Onboarding goes remote – changing the game substantially

by Andrea Greenhous and Mike Klein for IC Beyond

Long treated with skepticism in many parts of the corporate world, remote working has become increasingly commonplace following the enforced workplace closures caused by the Coronavirus.

One of the reasons working remotely had not been widely accepted before the outbreak of COVID-19 is the challenge it presents with respect to managing people, fostering collaboration, and communicating. There are more than 10000 books written on managing people remotely, which speaks to the challenge that physical separation from one’s team and colleagues presents. 

Moving workers from an office setting to their kitchen tables presents one set of challenges, but what about those organizations that are hiring new employees or where employees are taking on different roles?

What is the onboarding challenge?

Onboarding is the process through which a newly hired or repositioned employee is expected to be transformed from an enthusiastic recruit into a productive hire.

It is one of the most important stages in the employee experience. We’ve all started new jobs and remember it as a time heavy with fear and uncertainty. New employees want to start making a contribution as soon as they can, but can also be intimidated by the quantity and obscurity of what they will need to quickly learn. The phrase “drinking from a firehose” is frequently applied to many onboarding situations.

Traditionally, onboarding combined an introduction to a limited amount of essential information about the company, introduction to key work and HR processes, and in-person introductions to superiors, colleagues, and other key individuals. The bulk of an employee’s introduction to the position or company was largely made up of on-the-job experience, combined with monitoring or active coaching and the employee’s own initiative to network informally.

Now, for remote employees, onboarding must be managed virtually. This necessitates a much broader approach to onboarding content well beyond the traditional HR scope. In addition to helping employees learn about their team, function, and job role, the remote onboarding process must also provide an immersion into the organizational context such as corporate and industry knowledge, business strategy and organizational culture (expected behaviours). Basics like vocabulary and an understanding of the business model need to combine with awareness of values, principles, practices and where discussed, purpose.  

Beyond context is the world of connections – finding the right people to help in the right situations. This requires the right combination of current IC tools (with particular emphasis on knowledge and people search) and, where feasible, Organizational Network Analysis which identifies key influencers at all levels. This should be combined with less formal introductions to colleagues who can integrate them culturally and amplify their impact, to promote a sense of belonging and inclusion.

Onboarding for the Remote World

The key thing to recognize is that knowledge gaps, be they about work content or network dynamics, are massive, multi-layered and individual in nature. 

The resolution of these gaps requires a combination of context, content, connection and technology that lets incoming employees process what they need to know with speed and selectivity.

Here, we suggest a framework for building a comprehensive onboarding program that equips people with the knowledge and information they need to thrive. Our framework puts the new employee at the centre – a much different approach than the traditional department by department focus that most onboarding programs use. Our framework takes a layered approach starting with corporate information and then including necessary details about the new employee’s team and role. 

No alt text provided for this image

It’s also important to remember that new arrivals don’t have a common mental picture of the organization. 

Where incumbent staff may think of their workplaces or the HQ as their ‘image’ of the organization, remote hires will be more likely to see the internal communication platform as the organization’s center.  

This is not necessarily a problem, but it creates a need for organizational leaders to be visibly active on and off the platform, and for key informational and engagement activities to give the platform primacy when possible.

So, some key things to recognize are that:

  • Remote onboarding is a much wider set of activities than offline onboarding, combining traditional familiarization with teams and processes with gaining access to a massive quantity of context and content.
  • Remote onboarding needs proactive leadership, with or without ownership, from Internal Communication
  • For new arrivals, the IC platform will fill the role of “the virtual HQ” – the major platform for interaction as well as information.
  • Organizational network analysis can accelerate a new remote hire’s onboarding by connecting them rapidly to people who are most relevant and best connected to support them in their new role. 
  • The ability to identify and engage relevant peers will also require access to an internal communication platform with knowledge of individual roles and interests

A well-considered remote onboarding program is not only key to increasing the speed, effectiveness and resilience of the acclimatization process for new starters. It can be a powerful competitive differentiator. 

But such differentiation will only arise if leaders and practitioners beyond the HR function proactively seek to take their critical roles in making it happen.  

Effective remote onboarding requires active support and involvement from individuals and functions beyond the normal HR scope – and critically, Internal Communication. It requires thought and commitment to an activity that will expand the scope of its responsibility without necessarily acquiring additional resources . Ultimately, it requires an acceptance that remote onboarding is a fundamentally different activity and process than in-person induction, and there is real potential advantage for taking a fresh approach – and seeing remote onboarding as its own set of integrative challenges and opportunities.

Mike Klein is Principal of Changing The Terms, an internal communication consultancy based in Reykjavik, and is Senior Advisor to Smarp Strategic Services. An MBA graduate of London Business School. Mike is a published author with more than 20 years of corporate internal communication experience. A former Chair of IABC Europe – Middle East – North Africa, Mike is an IC Beyond co-founder, seeing an online discussion group exploring the future of internal communication as a driver of value and new conversations in the profession.

Andrea Greenhous is the founder of Vision2Voice, a Canadian strategic internal communications agency. Andrea and her team help clients build their brand from the inside out with purpose-driven strategies that improve workplace cultures and deliver an awesome employee experience. Andrea believes in a people-first approach and uses fresh ideas and a unique internal communication framework to deliver bottom-line results. If she’s not working, she can be usually found at the yoga studio, on her bike, or running with her black Labrador Retriever at her side.

IC BEYOND COMMENTS

TRUDY

Good article Mike and Andrea. I’ve always felt that IC should play a huge role in ensuring that the onboarding experience is engaging and achieves its goal of welcoming people into the culture of the organisation. 

In the times we’re in at the moment, it’s harder, but even more important to have an effective process. The challenge will be that HR as a function tend to include IC at the end of the process, rather than gaining input in the development stages, which I think is key to getting it right. This probably comes from a lack of awareness of the role of IC in creating the employee’s experience. Given the extent of work done by IC through this pandemic – adapting communications to engage remote workforces – IC is well placed to add value to the very different activities involved in remote onboarding. I guess this means we have an opportunity here to connect and work together to ensure remote onboarding is done well according to the suggestions in this article. 

ADAM

Nice work! I really enjoyed this one. I think your points about the increased profile of IC platform(s) are spot on and should give organizations serious pause to consider not only which investments may be needed in new or upgraded platforms, but just as importantly which systems may need to be sunset so as to create a more streamlined environment that is as intuitive as possible to outsiders coming in. 

A couple of additional considerations: 1) how to shape the experience of those who are hired outside an organization’s operating footprint and who may never be expected, or rarely be expected, to travel to a physical location even in the event of a return to office of sorts, and 2) how changing the collaboration practices of existing teams can make for a better onboarding experience for new or repositioned hires. Regarding the former, some organizations are discovering that they can go beyond their traditional footprints to find better and cheaper talent elsewhere. Keeping them engaged in the event of a full or partial return to office will be critical and will be sure to keep alive the question of flexible work arrangements for everyone else. Second, onboarding will surely be made easier for teams that maximize real-time communication and collaboration, for example through daily or at least weekly calls and a Microsoft Teams chat that gets used throughout the day. Regular happy hours and other scheduled forms of purely social interaction don’t hurt either. It would of course be impossible for IC to direct or manage anything related to this latter part, but IC teams, and communication teams broadly speaking, can certainly model good practice.

BELINDA

Interesting piece Mike and Andrea. In my work in employee experience design I find that a lot of organisations begin their EX journey by focusing on onboarding. Why? Because it often lacks a clear owner which means it’s easier to take a new approach (ie human centred design). Also, because so many teams and functions play a part in the onboarding experience it is a useful testing ground to see how to generate collaboration across silos (fundamental to effective employee experience design). And, of course, because onboarding is so important to organisational success, it pays to get it right. It’s great to see this piece looking at it through the lens of comms. There is lots to be learned from existing FROGs (fully remote organisations) who have been doing this successfully. My learning from these conversations is the need to design the best onboarding experience with, not just for, your people. 

KEVIN

Interesting piece. I love a framework! 

It’s natural to think of onboarding as a one-way information provision process. And it’s right to focus on this. There is an obvious thirst for knowing how things operate when you join an organisation or move to a different department. What I like about the framework is the inclusion of purpose, culture and strategy as these are known to be associated with organisational engagement. I guess the challenge is how to convey these in an engaging way in a virtual environment. A purpose statement is meaningless unless it is backed up with evidence of actual behaviour. The point about ‘My company makes me feel like I matter’ is critical. For me, the whole onboarding process should be built around this. One way to do this is to listen to what employees have to say when they join. Encourage them to ask questions and make suggestions from the off. This would be one way of demonstrating that the organisation values employees as individuals who can make a thoughtful contribution as well as understand (and follow) established processes.

JANET 

I love what Belinda says about ownership. Often that is blurred and right now blurred isn’t good enough. Everyone (HR, Line Managers, Health and Safety, Compliance, IT etc) needs to know what their role is and what purpose they have in the onboarding process. 

Central for me is putting the new employee at the heart of the process. How will they feel, what will they need to know fast, have they worked in this way before, is this all new for them, when was the last time they onboarded, what are their expectations and how can they be managed? There are so many questions. 

I have a few ideas to help (hopefully).

  1. Have a personalised plan – share that before day 1 so your new hire knows what to expect before they arrive and feels some personalised love and not a copy paste approach to their onboarding. Build each day and leave time for them to absorb new information and ask plenty of questions. Which leads me to…
  2. Don’t just broadcast. Make it a two-way (or more) process. People remember more information if you don’t just bark at them but let them process the information in ways they prefer. I love asking questions and I am a visual learner; I remember colours and I remember way more if the information was in answer to one of my questions. 
  3. Tailor it. 15 mins / 30 mins / 45 are great durations for meetings. Why do meetings need to be an hour? They don’t. 
  4. If it doesn’t need to be a meeting don’t. Most companies have tools that come with out of the box bot solutions (workplace, slack etc). Use them, they can be super helpful and efficient to keep people on track, get compliance type stuff signed and agreed without the need for yet another meeting. 
  5. Look at all the tools you have, then all the things you want to achieve and figure out ways for using what you have differently to achieve your goals and keep things interesting. It really is no excuse to hide behind “this is mandatory” to leave something uninspiring. Have a go at mixing it up and see what happens.
  6. Depending on how many people are joining at the same time, consider alumni groups – if one learns something they can share back with the group, this can also be fun and collegiate and get rid of that ‘alone’ feeling. And can be easily done on whatsapp or a slack/teams channel; keeping it simple.
  7. Always get feedback on the process and learn from it. Tweak, adapt, change, evolve. 

MIKE

Thanks all for your comments. The path towards success for any individual company will be nuanced in terms of values on the one hand, priorities on their second and, where a third hand is present, their demographics. Add an appetite or at least a receptivity to dialogue, and the stage is set for a potentially successful approach. 

The challenge is when organizations think they can cut corners – economizing on time, assuming the rapid understandability of technical or local information, or treating operational information as being “need-to-know”. You all suggested great ways to do this well – we also need to note great ways to avoid doing this badly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.