How to Develop Early-Career Talent Virtually

Leaders should consider these five critical steps toward developing early-career talent in a virtual workplace.

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Despite today’s uncertain business environment, it’s critical that companies continue to build their future workforces by investing in early-career talent. The importance of ensuring that entry-level hires are suitably equipped with sufficient developmental opportunities to jump-start, advance, and actualize their potential can’t be overlooked — even in a remote-only workplace.

Internships and graduate programs are favored methods for identifying and nurturing talent. Before the pandemic, top programs typically required substantial face-to-face interactions, providing those new to work with opportunities to shadow senior employees, learn the ropes, and build the confidence to advance into management roles. But since the introduction of widespread remote work, this reliance on in-person interaction has severely limited growth opportunities for entry-level hires, leading companies to halt more than half of their training opportunities and rescind 28% of job offers. In comparison, only 9% of employers withdrew new graduates’ employment offers the year after the 2008 financial crisis.

While some workers are keen to return to their offices, a recent PwC study found that nearly a third (29%) of employees surveyed would prefer an entirely remote arrangement. Companies have no time to waste in offering virtual early-career talent development opportunities. But how exactly can this occur remotely — and successfully? How can those new to the workforce grow and develop behind a screen?

To find out, we led a research study to examine 500 internships and graduate programs at 250 companies around the world (65% from North and South America, and 35% from Europe and Australia), surveying early-career program participants and interviewing the companies’ CEOs. We assessed each organization’s readiness for virtual development and identified the factors — in culture, process, and people — that make or break well-meaning efforts to grow talent and nurture early-career hires successfully. Synthesizing data from participant responses helped us propose five crucial steps leaders must take when developing early-career talent virtually.

1. Set up new employees properly. Ensure that everyone has the technology needed and the training they need to use it. We found that when interns and early-career hires can rely on their remote work setups, it becomes 85% easier for them to connect with peers and to reach out for help when needed. This is especially critical for diverse candidates: Our study concluded that Black and Hispanic hires were 145% less comfortable with virtual work than White peers, and that female hires were 70% more likely to be worried about having the right technology and resources. But the research also showed that clear lines of communication — which technology can facilitate — are paramount for virtual work. We found that even a simple communication medium, such as a WhatsApp group, was 90% effective in providing talent with a sense of community and a platform to fire off any questions.

2. Connect interns and early-career hires with mentors. Under normal circumstances, working in person alongside colleagues would enable new employees to learn from and network with their more experienced counterparts. Explicitly pairing each new hire with a mentor ensures that this opportunity for growth and connection doesn’t go missing in a completely virtual workplace. Not only will having a mentor help talent develop personally and progress professionally, but it will also provide them with a dependable resource for help or questions that arise throughout their tenure. Our study concluded that access to a mentor reduces stress from a daunting workload by over 70%.

3. Run frequent virtual events, workshops, and training programs. Talent development should be a place for learning and growth, but learning opportunities tend to fall by the wayside when people are working remotely. The most effective virtual training exercises we observed included “ask me anything” sessions with senior leaders, “mix and mingle” events with fellow entry-level hires, thought-provoking Zoom events, and “lunch and learns” with top industry leaders. These helped more than 75% of entry hires surveyed understand and adopt their company culture.

4. Use the opportunities that remote work provides. It’s now easier than ever to connect with colleagues on different projects and on different teams — even those who are spread out across the globe. Given that pre-pandemic business travel was often reserved for senior employees, early-career hires would rarely have had the chance to collaborate with these distant coworkers. But with virtual meetings and collaboration now the norm, it’s possible for interns and new hires to work with a broader range of colleagues. Rotating through different departments, we found, improves early-career employees’ confidence by 80% — and it helps them figure out what they’re most interested in. As one CEO we interviewed, Bradley Scheffer of the U.K.’s Business Reporter, told us, “Sometimes internships help you figure out what you want to do, and other times they help you figure out what you definitely don’t want to do.”

5. Ensure that new hires feel confident in their roles and have a grasp on the opportunities in front of them. Our research suggests that this can be achieved by granting employees more autonomy than ever by reducing and reassigning responsibilities that they find draining and disengaging. This trend is commonly referred to as job crafting, a practice in which workers design their own job descriptions, making modifications that suit them specifically to better reflect their strengths, interests, and core values.

We found this job-crafting flip to the traditional top-down job-design approach very popular with companies like Facebook, Google, Intel, KPMG, McKinsey, Oceanova, and Teiss. But because job crafting is an individualized, bottom-up initiative, the methodology can be successful only if supported and encouraged by all management levels, particularly by those mentoring recent graduates. Where instances of such commitment existed, our research showed that 92% of entry-level job crafters reported improved well-being and decreased stress. Furthermore, 67% felt inclined to stretch past their comfort zones, resulting in more collaboration with colleagues, and 77% were highly productive compared with those who did not employ job crafting. Consequently, this led to new hires with better performance; more organizational commitment; higher job satisfaction; and improved well-being, happiness, and self-efficacy. Within organizations using job crafting, early-career turnover decreased by 29% because those seeking to stretch their skills looked internally before pursuing external roles.

When redefining and redeveloping onboarding strategies for remote-era new hires, first remember why you take on early-career hires and why they seek out these opportunities. New talent in your organization can develop essential job skills, positively kick off their careers, and build a new network of colleagues. As an employer, your organization has the chance to develop the best young minds — who are likely to remain loyal to you for many years to come — and enhance company culture. In this remote work climate, it’s crucial to develop a virtual culture and programming that fosters community and continues to provide opportunities for new starters and employers. It’s up to today’s companies to support tomorrow’s top talent, and there’s no time to waste.

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