By Katherine Laws (’20), Wake Forest Fellow in the Office of Personal & Career DevelopmentFour sticky notes with the words Empower, Engage, Enhance, and Enable written on them

Think back to your very first job: what do you remember? Putting on your brand new work clothes, sitting down at your clean, new desk, shaking hands with your new coworkers and realizing that you’re the youngest person in the room by 11 years…

What emotions do you remember feeling? You may have felt excited, proud, expectant. But I’m willing to bet that mixed in were the feelings of apprehension, self-doubt, confused, and maybe even feeling small.

Can you think of colleagues in your office who may be feeling this way? Young people, new employees, women, persons from minority backgrounds in your workspace?

This experience is complex, and it has been going on for years, as you likely know. And I must admit, I have never faced this role as a manager of a new employee or as a seasoned colleague. However, I have recently experienced this self-doubt as a new employee. I began my role in a completely virtual environment in the midst of the pandemic.

This experience gave me a certain clarity of mind when it came to my adjustment to the working environment. There was something measurable about the fact that all my work experiences took place on one laptop.

Each time I spoke up, I had to reach my hand out and switch the button from “mute” to “unmute”.

When I didn’t know what I was doing, I couldn’t find a subtle way to figure it out, like asking a colleague in passing. I had to text, call, Google chat, email, or Slack my coworker, potentially interrupting them and potentially choosing their least-preferred method of communion of the many possible.

When I delivered a project, I didn’t get the luxury of seeing my boss’ reaction to what I had completed. Instead, I needed to find a graceful way to ask my supervisor for feedback, a foreign experience to me that at first made me feel nothing less than clunky.

Thankfully, for me, wonderful mentors and supervisors encouraged me and helped me grow in my confidence and abilities in our workplace. They empowered me as a new employee, and it is from their actions that I can offer you some small ways you can empower your colleagues, too, whether you are a manager, a seasoned employee, or even just not the newest one in the office anymore.

1. Ask for your employee’s voice. 

Especially on Zoom, but in any room, it can be really easy to disappear as a new employee. Early on in meetings, my colleagues would, explicitly and kindly, ask, “Katherine, what do you think about this?” They didn’t ask me questions to trip me up, they simply created space for me to say something– anything. This simple act was one of the best things for me. Slowly, as this continued, I began to actually believe that my voice was valuable and valued in this workplace.

2. Positively reinforce your employee through visual, verbal and written affirmations. 

When your new employee does speak up, whether you’ve encouraged them to or not, positive reinforcement goes a long way. It means a lot to see others nodding and paying attention to you as you’re speaking.

My manager and boss were both really good at written affirmation. Zoom, especially, makes this easy. After speaking up, they would sometimes send me a quick chat, a “Great insight, thank you for sharing,” or “Interesting idea. Remind me to hear more about that at our next meeting!” If you meet in-person, you can find ways to do this too, like saying those things out loud to your employee after a comment, or sending them a quick message after a meeting. This may be second nature to you, or it may be something worth the extra time to remember.

You don’t have to be a manager to do this. I remember a colleague who had no direct connection to me. Yet, every time we were in a meeting, she would ask me what I thought about our discussion. This made me feel like I had a friend in the room, and it made me feel valuable. In turn, I grew in confidence.

3. Offer the time and availability you do have. 

Because I began my role in a virtual environment, this was something that was incredibly important to me. I needed to know that my colleagues and managers would not be annoyed or interrupted by a message or call from me when I needed something. And, the only way I knew that they wouldn’t be annoyed or interrupted? Because they told me. Out loud, with words.

They also told me what would make them annoyed or interrupted. Tell your new employee exactly how you like to be communicated with. Are there certain times in the day when you won’t be available? Do you prefer a phone call, or do you disdain Google Chat? When my colleagues gave me clear guidelines around their preference for communication, it relieved much of the guesswork around when and how I should deliver my question. In turn, I felt much more comfortable asking for time from my manager and colleagues when I needed it. And that made me deliver better work.

4. Set up your employee with a mentor. 

For me, my mentor has been someone I can go to, no matter the situation, and feel like I had a safe and comfortable place to ask questions and get advice on how to handle it. In the midst of building confidence as a new employee, the mentor may often recommend strategies to overcome challenges the mentee is facing.

Furthermore, the mentor serves as a bridge between the new employee and the rest of the office; this is a basic principle of belonging. When the new employee feels that there’s one person in the room they can trust, they will open up and grow. The mentor is not a band-aid to any issue a new employee may be having. However, a thoughtfully chosen mentor who commits to the wellness of the individual can be very successful.

I hope that by offering this change in perspective, it will re-invite you to look out for people like me in your workplace with helpful tips to move forward. I am here to tell you they make all the difference.