Onboarding Was Bad Before the Pandemic, and It’s Only Gotten Worse. Here’s How to Fix It.

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The world of work looks a lot different than it did a year ago, and many are predicting we’ll see lasting changes for years to come, including more organizations opting for permanently remote or hybrid work environments. In this context, the process of successfully onboarding new employees has become more important — and more challenging — than ever before.

Onboarding is a key program that can make or break an employee’s decision to stick around for the long term. Any amount of turnover can harm company culture and productivity, and it can take a serious toll on your bottom line. A great onboarding experience can improve retention by 82 percent. On the flip side, it costs 6-9 months’ worth of a departing employee’s salary to identify and onboard a replacement.

According to a pre-pandemic survey by Gallup, only 12 percent of employees agree their employers do a great job of onboarding. If companies were struggling to deliver great onboarding experiences in person, there’s no reason to think the virtual versions of those same experiences will be any more effective. Agile business leaders need to take this time to reimagine the onboarding experience, leveraging new tools and technologies to create people-centric programs that successfully welcome new hires.

Here are five ways to reimagine your approach to onboarding:

1. Create a Communication Experience, Not a Training Event

Traditionally, onboarding focuses on a few key events, like a first-day orientation meeting and signing up for benefits. Many programs don’t stretch beyond the new hire’s first week at the company. But even before everyone went into isolation, studies showed the first three months of a new hire’s experience were vital for retention.

Make a lasting impact on new employees with an integrated communication experience that carries them through their first 90 (or even 180) days on the job. An onboarding experience built around ongoing communications, easy access to forms and resources, one-on-ones with managers, and virtual team meetings will make much more of an impact than one built around discrete training events. Reach your new employee using channels they’re already using. Send your communications through email, Slack messages, or team meetings. The variety and accessibility of information will keep employees both informed and engaged.

2. Build Culture and Connection.

With fewer face-to-face interactions, you’ll need to think about new ways to connect employees to your brand, culture, and people throughout the onboarding process. Some options to consider:

• Videos featuring company leadership
• Content leveraging employees in more informal settings to evoke the feeling of working together in person
• Targeted communications around personalized programs
• Virtual coffee dates for new hires and colleagues outside their teams
• Culture-centric initiatives like Friday happy hours, interest-specific Slack channels, or opportunities to call out coworkers’ accomplishments

Your opportunity to build a great employee experience starts as soon as a new hire joins the team, and onboarding is as much about making sure your new employee feels like a connected team member as it is about ramping them up in their role.

Check out the latest issue of Recruiter.com Magazine for more career advice and recruiting trends:

3. Measure, Measure, Measure.

You won’t successfully transform your onboarding program overnight, nor will you do it in a silo. To get a sense of whether your onboarding experience is working, measure feedback data like email opens, clicks, and engaged views to get a sense of what employees are connecting with most often. Then, use surveys, polls, ratings, and anecdotal feedback to get a sense of how the program is resonating and where you have room for improvement.

Read between the lines of your data. Are you striking the right tone? Have you used the right delivery channels? Do employees need more information on certain subject matters? Feedback and two-way communications are essential as you continue to iterate your approach.

4. Empower Your People Managers

Hiring managers are huge assets in onboarding: 72 percent of employees say one-on-one time with managers is the most important part of the onboarding process. Integrating leaders into the onboarding process as much as possible is crucial for retention, productivity, and the employee experience.

Equip your hiring managers to provide effective leadership during an employee’s first few months in the role and act as primary sources of support throughout the onboarding phase. Make sure your managers are familiar with the various milestones they’ll need to track and reinforce when a new member joins their team. If you want leaders to play an active, impactful role in the onboarding experience, be sure to also lend them some guidance during the most crucial moments in their new hire’s experience.

5. Use the Right Tools to Ease Your Challenges

To create an onboarding program that thrives in the digital era, leverage technology not only to deliver a great experience but also to save on time and resources.

Onboarding requires several process steps, like completing forms and ordering supplies, that can be streamlined with the right tools. There are also platforms that can help organizations manage overlapping multimonth communication experiences, which is what an onboarding process needs to be in the age of remote work. The technology is there; you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Just find the right tools for your needs.

Even before the pandemic radically transformed the world of work, the lack of a strong onboarding process was always a liability. An investment in ongoing, data-driven onboarding experiences will make all the difference in the hybrid landscape of 2021.

Strategically align new employees with your company’s culture and start them off on the right foot for long, productive careers with your organization. Keep managers in the loop so they can provide the right mix of support and information. And don’t be afraid to leverage the power of technology as you go.

Keith Kitani is CEO and cofounder of GuideSpark.

By Keith Kitani