5 Methods to Engage, Retain, and Ready Your Employees During Workforce Transformation

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Technologies like machine learning, automation, and artificial intelligence are here, and they are causing massive digital disruption in the business world. As some jobs are destroyed, new jobs are created, and still more are changed dramatically, McKinsey Global Institute projects  as many as 375 million workers may need to switch occupational categories by 2030.

While HR leaders are not always early adopters of tech, they have a key role to play in helping organizations and their workforces adjust to the radical business transformations driven by the emergence of new technologies. As Ben Eubanks, principal analyst at Lighthouse Research and Advisory, puts it : “Disruption isn’t just a buzzword: it’s a very real concern for business leaders. The good news is that HR leaders are ideally suited to fill this gap, because we touch the key functions of hiring, training, and skill development in the workforce.”

There is much uncertainty about how machines and humans will best work together in the future, but one thing is clear: Human employees will remain a necessary factor in realizing the benefits new technologies bring.

Today, HR leaders face a similar transformative window as the one CIOs faced earlier this decade with the move to cloud, SaaS, digital, and open-source usage. HR leaders need to attract, onboard, develop, and retain talent in a hypercompetitive market while also planning for AI’s growing impact across organizational structures, job roles, and skill sets.

As a result, the onboarding of new employees and the preparation of current employees to acquire new skills will grow increasingly important. Indeed, companies will need to prioritize strategic, modern employee onboarding experiences if they hope to succeed as the job market and workforce evolve in the coming decades.

According to “The Awakening: Onboarding Emerges as a Strategic Driver,”  a recent survey from SilkRoad, 70 percent of HR leaders anticipate an increased focus on onboarding in the next three years. The survey also found strategic onboarding — defined as onboarding that provides thoughtful orientation, cultural acculturation, and strategy immersion — causes a 75 percent improvement in long-term retention because of better employee engagement.

Here are five methods HR leaders can use to cultivate modern onboarding programs that foster satisfied, engaged, and productive employees amid workforce transformation and related upheavals:

1. Know Where Your Talent Is Activated and Where It Isn’t

The first step in building or continuing a successful onboarding program is understanding the experience you currently offer. HR leaders can use journey mapping, cultural audits, and onboarding maturity assessments  as tools to assess the total employee experience along multiple stages.

According to HR expert, futurist, and author Alexandra Levit, there are multiple steps to consider as you trace an employee’s path of engagement with your company. Drawing on best practices from Kaiser Associates, Levit suggests  HR start by looking at the employee’s time as a candidate to understand what the candidate did to learn about the company, the process by which the candidate engaged with recruiters or hiring managers, and how the candidate learned enough about the organization to decide whether to come aboard (e.g., interviews, assessments, job shadowing, etc.).

Then, HR must consider the employee’s time as a new hire. HR needs to know the onboarding activities in which the new hire participated, the projects and training opportunities that facilitated integration into the organization, and how the organization fostered an environment of innovation and collaboration.

Once you’ve outlined this trajectory, you can identify gaps where you can hone your onboarding process and update the associated messaging and activities, which may include incorporating information about how the new hire’s role will change as the business looks to the future.

2. Engage the C-Suite in Workforce Onboarding Decisions

Organizations and HR departments that want to keep employee churn low should enlist the C-suite — primarily CFOs — in employee engagement and onboarding. Why? As it turns out, CFOs want to be involved.

According to a 2018 survey conducted by Forbes Insights, 88 percent of CFOs believe the finance function has an important role to play in determining how employee onboarding and engagement affect productivity and labor costs. Nearly two-thirds of surveyed CFOs said their company has a hard time keeping wanted employees, citing low employee engagement as the No. 1 cause of high turnover.

Losing employees impacts the bottom line. One in four CFOs surveyed by Forbes said unwanted turnover accounts for 25-50 percent of labor costs, and one in ten said it eats up more than 50 percent of labor costs. Employee engagement can drive organizational efficiency, sustain a company’s competitive edge, and produce returns on employee investments. As executives continue to recognize the correlation between turnover, onboarding, and engagement, more and more HR departments will be collaborating with the C-suite to engage new hires immediately.

3. Leverage Technology to Personalize and Customize

It is important for onboarding programs to move from solely transactional and compliance-based tasks to thoughtful employee development programs that go beyond completing preliminary paperwork to introduce care, culture, and engagement.

New employees that come from younger generations have new expectations for their employers, according to a 2018 survey by Harris Poll. They want seamless, tech-enabled recruiting and hiring processes.

In a market where there are more open jobs than applicants, companies face the unfortunate reality of candidates ghosting their offers. When a company can automate the offer and preliminary paperwork before an employee’s first day, it both solidifies the employee’s commitment and allows the employee time to research and make decisions about benefits and other administrative concerns. This ensures the employee’s first days are focused on integrating with new colleagues, learning the company’s goals, and sharing personal goals with their new managers.

According to the Harris Poll survey, 51 percent of candidates continue looking for jobs even once an offer has been extended. In light of this fact, HR pros must be sure their onboarding experiences engage new hires right from the start. As consumers, job seekers have become accustomed to the online experience of convenience and immediate gratification. Technology-driven yet customized onboarding programs offer candidates the level of ease and engagement they have come to both expect and demand.

4. Encourage Learning Agility in Onboarding

During digital disruption, the needs of employers will change drastically. So, too, must the mindsets and skill sets of the employees working for these employers.

As Levit discusses in her book, Humanity Works: Merging Technologies and People for the Workforce of the Future , leaders today feel increasingly vulnerable. They are looking for foolproof ways to activate employees in the direction of increased agility and efficiency. Onboarding can aid in this effort by creating the mechanisms and processes for employees to seek out cross-training opportunities in multiple areas of the organization.

One trait that is critical to successful cross-training is “learning agility,” which includes both openness to new information and the ability to derive and apply insights from this information. Your organization’s efforts to build learning-agile teams will pay off sooner if you spell learning agility out as a value early on in the employee training process and make it part of your culture. Onboarding offers an efficient channel through which to implement this change.

Give employees every chance to apply new learnings in real-world business scenarios and reward them for coaching and serving as mentors to their peers. By encouraging certain habits, promoting skill acquisition, fostering intrapreneurship, practicing hands-off management, and making learning easy, HR teams can give the organization a major advantage in an increasingly fast-paced business world.

5. Use Onboarding to Bring Managers and New Hires Closer

In today’s fast-paced talent market, managers can be make-or-break factors in a new employee’s experience. The manager’s involvement in a strategic onboarding program can promote sustained loyalty, whereas their absence can lead to fast turnover.

Unfortunately, too few managers are involved in onboarding. The Harris Poll survey cited earlier found 37 percent of new employees don’t think their managers played critical roles in supporting their onboarding experiences, and 9 percent of employees have left a company solely because of a poor onboarding experience. Both of these statistics could be significantly improved by the inclusion of more managers in onboarding programs.

When managers are engaged and involved in onboarding, the process becomes more inclusive and successful for both the new hire and the organization. By helping senior managers see how strategic onboarding can make their lives easier, the HR team can speed adoption and seriously increase talent retention.

Lilith Christiansen is vice president, onboarding solutions, at SilkRoad Technology.

By Lilith Christiansen