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Why Virtual Onboarding Beats Traditional Onboarding

May 17, 2021 Learning and Development
scott clark
By Scott Clark

The pandemic forced companies to reconsider how they onboard newly hired employees.

It wasn't just the new employees who were working remotely. So were their managers and new teammates. So was HR staff, tasked with coordinating the handoff from hiring to onboarding to productivity. IT staff had to ensure new employees had secure access to company systems and had the equipment needed to succeed. 

Everyone was affected when onboarding was upended. Now, after a year-plus of remote onboarding, many companies have actually found that virtual onboarding is more effective than traditional onboarding practices. Here are some of the ways virtual or video practices have improved the onboarding process.

The New Onboarding Process

Although at first it seemed like the pandemic would put hiring into a deep freeze, that wasn't the case even during the worst parts of the COVID-19 crisis. Hiring continued and even escalated for many industries, including healthcare, manufacturing, transportation, grocery stores, delivery services and technology companies. 

While many of those businesses required employees to be on location, others used a combination of remote workers and on-location employees. That meant many of the typical processes that normally occurred in the office were moved to a virtual environment to limit the exposure of employees to one another and control the spread of the virus. Traditional onboarding process in which new hires, sometimes in a cohort, sit in a room with other new hires watching presentations from various departments was replaced with video onboarding done from the new employee’s home office.

This new onboarding process had to be carefully considered. Companies had to balance welcoming new employees into the company — delivering the details they need to do their jobs, locate resources and feel like part of the team — with the safety considerations necessary for COVID times, all with little or no in-person interaction with other employees, managers, HR or leadership.

When LinkedIn moved to a remote workforce during the pandemic, Kelly Chuck on the company's learning and development team turned its onboarding process from a one-day in-person onboarding experience into a week-long virtual program. Throughout the week, new hires are presented with a check-in message from Chuck and watch live video presentations from other LinkedIn leaders. On Friday, the onboarding process ends with a virtual happy hour. In building the virtual program, Chuck focused on LinkedIn’s values and culture and what she felt was most important to new employees.

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

Video: The Present and Future of Onboarding

As many have come to realize, video is the future, and what’s more, it is already a huge part of our daily lives, said Alykhan Rehmatullah, vice president of content strategy at iCIMS, an HR and talent management software company.

It’s how we connect with the people in our personal lives, and it’s how companies must engage with talent, he said. Look no further than FaceTime, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and, of course, Zoom for proof. 

YouTube statistics released in February 2021 showed that consumers upload 300 hours of video to YouTube each minute, almost 5 billion videos are watched on YouTube every single day, and the site is visited by over 30 million people each day. TikTok, launched in 2017, saw users watch more than a million videos each day within the first year. That points to an opportunity for employers.

“Employers can mirror that authentic, convenient communication and collaboration experience for candidates and employees through various forms of video,” Rehmatullah said.

Employers now have the ability to actively engage with employees from the time they first make contact with the company, all the way through the onboarding process and thereafter. “We are already seeing the value of leveraging video throughout the entire talent process first hand and through our thousands of customers worldwide," he said. That includes using video to engage with a job candidate, as part of the onboarding process and for ongoing employee communications, Rehmatullah added.

The onboarding process has never been as important as it has been through the pandemic as newly hired employees felt anxious about their health, what was expected of them during a pandemic, and how they would interact with other employees while practicing social distancing and masking up.

“The companies that modernize their recruiting and onboarding programs and properly engage their new hires through video-first, mobile-led communication, collaboration and training tools will reap the benefits of having more productive employees who stay with the company for longer,” said Rehmatullah.

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

Virtual Onboarding Proving Its Effectiveness

Despite the prolonged remote work environment, employee training including onboarding has actually improved, said Farnaz Ronaghi, co-founder and CTO at NovoEd, an online learning platform. NovoEd's survey of 150 L&D professionals showed that more than half (54%) felt the quality of employee training had improved during the pandemic, and 79% said online training produced better outcomes than in-person learning. A new approach was born out of necessity but has led to opportunity.

“The sudden transition to remote work caused many organizations to rethink and redesign their onboarding experiences for new hires,” Ronaghi said. The result has been an approach to virtual onboarding that emphasizes the following practices:

  • Consistent, high quality experiences that are available to all new hires at scale, regardless of where they are working from.
  • Extended onboarding experiences that allow employees to practice and develop new skills while they are working.
  • Accessible learning that empowers employees to revisit and put new knowledge into action at the moment of need.
  • Multi-layered support through connections with peers, managers, mentors, experts and colleagues across the organization.

With hybrid and remote working likely to continue after the pandemic, it’s up to leaders to continue to improve the virtual onboarding process for all employees.

“Business and HR leaders must ensure their onboarding process is equally as effective regardless of where the new hire is based — whether in the office or at home — by designing learning experiences that combine synchronous, asynchronous and blended modalities," Ronaghi said.

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

Video Restores Non-Verbal Communication Cues to Onboarding

Along with virtual collaboration and communication tools that have become vital for remote workers, the use of video to enhance employee support and training has been a godsend to companies trying to retain newly hired employees. 

“As companies are increasingly hiring and onboarding new employees virtually, talent acquisition teams need to ensure candidate experience remains a top priority for talent retention and success,” said Ryan Healy, president and co-founder of Brazen, a provider of virtual hiring events and virtual career fairs. 

Though many traditional onboarding practices have been document- and presentation-based, video has enabled companies to provide engaging onboarding experiences for remote workers.

“Video has been one of the best tools for forging connections remotely, because it creates a more immersive and engaging experience than phone calls and emails alone, and offers more hands-on support and training that new hires need to succeed in a new remote role,” said Healy. “Additionally, activating multiple senses builds deeper bonds between co-workers resulting in stronger relationships and more effective teams.”

Effective communication depends on sometimes subtle cues that humans present to each other as part of the communication process. Everything from posture to body movements and tone of voice plays a role. It’s challenging to get these across in a Powerpoint presentation, email or PDF file, but video opens up new options, restoring many of the visual and non-verbal cues to remote onboarding that are lost through text and audio, Healy said.

"Eye contact, hand gestures and facial expressions are all supporting attributes to properly and effectively communicate a message," he said. "These visual cues are incredibly important to the learning process for a new hire who is onboarding to a new company and role, learning what their day-to-day tasks will entail and meeting lots of new people. Clear internal communication results in a better learning experience, and ultimately a more engaged and productive workforce."

Asynchronous Video Helps Boost Company Culture

Company culture, identity and values are all important for employees, especially new hires, and the last year has shown it’s challenging to communicate culture to remote employees. Zoom meetings only go so far, and by the end of the week, most remote employees have had enough meetings to last several weeks. That said, the use of video, when done properly, can be an effective tool for showcasing and sharing company culture. 

“Though many companies were forced to transform their onboarding programs to virtual experiences, many are seeing the benefits of onboarding through both asynchronous and synchronous video," Rehmatullah said. "And, with so many people experiencing video fatigue, asynchronous video provides a transformative talent experience by authentically showcasing the company’s culture and providing relevant training while combating stressors stemming from always-on communication."

Chip Houghton, senior director of talent management practices at Liberty Mutual Insurance, said the move towards a “new normal” for onboarding includes the use of video as an important step in connecting remote employees with the company's identity and values.  

“In a virtual setting, reading about a company’s culture can’t bring it to life the way a video can," he said. "Without the ability to come into the office, videos have become a tangible way for new employees to really feel our culture."

Liberty Mutual's virtual onboarding includes short video overviews of company identity and values and introduce the firm's diversity, equity and inclusion mission. "Having our leaders and employees talk about the way we live our values is, overall, much more powerful than reading a list on our website,” Houghton said. 

Video is also useful for showing employees how a company does business through real customer scenarios. “This process allows employees to see how they are contributing to the business and delivering peace of mind to our customers every day,” he said.

Video Allows Employees to Engage With Co-workers

In addition to helping employees learn at their own pace, video has enabled remote employees to engage with one another, managers and leaders no matter where they are located. This remains important long after the onboarding experience as remote employees remain isolated, and provides valuable lessons on how to allow remote workers to get to know one another virtually.

Carolyn Moore, senior vice president of people at Auth0, a global identity management company, said the pandemic dramatically changed the onboarding process at her company.

“Prior to the pandemic, Auth0 was flying all new employees to our Bellevue headquarters, regardless of where they lived across the globe," she said. "As a result of the health crisis, Auth0 made the pivot to make our onboarding fully virtual and self-paced. What was once 3-5 days in office at the headquarters, has been adapted to learning modules in the Auth0 specific learning management system.” 

While these changes allowed employees to learn the skills they needed to perform their jobs, there was still the problem of new employees who had far fewer opportunities to engage with one another. To address that challenge, Auth0 incorporated ways for new hires to connect with each other outside of self-paced learning.

“With employees going through their training asynchronously across the globe, Auth0 uses Slack cohort channels to play icebreakers, share findings, post announcements, ask questions and foster collaboration,” Moore said. 

The onboarding process has long been critical to employee engagement, as well as job satisfaction, productivity, team building, loyalty and retention. The pandemic dramatically shifted the way new employees were onboarded, but companies learned an important lesson: Virtual onboarding can be even more successful than traditional onboarding.

By removing some of the stress that comes with traditional onboarding, it allows new hires to go through the learning process at their own pace. Using video to introduce team members and company culture allows employees to remain focused and interested, and helps them feel like they are a valuable new part of a team.

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