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New Hire Engagement In A Virtual World: Success Takes More Than Zoom Happy Hours

14 October 2020

How do you keep new hires engaged when they’re working from home and it might be months before they meet the team in person?

Following a clearly defined onboarding process rather than an ad hoc approach has long been a best practice, but the abrupt shift to remote work earlier this year disrupted these workflows. Many onboarding programs are built around in-person experiences, like decorating an employee’s workstation, scheduling coffee dates with co-workers and company mentors, and taking the new hire out to lunch. These early actions lay the foundation for strong co-worker camaraderie, a key part of engagement and retention.

Now, as some offices begin to reopen, teams may be split between in-office and at-home locations, adding new onboarding complications. As businesses consider how to best navigate these logistics, HR leaders have an opportunity to think even bigger and refresh their entire approach to new hire engagement.

Why New Hire Engagement Matters

One in three new hires quit their job within the first 90 days of employment, according to a 2018 survey by Jobvite. Why the abrupt departures? Forty-three percent of employees reported that their day-to-day roles were different from how they were described during the hiring process. From my experience as a recruiter, companies rarely — if ever — intentionally mislead a candidate during the interview process. Instead, what happens is that they fail to set the candidate up for success once they start the job.

When we’re all together in an office, there can be a false sense that new hires are off to a successful start simply because they “seem busy.” And while traditions like decorating a new hire’s desk on the first day of work or taking them out to lunch are important, these one-off moments aren’t a substitute for ongoing engagement, like company mentorship or team buddies. Now that we’re working from home, the appearance of engagement no longer cuts it. We have to do the real work: communication, connection and culture building.

Getting New Hire Engagement Right: The Three C’s

“Organizations with a strong onboarding process improve new hire retention by 82% and productivity by over 70%,” according to research published by Glassdoor. Here’s how to get it right in a virtual world — and establish new processes that will be beneficial for in-person onboarding, too.

Communication

The challenge: As many of us experienced with our own transitions to remote work, finding the right communication cadence with co-workers can be tricky. New employees don’t have the benefit of existing ties, institutional knowledge or insight into workplace norms to smooth over any bumps.

The solution: Don’t leave new hires guessing. Establish clear, consistent communication standards for different channels, and share them with the entire team so everyone is on the same page. Next, assign your new hire an “onboarding buddy” for the first month. This buddy will promptly respond to queries on everything from share drive access to navigating client concerns. Lastly, create a master list with links to key documents like client summaries or sales plans so your new hire knows exactly where to find needed information.

Connection

The challenge: Small talk is essential to building the connections that teams need to thrive. But remote work eliminates the opportunities for many of these serendipitous moments — there’s no casual chat by the coffee maker or office printer. In a virtual world, teams must intentionally create opportunities for these conversations. This is especially important for new hires who have yet to establish a strong rapport.

The solution: I like to start my weekly team calls with a casual question to spark conversation. Who has a funny story from the weekend? What’s the best show to watch on Hulu or Netflix right now? Over time, we learn fun details and can ask follow-up questions. How’s the vegetable garden doing? How did last night’s recipe experiment turn out? We usually spend about five minutes at the beginning of our first weekly call and then move on to the main agenda. These five minutes may not seem like much, but for our team and new hires, it’s a chance to see each other beyond our day-to-day professional roles and feel a bit more human.

Culture

The challenge: Let’s take a moment to consider the general mood of the team that your new hire is joining. While some professionals may be happy to work remotely forever, others are suffering from remote work fatigue. Our jobs may suddenly feel small and insignificant, amplifying these feelings of burnout. This can play out in small ways, like a normally courteous colleague sending an abrupt email reply or a team brainstorming call where no one actively participates. Now, imagine how your new hire will feel joining this team. It’s not exactly an inspiring atmosphere for success.

The solution: Keeping your company culture alive remotely is not easy. Focus on what makes your company special: a collaborative approach to work, a flat hierarchy that makes it easy to connect with leadership or an openness to innovation that enables employees to run with unconventional ideas. During the interview process, these are the values you shared with your new hire, and this is the atmosphere they expect to be joining. Now, consider how working remotely does — or doesn’t — support these values. Are teams still collaborating, or is work happening in silos? Is leadership still open for casual discussions, or is it impossible to book anything on their calendars? Are employees empowered to pursue new ideas, or is everyone locked into a rigid deliverable schedule? These are challenges that may not be solved all at once, but identifying where day-to-day reality has deviated from company culture is an essential first step.

Successful new hire onboarding takes more than checking a few items off a to-do list. A holistic approach centered on the three pillars of communication, connection and company culture will set the stage for successful engagement well beyond the first 90 days.

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