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Employers must evolve onboarding process or face employee drift

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 09 Nov 2021

How do you effectively integrate new hires into your business when many employees are working virtually? “In the era of ‘The Great Resignation’, a little TLC to an onboarding process might not go amiss”.

Despite working longer hours, employees who work remotely report higher levels of happiness and productivity, analysis suggests. It also allows employers to hire from a broader and more geographically-diverse talent pool to fill skills gaps closer to home.

But how do you effectively integrate new hires into your business when everyone is working virtually? Effective onboarding plays a crucial role in employee retention but doing it well in a face-to-face environment is hard enough and onboarding in a remote environment presents a whole host of additional challenges.

Rebecca Siciliano, Managing Director of Tiger Recruitment, advises having a clear plan and a process that is designed for today's hybrid environment – not simply your old process delivered over Teams or Zoom. “For example, back-to-back video calls can feel like information overload. Spacing video meetings out and breaking them up with training sessions and social calls can prevent new starters from feeling inundated.” 

Even if your traditional onboarding was a multi-day experience, don’t ask new starters to join eight hours a day of virtual training and induction for several day, warns Hedda Bird, CEO of 3C Performance Management Specialists and author of The Performance Management Playbook: 15 must-have conversations to motivate and manage your peoples. “Two hours a day is the most I would recommend for intense remote learning of any kind,” Bird says.

Bird also stresses the need to factor in one-to-one time with their managers early on to help smooth the process. It is also important to allow time for self-directed learning. For example, reading or video resources that are not tested or monitored. Plan the first week carefully, Bird urges. “The aim is to build confidence in working virtually, even if they will eventually be able to work with colleagues in offices.” 

While there will be an urge to ease in new recruits gently, setting clear expectations and starting performance management early on – as soon as the beginning of week two - will help a new joiner to get off to a good start. “Make sure expectations of performance for the first three months or so are clear,” Bird says. “There is nothing more concerning than joining a new organisation and not having a clue whether you are delivering what is expected, to the right standard. During remote onboarding, a lot of people miss this step out, thinking they will catch up with expectations or goal setting later. Then the time drifts away and too easily the wrong work patterns set in.”

Remote onboarding can lead to very transactional relationships – ‘do this then message me and I will tell you what to do next’, Bird explains. “Very quickly it results in people being dis-empowered and not thinking for themselves. If you are doing purely remote onboarding, move on from basic knowledge transfer towards developing colleague engagement from the very beginning.” Try to establish a deliverable yet challenging stretch for them in the first few months and encourage them to share their expertise and experience to establish their wider contribution to the team.

A blended approach that combines virtual and face-to-face sessions could make the best use of the time and resources you have available. Basic knowledge transfer such as how to use key software tools, how to request annual leave and learning about the organisation structure may actually be better and more efficiently delivered remotely. The ability to screen share, talk someone through a process and record the session so that they can refer back to it works particularly well for IT systems training, Siciliano says.

One of the biggest challenges with remote onboarding has been ensuring that people feel immersed in the company culture, Siciliano warns. “That means encouraging the social interaction you’d normally experience in the office, not just getting people up to speed in their role and training them on the company systems.”

If people are working fully remotely, consider assigning them an online buddy and allowing time for virtual coffee with colleagues. Or if they’re in the office a few days a week, arranging a team lunch on one of those days is a good idea to help build connections. 

“Once new joiners can actually come together, whether as a group of just joiners or with their teams, then the time can be much better focused on sharing stories about the organisations’ values and purpose, getting to know colleagues, learning about the culture and ‘how things are done around here’,” Bird adds.

Sending a starter pack ahead of time can also help the new employee feel included and welcomed. It could include an agenda for the first month, a copy of your staff handbook, details of your HR policies, a personal welcome letter from the CEO or MD – even branded merchandise.

Chris Goulding, Managing Director at specialist HR, finance and accountancy recruitment firm Wade Macdonald, believes organisations should treat virtual onboarding as they would business development or a marketing campaign. “Introductions with key players, catch-up meetings, and feedback all need to be accounted for,” Goulding says. 

“Leaders need to ensure onboarding evolves through feedback and evaluation, ensure time is given to the process, and that employees know it is okay to ask questions,” Goulding adds. A one-size-fits-all process won’t always work, but it will always be better to do more than less. “In the era of ‘The Great Resignation’, a little TLC to an onboarding process won’t go amiss.”

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