Onboarding 7 min

Virtual Onboarding During a Crisis

June 30, 2020

COVID-19’s arrival ignited a global health and economic crisis with astonishing speed. As the crisis continues to evolve, companies are scrambling to adapt to rapidly-changing disruptions affecting every facet of their business, including onboarding new hires. With face-to-face meetings restricted or prohibited in many organizations, virtual onboarding has proven its mettle as a viable alternative for onboarding during a crisis.

How Does Virtual Onboarding Differ from Regular Onboarding?

Virtual onboarding, also known as remote onboarding, is a process for introducing new hires into an organization without bringing them into the workplace for conventional onboarding meetings and training. Instead, these activities take place via video conferencing, webinars, online interactive exercises, and other technologies.

Whether you’re dealing with a pandemic, a natural disaster, or some other emergency, virtual onboarding can make onboarding during a crisis smoother and more efficient for both employers and new hires. And, as you’ll see, it doesn’t have to feel cold or impersonal.

Who’s a Good Candidate for Virtual Onboarding?

With nearly seven in 10 U.S. employees working from home during the pandemic, a growing number of employers have shown interest in virtual onboarding—but how do employees feel about it? Many appear well positioned to embrace it. Most remote workers and job seekers say they prefer remote work and hope the working-from-home trend continues, crisis or not. Being predisposed to a virtual work experience helps make these people excellent candidates for virtual onboarding in their next job.

Virtual onboarding may also work well for some workers in non-remote jobs, but this article focuses on its usefulness for those in remote positions.

Of course, not every business has been fortunate enough to be hiring workers during the COVID-19 crisis. Many have had to tighten their belts or close their doors. But some industries, such as technology, have been less affected by the downturn and continue to hire for positions that are well suited to remote work. Virtual onboarding can be an appealing option for them while their offices remain closed or restricted and many individuals continue to practice social distancing.

What Are the Goals and Benefits of Virtual Onboarding?

Employees who are onboarding during a crisis have the same needs as all new hires. So, even though the methods are different, most of the goals of virtual onboarding are identical to those of conventional onboarding. They include:

Employees who are onboarding during a crisis have the same needs as all new hires.
  • Familiarizing new hires with their new company and culture
  • Having them complete the necessary documents
  • Providing the tools, training, and guidance they need to get up to speed and succeed
  • Helping them feel included and welcome

During a crisis, one additional goal is also important: helping to calm workers’ jitters about the emergency. Without being dishonest or blindly optimistic, do your best to reassure them that your organization is prepared to cope with challenging conditions and provide a secure and supportive online work environment. Express confidence in your new colleagues, reminding them that they will play an important part in helping the company emerge from the crisis successfully.

Virtual onboarding not only shares many of the same goals as conventional onboarding; it can also provide many of the same benefits, such as:

  • Better new employee performance
  • Greater engagement
  • Increased retention
  • Shorter time after hire until new employees are fully productive

The secret to reaping these benefits is simple: create a satisfying virtual onboarding user experience every step of the way.

Learn creative strategies to keep remote employees engaged with our free checklist.

What Should You Include in a Remote Employee Onboarding Checklist?

Great virtual onboarding begins before a remote worker’s first day on the job and continues for as long as it takes them to get fully up to speed. As soon as they accept your offer, start building the new hire’s enthusiasm and engagement. Then, maintain that momentum by guiding them along the path to success during their first days, weeks, and months. Well-designed employee onboarding software can automate parts of the process and help you keep things well organized and moving forward.

If this process sounds a lot like conventional onboarding, it should. The principles are the same. The difference is, you need to consider whether and how each step may need to be modified for a remote worker.

A good virtual onboarding program should be customized to your company’s culture and deliver the information and skills remote workers will need to thrive in their new jobs. Here are some key steps to include during remote employee onboarding.

1. Send an electronic preboarding packet.

Make a great first impression as you help them get oriented. Include:

  • A personal welcome email from their manager
  • The employee handbook
  • Forms to fill out and sign electronically for benefits enrollment, taxes, direct deposit, emergency contacts, etc.
  • An “about me” questionnaire to fill out and share with their new teammates
  • A checklist of what to expect during their first day and first week
  • Info about the company’s history, products, leadership, etc.

2. Make sure they’re properly equipped.

Plan equipment needs well in advance. Will your new hire need a company laptop? What about other equipment such as a tablet, smartphone, or accessories? Make sure to order everything in time for IT to check it out, install needed software, and ship it to the remote worker before their first day. (Try to avoid requiring new hires to pick it up at the office when onboarding during a crisis.) Also, provide a phone number for your company’s tech support in case they have questions or problems.

3. Ship some swag, too.

Invite remote workers to identify with their new brand by sending them some cool company swag, such as a T-shirt, backpack, coffee mug, etc. Enclose a friendly card or note signed by their new teammates.

4. Open the communication channels.

Make sure your remote employee will be able to connect with everyone and everything they need to do their job. Have IT set up their accounts for email, chat, the HRIS, project management software, etc. Also, make sure they will be invited to all relevant department and company meetings and can attend online.

5. Spread the word.

Tell teammates and other workers who will interact with the new hire when they will begin work and what their role will be.

6. Help them settle into their role and form relationships.

There’s a lot to do in a remote worker’s first weeks to help them feel welcome and get up to speed. Depending on employee and company circumstances, this phase of remote employee onboarding might include providing:

  • A virtual welcome lunch via team video conferencing on the first day
  • A team member who has been assigned to be the new remote worker’s go-to buddy for questions
  • One-on-one online meetings with each team member to learn about different roles and how they will interact
  • Online meetings with other employees or teams the new hire will work with
  • Opportunities to learn about the company’s culture, mission, vision, and values, perhaps in live calls with company leaders
  • Weekly online meetings with the remote worker’s manager for the first several weeks to establish expectations, answer questions, and track progress
  • Training in needed job skills using the company’s learning management system, instructional videos, webinars, online meetings with in-house trainers, or other resources
  • A mentor or coach who can help them grow into their new role and develop a satisfying career path in the company
  • Their first project to work on, which should be something they can accomplish quickly and successfully to build their confidence

7. Get the most from performance management.

As a remote worker dives further into their new job, strong performance management helps foster success. But improving performance requires much more than the traditional annual employee review. The remote worker and their manager should collaborate often throughout the first year to set goals and performance milestones, monitor progress, and solve emerging issues before they become big problems—especially during a crisis, when both the employee and the company may be facing extraordinary challenges.

Well-designed performance management software makes it simple to give and receive employee and manager feedback online. Both formal meetings and informal check-ins can take place through video conferencing, chats, phone calls, emails—whatever is most convenient.

What employees want from performance management—and how to provide it

8. Help remote workers continue to grow.

Great remote employee onboarding that continues through a worker’s first year helps increase job satisfaction and cement a positive and rewarding relationship that will continue for years to come. One of the things remote employees say they want most is learning and development opportunities to help them strengthen their skills and develop their careers.

Once they have mastered the basics of their new job, you can begin offering these opportunities. Since onboarding during a crisis means you can’t invite remote workers to train in your workplace, look for online training opportunities. This might include creating classes taught by your in-house experts, providing links to training videos, etc.

Tip: Don’t stop. Wise employers nurture increased retention by continuing to provide appealing learning and development opportunities for as long as an employee stays with the company.

The Future of Virtual Onboarding

During a crisis, remote workers may need even more help than usual to thrive in their new work environment. Virtual onboarding can be a great solution. But deciding whether to use virtual onboarding doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing choice. If the crisis eases and restrictions begin to relax, you may be able to safely conduct some onboarding activities in person. That could give you and your new hires the best of both worlds.

Looking beyond the current pandemic, it seems likely that once more employees and organizations learn how efficient virtual onboarding can be, it will become more widespread and will be here to stay.

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Kent Peterson

Kent Peterson is a writer at BambooHR. He has also created award-winning work in radio and television.