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Lessons in Onboarding: Insights from Both Sides of the Trenches

5 important steps to include when onboarding a new employee during a global pandemic.

Onboarding new employees is a tricky process. It demands organizations and their managers work in tandem to bring new people up to speed about company history, policy, and culture, as well as understand the job, team, and goals.

Most organizations struggle to do this effectively under normal circumstances but the complexity of onboarding has been exacerbated by the pandemic, which has interrupted and impacted all aspects of the way businesses and society function and has brought millions of workers into a remote work environment overnight (Harvard Business School 2020).

During the pandemic, I’ve participated in the employee onboarding process as both a leader/onboarding partner to new employees entering a large and complex organization as well as become a new employee onboarding into an organization myself. This experience brought me some unique insights and a few best practices when it comes to onboarding new employees totally remotely.

Onboarding during a pandemic IS NOT the same as onboarding as a remote employee in regular circumstances

The concept of remote work is not novel to the pandemic, but the world has never seen it at this scale before. While there are some obvious similarities between onboarding remote employees and pandemic onboarding (lack of co-location), there are also major differences.

From an external perspective, in addition to the stress of joining a new organization — new employees are likely also dealing with immense personal stress outside the workplace like homeschooling children, the mental effects of isolation and crisis, loss of stable income, or the loss or illness of loved ones impacted by COVID.

In addition to the external environmental differences, often when an employee is hired into a remote role, that employee travels into a corporate or regional office and participates in some sort of in-person processes at the beginning of their employment (HR paperwork, tech set-up, meet and greets, company events, training, goal setting, team building, etc.).

These in-person events are helpful to handle logistics, build relationships, and incorporate the new person into cultural norms. This initial in-person touch point speeds up the onboarding process and paves the way for the new team member to weave into the daily work. The lack of this initial in-person introduction makes the onboarding of new employees during the pandemic uniquely challenging. Thus, it is more important than ever to craft an intentional journey to get new employees up to speed, performing, and engaged with the organization quickly.

It is more important than ever to craft an intentional journey to get new employees up to speed, performing, and engaged with the organization quickly.

There are best practices for organizations, leaders, and other employees

In mid-March, a new member of my team attended orientation the very same day that the organization sent its office staff home indefinitely. After a few bumps in the road, my team and I identified some best practices that we were able to use to successfully onboard another four members into the team virtually. Some of the most important steps to get right include:


Remote employee success fully hinges on having access to the right tools and technology to do the job. Employees should have access to everything they will need (computer, phone, software, and a plan to speak with a member of the technology team to get set up) by the time they start their first day. This builds the confidence of the employee that they made the right choice coming to the organization and that they can be successful, and helps the organization get that new employee up and running toward productivity as quickly as possible.

Day 1 experience

Making a positive first impression is critical for any relationship, and this holds true at work as well. A remote first day should include several touchpoints including their manager, IT, human resources, and potentially some key teammates or stakeholders. Then, the first several days should create a balance between connecting with others and guided but independent learning (company website, job processes, webinars or recordings of previous important meetings, etc.) to create a paced and engaged experience that keeps the new employee excited but not overwhelmed.

Create a support network with an onboarding partner

Managers are busier than ever, and the prospect of creating a great onboarding experience while keeping everything else afloat can feel daunting. Onboarding buddy systems help new employees build a network, understand cultural context, find resources, and learn about the organization, team, and current work. This lightens the burden for busy managers and gives the new employee a safe space and meaningful connection.

Use a roadmap

A simple 1-page roadmap outlining key milestones and timelines can create easy-button resources to a complex learning curve. These milestones should include items like day one orientation, meet and greets, regular manager check-ins, goal setting, and 30-day, 90-day, six-month, and one-year milestone meetings to track progress against key goals. Roadmaps like this can be adopted at the organizational level and tailored by departments or managers to incorporate specifics and nuances.

Build social relationships

Just like Steven Covey lays out in his book Speed of Trust, trust is built on personal connections, and high-trust teams succeed faster and more often. When in the office, trust is often built organically through hallway conversations, lunch, retreats, and team-building events. In a remote environment, this work of building high trust teams must be curated more intentionally, but that does not mean it has to be difficult or time-consuming. Teams can host social or happy hours virtually, and leaders can assemble a committee to organize these events and bring people together to connect socially. Not sure what to do once you are all together? There are lots of websites that recommend virtual activities and games to help your team stay connected.

Thousands of organizations and leaders have learned during the pandemic that with a little creativity and intention, it is possible to onboard, get up to speed, and engage new employees in a fully remote environment. Although there is no substitution for real, in-person human connection, many of these lessons can be taken forward as organizations start to embrace larger remote workforces on a more permanent basis (PwC 2020).

While we will and should continue to have in-person connections in the workplace post-pandemic, we should also embrace many of these new strategies to quickly onboard and engage new employees into the future.

Contact us to learn more about how SHL can help you craft candidate and new employee experiences that engage and harness the power of your people.

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Erin Lazarus

Erin Lazarus is a people science enthusiast and Industrial-Organizational Psychology leader focused on building teams that provide the opportunity for every person to work at their highest point of contribution. At SHL, she leads a team that designs powerful candidate and employee experiences that allow organizations to harness the power of their people. Her team partners with business leaders using science and data to enhance people strategy in areas including employee selection, workplace assessment, organizational culture, employee engagement, performance management, succession planning, and leadership development.

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