Bridging the social distance divide: onboarding in the COVID era

Even in a hugely disrupted jobs market, firms are still hiring – and many people are joining a company without meeting their new colleagues in person.

These first days are crucial, and a positive onboarding experience can increase employee retention, improve productivity, and make people more likely to recommend their workplace to friends and relatives.

However, research by Gallup in the US showed that only 12% of employees thought their organisation did a good job of onboarding, and a similar picture is emerging worldwide. This is a pre-COVID-19 finding, so even without social distancing measures there has long been an imperative to find a better way.

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A successful onboarding process must embrace several factors: create a sense of belonging, include socialisation and networking opportunities, provide learning activities, have clear, defined goals, and communicate the company culture.

It should also provide the right interventions at the optimum times. New starters typically feel excitement in their first few days, quickly followed by a loss of confidence and potential emotional crisis.

That’s why onboarding shouldn’t just be a checklist. This is the perfect time to encourage employees to connect with an organisation by providing a mixture of the rational (what we need to do and how we do it) and emotional (how we connect and behave).

In terms of the rational, digital content can enable new starters to understand the organisation and their role within it. An effective toolkit for informational content should include film to humanise staff members and explain what they do, interactive learning modules, and live virtual sessions using a tool such as Adobe Connect to provide fun and engagement and enable new colleagues to ask questions in a low stress, low stakes, environment.

Turning to the emotional side of things, enhanced experiences and content will support new starters in getting to know the wider teams. Remember, though, that remote doesn’t necessarily mean digital. Why not think like Apple and make new starters’ first touchpoint feel extra special?

Deliver a beautifully packaged gift box from their leader to provide all they need for a good start in their home environment.

Include easy-to-source, but meaningful, gifts like personalised slippers, biscuits and pens, but also harness the power of immersive technology to really show where the company is going – a personal video message from the boss triggered by a QR code perhaps? Or Google Cardboard to help explore via 360° photography.

Everyone is used to receiving (and ignoring) information supplied by intranet or PDF, so a booklet or magazine now feels special. Content could include tips on wellbeing and work-life balance, insider knowledge, advice on where to go for support, and "get to know me” information from key team members

The toughest part of starting a new role is feeling like an outsider. That’s hugely magnified when there’s no friendly lunch table or bonding over after-work drinks. Compensate for this by encouraging new starters to introduce themselves through user-generated content challenges, and virtual Zoom or after-work lunch groups.

And don’t forget the HR department. Make it easy for line managers and the HR team to provide these experiences through pre-formatted emails and easy-to-use communications tools for key moments.

That might sound like a lot of work but you can team with external advisers to create an experience that works. The benefits in terms of employees who are engaged, more effective and less likely to chuck in the towel, leaving you to start the recruitment process from scratch, are the potential payoff. That’s too important to leave as one of those “oh, and if you have time could you…” tasks.

Tim Powell-Jones, lead learning designer, Logicearth, the digital learning division of The Creative Engagement Group