In “Navigating Water Cooler Talks Without the Water Cooler: Uncertainty and Information Seeking During Remote Socialization,” recently published in Management Communication Quarterly, communications scholars DaJung Woo of Rutgers University, Camille G. Endacott of the University of North Carolina Charlotte, and Karen K. Myers of the University of California Santa Barbara found the unique conditions of working during the pandemic created a natural portal into understanding remote work habits.
Research on newcomer uncertainty and information-seeking behaviors has largely assumed that newcomers could interact with and observe others in physical work settings. This study examined how organizational newcomers sought information during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic without such possibility. Drawing on in-depth interviews with 30 individuals who began jobs remotely between February and November 2020, we uncovered three major areas of uncertainty: workplace relationships, task/role performance, and organizational norms. Our findings demonstrate how these newcomers managed the uncertainties through six information-seeking tactics: organizing virtual small talks; initiating unsanctioned in-person meetings; asking overt and targeted questions; utilizing digital repositories; unintentional limit testing; and anticipating future information seeking. We discuss implications for remote newcomer socialization and provide propositions for future research.
We were motivated to conduct this study by the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced many employers to adopt virtual means to hire and socialize new employees. In the newcomer socialization literature, co-location of newcomers and old-timers in physical work environments was assumed and emphasized because it allows for newcomers’ both direct and indirect information seeking (such as casual conversations and observations). We wanted to learn: when such opportunities for in-person contacts and communication are missing, how do remote newcomers navigate their uncertainty and seek information they need to learn about their roles, workplace relationships, and the organization’s culture? To answer this question, we interviewed individuals who started new jobs fully virtually at the peak of the pandemic (between June and December 2020).
Not surprisingly, recruiting and interviewing our study participants happened fully virtually. While our research process involved typical challenges of qualitative studies—e.g., identifying people who met our participant eligibility criteria and were available to schedule meetings—we were anxious to complete the study as efficiently as possible because we wanted to generate knowledge that would guide employers and newcomers while they are still dealing with the pandemic’s implications. Also, we were concerned if we might inadvertently contribute to remote newcomers’ burnout by asking for yet another Zoom meeting; but thankfully, our participants seemed generally excited to share their experience—possibly because they did not have many chances to self-reflect and verbally make sense of their pandemic experience elsewhere at that point.
We were intrigued to find that many of them met with their coworkers in person (at a bar, beach, or their house) despite the potential risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus. This indicated their strong desire to learn relational information, such as who has the potential to become their close work friends and/or mentors. It was also interesting to hear participants report that overt questioning and revealing their lack of knowledge about tasks was a necessary way to learn about their new role. Typically, overt questioning is a communication tactic known to result in social costs or losing one’s face; but as one of our participants said, they “couldn’t afford to not ask questions [straightforwardly]” simply because there were not many other ways to learn the information needed to perform their jobs remotely.
Based on our findings, we provide propositions to guide researchers’ further investigation into remote newcomers’ socialization and consequences. For example, we argue that remote newcomers will require additional acculturation if/when they enter the physical office environment, considering that they had little to no face-to-face work interactions that would have enabled development of strong ties and deep understanding of their organizations’ culture. Now that most of the COVID-19 mandates have been lifted and employers have made decisions about hybrid work and/or return-to-office policies, there is a need to better understand the information needs and transition experiences of those who started new jobs fully virtually during the peak of the pandemic. We believe our article offers useful insights to guide such future research.