Last fall I became interested in how virtual onboarding practices were impacting new hires during the pandemic. This was uncharted territory for most employers and I found that most were trying their best while making it up as they went. To learn more, I talked with three people who were hired last year in three different sectors (medical research, e-commerce, and higher education) to hear about their virtual onboarding experience. Here’s what they thought their employers did best in supporting their success and what they thought could be done better.
NEW HIRES IN 2020
Maggie, a recent college grad, was hired by medical research lab in Connecticut just before COVID-19 hit. She had a week and a half of in-person onboarding before she was sent home to work remotely. “Being sent home was a bit overwhelming,” she said. “It was chaotic…I didn’t know my team members and didn’t understand the workflow right away.” In the beginning, a lot of Maggie’s work was to read as many papers as possible to understand the work.
Erick, a 2020 college grad found that the pandemic complicated his job search at first. He said, “lots of companies were posting job openings in March and April, but pulled them in May. Most companies were not hiring until June.” In August, Erick considered himself lucky to land a job as an operations specialist, working with supply chain management and vendor compliance for an e-commerce company in Minneapolis. His onboarding experience started with two weeks of hands-on in-person training. Then he was sent home with a laptop, sticky notes, pens, Bluetooth earbuds, and notepads.
Unlike Maggie and Erick, Ashanti Bryant-Foster, who prefers to be called Dr. Ashanti, had worked for her college in a part-time capacity prior to the pandemic, before she started her new role as department chair in late August 2020. Her onboarding experience in Maryland was 100% remote. She said, “Everything was online and happened on email and Zoom. Dr. Ashanti added, “Zoom has been my friend.”
HELPFUL VIRTUAL ONBOARDING PRACTICES
Maggie, Erick and Dr. Ashanti had good things to say about what their employers were doing to support them in their new roles, including holding regular virtual check-in meetings, bootcamp sessions and mixing some hybrid in-person onboarding with virtual when possible. Here’s what they said:
“The Associate Dean put together weekly bootcamp sessions with new hires” said Dr. Ashanti. “The dean focuses on ‘this is what you should be thinking about.’” Having those meetings with peers across departments helped to build relationships and Dr. Ashanti found the sessions valuable.
Erick said his new company provided a welcoming environment, especially for his first two weeks of in-person orientation. His cubicle was set up in advance. He was able to have his HR onboarding meeting in person to complete his onboarding paperwork and get a tour of the company. Erick spent time with his direct supervisor and the Director of IT right away and two people on his team came in to train him in on separate days. Most important for Erick, was that his supervisor and team were very accessible and encouraged asking questions. They emphasized, “no question is a stupid question.”
For Maggie, having regular meetings was extremely helpful with the four lead researchers. “We met twice a week to check in on progress and the lead researchers were very responsive.” She found that her company was very flexible in finding work she could do remotely as she was learning her job and added, “even if it wasn’t what I would have been assigned to in person.” Her company has a “buddy system” where they assign an employee to help orient a new hire during their first year. She said that has been invaluable. Maggie was working 100% remote from March through August. Now she is allowed to come in to the office for essential tasks like administering surveys and uploading data for analysis.
VIRTUAL ONBOARDING CHALLENGES
Virtual onboarding seems to test early learning on the job and making connections the most. When I asked what had been most challenging, here’s what I heard:
“At first, before I understood studies, it was difficult to spend eight hours a day to read studies. It felt like busy work,” said Maggie. “It was hard to do literature reviews or write a paper without someone on the team coaching me. I’m a visual learner, so it was difficult to learn things remotely. There was nobody to ask how to do things.”
“Human connection in general, has been challenging,” said Dr. Ashanti. “Knowing the names of people, but not connecting them with the faces of people.” She added, “As in many places, there are lots of acronyms that are used, and I had to ask lots of questions.”
“My biggest challenge was time management of tasks when working virtually,” said Erick, “Being in the office, it’s easy to stay on task…it’s easy to get distracted at home.” Erick’s department hosts regular meetings over Microsoft Teams, but does not use webcams. He remarked, “Using only audio, with no face-to-face interaction makes it more difficult to get to know people.”
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR VIRTUAL ONBOARDING
When I asked what employers could do better when virtually onboarding new employees, here’s a list of what Erick, Maggie, and Dr. Ashanti recommended:
- PROVIDE TOOLS FOR WORKING REMOTELY: Provide employees with a laptop and appropriate software loaded. Ensure that new employees have IT support to help them troubleshoot any technical problems.
- CLARIFY JOB EXPECTATIONS: Make expectations clear and direct. Outline job duties and give new employees access to resources they need to execute the job they are expected to do remotely.
- FACILITATE HUMAN CONNECTION
- Schedule “get-to-know-you” meetings with everyone that the employee should meet
- Use webcams in meetings so that new employees can connect names with faces
- Host virtual department/organization meetings
- When introducing new hires during department/organization meetings, use a powerpoint slide with their photo and brief bio; look for ways to celebrate new hires in regular newsletters or email communications.
- Find virtual replacements for organization events and mixers, so that people can connect with each other in meaningful ways and build relationships
- COMMUNICATE, communicate, communicate! With remote onboarding, frequent and regular communication is a must. Have frequent check ins with new employees.
ADVICE FOR NEW EMPLOYEES
In wrapping up my conversations, I was curious to learn what the Maggie, Erick and Dr. Ashanti felt new employees could do to integrate into their virtual teams, learn their roles, and build human connection fast.
Erick recommends asking questions, “especially if acronyms are being thrown around.” He added, “try to understand the language; it helps your teammates help you and helps you be part of the environment more quickly.”
Dr. Ashanti said as she’s introduced to people online, she follows up with a 15-minute Zoom meeting with new people. She added, “If nobody sets up the meetings for you; you set them up! Take the initiative. Email them.”
Maggie advised, “Overcome the feeling that you are the new person and extend yourself to get to know others. Work to become part of the team.” She added, “if you want to be part of the team and put effort into it then you will be able to do it.”