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COVID-19 Impact on Human Resources: Remote Onboarding

6/29/20 – Deirdre Bird

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The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated offsite work. Employers and employees are likely to continue remote working arrangements, leading employers to rethink their traditional in-person onboarding process. Joshua Crabtree (moderator), Executive Director of Legal Aid of the Bluegrass, and Deirdre Bird (panelist), Director of HR Consulting of VonLehman CPA & Advisory Firm, discuss best practices for successful onboarding for new hires who will work off-site.

Joshua Crabtree: Is onboarding just another name for orientation?

Deirdre Bird: Orientation refers to what is typically a singular event in which a new hire completes necessary paperwork, reviews company policies, learns about the benefits offerings, and other routine tasks. While orientation covers important information, employees often experience it as a mind-numbing series of forms, review of rules, and long hours on the receiving end of one-way communication. Onboarding, by contrast, is a comprehensive process designed to prepare the new hire for success by helping the employee acclimate to the new role, the company and working relationships. Rather than being a one-day event, effective onboarding is established in the talent acquisition process and is integrated into the employee experience, with an emphasis on the first three to twelve months. Managers, colleagues, and human resources share responsibility for successful onboarding.

Joshua: What’s the impact of onboarding?

Deirdre: The first few days, weeks and months are a critical time for first, and often lasting, impressions to be made. How the new hire is treated and set up for success often sets the tone for the employee’s ongoing experience with the organization. Onboarding helps the new hire contribute to the organization’s objectives. It facilitates productive, satisfying work, and supports employee engagement and retention. Considering the sum of work the organization put into sourcing, interviewing and selecting the ideal new hire, a solid onboarding process is well worth the effort to retain the new hire.

Joshua: What are the objectives of onboarding?

Deirdre: The objectives of onboarding are to help the new hire integrate with the organization and be productive. The successful onboarding program clarifies the new hire’s responsibilities, their performance expectations and measures, the resources available to the employee, their role in customer satisfaction and organization success, and the organization’s norms. Onboarding is a critical element of the foundation for long-term organizational commitment and productivity.

Joshua: What are key components of an onboarding plan?

Deirdre: Four key components of an onboard plan are:

  1. having a written plan for the onboarding process to help organize key stakeholders and provide consistency;
  2. providing the new hire with documents, tools and stakeholder meetings that provide role clarity, including the role description, performance appraisal, key performance metrics, organization chart, and strategic plan;
  3. investment in relationship development; and
  4. workspace and tools.

Joshua: With so many organizations working remotely now, what should organizations consider doing relative to the onboarding component you just mentioned, the workspace and tools the organization provides for the new hire?

Deirdre: Prior to the extensive remote work situation we are now facing, preparing the workspace and tools often referred to the organization’s physical office components. This included cleaning and preparing the new hire’s desk, providing essential supplies such as notepad, pens, stapler, etc., a welcome sign and nameplate, and the technology (setting up the new hire’s computer and phone systems). Now, organizations are providing technology setups to employees in advance of their start date. Many organizations are shipping laptop computers and/or tablets to the employee’s home, along with set up instructions and an appointment scheduled for a virtual meeting with an IT support person. Other organizations are scheduling time for the new hire to receive the equipment from the office. As you schedule time to walk the new hire through the tools and software the employee will use, consider using a video call tool with screen sharing capability, and recording the meeting so the employee can re-review the information later.  

We recommend the organization also discuss/review the new hire’s remote workspace set up to ensure the employee has a distraction-free environment, an ergonomically-sound set up, the digital and physical security required, sufficient internet connectivity, and an appropriate setting for video meetings.  

Joshua: You included investment in relationship development as a key component of onboarding. What can organizations do to help the new hire establish effective working relationships with the team while working remotely?

Deirdre: One of the tactics we recommend is an internal welcome email sent to the staff. The email, sent prior to the new hire’s first day, should introduce the new hire to the current employees and include the new hire’s role, the location where the new hire will work, and information the new hire provides to help others get to know them, such as hobbies, favorite movies, favorite restaurants, favorite sports teams, something interesting about them, or who inspired them to have the career they have today.

Building on that, we encourage the manager, teammates and other key stakeholders who will work closely with the new hire to schedule introductory calls with the new hire prior to his/her start date. Video calls using tools like Zoom, Google Hangout, or Microsoft Teams will help the new hire put a face with the name. Incorporating information from the new hire welcome email into the conversation will help the new hire feel welcome and begin to connect both professionally and personally with colleagues. Remember to add the new hire to the calendar of ongoing team meetings and virtual get-togethers.

We recommend assigning an onboarding buddy to the new hire. The onboarding buddy is a well-respected, high-performing employee who does not have direct supervisory responsibility for the employee. The onboarding buddy’s role can include helping the new hire navigate organization norms, educating where and how to find needed resources and answering routine questions that the new hire might be hesitant to ask the manager. A best practice is for the onboarding buddy and new hire to have a knowledge exchange, sharing with one another the knowledge, techniques, and best practices they have learned throughout their careers. Knowledge sharing not only helps the new hire get up to speed but also helps introduce new ideas to the organization.  

And of particular importance, we recommend ongoing daily one-on-ones between the new hire and manager. The manager should provide positive and constructive feedback and coaching during the one-on-ones to help the new hire meet performance expectations. Managers should be intentional about the feedback and avoid the “no-news-is-good-news” approach. This is especially important for an employee who is working remotely and doesn’t have the benefit of learning through observing others in action and through the type of informal information exchange that takes place in an office setting. While the daily one-on-ones will require more time for the first several weeks, the new hire’s increasing comfort and efficacy may lead to shorter daily check-ins with a weekly one-on-one.

Joshua: What are some best practices regarding feedback and performance management in light of remote work?

Deirdre: The start of the performance management process begins during the recruitment process, when the eventual new hire is introduced to the expectations for the role. The expectations should be formally established in the onboarding process, and incorporate the job description, and performance evaluation tools and metrics. The onboarding plan should include early wins, milestones that allow the new hire to evaluate their progress in the learning curve, and informal performance reviews at 30, 60 and 90 days. A schedule of ongoing one-on-ones and check-ins, and a cadence of regular communication is important for new hires and existing employees alike, to ensure they receive the feedback, connection and recognition they need to perform well and stay engaged.

For every company and organization, the onboarding process is crucial to the integration and development of employees and staff members. Innovation is of the utmost importance during these unprecedented times. As we are confronted with these new obstacles, it is essential that we stay proactive and confront these challenges with creativity and open mindedness. For any questions related to remote onboarding, or HR Consulting in general, please contact HR Consulting specialist Deirdre Bird at dbird@vlcpa.com or 800.887.0437.