Most employees can relate to the water cooler breaks that they might take, the conversations that they might unexpectedly have with colleagues, and exchanging ideas, but the spontaneous social interactions and casual coaching that happen in a common physical space have gone missing as employees work remotely due to the pandemic.
It is sometimes an overlooked topic but is very important as the small moments are what makes an employee's life all the more enjoyable.
In such a scenario, how do organisations ensure a seamless transition of their new talent and help them build personal connections?
This aspect was focused on in a Fireside Chat between Leesa Rawlings, VP Asia Talent Acquisition and Global Employer Brand, Manulife, and Pambudi Sunarsihanto, Human Resources Director, Blue Bird Group at People Matters Talent Acquisition Conference 2022 as they shared their experiences and insights on onboarding remote talent and building 'real' connections in a virtual world of work.
Challenges for new hires in virtual onboarding
Onboarding is a critical part of a new employee’s journey. It has never been easy to achieve that connection, engagement, knowledge transfer, and get the culture of belonging even before the pandemic hit. On top of that, for the last two years, everyone is predominantly working remotely across Asia which has placed incredible challenges for employees coming in.
“The employers are struggling to provide the connection, empathy, engaging experiences, whilst navigating the virtual workspace during new hire onboarding. The common feedback that I hear is that the new employees feel ‘burdened’…there is such a burden of all the tasks and activity they need to complete during onboarding. It is isolating and also impedes their empowerment. The isolation caused by a lack of engaging experiences delay their sense of belonging and this is a concern. We need to change the way we think about and onboard our new hires to engage and retain them. Think about the huge amount of recruitment effort ad cost required to find and hire top talent into an organisation in this war of talent. It has never been harder to secure top talent so we need to ensure we keep and delight them right from the start,” said Rawlings.
Rawlings, who has been in the TA space for over 30 years, said this is one of the most competitive, fiercely contested battles for talent that she has experienced.
“Once you find top talent and they start with your company, you need to make them feel welcomed and valued so they want to stay and grow their career with you,” she added.
Absence of in-person physical experiences is the key challenge that new hires face, as per Rawlings.
“We tend to underrate those moments when we were able to show the employee to their desk, take them to the cafeteria, introduce them to the team and have those impromptu water cooler waiting outside meeting rooms. Those opportunities have been drastically reduced now and even when we settle on a return to the office model will likely still be servery limited. Engaging with new teams through the virtual world can create a scope of misunderstanding as well around, gauging people's body language, gestures and expressions. It's actually really tough to take those cues from a computer screen that predominantly we used to see face to face,” she stressed.
Given the high reliance on tech to provide the necessary connections during onboarding, consideration must also be given to a new hire’s potential lack of technical know-how. “Technology is the absolute lifeline to new hires, and the onboarding process needs to flow smoothly over so many different tech platforms. But are we setting them up to succeed?” she asked.
Given these challenges virtual onboarding requires thoughtful planning. It can't be just a lift and shift from the existing face to face plans that exist, but it is worth the investment.
Getting onboarding right in virtual environment
Business leaders and HR practitioners put much importance on competence, diploma and experience so that a person can perform well but neglect attitude, behaviour and character, said Sunarsihanto.
“Our job is to balance and blend them together. Every newcomer, no matter how great they were in the previous role, needs to adapt, learn and adjust, which is why onboarding is so important, especially in the context of the digital.
"In the digital age, people pay even less attention, you don't know what the other person is like, whether they are happy or not, can’t gauge the body language and you forget your influencing skills. As a business leader or an HR practitioner, our job is to help them to learn to swim patiently and if we do it properly, they will perform very well,” he added.
Humans vs business - the key focus
As a human resource professional, we need to pay attention to the human aspect and not just chase business numbers, said Sunarsihanto.
“We have to act as a business partner and a strategic leader and take care of key performance indicators (KPIs) on how many people we need to recruit, how much is your lead time to recruit people and what is your engagement and when it comes to chasing these numbers you might neglect the human part. We need to get KPIs right, but let's not forget the raison d'etre... the only purpose for which we are here is because we take care of humans,” he said.
What works in virtual onboarding and how HR leaders could do better
Sharing her personal virtual onboarding experience at Manulife two years back, Rawlings said while she missed the interactions, meetings and water cooler moments, there were some things that the organisation got just right during the process.
She felt welcomed as a team member, the introduction to people prepared her for the role, and her hiring manager was always there for her.
“They got the basics right for me. The onboarding doesn't start on day one, it starts with pre-onboarding where I was given information about how I needed to log in and where I needed to go in the virtual environment. I was sent a video about Manulife and its values very early on, and my manager was in contact with me leading up through to day one. I had my full set of equipment ready on my desk along with a virtual IT assistant available to me for a couple of weeks,” she recalled.
Rawlings said she received a welcome gift which was quite “overwhelming” she said and was a plethora of considerate things that made her feel really welcome.
“They also did very well with setting up informal chats in every single meeting. The most memorable thing was that every single new hire within their first 100 days gets invited to this special town hall with the CEO and that gave me unprecedented exposure and enforced the culture. Thirdly, they just didn't invite me to join up with my team and my key stakeholders, but broadly across the organisation who explained to me what their scope is, how they impacted the business and also adding to the culture,” she said, adding that she was really delighted that the culture was as she thought it would be.
However, Rawlings said the downside of the onboarding process was that they weren't very clear on what her impact or objectives were for her onboarding period and when her onboarding period stopped and started.
Essentials of blending new hires into the organisation’s culture
It is important for everyone to first understand the business context.
“There is content, but above all, there is a context which is the people, the business networking, need to know who are whom, to whom you can ask to get help. The next is culture and the way of working ..For example is it okay to say things on a first name basis or do you need to address people as Mr or Ms, is it hierarchical, democratic or everybody is at the same level? Only after that you discuss the content .. that is the process and the policy. Unfortunately, many companies focus on the process and the policy and forget the business networking, the context, the culture and the way forward,” said Sunarsihanto.
“The guiding star of virtual onboarding is to make sure the new hire experience puts the employee’s need for connection and engagement first, before the business. Building a sense of belonging early creates a pathway to productivity earlier and ensures retention,” added Rawlings.
Role of empathy in remote onboarding
It is important to thread empathy through every part of the process as you anticipate and respond to the needs of your new hire said Rawlings .
She added that in the virtual environment this can be achieved by adopting a HCD (human centered design) approach and perspective, by putting yourself in the other's shoes.
“It is easier to find the answers to the challenges we are facing by thinking about if we are a new hire; what would we be feeling, what would we be thinking, what would we appreciate the most and what would give us those moments of delight and inspiration that would drive engagement? How can we use these reflections to drive solutions specific to our company to overcome virtual onboarding key challenges such as ; limited peer interaction, virtual meeting fatigue, absence of nonverbal cues and battling with tech issues,” said Rawlings.
Sunarsihanto says caring for the new employee is very important.
“When you call up a newcomer in the morning, or when you send a WhatsApp message, ask them how they are and about their family instead of straight asking about the status of a latest project. A human needs empathy, attention and that's what we all often fail to do because of the pressure. Secondly, help them with faster knowledge acquisition by telling them where they can find the information,” he added.
Finally, begin with the end in your mind, Sunarsihanto said. “When people join you, they don't want to stay stuck in that job forever. They want to progress one day in their career. Hence discuss their career development and aspiration with them since day one,” he said.
Not letting the new hire feel alone
Some of the best practices include varying the type of interactions.
“For example, some companies use videos created to feature new hires where they talk about their onboarding experience, what to expect, how to prepare and the watch outs. These are then used to educate the next new hires coming through. These videos are really impactful as new hires hear from someone who has actually gone through the experience by a person who can identify with the new hire experience. Many concerns and worries can be alleviated by the sharing of common experiences.
Another way of varying up the interactions is through chatbots. These can be used to provide answers to all those questions that managers may not be able to answer in a timely way, for example around the uncertainty around Covid office regulations and the impact on working from the office," Rawlings said.
To sum up, she said that the solution lies in a well-planned onboarding experience to create those spontaneous connections in a structured way.
“It is really important to have deliberate time around linked to a clear learning agenda but also the space for varied social interactions, particularly when people are working remotely from home. “
"You never get a second chance to make a first impression and that’s why it is so critical that you get your new hire onboarding right across whatever workplace policy you have now or are likely to land on in the future. Successful onboarding in a virtual workplace requires a different considered ‘human centred’ approach by deploying meaningful opportunities through varied and structured deliberate connections to support new hires on their path to productivity and make them feel like they belong in your culture.” she added.