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Since the pandemic began last year, business-software developer Jaggaer has hired almost 350 new employees worldwide, increasing its workforce to 1,270.

Included in those new hires were most of the North Carolina-based company’s new senior leadership team, a strategic step after a change of equity ownership in 2019.

“Other than myself and maybe one or two others, the rest of the senior leadership team had never met each other [in person] until [just] months ago,” said Michele Hamill, the company’s chief human-resource officer.

In addition, Hamill had to work with her newly assembled HR team to transform an in-person onboarding program to one that was completely virtual.

Meanwhile, on the West coast, digital lending platform developer Blend had begun its own ambitious hiring program from its headquarters in San Francisco. All told, the company onboarded 375 full-time employees to more than double its workforce to 714 current employees.

Both these companies had planned on rapid growth. What they didn’t expect was that every one of those new employees would have to be onboarded virtually — because of the tiny virus that causes Covid-19.

Lessons learned from these experiences and from other experts are important because the stakes are high for getting the remote onboarding process right.

According to an Aberdeen Group survey, companies with an engaging onboarding program retained 91 percent of their workers through their first year. A 2015 Glassdoor report said new-hire retention can be improved by 82 percent and productivity can be increased by 70 percent with a well-planned approach.

On the other hand, employees who had a negative onboarding experience said they were twice as likely to look for other career opportunities in the future, according to a Digitate survey. At the same time, only 12 percent of workers in a 2017 survey by Gallup said they strongly agreed that their organizations do a good job of onboarding.

Most organizations could up their remote onboarding game by paying attention to culture, communication and connections, experts say.

Cultural challenges

Frank Breitling, managing director and partner at Boston Consulting Group (BCG), has a high-level overview of the challenges organizations faced last year because of the nature of his company’s work. The biggest onboarding challenges involved peer learning and the difficulty of simply asking questions, he says.

“There were instances where the peer-to-peer learning and apprenticeship touchpoints were harder to achieve,” Breitling explained. “There was no longer the opportunity to turn around and tap a co-worker on the shoulder to ask a quick question. Additionally, the opportunity to simply overhear a helpful conversation or shadow a team member was lost.”

Engagement and affiliation also were affected.

“It can be difficult to really understand an organization’s culture remotely when you don’t experience it — as embodied by colleague interactions, physical space and the holistic work environment,” he noted.

These factors play a huge role in welcoming new employees into a company’s culture, experts say.

Before the pandemic, Blend used its three-day “BlendUniversity” in-person sessions to take new employees on a deep-dive into the company’s culture, about a month after they arrived and had their initial orientation.

This served to help new employees “really understand how the pieces work together and how each team works and has impact and brings value to Blend,” said Amanda Delaney, employee experience lead for the company.

Last spring, the company had to make the process a virtual one. Live presentations are now spread out over a two-week period, ensuring that no one spends more than two and a half hours a day in the program to avoid screen fatigue, she says.

“The main goal is connection and educating folks about how the ecosystem works,” Delaney said. Topics include design, marketing, sales, customers, competitors and more. She also gives a talk to encourage new employees to take time that would formerly be spent commuting to do something for themselves.

Communication blocks

BCG’s December 2020 report, The Hidden Tradeoffs of Working From Home, found that during the pandemic people tended to communicate more often with “strong ties” — those with whom people talked with one-on-one for an average of at least one hour per week. Workers also communicated with substantially fewer people per week than before the pandemic.

Interactions with strong ties represented 44 percent of communication pre-pandemic, but in the work-from-home era, they constituted 54 percent of communication. Meanwhile, interaction with weak ties and new connections was down by more than 20 percent over that same time span. As a result, the average information worker communicated with 16.1 fewer people per week (21.7 from 37.8).

A narrowing of communication networks can impact how fast people learn an organization’s culture, said Breitling.

“Some key qualities of a solid community were briefly lost — including building new relationships with peers and leadership, truly understanding the company culture and values and interacting with team members socially,” he said.

He also notes that new entry-level employees found it challenging to overcome these engagement and affiliation hurdles, while experienced hires with prior corporate careers found it easier to adapt to a new environment.

Breitling’s suggestions for re-creating what was lost with remote work include:

  • Assigning mentors to help introduce new employees to their co-workers while ensuring inclusion
  • Providing live coaching via private text chats such as Slack during meetings or sales calls
  • Reinforcing formal training lessons using role-playing sessions with seasoned peers or creating an “observation gallery” so new employees can shadow best-in-class employees
  • Instituting virtual office hours and other virtual opportunities for employees to “tap” co-workers on the shoulder to ask questions

Evolving connections

At Jaggaer, the in-person onboarding program was brand-new right before the pandemic hit. The new virtual version, which replaced it, uses video calls to re-create the “see people in the hallways” feeling that has been lost with remote work.

To further the feeling of serendipitous encounters, Hamill’s HR team created a varied series of events and activities such as a virtual networking event. People were matched up with others and provided helpful initial talking points “simply to have that conversation that you might run into at the coffee station,” Hamill said.

“There’s no rhyme or reason to how people are connected, because it’s intended to replicate the spontaneous connection,” she said.

The company also held “new joiner cohort” social events for new employees and senior leaders around the world to help newcomers get to know each other personally — in a virtual setting, of course.

One employee recently talked about his time as a professional polo player in Serbia, and a master gardener was able to share her pictures with the group.

“It’s very casual and we have a lot of fun with it,” Hamill said.

As for Jaggaer’s leadership team, the group became more adept at communicating by video chat. For example, during in-person meetings, it’s easy to see when a person is done speaking, but on video, it’s more difficult.

Still, simple protocols like “raising your hand” in the Teams interface made it easier to have productive conversations.

“The leadership team adopted a decision-making framework that helps to identify and engage people on the real issues,” said Hamill. “The framework focuses on building buy-in, driving change and building momentum to achieve resolutions.”

In addition, a psychological consultant led them in a team-building program, which helped the new leaders bond, Hamill said. As part of this program, leaders shared information about their professional and personal lives, including surprising backgrounds — one leader was a former marine interrogator, three had been adopted and many had special-needs children.

“It created a vulnerability within the team to understand that we do bring differences, why we have them and how we might leverage those differences,” she added.

The desire for closer connections confirms what the company’s employees have been reporting in periodic HR surveys since the pandemic began.

“What we learned in the surveys is that the sense of isolation and lack of emotional connection were something people missed,” Hamill said. “Part of our charge is to make sure that we’re providing a lot of answers for people’s questions and problems.”

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