I started my first office job at a small Weekly newspaper in southwest Michigan. On my first day, I was shown the time clock and given a tour of the office (and most importantly, where the restrooms were located). I spent time filling out paperwork and reviewing the company handbook with the HR manager. Then, I was taken to my desk, where my new co-workers popped in and out during the day to welcome me. One of them even asked if I wanted to go on a cigarette break. But since I didn’t smoke, I politely declined. Still, it was nice to be invited.

It was a different picture when I joined WorldatWork last year. It was my first time working remotely and for a company that was headquartered in an entirely different state and time zone.

My laptop and monitor were FedExed to me a week before my start date. I was able to complete my paperwork beforehand online. My first day consisted of Zoom calls with IT support, my HR manager and the director of publications. Over the next few days, I was emailed invites to meet other co-workers virtually. Although it was nice to put faces with names, I also understood that I might never see these people without the assistance of a computer screen.

Remote work is nothing new, but onboarding in the COVID-19 era presents an unprecedented situation. WorldatWork’s “COVID-19 Employer Plans  and Employee Perceptions” survey found that 52% of respondents said they virtually onboarded employees during the pandemic, while 50% conducted their training virtually. For many new employees, the reality is that they may never set foot inside a physical workplace again. If that’s the case, is remote onboarding here to stay?

A Great First Day

When the pandemic hit in 2020, many companies had to shift things around literally overnight, especially with how they handled new hires.

Organizations that were already using a remote work/hybrid model were ahead of the game, said Rebecca Starr, area president of the HR consulting practice at Gallagher. But those that weren’t quickly found holes in their plans when they had to move onboarding online. Now that two years have passed, Starr said companies have learned to enhance their onboarding and training efforts to create a more thoughtful and impactful approach.

Sara Vallas, director, employee experience at Willis Towers Watson, echoed Starr’s sentiment. “The best managers found ways to encourage conversation and build relationships in between formal orientation activities,” she said. “This personal outreach from the managers was complemented with other tactics to help new employees get to know the organization’s values, business and work culture. For example, a personalized mobile app can highlight what a new hire needs to know and do each week while also serving up stories that convey the company culture.”

In today’s work environment, pre-onboarding is also crucial.

“We believe pre-boarding is part of the onboarding experience, so every activity is thoughtful in that we are looking to show with our actions how important our new hire is to us,” said Cori Bernosky, WorldatWork’s vice president of human resources.

“One of the adjustments we made was to coordinate all onboarding activities through one central point person in each country and identify one global coordinator to align onboarding activities in both countries.” (WorldatWork has corporate offices in both the United States and India.)

“In the U.S., once the recruiter has received the signed offer letter, we make an official transition to the HR manager who takes over the coordination of the process,” Bernosky continued. “This enables the HR manager to quarterback the process with full visibility to things like sending digital pre-boarding paperwork ahead of the start date, coordinating with our IT team to send equipment and, most importantly, begin creating a relationship with our new hire. This one central point of contact for the new hire makes sure the process is smooth, efficient and highly coordinated.”

Jennifer Donnelly, senior vice president in the organizational effectiveness practice at employee benefits and HR consulting firm Segal, said this kind of clearer communication during pre-on-boarding gives new employees an early sense of the company’s culture and mission, and if those early connections are missed, so is the experience.

"We believe pre-boarding is part of the onboarding experience, so every activity is thoughtful in that we are looking to show with our actions how important our new hire is to us."

After the equipment is set up and the paperwork is completed, there are many other factors that go into creating a great first day.

“It goes beyond security setup and making sure the technology works,” said Jason Stewart, senior director, work and rewards at Willis Towers Watson. “Questions that organizations need to consider: What can we do to create a feeling of belonging? How can we differentiate ourselves from our competitors?

“It’s becoming more common for a welcome kit to arrive at the home, complete with company swag and other gifts,” Stewart said. “More important is finding time for real conversations with the people manager, leaders and other team members that can make all the difference. With the tight labor market, many companies are rethinking the weeks leading up to the first day.”

Stewart suggested three ideas: 1) An early outreach by the hiring manager or an “onboarding buddy” (typically a peer or colleague) can help set expectations for the first day, weeks and months, which can go a long way toward avoiding disappointment; 2) A personalized view of the new hire’s compensation and benefits package can answer a lot of questions ahead of the first day; 3) And something as simple as a video or text from the leadership team (or CEO) would help the new hire feel valued at the organization from day one.

Starr said companies should also focus on treating the new employee as not just a new hire, but as a person. “Join a meet and greet, invite them to a virtual lunch or coffee hour, talk about their pets or family life — encourage conversations that revolve around life outside of work and get to know the whole person.”

Establish Connections Early

As concern for mental well-being rises among remote workers, many companies are making it a priority to make sure new hires get plugged in right away.

“Many of our clients are promoting wellness apps such as TalkSpace or Calm,” Vallas said. “Promoting and supporting emotional health sends the message that the organization is invested in the new hire’s well-being.”

In addition to virtual social gatherings, organizations can schedule new hires who are joining at the same time to be part of a cohort, Starr said. That way they don’t feel alone during their onboarding experience.

Donnelly also encouraged companies to equip and educate managers to look for signs to tell if new employees are feeling disconnected or isolated. “There are strategies they can employ that will keep them positively engaged,” she said.

Stewart added, “An individual may be committed to performing well on the job, but if that person begins to feel disconnected from the organization, then there’s a high risk of attrition, and in fact might be one of the reasons we’re seeing the Great Resignation.”

With remote work becoming the norm, more onboarding and training will occur outside of a typical office setting. As such, Donnelly urges companies to focus on assessing performances and managing results rather than on tasks.

“If a new employee doesn’t receive good training, they don’t get in full productivity,” she said. 

And in some cases, turnover can be a result of a poor onboarding experience, which is why it’s imperative that a good training protocol is needed, and expectations are communicated clearly early on. Donnelly said regular dialogue between a new hire and a manager should be built in for at least the first six months.

Starr agreed.

“Output should be looked at more than how long they are sitting at their computer,” she said. Putting a timeline on onboarding could be a mistake, Vallas pointed out.

“New hire onboarding is the first step toward employee engagement,” she said. “We recommend embedding the idea of continuous engagement as part of the employee experience. Over time, people managers are in the best position to prepare their employees for whatever is next. Whether it’s a new project, a new skill or the next step along the career journey, it’s in the organization’s best interest to keep that employee engaged.”

The Future of Onboarding

So, is remote onboarding here to stay? The answer seems to be yes, mainly because remote work is here to stay.

“We’re in a new era, with more than 90% of employers planning to transition to a hybrid model for knowledge workers,” Stewart said. “Even as offices begin to open up, and more people return to the office, companies that have adapted and successfully developed processes for remote onboarding will continue to do so.”

As with any developing strategy, there will be challenges that come with remote onboarding — equipment, connectivity issues, missed connections, for example — but the pros seem to outweigh the cons.

“One benefit I am most excited about it allows us to introduce our new hires to our global community from the very start of their employment experience with WorldatWork,” Bernosky said.

“Localized content of our onboarding experience is handled by each country separately, but information that is relevant to all WorldatWorkers is done together. From day one, employees have an opportunity to meet and interact with co-workers across the globe. It’s one of the most exciting parts of the WorldatWork experience.”

After finding success with remote onboarding, Donnelly said companies are finding out just how important the experience is — not only to the current workforce, but to the company’s overall future.

“Onboarding is so critical to retention,” she said, “and a positive onboarding [experience] signifi- cantly impacts how long people will stay with an organization. It’s an opportunity for companies to boost retention efforts so they are spending more time creating a robust, thoughtful and engaging onboarding experience.”

Related WorldatWork Resources
Salesforce to Hire 3,300 People in Preparation of Ramp Up
Leveraging ChatGPT as a Positive Employee Development Tool
Soft Skills: A Powerful and Essential Asset for HR and TR Pros
Related WorldatWork Courses
Sales Compensation: Foundation and Core Principles
Sales Compensation: Advanced Implementation and Program Management
Sales Compensation Course Series
Great Workplace Content, Delivered to You

Get the latest expert insights and analysis for leaders in HR, total rewards, business and rewards management — delivered straight to your inbox, for free. #evolve issues are published on a bi-monthly schedule.