Woman waves to her laptop screen, likely on a video conference call.

Beyond the Zoom Wave: How to Virtually Onboard New Employees and Create Belonging

December 14, 2020 Employee Experience
By Dom Nicastro

For employee experience champions, 2020 is the Great Experiment. Or shall we say experiments? Engaging employees during a pandemic that has forced employees to work at a distance is pushing employers to try new tactics and approaches.

You try things. You adapt when they don’t work.

That was the case for Paige Erickson, people operations manager at fintech company Branch. Her company originally replaced regular in-office happy hours and coffee breaks with video calls inviting the whole company. “We tried it,” she said. “It didn’t work.”

Instead, her company shifted to a model of virtual employee gatherings and activities tied to specific milestones.

“It was much more helpful and engaging,” Erickson said. “For example, we had several soon-to-be parents in various departments and decided to throw a joint baby shower with their teams. Keeping it under an hour, we also made sure to have an activity that could be interactive and involve all participants. We went with guess-whose-baby photos. It was a fun way to catch up with everyone and get to know a different side of employees, regardless of how long they've been at the company.”

Employee experience champions are no doubt the wizards of the 2020 workplace: trying different engagement potions and seeing what sticks. Employee experience matters for all employees, but how do you engage and establish a sense of belonging for the new ones — in a 100% remote working environment during a pandemic?

Numbers Validate the Belonging Challenge

Many factors can contribute negatively to the new employee’s sense of belonging, according to a report released this fall by communication platform Slack. Experienced remote employees tend to report higher levels of satisfaction and productivity than their less-experienced colleagues, according to findings from the report

Slack’s Remote Employee Experience Index (REEI) looked at what it deems five key elements of the remote work experience: productivity, work-life balance, stress and anxiety, sense of belonging, and satisfaction with one’s working environment.

“Workers’ sense of belonging appears to be worse when working from home,” researchers wrote. “This is the one area where most knowledge workers are less satisfied with remote work. By investing in strategies and technology that deepen employee connections, organizations can help improve the remote work experience.”

Related Article: How 'Wellness Wednesdays' and Hobbies Increase Work-Life Balance

Take the Onboarding Process Seriously

So how do you improve that sense of belonging for a new employee in the current workplace environment? Rather than a new office environment, Day 1 likely takes place in a kitchen at home far from new teammates. It’s going to take a little more than everyone introducing themselves on Zoom, explaining what they do and then the grand finale: the now-famous group Zoom wave at the new employee.

Todd Moran, chief learning strategist for learning management system provider NovoEd, said onboarding programs have taken on enhanced importance in the new remote work environment. Without the office setting to foster connections in person, there are fewer ways for people to experience the organization’s culture, which is often a guiding force for behaviors, communication and performance, he added.

“Now, onboarding is seen as perhaps the most critical part of the employee’s journey,” he said. “Organizations have the power to shape their future employees and leaders, so they must take onboarding much more seriously. Incorporating culture explicitly into onboarding processes, practicing those cultural elements and ensuring that new employees are forming the relationships that they will need to prosper with fellow employees are all critical to employee and organizational success.”

Ensure Hiring Practices Are Effective

The mission to create a sense of belonging can start even before an employee is hired.

Kathleen Vegh, director of employee experience at content services platform Hyland, said the best place to start with improving a sense of belonging for new, remote employees is to ensure hiring practices are effective.

Hiring managers, she said, need to take time to evaluate if different competencies, skills and behaviors are needed from a potential candidate to be successful in a distributed and remote fashion. A few skills to look out for in new, remote employees include communication skills, the ability to be self-directed and motivation to get the job done, she added.

Related Article: Digital Hiring May Become the Rule Instead of the Exception

Building Excitement and Connections

A new employee’s first days lay the foundation of what is to come. Some may start to wonder if they made the right decision to join the new company.

Onboarding programs should instill excitement around joining the company and foster a connection to the company’s purpose and values but also to other employees, Vegh said. She suggested assigning a mentor on the first day, introducing the new employee to other new hires and perhaps sending company-branded gifts, such as T-shirts and cups, to their homes.

“From there, the handoff to departments is essential to success,” Vegh said. “Many times employees will have a positive onboarding experience, then they twiddle their thumbs for a couple of days when at their desk. In an office environment, they naturally meet people and get acquainted with the physical space.”

Nani Vishwanath, people team manager at employee experience software provider Limeade, agreed that HR teams and leaders might want to add some personal, caring touches to the onboarding cycle.

“Sending a welcome package with company swag or setting a new employee up with a coach who checks in on them will signal that you care about them and their experience,” she said. “Managers can also be intentional about setting aside some regular check-ins with their new employee to make sure they’re available to answer questions and make them feel more comfortable.”

Addressing Downtime

Anticipate downtime around the first few days. Leaders should schedule a meet-and-greet for their new hire to ensure energy and momentum aren't lost after onboarding, Vegh said, and to capitalize on starting the process of building relationships and connections for their new hire.

“Following traditional onboarding and continuous engagement in many forms is essential,” Vegh said. “At the team level, all meet-and-greets happen at an inter- and intra-department level. New hires benefit from meeting employees on their teams as well as meeting employees from other teams. New employees need to be invited to applicable group meetings to learn not only the work but the culture of the workplace.”

Managers Make the Human Connection

Managers play an integral role in creating a sense of belonging for their team members, according to Vishwanath. Managers should spend time getting to know their new employees holistically, not just who they are at work, so they can really connect on a human level.

“Making time in team meetings for personal highs/lows or sharing family holiday traditions might be a way to get to know your people,” she said. “If managers can make it happen, it is also important to carve out some time for team bonding even in a virtual environment. Many companies have begun offering virtual team building opportunities — from paint nights to cooking classes to virtual games — and this kind of low-stress environment might make a new team member feel included and like part of the team.”

Related Article: Digital Employee Experiences Are Falling Short in These Key Areas

Provide Resources and Support Systems

Providing resources and support dedicated to helping new employees feel like they belong can also foster inclusion. For example, employee resource groups can be a great asset for new employees who may be seeking personal connection, according to Vishwanath.

At Limeade, her teams use the company’s own software product for fun “Weekend Challenges” where employees across the company can share highlights according to a specified theme, such as “favorite holiday foods” or “something that you’re grateful for.”

“When a company elevates this personal, caring side of their structure, employees may find a greater sense of connection,” she said.

Further, authenticity and vulnerability can always be meaningful to employees, new or seasoned alike. If a manager and company leader share the struggles of this year and the challenges of a remote environment, then an employee may feel “allowed” to be more open and transparent.

Keep Communications Flowing Beyond the First Week

New hire communication campaigns should also take priority, Vegh added. At Hyland, they send out emails from HR on a scheduled cadence to new hires their entire first year.

“The emails share all sorts of employee experience items so that our company can hit them when the time is right and have a lasting way to continue to introduce them to elements of our culture and ways they can get engaged,” she said.

"The first days for new hires are whirlwind and re-introducing offerings throughout the year creates higher engagement.”

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