Virtual onboarding: Top tips for engaging new employees

To be effective, remote onboarding must consider both the cultural and technical aspects of work.

The current pandemic has taught us that geography is no longer an obstacle when hiring staff, and employers are now more open than ever to virtually onboarding new staff on a permanent basis.

For several months now, virtual technology has replaced face-to-face communication in many essential processes, including initiating new hires into an organisation.

Jen Jackson, CEO of employee experience company Everyday Massive, says that, to be effective, remote onboarding must consider both the cultural and technical aspects of work.

“Starting a new job can be incredibly daunting, especially as a remote team member,” she says. “Onboarding should not only provide people with the technical information needed to get up to speed quickly, but it should also build the connections needed to set them up for the length of their career.”

It is not enough to send a new employee an email with policy and legal documents, and the number for the IT department. Jackson says that effective onboarding starts from the moment a candidate accepts a job and continues throughout their first year.

“A fortnight – even a month – isn’t nearly enough time to grasp the complexities of a new company [and] understand individual roles and how they fit into the bigger picture. By neglecting ongoing interactions, people are left feeling confused and lost, discouraged and disconnected, none of which is good for performance, culture or  the employer brand.”

Jackson believes that we have reached a point where the line between online and offline is becoming increasingly obsolete. “Regardless of whether onboarding is conducted in person or remotely, we need to begin by asking: ‘What are we trying to achieve, and what is the best way to achieve it?’,” she says.

The human element is critical in a remote environment. Most mistakes in the onboarding process derive from focusing too much on the technology and content and not enough on people, says Jackson, who believes the best onboarding programs actively consider a person’s emotions and expectations at each step of the process, and deliver content at appropriate times in an easily understandable, memorable and engaging way.

“For example, the weeks leading up to starting a new job are an opportunity to amplify excitement, mitigate anxiety and uncertainty, and manage expectations,” she says. “What do people need to know before their first day at work to ensure it goes smoothly? Mapping the experience in detail reveals small friction points that can have a significant emotional impact.”

At the same time, automating steps of the process can allow more time for meaningful interactions. “Many platforms allow tasks to be automated, ensuring a consistent experience without placing pressure on particular people or functions,” says Jackson.

“Automation could involve triggering reminders for busy managers to have important face-to-face conversations at regular intervals. It could be a welcome video from a manager sent the week before starting work. These are small moments that make a big difference.”

Case study: PWC Australia's lessons learned about remote onboarding

Remote work has long been part of the culture at PwC Australia, where 86 per cent of staff worked flexibly even before the COVID-19 pandemic. “Managing people in a virtual space requires you to think a bit differently,” says Dorothy Hisgrove, PwC Australia’s chief people officer. “The engagement is very different. It’s more challenging.”

The shift to remote onboarding – one of the more complex transitions demanded by lockdown restrictions – required an agile and adaptable approach. “After our first couple of virtual onboarding experiences, we sent a survey to our new hires to ask them for their feedback on what worked and what didn’t,” Hisgrove says.

“They told us very quickly that it was an enjoyable experience for the most part, but they were very fatigued by the on-screen interaction and by the levels of concentration required.”

PwC Australia found that the new phenomenon of “virtual hangout burnout” was acutely felt by new starters, who were trying to absorb new policies, values and behaviours as well as the demands of a new role.

In response, onboarding sessions, which were initially run over seven hours, were cut to half a day to allow recruits to go offline to process information in their own time.

Breakout rooms featuring digital whiteboard technology were used to break up large video meetings and help maintain concentration among participants.

Hisgrove’s team also invited some of the firm’s best storytellers to join virtual onboarding sessions to share their experiences of culture through story. “Many of our partners…started off as graduates and worked their way to the top,” she says.

“They’re in a really great position to be able to share wonderful stories and anecdotes that can personalise values and behaviours at a time when you’re relying on virtual technology to be the channel of communication.”

Tips for remote onboarding

  1. Weaving in cultural elements – an organisation’s vision, mission, values, norms, behaviours and rituals – into the early stages of remote onboarding helps create strong teams and encourages people to work together towards a common purpose.
  2. A streamlined end-to-end experience requires collaboration between various functions within an organisation, including people and culture, safety, finance and legal, as well as external vendors. Every touchpoint should feel like part of the same experience, rather than haphazard communication from different sources.
  3. Onboarding shouldn’t end after the first week. Regular and ongoing cultural touchpoints are essential to building and reinforcing culture, especially for people working remotely.

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