the wrong place’. I also felt like my newness and ‘outsiderness’ (made up word) was being highlighted to me. To this day, I am unsure of the intent, but it made me think about how new colleagues can be perceived as a threat to an already established group. Sometimes, even unconsciously, warning signs are put out in an attempt to minimise the risk that this new person may pose to the group status quo. It also appeared to me like a reminder of hierarchy and status in that particular team. I paid close attention to how this experience made me feel, as it is the most accurate data we have.
Now, as an enthusiastic, budding psychologist, you may wonder if I was overthinking this situation. That is always a possibility. However, this comment really made me feel unwelcome, unsure, untrusting and nervous to park, DESPITE all of the other acts of friendliness and support that I received. I was reminded of it every day when I was parking.
The moral of the story is that what we say to people, especially in the early stages, can have a real impact. We must think about how it may land with someone who is (most likely) feeling anxious, and often in survival mode until they feel safe enough to ask questions and find their own way.
‘You are using [senior colleague’s] mug’
As you can imagine, this comment had a compounding effect after #carparkgate. I can actually recall exactly where I was and who said this to me. I also remember doing an eye roll in my head and feeling angry, and a little upset. There were several people about and it had another flavour of humiliation that most definitely increased my ‘first day anxiety’. Hierarchy and status were clearly important to this group, and these statements reminded me of mine. It also felt territorial and difficult for me to relax, as I was waiting to be told about my next ‘mistake’. I felt as if everything was claimed, and everyone knew these unwritten rules, except me.
I felt like I had to ‘earn’ my place and gain approval.
These unconscious processes are undoubtedly drivers of behaviour in any workplace when there is change or a perceived threat, such as a new start employee. I do not think anyone set out to make me feel this way, which is exactly why paying attention to our own behaviour is so important.
We can become afraid, protective and retreat to the safe group. Arguably, this is partly primitive but perhaps also partly due to the culture in the workplace. Does it feel safe to be the person who asks the new person to lunch? Does it feel safe to form a new relationship? Does change feel overwhelming and stressful?
So, from a leadership perspective, here are five ways you can support employee wellbeing from day one:
1.) Put yourself in their shoes
Write a list of all the questions you think a new person may have when starting at your workplace. There is so much newness to contend with, and anxiety that can make it difficult to retain information at the very beginning. If anything like me, when introduced to someone, I find it REALLY hard to retain their name in that moment. So let’s break it down. Every role and workplace will have their quirks, and considerations. We now also need to consider remote working and how this impacts on new employees.
I think this information is important for everyone, regardless of perceived status or position. The delivery may differ for each individual of course. There is an inevitability that when we are in a new environment, there are some pieces of information that we simply can’t know unless we are told. We need to learn the nuances and quirks. We can help people along and really enhance their experience by placing ourselves in their shoes.
2.) Offer useful/practical information from the start
Let them know you have been planning for them, and that you are ready to welcome them.
I have known a few cases where people have turned up on their first day at a new job and nobody was expecting them. This is not where we want to be.
Here is some information I can think of that may be very important to a new member of staff:
Where they will sit/where their office is
ALL housekeeping (kitchen/toilets/fire safety etc).
Information about admin - all those fiddly bits like the mail/log ins/who to contact for tech advice
Team culture - yes some insight into those unwritten rules!
Lunchtime - explain how people usually use this time, and where they go etc. It sounds so simple but it is a major source of anxiety for some people. And if you can, perhaps join them on the first day.
Introduce to key people - enough but not too many. And have a list of names available, and even a seating plan if it applies! There are many times this would have helped me enormously in a new role. I think knowing people’s names can reduce feelings of vulnerability and enhance feelings of belonging from the beginning. Of course, it is a process and it is okay not to know. But having some instant connections can be powerful.
Any important upcoming events or meetings
This list is absolutely not exhaustive, and it will be unique to each role/organisation. It is just a starting point for all your own ideas.
3.) Encourage your new colleague to ask questions - model it
Let them know you remember your first days at a new job - the anxiety, information overload, and often general overwhelm - and that we often have more questions than answers in the beginning as a new start
Explain the ways they can contact you to ask questions - email/phone etc
Ask them relevant questions too - let it flow organically as much as possible
4.) Be prepared and thoughtful
This one has made me feel so welcome and included in the past. I appreciate now that with remote working, some adaptations would need made, but it is the sentiment that is important.
I suppose I would call this a ‘welcome pack’ - present your new employee with some practical items that will be useful and make them feel thought about. For example, on their desk (if allocated one) place stationary essentials, a welcome card, perhaps a mug and nice biscuits? This is an example of something SO simple, but usually something we will always remember fondly. We never forget the feeling of being remembered and cared for. Think of the little touches that hotels use to make us feel special. We absolutely need to do this in the workplace as well. It does not have to cost a lot of money at all. It is principally about thought, and a little effort.
Think of all the other places your new colleague will need to be included in, or added to. Perhaps the ‘pigeon holes’/in trays, email lists, upcoming social events, rotas etc. This could vary so much of course, but when you start thinking about these, you will notice them more.
5.) Make sure line management is clear and a check-in meeting is scheduled
It can be really confusing to get our heads around new structures and even new job titles at times. Ensure that your new colleague knows exactly who they report to. Is it you or someone else? Is there more than one person? How does it work? How often do people meet their line manager etc? Communicate these basics at the start.
Make sure that a check in meeting is arranged within the first week, so that your new colleague knows they will have a guaranteed time to ask their questions and offer reflections on their first week.
If nothing else, being human is the best start possible. Being open, vulnerable and kind will never go far wrong.