Rethinking Onboarding as Employees Return to the Office
#evolve Magazine
November 20, 2023

From Amazon to Zoom, companies are bringing employees back to the office. According to an October 2023 survey of 1,000 company decision makers, 9 out of 10 whose organizations have office space will have returned to those facilities by the end of 2024. With more companies ramping up their return to office (RTO) plans, many are also retooling their onboarding experience.

Onboarding today presents new challenges and hurdles for employers to navigate. During the height of the pandemic, onboarding largely moved online, forcing employers to adjust accordingly. Now, the onboarding process is undergoing a new transformation in terms of delivery and messaging.

The greatest challenge employers now face with respect to onboarding and RTO is managing employee expectations about when and where they can come into work, said Kate Bravery, global advisory solutions and insight leader at Mercer.

“Onboarding must be seamless for all employees,” Bravery said. “Employers have an opportunity to re-engage their workforce by focusing on social, mental, physical and financial aspects of work, and how each of those aspects are intertwined with RTO.”

But how can companies use the onboarding process to make in-office work attractive to both people who are new to the company and existing employees who have been working off site for some time?

Make It Immersive

After more than three years of working remotely, some employees are resistant to returning to the office. In fact, 56% of employees know someone who has quit or plans to quit a job because of return-to-office mandates, according to a FlexJobs survey of 8,400 individuals. Therefore, individuals who don’t want to return to the office most likely do not want to come in for onboarding either. 

If an employer is requiring a new employee to come into the office for onboarding, it has to be worth their while, said Brad Frank, a senior client partner in the global technology practice at Korn Ferry.

Sitting at a table in a conference room and looking at a large screen while the HR manager reads from slides about the company’s benefits and culture doesn’t fit the bill, Frank said. Instead, he recommends creating an immersive experience.

“Move into small breakout groups and talk about what culture means and what challenges they want to overcome,” Frank suggested. “Work with a single manager and talk about expectations. Make it personal and real so that person walks away with a great experience — and then create that same feeling tomorrow.”

Bravery said an inspiring and engaging onboarding experience can make people more willing to come into the office on a regular basis. According to her, successful onboarding includes the following elements: 

  • Technical support: The employee must get access to the tools and systems they need.
  • Social interaction: There must be opportunities for the employee to connect with their manager, their larger team and key stakeholders.
  • Functional instruction: The experience must help the employee become familiar with tasks, responsibilities and work structure.
  • Cultural integration: The employee must gain an understanding of the company’s values and purpose and the way things are done.

Different Groups Have Different Needs

While best practice says cultural onboarding must happen within six months to be effective, that’s not always the case when a RTO is involved, according to Bravery. Digital processes can direct new or returning employees to live interactions, encouraging socialization and re-acquaintance with in-office work. However, the benefits of in-person work won’t be realized if employees turn up to a near-empty office.

“It’s important to be intentional about the purpose of working together and the unique benefits it brings to the business and people,” Bravery said. “When designing the onboarding experience and messaging, consider the different needs and attitudes of not only new hires, but returning mothers, veterans and those moving into fluid or flexible roles. Each group will have different needs that a move back into the office will need to consider.”

Setting up “buddy” programs or mentoring relationships can help mitigate social isolation among employees being onboarded, Bravery noted.

“If these [initiatives] can connect employees with colleagues they are unlikely to cross paths within their day-to-day work, it also improves their understanding of the different perspectives and experiences within the company,” she said.

Additionally, different generations have different needs when it comes to RTO and onboarding. For example, Morning Consult’s 2023 State of Workers report found that nearly 90% of Gen Z employees (those born between 1997 to 2012) prefer to work at the office, citing productivity as the reason.

“Many Gen Zers were onboarded in the middle of the pandemic into jobs while based from their childhood homes,” Bravery said. Now, they’re interested in being part of a more traditional workspace.

She added that research from Oliver Wyman shows more than half of Gen Zers who left their jobs or are seeking new positions are burned out, suggesting that remote work hasn’t been doing this generation any favors in terms of their well-being.

Creating a positive onboarding experience for young employees is a good first step to putting them on a positive career path, Frank said. Employers can create onboarding cohorts for people of similar ages and with comparable experiences, but multi-generational cohorts can also be beneficial, especially for young employees who are entering an office environment for the first time.

Jennifer Donnelly, senior vice president in the organizational effectiveness practice at Segal, said building connections early for Gen Z is key. Because this group tends to be tech-savvy, Donnelly encouraged employers to get creative with onboarding tools, such as using gamification to make the experience more fun and interactive.

“It’s important to be intentional about the purpose of working together and the unique benefits it brings to the business and people.”

Re-onboarding Existing Employees

As employers reopen their offices, conversations about re-onboarding employees, especially those who started remotely, have emerged.

According to Bravery, successful re-onboarding can reinvigorate returning employees by giving them a “fresh start.” One way to do this is by highlighting different opportunities for flexibility in the workplace, such as job sharing, flexible hours, internal talent marketplaces, paid time off and sabbaticals. This takes the conversation about workplace flexibility beyond “on-site versus remote” and can help employees understand that flexibility covers more than just where they perform their job, Bravery said.

Donnelly added that providing a “refresher” onboarding program for employees gives them an opportunity to conduct in-person activities they may not have had a chance to do initially, such as taking a tour of the office.

Frank said re-onboarding should also include managers who were not able to physically meet their teams because they were working off site. This allows managers to reiterate themes of collaboration, teamwork and expectations. It also provides an opportunity to reinforce company tenets, such as the company’s culture and vision, that are often lost in a remote environment, he explained.

And what about hybrid employees who prefer to come into the office a few times a week? (On average, hybrid employees report coming into the office 2.6 days per week, according to Gallup.)

When it comes to re-onboarding them, Bravery said, there should be opportunities to interact both in person and remotely to ensure all employees receive the same level of guidance. For instance, setting some guardrails around meeting time versus focus time, in-office attendance and expectations for out-of-office work can all help to smooth the way, maximizing the benefits of flexibility while maintaining structure.

Additionally, clear communication is essential. Bravery noted for new employees, if the expectation of RTO is clearly set at the interview stage, the onboarding process will be smoother, and employees can focus on engaging and integrating into the business.

“If this is a change in business directive, then managers can look to engage employees to inspire them about the benefits of being back together,” she said.

And, it’s possible for RTO practices to evolve over time. For example, the first three to six months can be weighted toward on-site work to maximize a new employee’s network, along with informal learning and social opportunities, before a longer-term flexible setup is established. This, along with contact days, learning weeks and other periodic interventions, can support gradual RTO strategies, Bravery said.

Overall, creating a common onboarding experience for all employees produces a more successful workforce and leads to higher engagement and retention, according to Frank.

Donnelly said some companies are adding more staff dedicated just to onboarding.

“It’s not just a HR task,” she said. “Companies are putting a more robust system in place, adding resources and tools for managers so they are well-equipped to be a part of onboarding a new employee.”

An Evolving Situation 

Newly hired employees returning to the office may be entering a different environment from the one they’re used to. Employers should listen to these individuals and try to understand where they’re coming from, and then address any concerns they may have about returning to the office, Frank said.

“Are they coming from remote or hybrid work?” he said. “Not everyone will be the same. People will be coming in from different angles and perspectives, but keep in mind you are hiring talent today for skills for the future.”

Donnelly said she doesn’t see remote work going away, so digital and hybrid onboarding will continue to be part of the equation. Going forward, she believes companies may incorporate artificial intelligence (AI) and chatbots into the process to help quickly field and answer onboarding questions so that in-person time can be focused on connecting with colleagues.

New tech and AI advancements will also offer more onboarding customization, according to Bravery. “AI will bring more opportunities for hyper-personalized onboarding, which is optimized based on new joiner feedback about what they found the most useful, where the gaps were and what engaged them,” she said.

The technology could also make onboarding more efficient and better connect the dots between onboarding, engagement, progression and retention down the line. However, the human connection needs to stay front and center, and the company must support employees throughout their tenures.

“Remember that onboarding is only one in a series of moments that matter in an individual’s career,” Bravery said. “Onboarding and cultural integration are not one-and-done; they are a way for a company to show it cares, and it is a process that will constantly evolve to set people up for success.”

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