How to Onboard New Hires During a Pandemic

For all the talk of American workers quitting in droves, it’s surprising we aren’t dwelling more on another career milestone, especially post-Covid: how to start a new job.

Some 28% of people leave a new job in the first 90 days, according to new data from the recruiting-software firm Jobvite—and that number is growing. “The way that a new employee interacts with company culture is a major determining factor in their potential for success,” Jobvite advises. “Hiring managers and HR professionals should pay attention to how new employees react to the company culture as they are being introduced to it.”

To invoke an overplayed meme, how it starts might be why it ends. Conveying a company’s culture is always hard, and often in-office interactions offer cues that no handbook can capture (think office attire, the length of lunch breaks, eavesdropping to gauge tone). The acute challenge these days is that many companies’ culture is in the midst of upheaval amid remote or hybrid work, concerns over a lack of inclusion, fears of worker burnout, and a need to maintain business continuity or, in many cases, meet increased demand. Systems that were in place to onboard a new hire at the beginning of 2020 are simply antiquated and inadequate now.

Here are some suggestions for how to do better, based on interviews with hiring managers and workplace experts:

Hire differently to meet this moment.

In his new book, Remote Leadership, David Pachter argues that you should recruit for different qualities in a work-from-home (WFH) company than you might have during the Before Times. “In building a high-achieving WFH organization, hiring is the key to success,” he writes. “Some people, despite their experience and skills, simply cannot be effective and productive working at a distance.” Those employees, he says, need workplace dynamics, motivation of peers, and the proximity of a boss in the room. Meanwhile, remote or hybrid work relies more on the following qualities: intrinsic motivation, focus, discipline, coachability, accountability, and humility.

Ask candidates how working from home has changed their career aspirations and how they stay focused and connected to people on their team and across the organization, suggests Pachter, co-founder of outsourced sales and marketing provider JumpCrew. “When the new job honeymoon phase ends, people are finding it too easy to quit,” he says. Hence, another question: How passionate are they about the role/company?

Start onboarding new hires the moment they accept the offer.

Ford Motor Co. now ships laptops and accessories directly to a new employee’s home before they start. “We also leverage our online portal for new hires to complete pre-employment forms and access helpful information about the company’s legacy, history, and culture,” says Kiersten Robinson, Ford’s chief people and employee experience officer.

The more new hires can do before they start makes for an easier first official week. There’s something about not reporting to a physical space that makes starting a new job right now, quite frankly, weird. Think of how some of us bought entire new wardrobes—or at least a new purse—before starting jobs in the past. A new job is a chance to hit reset on life. Now, for many people it just means a new email address to log into from the home office. Thus, employers can help by creating more excitement and preparedness for the change.

Technology and documentation are key to a seamless start.

One of the key characteristics Gallup has identified over the years in successful and engaged teams is that employees have the tools they need to do their work. It may seem basic, but getting new staff the right technology delivers on that, and sends a signal of your commitment to the employee as well.

Documentation, such as manuals and how-to videos, is another important part of orientation. Gitlab, for example, has a 13,804-page handbook that it makes publicly available, listing everything from company history to a code of conduct to its travel policies. Yours need not be that thorough, but it’s very helpful to new hires for implicit practices, norms, and rituals to be written down.

Onboarding must go beyond the first week.

In her list of onboarding “don’ts,” Nettie Nitzberg says a big mistake managers make is not checking in every day (you read that right) for the new hire’s first two weeks. “Being at home when you start a new job is lonely enough,” says the co-founder and chief learning officer of Saterman Connect, a consulting company. “When your manager doesn’t care how you are doing or feeling, it sends the wrong message.”

Other companies mentioned laying out an agenda of meetings and tasks for the first week, along with broader goals for the 30-, 60-, and 90-day marks.

Give them a person, or two.

Besides the direct manager of the new hire, many companies mention creating a buddy system, mentoring programs, even “peer circles” to help acclimation move along faster. No question is too small or stupid. “We’ve tried to turn the strangeness of the distanced environment to our advantage,” says Pachter. “Peers often handle onboarding of new employees in keeping with the basic principles of peer learning. These sessions are…intentionally personal, friendly, and open to anyone questioning anything.”

The list of who new entrants meet with—and why—is similarly key, says executive coach Sushil Cheema. You are trying to show talent that you see a bright future for them at the company. “Exposure to various parts of the business is also important: The new hire will not only get a better sense of how the company operates overall but also will have a chance to meet more people and have a chance to ask questions and offer ideas,” she says. “The more involved they can get from day one, the more likely it is they will feel comfortable.”

How to Onboard New Hires During a Pandemic

Build inclusion.

Creating an inclusive workplace does not start and stop with diversity in hiring. It must be woven into all aspects of company culture. Nitzberg suggests a few ways to build inclusion:

  • A team deck where everyone has a slide with their picture, months/years with the organization, and contact info. Maybe include some fun facts, such as favorite foods or pastimes. Have the new hire make one too.
  • Have the CEO record a welcome message for the newcomers or join a video call. Department heads might also consider doing these.
  • Send a welcome gift, swag, or even lunch.

    Accenture has hired 118,000 people in the past year—54,000 in the last quarter alone. “Before Covid, when you started a job, one of the exciting things was showing up someplace,” CEO Julie Sweet said last week at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit. “What we realized pretty quickly is that people we were hiring were literally shutting their laptop, and then getting the new laptop from Accenture and there was no sense of excitement or connection.”

    Accenture used corporate swag—desk trinkets, posters, giveaway items with its logo—to try to address some of that problem. The company also bought tens of thousands of virtual reality headsets for employees to share a virtual experience.

    Even small gestures can go a long way: Personal touches like sending takeout from the new staffer’s favorite restaurant or everyone agreeing to order the same cuisine for a virtual team dinner one night.

    We are in an era of uncertainty.

    A part of the reason onboarding has been so rocky in the pandemic is because we are in rocky times. Equipping employees with the skills and tools they need to weather this uncertainty also feels like a necessary and urgent part of onboarding.

    New hires at Dell, for example, are getting a deep dive on the company’s agile model during their orientation. The agile approach to projects focuses on incremental improvements, theoretically making it easier to weather change. “They go through this to understand processes, our methods and to get to meet people,” says Jen Felch, chief digital officer and chief information officer at Dell. “We treat this like a cohort, but they also get to meet people across the company.”

    Recap early and often.

    New hires have a lot being thrown at them in these early days, and procedures others have internalized might take some time to sink in. In that spirit, remember that successful onboarding essentially boils down to:

  • offering tools and information
  • gauging and signaling excitement for the job and investment in the new employee’s career
  • providing ongoing connections to colleagues across the company.
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