We all know how exciting that first day is, stepping into the office, collecting your new name badge, getting your tech set up, unpacking your company swag and meeting your manager as well as the other members of your team.

But for remote/hybrid employees, that very important day one experience has changed dramatically. For example, I started a new role as chief marketing officer at PepTalk in December 2022. My shiny new laptop came the week before I started, my swag arrived separately and on my first day I met loads of new people from all over the world on Zoom calls. Then the first all hands meeting happened, where I was introduced to the entire company and subjected to a PepTalk tradition where everyone asks you any question they want, from what famous person, living or dead, you’d like to have dinner with, to what was the last concert you went to. In the first couple of weeks, the core values as well as our culture was very clear to me, through each interaction I had with each person.

For many managers and learning professionals, creating a compelling and engaging culture during onboarding can be a challenge — especially for hybrid and remote employees. But you don’t have to be in an office to understand culture. For many organizations and their employees, working dispersedly has become a new normal. According to McKinsey research, 58% of Americans reported having the opportunity to work from home at least one day a week. So, in this hybrid working world, how do you make sure culture extends beyond the physical office?

Emotional Proximity

Gartner believes that many managers confuse physical proximity and emotional proximity. Physical proximity is “being seen” — where you work with people and your manager in the same physical office. Whereas emotional proximity is “feeling seen” — where employees feel they are valued, their views are seen as important and their involvement in the team has an impact on the organization.

A recent Gartner survey found that emotional proximity increases employees’ connectedness to their workplace culture by 27%, improves performance by 37% and reduces turnover by 36%. Ensuring that employees feel like they’re being seen in an engaging culture that constantly works to support employee connectedness is key. Let’s take a look at how we can ensure this happens in our organizations.

Creating emotional proximity for new hires.

  1. The manager is key. For most employees, their manager is the most important person in their world to ensure they feel seen and welcomed to the team. Managers should schedule regular one-on-ones with their new employee as well as help them through onboarding, a process that can often be unwieldy and isolating, especially in remote and hybrid work models. Given you cannot literally sit with new hires, it’s important to meet with them twice a day — in the beginning end of their workday — for the first few days to answer any questions, check in on how their meetings are going and how their onboarding is progressing. In some cases, managers will need specific training in creating emotional proximity.
  2. Values need to be overt and organically woven into the culture. Make company values clear in the first few days, even before new hires read the employee handbook. For companies that used to display their values in the office and in meeting rooms before the mass adoption of remote/hybrid models, try creative approaches to replicate this for remote workers. Your swag bag for new hires can include a mouse pad, water bottle and mug with the company values printed on them. You can provide virtual background options for employees to use during video conference calls that include the company logo and its core values. Take advantage of opportunities in all-hands and departmental meetings to tell stories about how employees have embodied company values and culture.
  3. Create a watercooler support network. Building a support network for new hires can help them meet a wide range of people, and ideally, click with a few in other departments, geographies and across different levels in the organization. This approach can provide opportunities for new hires to quickly develop loose ties and gain the comfort level to lean on others for support when they have questions or concerns. Formalizing loose ties and support networks is especially critical for remote and hybrid organizations. For Slack users, there is a great tool called Slack Coffee Roulette, which helps coordinate informal meetings with teammates across the company. You are added to the Slack channel, and the tool will automatically schedule weekly coffee meet ups with someone in the company. This helps build empathy across the company and replicates the chance encounter at the watercooler in a hybrid world.
  4. Set up a mentorship program. A study by Monster found that nearly one-half of professionals expect their employers to contribute to their career growth, but 80% of workers don’t think their companies provide development opportunities. Introducing new employees to a mentor can give them someone other than their manager to push queries to. One study found that mentees in a mentorship program had much higher retention rates (72%) compared to those who were not in the program (49%).

Who is responsible for emotional proximity?

I heard someone say recently that when your CEO has a bad day, you don’t really mind, but when your manager has a bad day, it’s a much different situation! This is so true and supports the critical role managers play in building and evolving an engaging company culture by cultivating emotional proximity and connectedness among employees and their teams.

How culture shows up on a daily basis is mostly down to your relationship with your manager and your teammates. You might see or talk to your CEO on a quarterly or monthly basis, vice president of your division on a weekly basis, but the day-to-day experience is really down to your manager and your teammates. So, when companies talk about culture and values, it’s really down to the team manager to ensure they embody the values and are clear about the vision and the mission.

Emotional proximity can be hard to achieve in any working model, whether hybrid, remote or in office. But the rewards — dramatically improved employee engagement and performance plus reduced absenteeism and attrition — make emotional proximity well worth the effort.