The Challenge of Virtual Onboarding

Challenges and Strategies of Managing a Remote Workforce

For many, working remotely will outlast the current crisis. I asked a group of colleagues for feedback, challenges, strategies and thoughts.
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Even in ideal circumstances, onboarding can be a challenge.

For most of us, the last year and a half has been far from ideal; the same is true for many onboarding processes. While companies have hired during the pandemic, new employees have faced the tremendous challenge of joining a new company at a distance.

The stakes are high but achievable. Onboarding has gone virtual and executing a great virtual onboarding experience just takes a little preparation.

Onboarding is Critical to Company Success

Onboarding does more than get your new employee up to speed. It introduces them to—and ideally immerses them within—your company culture. In addition to learning what their new role requires, they are also learning how they fit within the company and its community. 

This is the most important aspect of onboarding: ensuring that your new employee can understand your company culture and feel they fit within it. 

In order for new employees to determine where they stand within the company culture, they need to witness it in action. They need to see how employees interact with each other and how they are treated by their new coworkers. 

Why? These relationships are what creates a sense of belonging, engagement, and, ultimately, loyalty.

Statistics show that an employee will decide within the first three to six months of employment if they’re going to stay in that position. The most frequently cited reason for new employees choosing an early termination to their own employment is the absence of a relationship with their direct supervisor. The second most frequently cited reason is the absence of relationships with one or more coworkers. 

COVID-19 has made both of those critical relationships far more difficult to cultivate. So what does onboarding look like now and how can the virtual onboarding process be made stronger?

Onboarding Impacts of COVID-19 

Many companies are moving out of exclusive remote work and back toward the office; some are maintaining a combination of remote and on site work arrangements. As such, some companies can expect to require virtual onboarding processes indefinitely. 

In reviewing what makes a truly exceptional onboarding experience, one common theme emerges: the water cooler changes everything. 

Educational materials, audio visual training, and instant messaging cannot replace those spontaneous, organic moments where a new employee meets their colleagues and develops positive relationships with them. 

When working remotely, those moments don’t happen organically anymore; they have to be planned. Even in person, employees have had to socially distance or wear masks when speaking to one another. All of these conditions represent barriers to learning the nuances of the company culture and of a new position.

Without that water cooler chit chat, new employees are more likely to feel isolated. Even necessary actions like asking for help may require a formal Zoom invitation. This pivot away from the typical quick, casual question for a colleague or boss can make new employees feel vulnerable and even embarrassed; they may feel exposed for needing help.

New employees may also struggle with learning their new role remotely. Most people learn by doing; they need concrete experiences to form the associations that will guide them through their work. For many people, audio visual materials, presentations, and reading are not as effective but these are often the only option with remote work.

Luckily, there are many ways managers can strengthen their virtual onboarding processes. The keys? Preparedness, scheduling spontaneity, and patience.

Tips For Building Strong Virtual Onboarding

Managers can normalize this type of onboarding by creating a better organization of employee time. By blocking out time for specific tasks or topics—including non-work related topics like social time—employees have the opportunity to form personal relationships with new coworkers. By extension, colleagues and bosses begin to feel more approachable to new employees.

Managers should consider scheduling collaborative brainstorming meetings, standing social meetings for any time use, and facilitating events like virtual lunches. Employees could meet on a Friday afternoon with a beverage of choice to discuss their weekend plans, for example.

Creating opportunities for casual interaction is absolutely essential to bring new employees into the fold. When working remotely, it’s far more difficult to happen upon those organic moments of bonding or learning which are so critical to onboarding. Company promotion of a shared internal chat channel amongst employees could encourage a more casual atmosphere for quick questions and open communication.

When restrictions and weather allow, outdoor activities like walking meetings or patio coffee catch-ups can meaningfully improve the relationships between employees. Sharing other office goods, like company branded coffee mugs or pads of paper can also make new employees feel they’re part of the organization, even if they’re still working from their living room. 

It’s also important to formalize a virtual buddy system. Managers may assign a buddy to a new employee, or ask the employee to find their own buddy after making introductions with key people willing to act in this role. This makes it easier for new employees to ask for help—they have one point of contact that they feel comfortable with and know they can trust. 

Moving forward, managers must be patient with new employees as they try to find their footing. It’s always challenging to join a new company—even more so when you can’t share a space with new colleagues—and not everyone learns quickly using only virtual means. Employees, too, must be proactive in asking for help—even if they are embarrassed to do so. Managers and buddies must encourage this interaction because without raising their hand, it might not be apparent that the new hire is struggling. 

Virtual onboarding may be challenging but it can successfully integrate employees into a new company. It can help them form lasting relationships with colleagues, a deep understanding of the work, and a great engagement within the company culture. A little preparedness makes all the difference, retaining great talent in the process.