Making the Shift to Virtual Onboarding

by Amber Cruz, PHR, CEBS, SHRM-CP

Bulletin,  Hiring,  HR Expertise and Support,  Leadership,  Retention

Onboarding a new hire has long been viewed as one of the first steps an employer takes to retain and engage an employee. As HR professionals, we have worked hard on developing and fine-tuning the process to include the right amount of information, given in the right way, by the best people, at the appropriate time. It is important to note that for most employers, this process was all conducted in person. Then enter 2020. Now, for many employers who have continued to hire during the pandemic, the once well-oiled process of onboarding a new hire has presented new challenges given the virtual environment. Consider some of the best practices below to make sure your virtual onboarding process is just as successful.

Starting a new job can be scary, especially during a pandemic when the first day will be from the employee’s home office, by themselves. As with any new hire, don’t forget how important pre-hire communication is to help set the employee up for success. Send them a letter to let them know the first day schedule, whom they will be virtually meeting with, and provide any resources they need to have in place in advance of the start date. This includes the necessary equipment to perform their job, including laptops, additional monitors, webcams, printer, internet, etc. Thinking through how they will get the equipment is important as well. Will equipment be sent to the employee’s home, or will you arrange for a contactless pickup? Include basic instructions on setting up the equipment, including any virtual meeting platforms, so the employee feels comfortable starting day one. Then the IT department can manage any advanced setup required.

On the first day of employment, it is common for employees to interact with their teammates, fostering relationship building, and a sense of belonging immediately. Just because employees are not physically in the office does not mean this is a step that should be skipped. Set up a virtual meeting, just as you would an in-person meeting. Encourage employees to use their camera to jump-start the connection and reduce any feelings of isolation and/or anxiety the employee might have. Encourage employees to bring their favorite morning drink and breakfast, and make sure to incorporate opportunities to talk about personal interests and likes, not just work, to help make the environment as comfortable and inviting as possible.

Just as an onboarding or welcome mentor or buddy is important for in-person onboarding, they may become even more important in the virtual onboarding world. This individual (or individuals, sometimes it is helpful to assign more than one buddy to help provide different perspectives) will provide direct support by being the go-to-person for the new hire and guiding the employee through their first few weeks or even months on the job. Set up ongoing virtual meetings between the two and again encourage using cameras to help foster an even deeper connection. The mentor or buddy will typically be the resource a new employee depends on when there are questions regarding company norms, culture, or the job by providing answers, tips, and/or advice. You want a level of comfort created to help strengthen the connection. In picking the appropriate mentor or buddy, they can be a peer, someone of the same rank as the new employee, or an employee with more seniority. What is important is this individual needs to be able to demonstrate how to have a successful start at the company.

Considering virtual meetings might be a good portion of the employee’s first few days or weeks with the employer, new hires will need interaction, learning, and training that are not virtual. Just as you do for in-person onboarding, it is important to mix up the content delivery methods to ensure employees are retaining the information you need them to. Providing written materials for training, taking an interactive tour to learn the layout of the office building, and engaging in an employee scavenger hunt to start building relationships are just a few ways to make onboarding fun and interesting. Another consideration, when we are continually asking employees to use their webcams for meetings, never underestimate the power of the occasional good old fashioned conference call to deliver information. Besides, it takes the pressure off using the camera all the time.

Make sure to set up ongoing (possibly daily or weekly) check-in meetings with appropriate staff. Direct access to the manager will be critical for setting the employee up for success and should include discussions regarding job expectations, progress, and concerns. It would also be helpful to establish a practice of one-on-one meetings with different teammates to help foster engagement, connections, and an understanding of the company culture. These meetings may need to be more frequent in the beginning until the employees feel more comfortable with their new role and colleagues.

One of the biggest challenges with virtual onboarding is integrating a new hire into the company culture. Just because employees are not physically together in one space does not mean that company culture disappears. Part of the onboarding process is to make sure the employee feels integrated into the company, not only in understanding the business but also in terms of company culture. Ways to do this in a virtual environment include many of the items previously discussed. Additionally, invite the employee to social events such as virtual happy hours, yoga or mindfulness sessions, book clubs, and affinity groups even if they do not know everyone in attendance.

Make sure to evaluate your virtual onboarding program’s pace in terms of how much information you are providing and when. Key to any successful onboarding program, not overwhelming the new employee with information and training is essential to ensuring the employee retains the appropriate content. Consider slowing the rollout of training and information, as onboarding in a remote environment can be daunting. Also, during the COVID -19 pandemic, employees are possibly dealing with additional stressors, including children who are remote learning and spouses, partners, or roommates that are also working from home. Letting employees know you are aware of their current situation shows concern for employee’s welfare and can go a long way in creating a positive employee experience.

Finally, you do not want to forget the basics of your onboarding program. At the core of an onboarding program, you must ensure compliance, support job success, build context, and create connections. New employees will still need to complete new hire paperwork, learn about company history, including mission, vision, values, go through any required training, etc. As long as your virtual onboarding program delivers content in all these key areas, you can safely say you are on the right track.

Ultimately, the goal of virtual onboarding is the same as when conducting onboarding in person. You want to quickly engage the employee by welcoming them to your company. Hence, they feel included and connected, provide them with relevant information about the company and their job, and give them the training and tools to quickly start being a contributing member of the organization. Employers Council can help; give us a call.

About the author
Amber Cruz, PHR, CEBS, SHRM-CP

Amber has been an HR Consultant in the Integrated Human Capital Services department at Employers Council since 2007. She currently works and consults with member organizations in many facets of Human Resources including benefits administration, compensation administration, staffing, retaining and engaging employees, performance management, and workplace violence. She is also a frequent trainer and presenter in the areas of employee benefits, compensation administration, retaining and engaging employees, and addressing workplace violence. Prior to joining Employers Council, she worked in human resources in the for profit and not-for-profit sectors. Amber possesses a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology from the University of Northern Colorado, is certified as a Professional in Human Resources (PHR), a SHRM Certified Professional (SHRM-CP), and a Certified Employee Benefit Specialist (CEBS).