5 Core Practices to Build an Effective Virtual Onboarding Program
When Numeris realized the pandemic would indefinitely put the brakes on in-person onboarding for new employees, they knew they were prepared to meet the challenge. Fortunately, well before “pandemic” and “COVID-19” became part of our lexicon in human resources, Numeris—an audience measurement whose origins go back nearly 80 years—had built the foundation for its virtual onboarding program.
All onboarding documentation had been migrated to fully digital channels, a digital toolkit was built to help new hires navigate onboarding, and a comprehensive online “100-day journey” was formulated to introduce and immerse a new employee in the company’s culture and values.
“We worked very closely with LHH, particularly on the digital toolkit, to ensure our onboarding program gives our people a complete sense of the values of our organization, our history and structure,” said Jennifer Knibbs, National Director of People and Culture at Numeris. “Everything we created and had been using prior to the pandemic has been shifted to virtual in a seamless fashion. We focused on a program that was flexible and easily adapted. That has really helped us through the crisis.”
Onboarding has always been a critical link in the talent management process at Numeris. Making sure new hires are prepared and equipped to hit the ground running in their new roles is essential to retaining top talent and keeping them engaged.
Research reported by the Society for Human Rights Management (SHRM) has clearly established the relationship between effective onboarding and both retention and engagement. SHRM reported results from a survey conducted by BambooHR, a workforce management software company, that showed up to one-third of respondents had quit a job in the first six months because of what they perceived to be an unfriendly environment, a lack of guidelines about responsibilities and too few training opportunities.
Conversely, research by the Wynhurst Group, a Washington D.C.-based consultancy, showed that employees who had the benefit of a structured onboarding process were nearly 60 percent more likely to be with the same company after three years. The Corporate Leadership Council weighed in with yet another study that showed properly onboarded employees were more engaged, more productive and more likely to engage in discretionary effort for their new employers.
Knibbs said Numeris has always tried to keep in mind that new hires who struggle with onboarding—which can leave recruits with too many questions and not nearly enough answers—are unlikely to become highly motivated, highly engaged employees.
A degree of virtual onboarding has always made sense for Numeris, Knibbs noted. With a head office in Toronto, and three additional offices in Montreal, Richmond (B.C.) and Moncton, New Brunswick, the Numeris workforce has always been highly dispersed.
When social distancing and working from home became standards in the response to COVID-19, it created an opportunity for Numeris to test the limits of their virtual onboarding experience.
“The nature of our business, and the structure of the company, meant that we were already changing how connections were being made between new hires and our managers,” Knibbs said. “Now that we can’t do any of the onboarding process in person, we’ve found that our program does a very good job of creating a good experience and makes our new people feel welcomed and supported, and that they have all the tools they need to succeed.”
The key element in Numeris’ virtual onboarding is the “100-day Journey” for employees and leaders. Knibbs said the program features a broad array of programs and content that covers company values, culture, history and structure. The online materials are augmented with a “Leader Stream,” where new employees can meet virtually with many of the company’s leaders and directly discuss culture and expectations.
The journey concludes with a survey which asks employees if they got all of the information they need to integrate into their new organization, she added.
Organizations that have acted proactively to embrace virtual onboarding build a foundation on a handful of core principles:
1. Onboarding is a journey; take your time. Many organizations try to compress onboarding to limit the amount of “down time” an employee spends getting acclimatized. But a rushed or incomplete onboarding process will create a myriad of problems down the road, including an increased likelihood the employee in question will leave within the first six months.
2. Embrace onboarding as a best practice. According to onboarding research by TalentLMS, only 27% of companies have a fully online onboarding process, 33% use a blended offline and online approach, while 40% have yet to move any part of their onboarding program online. But organizations that do embrace online onboarding and make full use of virtual technologies retain top talent longer and have better overall employee engagement. Map out everything a new hire needs to know in the first 30 days, 60 days and 100 days and make it a formal offering.
3. Think like a new hire. If you ask new hires what they really want, they would tell you that logging onto the company network and meeting key leaders and peers are two of their top priorities. Unfortunately, many onboarding programs get bogged down at the start with endless paperwork. Identify, simplify and digitize all forms and resources so that new hires can complete everything online without feeling overwhelmed on their first day.
4. Reach out and make contact with managers and mentors. Take steps to recreate formerly in-person aspects of onboarding in a digital environment by making full use of video conference calls with managers and mentors. New hires need to work with their managers to make time for self-directed learning, mentoring, coaching and cross-functional knowledge sharing. Build in milestones that allow new hires to develop a goal-orientated mindset.
5. Get an early start. There are huge benefits to be reaped by starting the onboarding process before a new employee’s first day. Introducing them to the online onboarding journey and getting HR paperwork done as early as possible will allow new hires to focus on absorbing the culture and values of their new organization.
Focusing on these core elements, Numeris was able to create a virtual onboarding process that was purpose-built for the pandemic. “We were thrilled to be recognized with a Brandon Hall Award for our all virtual onboarding program. We don’t expect employees to simply figure things out for themselves. We’ve created a scalable onboarding journey that’s driving efficiencies and consistency. When lockdown hit, we were ready.”
“A lot of organizations think onboarding is something that you can do in one week,” said Knibbs. “It takes much longer to prepare a new employee. And the research shows that the first 100 days is a critical period in the process of building that new relationship. We didn’t want the pandemic to impact our onboarding process and it appears that we haven’t skipped a beat.”