Starting a new job in a pandemic: Virtual onboarding to the rescue

Like most new pandemic-induced working practices, remote onboarding is here to stay. How can employers make the process, from device provisioning and training to helping new hires feel welcome, as seamless as possible?

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Starting a new job can be stressful under normal circumstances, but starting a new job during a global pandemic, when all interactions with managers and teammates take place online, is a uniquely challenging situation.

Just ask Marta Rodriguez, who started her job as a social media manager at Adria Solutions in June 2020. It took her longer to learn about the company, the business culture, and the industry she’d moved into than it would have if she’d been surrounded by her colleagues, Rodriguez said.

She’s not alone. While uncounted businesses around the world have shed jobs in the past year, organizations made up of traditionally office-based workers have continued to hire where budgets have allowed. Those companies have had to figure out how to provision their new hires with computing equipment, train them in new technologies and work processes, and make them feel like part of the team, all without in-person contact.

Some companies had a head start, having begun upgrading and enhancing their onboarding processes in 2019, said Jason Cerrato, senior research director at Gartner. But most organizations weren’t ready to onboard individuals who were recruited entirely virtually to start a job in a remote setting when that role had not previously been remote.

“[New employees] were joining teams they may not have had the chance to meet in person or joining companies they may have never visited on-site,” he said.

With remote work now a fixture of business and likely to remain so even after the pandemic recedes, employers need to update their onboarding technology and processes to ensure a smooth and productive entry for new hires. Computerworld spoke to analysts, IT leaders from companies that are hiring, and employees who have started new jobs in the past year for their tips on making it work.

Provisioning challenges

According to Cerrato, one of the most challenging aspects of remote onboarding during the pandemic has been provisioning, device delivery, and system accessibility for remote hires. With employee visits to the office verboten, there are timing and logistics challenges that were never an issue when new hires could collect their devices and get them set up in person, all of which require additional planning and creative solutions.

Jo Drake would agree. The CIO for The Hut Group (THG), a UK-based online retailer, said the firm had already started to implement an automated onboarding process intended to be a more efficient and scalable replacement for its manual systems. Although having a virtual setup in place undoubtedly helped make the company’s transition from office to home working a lot smoother, she said, other issues arose that her team had never considered.

Before the pandemic, the fast-growing nature of THG meant virtual onboarding was already an option for new hires, but when the lockdown order came into force across the UK in March 2020, it had to be offered to every new employee — a number that Drake places in the thousands, as it includes staff from acquisitions in addition to new hires.

“We also had to quickly adopt a zero-touch provisioning process,” Drake said. “We knew that we wanted to create a smooth process for the end user, where kit [computing equipment] would go straight from the factory to the new starter's home, automatically giving them everything they need with the right access and applications installed.” The machines also needed to be secure — encrypted, enrolled into THG’s endpoint management systems, and with the right anti-malware software installed for the company to manage remotely.

THG uses Jamf to enable everything to work on Macs and Microsoft Intune to enable everything to work on PCs; the two management platforms are also used to apply and manage all the security policies and security software, along with installing any other required apps on the machines. Okta provides single sign-on and multifactor authentication. These systems were already in place prior to the pandemic and proved instrumental in helping THG scale up its virtual onboarding process to full capacity.

In a world where the demand for IT equipment was at an all-time high, however, finding enough machines to onboard large numbers of new starters proved difficult. THG already had a device recycling program in place, but getting computers back from both exiting and newly acquired staff with enough time to repurpose them for new hires was initially challenging, Drake explained. Furthermore, the number of devices the company was recycling didn’t provide them with enough equipment, meaning THG had to supplement the shortfall by buying new devices.

“To ensure we weren’t relying on third-party couriers, we chose to utilize our own THG transport service, which is usually reserved for driving staff to locations for business meetings but was no longer doing so with employees working from home. They were repurposed and our own THG drivers delivered kit and equipment to the homes of new starters,” she said.

The company-provided equipment comes with instructions via a “quick-start guide” that includes step-by-step instructions for switching on and logging in. As soon as new employees log in, the machine is registered to them, all managed via automation in a secure environment. Drake said everything else is done in the background by the staff technology engineers. 

THG’s onboarding process includes an induction, where new employees are given HR training, job-specific presentations, and practical information about their working day. Prior to the pandemic, this would have taken place in person, and new employees would gather and be welcomed to the business. The new, virtual process still includes an (online) induction, but it’s preceded by an open forum (an ‘open surgery’ in THG parlance) where any initial IT queries can be addressed on the employee’s first day.

“Before we went virtual, new starters would only have direct contact with a member of the staff technology team during the main induction. But now, by using the open surgeries, we are there to help with any issues with the kit prior to the induction,” she said.

More recently, THG has been building corporate app stores for both Windows and Mac, offering staffers self-service access to verified and licensed products with the latest versions of software that the company manages globally.

Training new hires

One of the first tasks managers face when bringing new employees on board is training them in their day-to-day duties and the technologies that enable them to do their job — a process made more cumbersome without in-person contact. 

Sean Collison is a platform customer expert at a UK-based insurance company. Throughout the pandemic he has been onboarding and training newly employed customer support staff.

He said his company had already started using Microsoft Teams as its default communication platform at the start of 2020, as the chat and videoconferencing tool made it easy to communicate any problems or issues to large groups of employees simultaneously. When the lockdown order came into force, Collison said, turning employee communications virtual was just a case of expanding the company’s Teams use across the board.

But while having a uniform communication platform in place has helped to streamline the way employees receive information, he said, training new hires has become more difficult, despite the use of some specialized platforms for call monitoring and information input, such as Impact 360 and a Microsoft Excel-based tool that was built in house and deployed via SharePoint.

“Largely, we’ve been able to translate the process to a virtual solution, but some of the bigger group training sessions are definitely trickier,” Collison said. “We do a lot of group sessions that really benefit from worked examples and people asking questions. These are much harder to get going virtually, just because of the lack of contact,” he said.

He added that part of the in-person onboarding process allowed for new starters to sit with experienced staff members and listen to difficult calls, something that’s no longer possible now that everyone is confined to their homes. “This [part of the training] is much tricker to do remotely, as almost all of the new starters don’t have access to the call listening software,” Collison said. If there’s a problem with a particular call, team leaders and training staff have to share the audio file via Microsoft Teams.

But there’s an upside to these challenges, Collison said: Having to make the process virtual has provided the company with an opportunity to evolve its training program and put in place a more structured system.

“We realized that before the pandemic our training was just a bit of a mess; there was no real structure or direction to it once someone had finished the initial sections in a classroom,” he said. The pandemic and shift to working from home meant the company had to make sure its new employees’ days were better structured, as the flexibility offered by in-person training — shadowing an experienced employee for a day, for example — was no longer an option when staff were confined to their homes.

For her part, Rodriguez said her first couple of weeks at Adria Solutions were packed with video calls where she could meet her colleagues and learn more about the technologies and platforms she’d be using in her new job. Her colleagues left their videoconferencing platform running throughout the day, which meant she could immediately get ahold of them to ask questions. A second communication channel was also set up so she could connect directly to her line manager in case she needed extra help.

Rodriguez spoke highly of her manager, who spent “a fair number of hours in the first three weeks” making sure Rodriguez understood her job to help avoid any mistakes and misunderstandings. She said this differs from her previous onboarding experiences where “sometimes it feels like everyone’s too busy to show you around.”

Welcoming new members to the team

Beyond training new employees in technologies and day-to-day tasks, assimilating them into the company’s culture has proved difficult in a remote environment. According to research carried out by employee engagement platform TINYpulse, employees hired during the pandemic experienced weaker bonds with their colleagues and felt less engaged with company values. Unsurprisingly, new hires in 2020 gave 34% less recognition to their colleagues compared to their 2019 counterparts.

Gartner’s Cerrato reaffirms this point, noting that a persistent challenge of remote onboarding is conveying culture to new hires and creating a sense of belonging. “Organizational assimilation often comes through observation and informal interactions, as much as it is conveyed through formal processes — so trying to create a virtual environment for comfortable interactions and exchanges to occur is often difficult,” he said.

Arron Drapkin, who started a new job as a staff writer at ProPrivacy in December, agreed. “You definitely have limited time and space to make an impression on your new colleagues,” he said. “It’s harder to naturally fall into those spontaneous, creative spaces where ideas are bounced around, because you aren’t in a physical space with one another.”

Like Rodriguez, however, Drapkin spoke positively of his virtual onboarding experience. His first few weeks were filled with introductions and teaching sessions held over Zoom, and he was “assigned” a member of staff who was always on hand to answer his questions and help him navigate his new role. This was highly useful, he said: “Quick responses are everything, especially when you have questions you can’t work through.”

The ProPrivacy team also did a good job of organizing social video calls after work, Drapkin said, giving him the chance to get to know his colleagues better by chatting with everyone in an informal space.

Rodriguez said it’s important for both mentors and new employees to get actively involved in the onboarding process. “I felt very welcomed.”

Technology platforms

Throughout the pandemic, technology has been a key enabler for organizations to carry on functioning across a wide variety of business processes and bringing new employees on board is no exception.

Although dedicated onboarding platforms such as SilkRoad Technology, Click Boarding, Enboarder, and AllOnboard are available, most organizations have been co-opting traditional HR and collaboration platforms to onboard new hires, Cerrato said.

“HR Service Management tools have helped to drive automation and collaboration across a variety of onboarding inputs, outputs, and stakeholders,” he said. “Additional tools like chatbots, virtual assistants, and electronic document management solutions have helped to coordinate and digitize a highly administrative process. Video and online courses have also become essential as organizations have had to go virtual with messaging and training.”

The selection of onboarding tools is often based on the size of the organization and the sophistication of its onboarding process, as well as the stage at which the collaboration takes place. “As the duration and resulting definition of ‘onboarding’ expands, it often takes a combination of tools to carry out all of those processes over extended phases,” Cerrato said.

Drapkin counts himself lucky that many of the platforms used by his new employer were ones he’d used before or were easy enough to learn without too much handholding.

“[When you’re working remotely], I do think you get to know the systems and programs you’re working with a lot quicker, especially if you’re new to them, simply because you feel much more reliant on them,” Drapkin said. “Slack, for example, is intimately connected to my relationship with my colleagues in a way it wouldn’t be in an office.”

For Rodriguez, troubleshooting tech problems remotely was sometimes problematic. When technology wasn’t working as expected, she found herself getting frustrated more easily than she would have if she’d been in the office, feeling like she was bothering her colleagues with “silly” questions.

“It would take you two seconds if you were together in the same office, but working from home, you need to use the email or call them and explain something. In person, you could both sit down together and look at it,” Rodriguez said.

The future of onboarding

Although global vaccine rollouts mean the prospect of offices reopening might not be too distant an idea anymore, survey after survey has shown that most office workers don’t want to be back in the corporate workplace full time, even when it’s safe to do so. Furthermore, with companies such as Dropbox announcing they’re going fully remote and Salesforce declaring the 9-5 workday to be dead, it’s clear that virtual onboarding, like many other pandemic-induced work practices, is here to stay.

Despite some downsides, both Drapkin and Rodriguez said that their overall remote onboarding experience was positive, vastly improved by the efforts their colleagues made to support them through the process.

It’s likely they’re not alone. Many organizations have been leveraging existing employees to assist with the process, Cerrato said. In addition to participating in video calls, training new employees, or acting as mentors, established co-workers might be tapped to generate videos or other content to help guide new employees through onboarding activities and milestones.

Drapkin said that while there are few methods of communication that beat being face-to-face with another human as they explain something to you, his employer made the process so manageable that he doesn’t feel he’s drastically missed out on much. “I’m not worried about certain aspects of the job or feel my [virtual] onboarding experience has negatively impacted me,” he said.

Rodriguez said she feels similarly, and looking back on the process, she has no complaints. “The management encouraged team collaboration as much as is possible in the current situation, making sure we employees feel supported and safe,” she said.

For Rodriguez, the virtual onboarding process also had some perks. Starting a new job can be overwhelming, she explained, but working from home allowed her to go for a walk in familiar surroundings during her lunch break, which helped clear her head.

From management’s perspective, Drake and Collison believe that having been forced to adopt virtual onboarding and training strategies has improved the experience for their new hires.

Collison expects a large amount of training to remain virtual, as working from home is here to stay at his company. Although he said his new hires undoubtedly benefit from being in the office and shadowing their colleagues, once they’re done with that, “live call support and retrospective support will be a combination of in-office and virtual, as both new starters and supporters will be doing a mix of working from home and in the office.”

Drake believes THG’s onboarding process is now better than ever. She acknowledges that it’s nerve-wracking for anyone joining a new business, but during a pandemic where you have not met any members of the team in person, there will be added pressure. The open forums provide a way for the company to relieve some of these anxieties and help new starters hit the ground running on their first day.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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