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Work and the Coronavirus

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Helping people understand how COVID-19 affects work and employment by sharing insights and help from ILR's workplace experts.

Best Practices for Virtual Onboarding Experiences

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Ayesha Ejaz

An effective onboarding process is central to ensure newly hired employees are acclimatized to the company's culture, are engaged and can be retained as a part of the workforce for a long time. According to a survey, a happy and engaged employee means more chances of their professional growth which directly impacts the company's profitability and turnover rate. With COVID-19, companies have been forced to conduct virtual on-boarding while ensuring that newly hired employees feel welcomed, comfortable and part of the organization.

Interviews I have conducted, as an alumna of ILR master’s of industrial and labor relations degree program, with hiring managers, employees, interns and employers from technology, manufacturing and financial industries, have shown that virtual onboarding length, programs and engagement level is different for someone hired alone versus someone who joins a leadership development position. For an employee joining a leadership development program, there is a buffer period of one month for virtual onboarding and, therefore, the process is more structured and planned.

On the other hand, for employees immediately joining the company, the onboarding process has been rather short and hiring managers try different strategies to welcome the employee and make them feel inclusive in the company.

But, for any successful virtual on-boarding experiences, the success is solely not dependent on the hiring manager but also on the new employees and their willingness to learn about the company values, culture, and in the process establishing relationships with the teammates. Other factors to keep in mind for any successful virtual onboarding have been the logistics and resources provided to the newly hired employees.

Another consideration while interviewing hiring managers for the research shows that before the companies can decide to plan a virtual onboarding process, the first task has been to decide who qualifies for “working from home” and who are essential employees. Some companies have done virtual on-boarding for everyone and then later brought in essential employees at the workplace by following all the health protocols.

By speaking with some of the hiring managers and newly employed employees and interns, some insightful points were flushed out for consideration while planning virtual onboarding program such as:

  • Relationship building is a key for an engaged new employee and employers should concentrate on taking measures to create effective communication tools to help build relationships while virtual on-boarding. One of the recently hired employees complained that he faced difficulty in building rapport with the other colleagues as the department manager was only able to arrange two happy hours in four months.
  • Another point to ponder is to acclimatize new employees and interns to the culture, processes and technology deployed at work. Also newly hired employees to fill in “IT Assets Form” to request for the address to send the equipment necessary for the job.
  • Hiring managers should ensure that the I-9 compliance are as per government regulations. As for the regular onboarding, physical verification was required. Some employers, with the guidance of the legal counsel, were able to virtually verify documentation with a third party along with a new hire on the video call. Whereas, now some HR ops come on site for physical verification as and when required.
  • The human resources department should work on adjusting the benefits including emergency leave and quarantine leaves during the virtual onboarding program while also ensuring employees do not overuse any benefits programs.

Challenges:

During the interviews, hiring managers and employees voiced a few transactional and learning challenges potentially during virtual onboarding such as:

  • Virtual onboarding lacks personal experience and non-verbal social cues and at times tone is difficult to judge when the mode of communication is electronic. It can cause difficulty in building relationships, especially when people choose to keep the cameras off. Sometimes managers choose to switch off cameras during the training which makes it difficult to get the mentor's personal attention.
  • It is challenging for newly hired employees to earn trust from the other team members.
  • Sometimes, it's hard to understand the values and , culture of the company virtually.
  • Technical difficulty can often happen on virtual onboarding, as sometimes, people do not have access to email systems, software and help might not be readily available. Therefore, the learning curve is elevated and is time consuming.
  • There are restrictions in terms of protocols with sending assets for employees outside of the United States. Each region might have different onboarding processes, which can be challenging.

I have a few recommendations to make on the basis of valuable feedback gotten by the participants which might help hiring managers for welcoming new employees in the future.

  • Communication: Managers should take the lead to make things comfortable for the newly hired. They should be open and accessible. The recommendation would be to have various ways to keep the communication going to show they are accessible and welcoming towards the newly hires. When new hires feel connected they are more motivated and productive in their new jobs. Touch points are important and productive to build the initial relationships. These can be weekly Zoom calls or other online meetings to informally meet the teammates, which can help break the ice, and organically learn about the culture and values of the organization.
  • Another recommendation would be to allow the relationships to build and grow organically. A lot of times new employees get to meet the teams through work meetings. Pairing new employees with colleagues from other departments is another way to get to know the teams and their work.
  • Slack channels can also be used for communication. Even if the hiring manager is busy, help can be sought from another colleague on the channel. Time is crucial for everyone in these unusual circumstances, so all shareholders should be involved to improve the communication experience of the new employees.
  • Culture: The recommendation for making new employees aware of the culture is practicing the values through actions. Value of doing is greater than preaching and the leadership has a great role to play here. New hires who have been given significant exposure to leaders through Zoom where they were able to learn a lot about the values of the organizations. Fireside chats from senior leadership to keep employees engaged by having open honest conversations have also helped new employees to understand the culture.
  • Another recommendation would be sending a “welcome package” via mail or email where stories can be shared of companies policies, mission, vision, culture and issues which the company is passionate about and details of online resources such as affinity group pages, where new hires can learn about the values of the organization.
  • The training and development team can also bring cultural awareness among the new employees by giving virtual training sessions on diversity and inclusion, safety, ethics and gender inequality at the workplace to reflect the values of the company.
  • To keep new employees fully engaged, give them the option of flex work, as working from home can cause employee burnout. By giving them some freedom to schedule their day would make their virtual onboarding less tiresome especially when co-workers are not around, and days can be monotonous while working from home without water cooler time.

Teams looking to onboard new employees and interns should make a list of essential things to ensure a smooth hiring process. A properly planned and structured orientation program saves a lot of time and facilitates smooth on-boarding experiences. Hiring managers can be given tips on how to involve employees remotely. The learning and development team can share LinkedIn courses which offer valuable techniques and tips on working from home.

Lastly, empathy is key! Without empathy, no technology, communication mode or any technical investment can work. Give new employees time and space to understand the procedures, projects and people with whom they will eventually work in the office space.

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