John Gulnac has never met his colleagues in person.

He started his new job as a vice president at staffing company Adecco in mid-March, right when the pandemic pushed states into lockdowns.

The initial plan was for him to fly to the company’s US headquarters in Jacksonville, Florida, and spend a week meeting with executives and some team members and then work from the Austin-based office. But that never happened.

Instead, his computer was shipped to him and he met everyone virtually.

Gulnac was brought on to rebuild Adecco’s direct hire department, assessing the current team and making organizational changes – including layoffs and bringing in new talent.

Coming in as a new manager charged with overhauling a department is hard enough during normal times. But in a global pandemic, when many employees are working remotely, the task becomes even more challenging. There are no face-to-face meetings, lunches to get to know co-workers, or office drop-ins to ask quick questions.

“There was a moment or two of anxiety,” Gulnac recalled. “That first week, I was sensitive: Are they going to rescind my offer? Am I going to be unemployed?” But after getting reassurance from his bosses, he refocused that energy on the task at hand.

The first thing he did was set up one-on-one video calls with his new team.

“I made myself immediately available. But not being able to read people’s body language was tough for me at first,” he said. He asked about people’s roles, any pain points and what can be done better.

He went over previous performance reviews, historical sales data and created anonymous surveys to get to know his employees better.

He also made it a point to have multiple conversations with workers. “You can’t rely on one interaction. Everyone, at first, was a little awkward with the whole video conference thing. But by two or three weeks in, people were getting more comfortable with it.”

Creating trust should be a top priority for new managers, advised Denise Rousseau, a professor of organizational behavior and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. “Once familiarity exists between people, trust can be sustained and good communication can be sustained.”

To help forge relationships, new managers should go on a listening tour.

Hold one-one-one video meetings with everyone and ask about their role and responsibilities, what the team and company could be doing better, unresolved pain points and what they need to be better workers, recommended Barbara Larson, executive professor of management at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business.

“Do minimal talking, then go back as necessary to have more directive or movement-oriented types of conversations.”

John Gulnac was hired as a vice president of Adecco in March, and has never met his colleagues in person.

From Gulnac’s conversations, he learned there wasn’t enough transparency in the past when it came to priorities and goals. So he erred on the side of over-communicating.

“I tried to be very transparent with them, I also tried to be fair with them,” he said. “I was honest when I didn’t have the answers.”

Talking and sharing a lot is good, but managers should also be clear and concise.

“If people know you, they don’t read between the lines as much, but if they don’t, they may well search for more information because trust is lower. Lower trust, more vigilance, higher trust less vigilance,” said Rousseau.

When setting goals and an agenda with a new team, be sure to illicit feedback and input. Setting pie-in-the-sky goals could create anxiety among the team. Talk to employees to get a sense of any circumstances, limitations and other factors that could determine what can realistically be done.

“You want to feel people out on what they think is possible before a goal is formalized,” said Rousseau. That doesn’t necessarily mean employees set the goals, but provide information to set reasonable goals.

Employees want to put their best foot forward when a new boss comes in – but that can be hard for some workers to do while they are also working remotely and juggling childcare and online education with their kids.

To help diminish any anxiety workers might have, Gulnac shared snapshots of his own personal life. His four-year-old daughter would make appearances on video calls and he’d take calls during school pickups.

“I let them see behind the monitor, there was a mess. I let the dog bark,” he said. “I just thought it was important for them to see I was in the same situation.”