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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.

Onboarding Challenging During COVID-19

Frustrated young woman working at home. She is holding her glasses and is leaning her head on her hand.

According to a recent survey, 59% of U.S. employees want to continue working from home as much as possible once business and school closures are lifted. Fifty-nine percent is an understandable number. Remote work is often described as an attractive way to work in many respects, including flexibility of time and location, self-paced schedule and even more productivity.

Will the first-ever generation experiencing both virtual commencement and virtual new hire onboarding, enjoy all aforementioned benefits the same as previous new campus hires?

To briefly glance over this issue, I interviewed 12 master’s degree graduate students at Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School. They worked as summer interns at various companies. The survey was preceded by email and telephone contacts. Multiple responses were permitted for each question (e.g., a student could answer with ‘no commute’ and ‘less distracted work environment’ to a question such as ‘what is the benefit of remote work?’)

Firstly, it turns out that the remote environment harms and delays new hires’ early learning process. One possible reason for this is that ways of communicating and sharing information have been limited almost exclusively to video conference and email since the pandemic began. As a result, too much information might be concentrated on those two means. Supervisors, mentors and HR people who are already impacted by a great number of emails and calendar reminders might not give higher priority to reply to ‘the rookie’. One student said:

“(One of the difficulties of remote work is) ‘out of sight, out of mind’ with managers and project sponsors.”

Also, asking a question itself may feel like a hassle. One student said she hesitated to ask a question through a virtual meeting or an email because those means seem more ‘demanding’ of the other person than an in-person interaction.

“Not being able to ask a quick question (always have to set up a meeting or send an email).”

Virtual communication not only affects the frequency of interaction between new hires and current employees, but also lowers the quality of the feedback. For example, explaining an Excel macro function via email would be a painful, time-consuming task for mentors and mentees alike. New hires may not be asking these skill-based questions for fear of tiring out their supervisors. One student said:

“It can be hard to ask quick questions that might not be large enough to warrant an email.”

New hires will be able to learn more efficiently once in-office work returns, but the impacts of disrupted learning may be lasting, and the detriments will continue to mount until office reopenings.

Secondly, some career opportunities are most valuable when they happen off-line. For instance, new employees usually have a chance to meet other new employees at an orientation session or social events. About ‘missing’ opportunities, survey responses included:

“(I think I miss) the chance to get to know other interns from different backgrounds and in different roles.”

“(One of the difficulties of remote work is) not having a sense of connection with my peers including other interns and the rest of the HR team.”

Anyone who has developed their peer relationships during the first few weeks as a campus hire will know how powerful and important that new hire onboarding and orientation period can be. This might feel small at first, but losing out on this experience is an invisible burden that sets back the new hires’ careers significantly over time.

Thirdly, although most of respondents stated that they’re satisfied with remote work overall, most of the benefits they mentioned are in an individual domain, not in an organizational domain. Respondents think that the benefits they receive are: flexibility (time & location, self-paced schedule, being able to do personal errands; 44%), more close networking opportunities with those higher position (22%), Less distracted work environment (15%), no commute (15%), a chance to develop presentation skill (4%).

About 60% of benefits perceived by new hires are associated with personal convenience. Of course, increased personal convenience can lead to higher productivity to some extent. However, a question HR should ask is “Is it significantly more productive than on-site work?”, not “Is remote work as productive as on-site work?”. In light of this, both HR and employees currently working remotely should not be too much flushed by those ‘convenience’ because generally, personal convenience hardly links to meaningful organizational growth. This may be a reason why remote work has not been a welcome option to corporations in the workforce management history. The more attractive that remote work appears, the more its advantages may be overestimated, and in turn, real problems can be overlooked.

Additionally, we don’t have enough information on this issue to actually do something. As a result of COVID-19, this sort of ‘remote’ onboarding has ‘happened’ for the first time for many companies in a flash. We don’t have enough case studies about how the ‘new’ form of transition will impact on new hires’ future growth. The impact of employee training generally demonstrates itself over time, so the negative impact of remote onboarding could be rather elusive and long-lasting. It is likely that not many HR will take this issue into serious consideration.

But, according to the survey, there are already some signs that new hires feel the harmful effects of this unprecedented remote learning, even without fully knowing the magnitude of this shift. As students said:

“I think my biggest concern will be how a lack of motivation or willingness to conform to a traditional office setting after being left in an unstructured at-home environment.”

“I will be worried that my personality will not be the same. I tend to be much shyer in person than over the virtual videos. I am actually extremely worried about this.”

It looks like new hires are getting used to remote work even before they learn how to work and interact in the offline office, and they feel anxiety of the forthcoming “one more round of adapting” to another new environment post-reopening. This anxiety is vague. It is unclear to the new hires as to who can hear their worries and who can best support them. What’s clear is that senior leadership should consider these possible issues for their organizations.

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