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The Risk of Virtual Onboarding

September 15, 2022 Talent Management
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By Sarah Fister Gale

Attrition rates are on the rise, and remote work isn’t helping. While employees today expect the opportunity to work from home — at least some of the time — taking a job that is totally remote can make it difficult for new hires to engage with the company and feel part of the team.

The fact that many may never meet their co-workers face-to-face limits their ability to build relationships, find informal mentors and figure out their place in the social hierarchy of the organization. That can leave them feeling like outsiders, which makes it easier to quit if a new offer comes along.

“We moved to a digital world before a lot of best practices were set up,” said Leena Iyar, chief brand officer of Moxo, a client interaction platform. “That left people feeling disconnected, especially when they are onboarding alone.”

In an era where employers are fighting to attract and retain new hires, this lack of engagement is an unacceptable risk. But it can be reversed by reimagining onboarding for a virtual setting.

Related Article: Return of the Boomerang Employee

What We’ve Learned About Remote Onboarding

For many HR leaders, remote onboarding has been a process of trial and error, as they supported managers who needed to connect with new hires without overwhelming them with hours of Zoom meetings. More than two years into this remote onboarding process, many now have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t.

“We found success by taking the time to actually learn about every individual, then finding ways to incorporate that into team building experiences,” said Jagdish Chugani, head of the people function at Appfire, a fully remote global software development company. Appfire has always been remote, and Chugani's team has expertly navigated the evolution of the onboarding process to successfully accommodate new employees, as well as new teams that have since been added through acquisitions.

That process, he said, begins weeks before their first day. Once an employee accepts an offer, Chugani sends them all of the new-hire paperwork to complete online before they start and ships the laptop and other IT equipment along with a company swag bag to get them excited about the job.

They also receive a welcome document with 10 questions to answer. “This gives them a chance to share a bit about themselves, their family and their favorite things,” Chugani said.

On the day the employee starts, he puts the responses on the company’s intranet page along with a welcome notice and shares it via the company’s Slack announcement channel. “It’s an organization-wide welcome,” he said. “That’s when a little bit of magic happens.”

The announcement triggers a slew of welcome messages from team members all over the world. Many messages reference the new hire’s Q&A responses, sparking conversations about hobbies, favorite foods and cities they’ve lived in.

“Employees bring a lot of excitement and a lot of anxiety to their first day. We want to channel that excitement so it ends with them feeling so glad that they are here,” said Chugani, who has more than two decades of experience in HR.

The company also hosts personal Slack channels with themes like healthy living, sports and food to keep those conversations going, and managers regularly sponsor team meals and fireside Fridays with topics to encourage conversations. This kind of intentional camaraderie is essential to building connections when everyone is remote. It creates space for people to find commonalities and share their passions.

“It is how relationships get triggered,” the HR veteran said.

Related Article: Onboarding as a Framework for Change Management

Get to Work

Along with building connections, remote hires also need early and clear guidance about the job, including what not to do, said Michael Dadashi, CEO of Infinite Recovery, a Texas-based drug recovery center. “Because of the rising costs of data breaches in distributed environments, it is imperative that remote workers are well-versed in the best security practices for business tools and platforms, such as the use of strong account credentials,” he said.

He advises creating a simple reference document outlining the proper procedures for using company tools in a secure environment and how to adhere to all safety measures. Then sharing that with every new hire. “For remote workers, this is a crucial part of the virtual onboarding process,” Dadashi said.

These safety measures can also be reviewed in new hire training courses, which ideally will take place before they start or, at the latest, over the first few days on the job.

Gerrid Smith, CMO at Joy Organics and Fortis Medical Billing, suggests using Google Slides to create onboarding training presentations, videos and tutorials about the job and what’s expected of them. “Let them know when and where this training will take place, and if they'll be required to appear on camera,” Smith said. This way they are prepared for what to expect before the first day begins.

Related Article: Why Virtual Onboarding Beats Traditional Onboarding

Lack of Preparation Is the Biggest Pitfall

Failing to prepare for a new hire’s arrival is one of the biggest mistakes companies make with virtual onboarding — or onboarding of any kind, for that matter. Providing employees with technology, guidance and a welcoming environment before they start work ensures they are set up to thrive from day one.

It also sends the message that you are excited to have them on your team, said Josh Pelletier, CMO at BarBend a sports and fitness content provider. “When new hires are enthusiastic to get started, they need to be able to get their hands on all of the materials to do the job,” Pelletier said. “If you don't have what they need, it can be discouraging and you risk losing them.”

While these now-tested best practices offer a foundation for virtual onboarding, a truly effective process should be customized to the company culture, the task at hand and the team. “It will take some trial and error to get it right,” Appfire's Chugani said.

But HR leaders who haven't found their footing just yet shouldn't despair. Chugani encourages them to talk to people they’ve hired after 30, 60 and 90 days to get their feedback on what worked and what would have made the onboarding process better.

“Building a sense of belonging is not easy when everyone is online, but you can evolve it by creating a continuous feedback mechanism,” he said. “Getting feedback from recent hires allows internal teams to make changes that align with what your employees are expecting.”

That’s how you create a virtual onboarding program that will work for your team.

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