Three keys to engaging your junior employees during the pandemic

by | Jun 24, 2020

It’s 10 a.m. Do you know where your new hires are?

While corporate America is beginning to acclimate to a new normal of working from home every day, your youngest employees — interns, college hires and recent graduates — are in a precarious position.

As Mod Op Strategic Consulting’s most recent college graduate and “resident young person,” I’ve heard plenty of work-from-home horror stories from friends beginning their careers at leading investment banks, consulting shops and tech companies.

Some are feeling isolated and burnt out, lacking the organic opportunities for networking, mentorship and relationship development that an office space often provides.

Others are being micro-managed, growing more cynical by the day as their laptops, with pre-installed monitoring software, keep them glued to their desks.

And, at a time when white-collar unemployment is on track to spike in the coming months, almost all are worried about their job security, further exacerbating any remote workplace anxiety they might already have.

If you manage, employ or collaborate with entry-level hires (and if you don’t, you should), you might be asking yourself: How do I keep my juniors motivated and productive without trying (and, inevitably, failing) to track their every move?

My advice is to focus on the engagement of your junior employees. There’s no secret sauce here: In a world where the roadmap for success for a fresh hire can feel much less clearly defined, great managers will ensure their junior employees know what they need to do, celebrating their successes and guiding their growth trajectory.

Here are my three keys to engaging your junior employees:

Lay the groundwork

Offices do more than churn out Wi-Fi and bad coffee: They establish and enforce the culture of your organization. Expectations, guidelines and boundaries are set, implicitly and explicitly, by the company you keep.

Think about your average 2020 university graduate. If she’s lucky enough to have a job right now, she’s probably starting her career from a laptop in her bedroom – a far cry from a cubicle in Manhattan or a WeWork in San Francisco. A few modules of instructional videos and a PDF of the employee handbook are not an adequate replacement for the kind of cultural establishment that the first three months in a new corporate setting provides. It’s incumbent upon your managers to make up some of this difference.

I know what some of you might be thinking: “My calendar is visible, and we’re looking for self-starters who can thrive in a lean, startup-like culture. My junior employees are free to ask me what they want to know when they have questions.”

While it’s well and good to seek out bright, motivated young people to fill out your analyst class, it’s foolhardy to expect 22-year-olds with minimal real-world, in-person work experience to know all of the right questions to ask, let alone to feel comfortable asking them. The pandemic also means your juniors are lacking the kinds of more casual “drop-ins” that an in-person office setup allows for and are perfect for questions like these.

It also bears mentioning that such an attitude ignores the reality that your female, nonwhite and LGBT employees (among others) might feel far less comfortable in this self-advocacy than your other hires.

You’re the boss for a reason. Take it upon yourself to lay the groundwork of your culture for your new hires by semi-formalizing engagement touchpoints:

  • Go beyond an “open-door policy” – for at least the first three months after hire, make a regular cadence for informal one-on-ones between manager and junior a requirement, not just a suggestion. Whenever possible, these should be done via video conferencing, not just a phone call. It’s far more tempting to “tune out” when no one’s watching (for both parties involved).
  • Your management team should use these conversations, in part, to establish and enforce the expectations of your juniors. Don’t micro-manage; instead, make it clear what’s expected of them in their role, and the benefits they stand to reap by meeting and exceeding these expectations.
  • By no means should you feel limited to this cadence. Don’t overdo it, but a quick Slack message asking if your junior has any questions on an assignment you handed them, or even just asking how their weekend went on Monday morning, will often yield better results than hoping they reach out to you first.

Call out value

Too often, your most junior employees might fail to see the connection between the delivery of their work product and the success of your organization. Impostor syndrome is real, and can become exacerbated by a world in which comments focused primarily on mistakes made or changes required may dominate what your fresh hires hear from your management team.

When the less overt positive affirmation that a productive junior would receive in an office setting becomes nonexistent and all your juniors hear from your managers is “do this,” “fix this,” or “change this back,” employee disengagement is all but assured, even if your managers are simply trying to focus on the work remaining to be done.

Your managers — and you — should take it upon yourselves to call out the value of the work your juniors provide:

  • When your young hires champion or contribute to successful projects and deliverables, ensure that they know the value of their work – full stop. Their weekly manager touch-base is a great place to explicitly call out their good work. This doesn’t mean a culture where constructive criticism isn’t allowed. Rather, while overt structural feedback needs to be incorporated into communications between managers and juniors, so too does regular and individualized reinforcement of the value of your junior employees.
  • As appropriate, properly attribute the work performed by your juniors, and establish a culture where these kinds of call-outs aren’t just appreciated – they’re expected.
  • Trust me: A simple “Nice work” can go a long way in keeping your employees of all ages engaged.

Embrace the digital future

While office spaces in certain parts of the country are slowly starting to open back up, expect the #remotelyfe to be here for the foreseeable future.

My final piece of advice is simple. Rather than treating this more overt approach to engaging your juniors as a consequence of COVID-19, embrace it as your new normal for an inevitably more digital future:

  • If you haven’t already, do your due diligence on effective video conferencing, screen sharing, cloud storage, and instant messaging tools. Your employees don’t just want simple and effective ways to share and communicate virtually – they need them.
  • Apply these principles across your enterprise. Your mid-level (and even more senior) employees stand to benefit just as much from a virtual culture that more overtly establishes expectations and affirms value-add.
  • Ensure that you’re incorporating feedback (anonymously or otherwise) from your junior employees into all of your employee engagement efforts. You want to be sure that you have an accurate reading of the pulse of your juniors. Most importantly, there’s no easier way to engage your juniors than by showing them their impact on the policies you implement.

For more thought leadership on this topic, see our blog on establishing a corporate culture for remote employees. And for general help in improving your organization’s digital culture, email us at [email protected] and read our service offerings on our website.

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Mod Op Strategic Consulting


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