From Rice Fields To Buddy Lunches: What My Peace Corps Service Taught Me About the New Employee Experience

In my mid-twenties I decided to take a hiatus from the corporate world to pursue a life-long desire of joining the Peace Corps. Little did I know that my time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand would end up teaching me more about adapting to the workplace than any experience in the US.

When you experience work on two different continents, and in two very different environments, you not only realize what separates the two cultures, but what connects them as well. In fact, that may be the biggest lesson I learned: despite the vast cultural differences between the rice fields of Thailand and our conference rooms here in America, we have a lot more in common than you might imagine. Especially when it comes to integrating new employees into an organization.

In this three part series, I’ve identified five common truths I discovered during my time in rural Thailand. Along with each one, I’ve provided an action item for how HR professionals, managers, or anyone passionate about improving life at work can incorporate these universal truths into the new hire experience.

 

 

Part 1: The importance of communal eating and having a good guide.

Truth #1: Communal eating brings people together

With my Thai coworkers at lunch

If you’ve ever been to Thailand, you know Thais love to eat! What surprised me most, however, is how communalthe experience of eating is in Thailand. As a communal society, Thais try to eat together whenever possible. Indeed, meals are commonly eaten family style, often with the youngest person at the table serving the others. This extends even to the workplace, where we were always encouraged to bring enough snacks for everyone, and to “never eat alone” (a truth so important, my boss Keith Ferrazzi made it the title of one of his best-selling books). At times this could be frustrating and inconvenient, especially when I found myself in a rush. But this practice ended up giving me a strong sense of community — and taught me the importance of slowing down! My coworkers and I ate together, did dishes together, and of course worked together. In many ways, I came to see that our eating together bonded us more than the work itself, as we learned about our passions outside of work, our families, and our backgrounds.

There is plenty of evidence on why taking a break for lunch and stepping away from your desk is important for creative thinking and productivity. Too often, however, organizations forget to use the power of food as a way to facilitate bonding and connection with their new hires. They forget because they aren’t doing it themselves. In fact, research shows only one in five Americans take a lunch break at all (Forbes). For this reason, it’s especially important to embed a first day lunch, coffee “walk-and-talks,” and other connective food experiences into your new hire’s formal onboarding and ongoing experience. By doing this, you are caring for your new hires’ most basic needs, getting to know them on a more personal level, and signaling to them that your company is a place they can grow and thrive.

What to do: Have a new hire joining your company? Find out their favorite food, restaurant, or take note of any dietary restrictions and take them out to a first day lunch that acknowledges this awareness. Missed day 1? Encourage their manager to take their next 1:1 on the road and grab a coffee, tea, or treat.

Truth #2: A good guide is essential when adapting to a new culture

With my “buddy” Mic on a work outing

Living as a foreigner in a strange land means you will undoubtedly make blunders, which are at best funny and at worst offensive. I surely made many of these, like when I tried to turn on the outside lights and accidentally turned off the power in my host family’s house. Or when I mispronounced the Thai word “bai” and ended up shouting “bus stop” instead of “go away” at a stray dog. (I’m not sure who was more confused, the dog or the passersby on the street). Fortunately, I was lucky enough to have found Mic — or rather to have had her find me, when she invited me out to lunch with her and some other colleagues from the town hall.

In all ways, Mic was truly the model guide. As the village’s local social worker, she was not only very well respected, but she also knew the community inside and out. Perhaps most importantly, she was someone who cared about me and would give me feedback, a virtue extremely difficult to come by in the very polite and harmonious Thai culture. Mic immediately took me under her wing and proved invaluable during my time in Thailand. She was the person of whom I could ask anything, with whom I could be vulnerable, and who helped integrate me into the village. Without her, I would have felt lost, unsure, and apprehensive about my place in the new culture. The only thing I would have been confident about is my ability to continue making all sorts of mistakes! In return, I helped re-invigorate Mic’s passion for community service and became a partner for her as we challenged the status quo in public health and education together!

It shouldn’t take going to Asia to know that a guide is extremely valuable for any new experience. So why hasn’t corporate America caught up? There is simply no excuse for not assigning a guide or “onboarding buddy” to our new hires, especially when study after study tells us how helpful new hires find them! In fact, in a 2014 Bamboo HR study 56% of new hires said they’d wished they’d had a buddy/mentor starting in week one.

What to do: Set up a buddy program at your organization. Keep it simple; remember something is better than nothing. Let buddies self-select or have the manager choose, but reiterate that the buddy should voluntarily participate. When implemented correctly, a buddy program is not only good for the new hire, but energizing to the buddy, too. For example, you may have a rising Millennial star who is itching to manage others, but you don’t have an open position. Consider having this person act as a buddy to incoming new hires as a means of helping them flex their burgeoning interest in developing people. This is a great way to retain and engage your top performers, who may feel neglected by the attention that your new hires are getting. According to a 2015 Gallup study, increased attention to new hires can sometimes cause your veteran employees to feel neglected. Asking interested and talented employees to be a buddy to a new hire is a great practice to strengthen both new and current employee engagement.

If you have a buddy program, reach out to recent new hires and their buddies to see what’s been working and what could be improved. Consider adding a first day buddy lunch if you haven’t already.

Just be clear about who’s paying!

 

 

Part 2: The importance of language and mission.

This is part two of a three part series on onboarding and the new employee experience.In this three part series, I’ve identified five common truths I discovered during my time in rural Thailand. Along with each one, I’ve provided an action item for how HR professionals, managers, or anyone passionate about improving life at work can incorporate these universal truths into the new hire experience. In Part 1 (read here) we covered the importance of communal eating and having a good guide.  Now, we’ll dive in deeper into the connection between language and cultural integration, and the importance of aligning your personal and professional missions.

Truth #3: Learn the Language to Fully Integrate

Speaking at a youth conference (yes, in Thai:) )

Being able to communicate in Thai was a challenge that left me feeling at times frustrated, inept, and misunderstood. Knowing how difficult the Thai language was to learn, the Peace Corps instructors focused on the language that would make us the most successful in our new roles and culture. This meant teaching us how to address important people (very useful in Thailand’s hierarchical society), how to be polite, how to express appreciation, and how to say our lunch tasted great!

The importance of language was two-fold: it helped me make a good impression and it gave me invaluable clues about my new environment. Fortunately for me, when I met the mayor of the town I was able to wai(Thai gesture of greeting) him correctly and greet him with the proper pronoun taan. Had I not, I would have offended him and made the others in our group uncomfortable. Mastering this basic aspect of the language and culture earned me a place in the mayor’s heart forever.

Learning the nuances of the language also taught me that the mayor and most Thais would never be on time, since I only learned the word for “on time” (“prom”) in the context of “not on time.” This deeper level of communication in turn led to the understanding that life in Thailand — at least in the countryside — was slower and more relaxed; my evolving grasp of the local dialect helped me realize how important it was for this goal-oriented New Yorker to adapt to her new home’s slower-paced reality.

In the corporate world, new employees are worried about mis-steps due to their ability (or lack thereof) to “speak the lingo.” For this reason, it’s important to train new employees in your jargon, such as company acronyms, places, and other popular –isms. Unfortunately, many managers — and even buddies — neglect this “training” due to a perception that the hire is already proficient in this area. This is consistent with data my company Yoi has collected, which works with clients to engage their new hires. We’ve found that managers think their hires are “good” in the area of cultural adaptation 22% more often than the hires themselves do, a critical gap in perception that can be an indicator of turnover.

What to do: Go beyond sharing a list of common acronyms. Assign someone to sit down and walk your new hires through your company’s jargon. It will not only create a bonding experience for your two employees, but it will lead to much richer, more contextualized learning for your new hire.

In addition, don’t forget to list out all the key portals, resources, and tools a new employee will need to be successful in their job. In my work, I’ve found many companies forget to do this. It’s all well and good to tell them to go to Jira, but be prepared — they may not know if that’s a person or a software system you’re referring to. (I can vouch for that as I came to a software company after being called “Jenjira” for two years in Thailand.)

Truth #4: Missions Matter

My students at school listening to the teachings of a local Buddhist monk.

I’ll never forget the day in Thailand when I experienced my first major “ah ha” moment about the Thai educational system. I was teaching my 4th grade class when a student informed me (with great trepidation) that classes were being cancelled again in order for the students to clean the school. At the rural Thai school where I worked, the janitorial staff consisted of only one elderly lady and the students. It was the students’ responsibility to make sure the school looked respectable and, unfortunately, they hadn’t been doing an adequate job. Hence, the principal felt it necessary to cancel class until the entire school was properly cleaned.

Previously, classes had been canceled for Thai dance practice, tree planting, boy scouts’ activities, community service, Buddhist mediation, etc. This latest cancellation made clear to me that the Thai education system was more focused on creating upstanding Thai Buddhist citizens than critically thinking, English-speaking employees able to compete in the global job market (at least in my village). My prior failure to articulate — and identify — what in effect was the school’s core mission had left me disjointed and disconnected for much longer than necessary. When I finally “got it,” many other parts of my job fell into place and I was able to see why I’d stalled out in my initial efforts to connect with my students and fellow teachers. My personal mission and my employer’s mission were not in sync. My realization of this disconnect between my mission and theirs enabled me to move forward with a new, more productive approach.

Organizations spend massive amounts of time, energy, and money creating their mission, vision, and values, yet many forget to share this fundamental information with their new hires. Or if it is shared, it’s given mere lip service and presented in uninspired fashion via PowerPoint or the company website. If organizations don’t properly communicate their own north star to each new hire, it’s highly unlikely they’ll be able to harness the new employee’s full energy and potential. In fact, Yoi has found that new hires who left were 4x more likely to rate their understanding of the mission, vision, and strategy low* than hires who stayed with the company.

What to do: Share your mission, vision, and values early on and clearly with your new hire, and ask them to reflect on how it resonates with their own personal mission, vision and values. Then instruct them to set up time with their buddy or manager to discuss disconnects which may have arisen during this process. Provide your new hire with talking points and probing questions for use with their manager/buddy, such as “how do you explain our mission and vision to clients, to friends, to family?” and “can you share examples of where you see our mission and vision lived out?” This will help the new hire make a good first impression and will ensure the conversation is rich, deep, and meaningful.

*Based on new employee responses to the question “How well do you understand the company’s mission, vision, and strategy?” (1–5 scale)

 

 

Part 3: Friendship

This is part three of a three part series on onboarding and the new employee experience.  If you’re following along, we’ve covered the importance of communal eating, having a good guide, language, and mission (see Part 1 and Part 2). Last but not least, we’ll dive in deeper into the importance of establishing friendships at work.

Truth #5: Friendship is as important at work as it is at home.

Celebrating Christmas with my fellow teachers at the local elementary school.

Unlike the US workplace, which values a strict separation of work and life, Thais embrace mixing personal and professional matters. In fact, they outright demand it! I discovered this truth after trying to keep my Facebook private at the beginning of my stint as a volunteer. Despite my best efforts, I was soon found by all my co-workers and questioned as to why I hadn’t accepted their ‘friend’ requests. I learned that any attempts to keep my private life completely private were not only futile (I was one of a few non-Thais in town), but also politically ill-advised. Thais just didn’t seem to trust people who wanted to withhold their full selves.

This is obviously a tricky topic in our technologically advanced and invasive times. Boundaries are slowly disappearing in the US workplace as technology — and the younger generation’s decreasing interest in privacy — blur the lines between our personal and professional lives. As with my Thai colleagues, Millennials and Gen Z’ers increasingly want to show up at work as their “total selves.” Workplaces that don’t make at least some attempt to connect with their employees on a personal level will risk retaining only those employees who view work as just that — work — as opposed to their mission/calling. Additionally, Gallup found that having a “best friend at work” is one of the twelve key factors of employee retention. In other words, the deeper connection an employee feels at work, the more loyal they will be to the organization.

What to do: Encourage managers to learn what’s important to their employees outside of work and to check in on these subjects during regular 1:1s. Recognize birthdays and anniversaries, even if it’s just a simple note or email. Embed theses reminders into your formal onboarding program to help your managers remember the different dates — and to make your employees feel increasingly connected to and welcome at your company.

One Final Lesson: A Tree Grows in Thailand — A person’s true value sometimes takes a long time to measure.

I went back to Thailand earlier this year. It had been 3 years, but I wanted to see my village again — and of course to see “how I’d done.” Could my students still speak English, did my co-teachers still use games in the classroom, did the youth tour guide club still exist? I was hoping to see tangible confirmation that I’d been there — that I’d made a difference. I’m happy to report I did find some of the evidence I was looking for. The world map I’d painstakingly created with the students had finally been hung up in the gymnasium, villagers excitedly greeted me by my American name, and it was incredibly gratifying to run into old students who remembered some of the basic English I’d taught them.

However, I was much more struck by another encounter that came towards the end of my trip. I was visiting my old house and my former landlord greeted me warmly and took me on a tour of the home I’d lived in for almost two years. In the front yard she pointed out something I’d completely forgotten. It was a tree I’d planted when it was only a foot high that now stood over 5 feet tall! She told me that she called it “Jen’s tree” and that every time she watered it she thought of me. It was less the words she said, than how she said it. She was proud and thankful. Proud that I’d been her tenant, that I’d lived in their town; and thankful that I’d cared enough to “plant roots” and invest in their community and in her house, even though I knew I was ultimately going to leave. I was really humbled. I’d barely remembered planting the tree. So, once again, Thailand teaches me a profound lesson. In our quest to measure ourselves and others based on what we do, we often miss how we make the people around us feel — and don’t acknowledge that this FEEL factor is equally responsible for our “success.”

I know I’ll never forget how the people I met in Thailand made me feel — welcomed, cared for, valued. And it was both humbling and uplifting for me to recognize that I’d played a small role in helping them feel good, too.

Like Peace Corps volunteers, most employees are doing two year tours. In fact, for Millennials the average “tour of duty” is closer to 18 months. This signals a fundamental shift in the way we must approach the employee experience: instead of focusing on retention, we’ll need to focus on employee engagement. After all, engagement is a leading indicator of how someone will perform over the long haul, and how much quality time, energy, and focus your employee is willing to invest while working at your organization. Moreover, employees who are fulfilled, cared for, and engaged employees are like planted seeds whose last value we may not see for a time, but which continue to grow and strengthen over time. A thoughtful employee experience creates lifelong brand advocates whose contributions to you and your company can outlive even their tenure with you.

And that’s how trees grow even after we’re gone.

 

Jennifer is the Lead Content Writer and Consultant for Yoi Corp. At Yoi, she uses her background in employee engagement, strengths-based coaching, and culture change to help enterprises create exceptional experiences for their new hires.