Onboarding Is Even More Important During Times of Uncertainty 

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Onboarding for a new job can be an overwhelming experience under normal circumstances. Joining an organization during a time of uncertainty — or in today’s climate, extreme uncertainty — intensifies that experience.

Even with the best intentions, onboarding can miss the mark when it comes to creating a truly positive experience for new employees. In the midst of a global pandemic, organizations are welcoming new hires who have never met any of their colleagues in person or visited the office. In many ways, these employees don’t know what to expect when they walk through that (virtual) door on their first day.

Times of uncertainty are not the time to minimize onboarding or provide only the basics to new employees. The most effective onboarding has never been a one-day or one-week event, and now — more than ever — we need thoughtful approaches and clear, intentional plans for onboarding.

Here are several things to consider as you set up new hires for long-term success within your organization:

Adopt an ‘Onboard From Anywhere’ Mentality

Many organizations restrict preboarding activities to paperwork and other HR formalities, missing an opportunity to drive engagement and commitment before a new hire even starts. Leverage the preboarding period by inviting new employees to connect virtually with their new colleagues in advance of their first day, and share your entire onboarding plan with your new hire ahead of time so they know what to expect. If a new employee is joining a completely remote environment, send a welcome gift to their home, such as essential supplies and snacks for their “new” workspace.

Connection is key to an “onboard from anywhere” mentality. Ensure new hires immediately have access to the tools they need to do their jobs and connect with their new colleagues. Without proper access to email, chat tools, or videoconferencing software, new hires are completely disconnected from their teams — and in remote work environments, there’s no popping by IT for a quick fix.

Reconsider the Pace and Structure of Your Onboarding Plan

Onboarding is intended to be an experience or collection of experiences, not a one-time event. In times of uncertainty, a slower-paced onboarding plan sets realistic expectations and ensures that onboarding efforts don’t dwindle after that much-anticipated first week.

In their first two weeks, new hires should focus on building relationships, learning about their new roles and responsibilities, and understanding the organization, including its people, culture, and ways of working.

Set performance milestones leading up to day 30, empowering new hires to make value-add contributions, independently complete their work, and adjust to the company’s processes and ways of working. Approaching days 60-90, share preliminary feedback on the new hire’s strengths and development opportunities. Ask new employees to share their own feedback about areas they’d like to get involved with or untapped skills they could use to benefit the organization. Have new hires establish their goals for the next 90 or more days, and then work with them to build a roadmap for how they will get there.

In cases where new employees are onboarding in a completely remote environment, you may need to modify your content so that it can be delivered via interactive presentations, virtual meet-and-greets, videos, and other eLearning channels. Use a balanced mix of content and experiences to keep engagement high, and be sure to build in sufficient time for screen breaks.

Be More Intentional About Making Authentic Personal Connections

Involve many people in the onboarding process so new hires can meet various colleagues and establish personal connections with them. Consider creating a supportive welcome network that includes the new employee’s manager, a mentor, and one or two welcome buddies. Encourage these individuals to take ownership in the onboarding process, and be clear about what that means.

When involving others beyond the welcome network, assign only one or two onboarding topics per meeting to alleviate information overload and, more importantly, allow time for get-to-know-you conversations to happen naturally. Encourage those leading onboarding efforts to focus on more than just the work as new hires get acclimated and build relationships.

For those in completely remote circumstances, recreate the traditional water cooler through virtual coffee dates, team happy hours, and interactive team-building opportunities. New hires learn so much about the organization, its culture, and their new colleagues through hallway conversations and other informal interactions, so it is important to create digital opportunities that replicate the essence of these interpersonal moments.

In a completely virtual environment, new hires may not get the opportunity to look around at what others are working on and observe different styles of working. To address this gap and encourage new relationships, invite new hires to join a brainstorm, task force, or cross-functional team, or help them find an internal project to support.

Empower New Employees to Navigate Work/Life Integration

Just like you and the rest of your organization, your new employees are balancing many priorities beyond their responsibilities at work. Remember that personal obligations can intensify during times of uncertainty. In the current pandemic, new hires may also be dealing with a lack of childcare, a laid-off spouse, a sick friend, or any number of personal challenges that may add to the complexity of work/life integration.

To help alleviate some of the stress, make sure new employees understand your philosophy around work/life integration and your norms around remote work and flexibility. Regardless of how much a new hire shares about their personal situation, be sure to spend extra time on employee mental health and wellness benefits during onboarding.

Take It Slowly

Finally, it is essential to help new employees let go of the idea that they must make a stellar impact starting on day one. Let them know you recognize they have joined the organization during a time of uncertainty, and they do not need to prove themselves by going above and beyond expectations the moment they arrive at the company.

Emphasize that a new hire’s job during their first few weeks is to actively participate in the onboarding experience, build authentic relationships, and get accustomed to their role so they can begin contributing in a meaningful way over time. Give new hires what they need but likely won’t ask for directly: room to breathe and a runway toward making their mark on the organization.

Kate DiChristopher-Yuen is a managing consultant at Notion Consulting.

By Kate DiChristopher-Yuen