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How to Reimagine Onboarding for Remote and Hybrid Workers

August 23, 2021 Employee Experience
scott clark
By Scott Clark

The hybrid workplace may be here to stay, but the onboarding processes you used when workers were in the office won't cut it anymore. Companies will need new strategies and techniques to improve the onboarding process for remote and hybrid workers.

Think there's no need to create onboarding initiatives specifically for hybrid workers, especially now that half the adult population in the United States have been vaccinated, and lockdowns have ended?  First, consider the coronavirus itself. The newer Delta and Lambda variants of the virus have created the potential for a whole new set of lockdowns and crises. According to Michael Osterholm, head of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, his team's analysis indicates that almost every unvaccinated American who hasn't yet had COVID-19 is likely to get it in the coming months. COVID-19 is likely to be with us for years to come, if not forever.

Add to that the hybrid and mobile workplace of today, which is not likely to go away either. Jolene Cramer, senior director of marketing at Limeade, an employee experience technology company, said some employees feel a strong resistance to going back to the way things were before the pandemic. Employees don't want to lose the advantages of the remote workplace, such as the lack of long commutes, office politics and mandatory work attire.

"Employees are not eager to go back to the old way of work, so much so that they are willing to walk away rather than put up with the standard 9-5 'butts in seats' kind of mentality," said Cramer. According to a recent Gallup report, only 39% of employees would prefer to return to the office, and 44% of remote workers would prefer to continue to work remotely if given the opportunity.

Additionally, many employees are worried about contracting COVID-19, having to wear a mask again for long periods of time, and other health concerns. A poll Limeade conducted with nearly 4,500 employees in France, Germany, the UK, Australia and the U.S., revealed that there was not a single person that did not have anxiety about returning to the office.

Leni Rivera, founder of WorkplaceXperience Consulting and author of the book "Workplace Experience," said the hybrid model of work has transitioned from being a trend to being an expectation. In a recent survey from Prudential, 68% of employees said that the hybrid work model is ideal, and 42% of employees said they will leave their current employer if it doesn’t offer long term remote work options.

“It’s not difficult to predict that the companies that embrace this new norm will be the ones leading the race to retain and attract top talent,” said Rivera. “Conversations in a hybrid work environment have shifted from where someone works, to how they work. Likewise, building a sense of belonging, connection and community in this new environment requires that we embrace the virtual world as part of the workplace culture.”

Reimagine Onboarding With Technology

Having a structured onboarding process is especially important when dealing with remote employees, said Patrick Sheridan, co-founder and managing partner at Modus Create, a digital transformation consulting company. Aside from the interview process itself, it’s often a new employee’s first impression of their new employer.

“Our process is entirely virtual,” he said. “All of our onboarding materials are run out of Confluence, an Atlassian product, so that everything is reference-able and there's documentation in the public sphere that anyone can look at afterward.”

Onboarding is not always strictly business, either. Often, the element of fun can help new employees feel at home and begin to build a sense of camaraderie with other employees. Thankfully, technology can help the process.

“Slack is key to providing synchronous communication as well as providing a welcoming community to new hires through ‘fun’ channels, like arts, culture, food and more,” Sheridan said. “This gives new employees the opportunity to engage with team members outside of their client work, much like they would in an in-person office setting where lunches, break rooms and general office camaraderie occur.”

Related Article: How to Build a Virtual Onboarding Program for Remote Workers

Make the Remote Onboarding Experience Unique

Dr. Melodie Bond-Hillman, director, HR and administration at XYPRO Technology Corp., a cybersecurity solutions company, said that in an era when more and more employees are being onboarded remotely, it's important not to simply replicate the onboarding process for the remote and hybrid workplace, but rather to make the remote experience unique and successful in a way that supports the remote environment.

“We invite and involve the new hire in virtual social activities such as our coffee chats, virtual happy hours, virtual meditation and yoga trivia, company events immediately to get them comfortable with the rest of the team," she said. "We use tools that help enable communication in remote settings such as Slack Signal, and Microsoft Teams. We automate any steps in the onboarding process that can be automated."

For remote workers, onboarding should have a larger focus on making them feel like they are part of the company, its values, and its culture, and that can be challenging when they cannot be face-to-face with coworkers and leaders. Bond-Hillman's company sets up a virtual welcome lunch and sends the remote employee lunch on that first day, alongside a welcome box with company swag to help them feel welcome.

“The new hire will have scheduled training to do and generally has a very good picture of what their first week will be like," she said. "The most important thing I have learned is to do what you promise the employees so there is trust from the moment you first start your working relationship with them. It makes a good impression and that really sets the tone for their experience.”

Related Article: Does Your Company Need Onboarding to Return to the Office?

Focus on Upward Career Growth

The onboarding process, and ongoing learning initiatives, must be revamped specifically for remote and hybrid workers. From employees’ own perspectives, career advancement has taken a hit because of the pandemic, with the result being lost promotions and a stalled career. BambooHR released a study in June 2021 that indicated 78% of remote workers feel their career development has been negatively affected over the past year, 30% expected promotions that never happened, and the average American remote worker estimated that they lost out on $9,823 in salary due to lack of promotion.

Among the reasons employees leave, one of the main ones is they don’t feel like they are a part of a larger mission, Sheridan said. It’s just another job to pay the bills. For remote workers, the problem is compounded because they often feel isolated and left out. His company gives every employee the opportunity to join specialized groups, called communities of experts, to give them exposure to a deeper level of professional expertise.

“This gives the employees a path for career growth and mentorship in a discipline they’re interested in, as well as easing into the company," he said. "It’s easy for professional development and career guidance to fall by the wayside when everyone is busy with day-to-day work, especially for remote employees, which is why it’s so important for companies to be deliberate in their efforts to provide this support."

The communities also present opportunities for retraining and building new skills from team members, both new and old, he added. Learning, collaboration, and contributions to outside projects also provide them with a path to growth, self-satisfaction and skill enhancement. Sheridan said employees at his company are encouraged to contribute to open source software products which solve real issues, help improve current frameworks, and keep the open source ecosystem going.

“This gives employees the opportunity to contribute to something outside of their work and be a part of something bigger,” he said.

Related Article: Remote Onboarding Challenges and Best Practices from the New Guy

Onboarding Should Be an Ongoing Process

According to a recent survey by getAbstract, 58% of millennials and 52% of Gen Z said that career success depends on frequently updating their skills and knowledge. Of those polled, 93% said it was at least somewhat important that employers provided continuous learning resources, while younger generations were more likely to say that it was extremely or very important. Onboarding is not a process that starts Day One and ends at the end of the week. Yet this is how some companies think of it.

Sheridan reiterated that the onboarding process is not over after the initial onboarding. That's simply one aspect of the overall employee experience. Onboarding support is a continual process that changes as employees themselves evolve and grow. His company groups employees into cohorts, what Modus calls "tribes," to help this process.

“The tribes receive semi-monthly practice opportunities and check-ins as well as daily support through Slack communities and channels,” said Sheridan.

The onboarding process is iterative, and it should evolve rather than end. It’s vital, especially for hybrid workers, to understand that continued learning is part of their job responsibilities, and that it leads to advancement opportunities within the company. 

“Following onboarding, it’s important that the support doesn’t stop. We have a number of different employee engagement programs, including internal training, career development offerings and virtual social events,” said Sheridan. “Through feedback surveys, we keep a pulse of employee satisfaction and needs.”

Give Hybrid Employees the Right Technology

Scott Rivers, president and managing partner at Cerca Talent, an executive search firm, said it's important to provide new employees with the right technology, especially for remote workers.

"Your people have to feel like they have full access to the office in order to make remote work actually work," he said. "Your technology is the tool that allows those employees to have a constant connection to the office in order to make them productive, but also in order to make them feel connected to the greater group and company." 

Luckily, companies today have many different tools and technologies available to facilitate effective communication, collaboration and project management for remote workers."From Microsoft to Google to Zoom and hundreds of other tools, your ability to have hybrid workers or remote workers feel productive and connected has never been easier," said Rivers.

Often, especially with remote workers, they may find themselves unable to perform a task or complete required training due to not having the appropriate technology, software or hardware. Traditionally, onboarding activities involved conversations on corporate culture, policies, training opportunities, events, and other employee experiences, said WorkplaceXperience’s Rivera. Today, the focus is also on how these are accessed and enjoyed from anywhere. That means providing hybrid and remote employees more than a new laptop and access to the company VPN.

“In a work environment enabling employees to be productive from anywhere, arming new hires with a laptop, tumbler, and backpack just won’t cut it anymore," Rivera said. "They need to be equally enabled to be productive working from home, and this may call for an ergonomic assessment of their home office, and concessions for a proper desk, work chair and lighting.”

Artificial Intelligence and Robotic Process Automation Can Help

Harel Tayeb, CEO at Kryon Systems, an AI-based robotic process automation provider, said AI and robotics can streamline the onboarding process. Because the process of getting a new employee ready to begin work is so disjointed with many different departments involved, it’s rare for new employees to have everything they need right from the start. That’s where RPA can be used to improve the onboarding experience, especially for remote or hybrid employees.

“Here is a typical onboarding situation,” Tayeb said. “Once a candidate has accepted a job offer, a new user account and email address has to be set up. Access rights for applications and mailing lists have to be requested, and all the necessary IT equipment needs to be ordered. All this has to happen in accordance with the candidate's profile and preferences and the company rules. To further complicate matters, there are often many parties and systems involved in this process. Therefore, a 100% well-equipped employee on day one is still considered an exception rather than a standard.”

Using RPA, companies can automatically trigger a predefined onboarding workflow once the user account is created. “Business rules assigned to the user profile guide robots to make decisions, such as which permissions to grant. Robots can even send out predefined onboarding documents to the new employee as a final step in the process,” said Tayeb. 

The hybrid workplace is here to stay, and companies need to reimagine the onboarding process for remote employees for whom an effective and efficient onboarding process is especially vital. They need the proper equipment and technology in order to get the job done and effectively learn from the onboarding process. But it's also important to view onboarding as an ongoing process and incorporate career growth and ongoing training.

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