More than just “online”: Practical tips for adapting your employee onboarding processes during the pandemic

Carolyn Hibbs, PhD

During the pandemic I have had the opportunity to ask several organizations how they have adapted their employee onboarding processes. Most of them have responded: “well, it’s virtual now”. While there are a growing number of helpful articles about online onboarding, one of the first I found still claimed “the only difference is that these sessions are held virtually.” But it’s not that simple! I encourage association leaders to consider how onboarding must be further adapted within the online format—it’s not just a matter of delivering the same information via videoconference, shipping a laptop to a new hire’s home, and setting up a remote server connection.

In general, association leaders have learned through the pandemic that “working remotely” is not as simple as just continuing the same work from home and meeting online. I’ve collected some practical tips that I believe are key to success during the process of training a new employee, and will contribute to the success of your team beyond onboarding.

Think deeply about building culture

Working from home is a skill: Don’t assume that everyone knows how to work from home, or that working from home is just the same work in a different space. This skill is learned. As well as reviewing formal policies with new co-workers, review tips on working from home, such as defining physical space and hours, communication strategies, and unique health and safety factors.

Mentoring & supervision: Outside of a physical workspace, it’s more difficult to manage the two-way street of relationships in terms of both accountability and approachability. We are still developing our understanding of the psychological impacts that the pandemic has had on focus and productivity. Losing the natural flow of a physical office means that employees can miss out on regular mentoring and supervision. While working remotely, it’s best to take a proactive approach to mentoring, and plan for formal and informal check-ins throughout the day. Use a variety of styles, including team meetings, one-on-one meetings, group and private chat, and written reporting. As much as “micro-management” has a negative connotation, start with more communication and supervision than you feel is necessary; it’s easier to decrease that level of contact than it is to increase it.

Online tasks & stamina: “Zoom fatigue” is real for both the new employee and the manager leading the onboarding—and switching to another online meeting platform doesn’t solve that! The pandemic has brought interest to research which looks at the psychological effects of seeing yourself on camera all the time—including increased anxiety and loss of focus. Make sure to space out review of the organization, mission, values and policies over several weeks, leading with practical and time sensitive information such as health and safety information. Break down job tasks into components to space them over more time, while building a base for further training. Involve the new employee with directing the pace, and be aware that they may not want to admit that they’re tired while they’re trying to make a good impression—err on the side of shorter sessions.

Relationship-building: During the pandemic it has become very apparent how much we rely on social interactions in the workplace; social interactions that allow co-workers to build trust and an understanding of the nuance within each person’s contributions. Without a physical workspace, these interactions need to be much more intentional, especially while building relationships with a new co-worker. Set up a “just for fun” category in your online chat platform, and schedule regular online lunches or “happy hours” to focus on relationship-building. Schedule one-on-one sessions between the new employee and each of their team members. I also recommend using a guided activity to improve engagement in team sessions, such as a conversation-starter card deck.

Accessibility and accommodations

This point deserves its own section. The challenges of the pandemic have forced us to think on a practical level about accessibility and accommodations for all employees, and not just the ones who state a need. We’ve prepared for a higher risk of absence due to serious illness from contracting the COVID-19 virus. There have been plenty of articles on how women—a majority of workers in the nonprofit environment—have been forced to juggle childcare and work. We’ve learned that between 17% and 30% of our co-workers have a long-term invisible disability which has changed their risks and needs during the pandemic. The gaps in our internet infrastructure have become very visible. From a legal perspective, employees are protected from job loss because of contracting COVID-19 or because of parental or disability status. From an ethical or sustainability perspective, organizations can’t afford to lose the knowledge, skills and perspectives of experienced employees.

We take for granted how much we rely on non-verbal cues to adapt our workplace environments. For example, on-site we notice when a co-worker closes their door and doesn’t leave their desk all day, but do we notice when a co-worker doesn’t participate as usual in the social exchanges in the online chat group? What are our expectations about how co-workers participate in online meetings that we don’t expect from them during in-person participation? How has women’s domestic labour become visible during the pandemic as the line between home and work has disappeared? Do we acknowledge that employees may have technical difficulties based on the infrastructure at their physical location, which may make them feel that they’re lagging behind their co-workers who have seamless video and audio?

Adapt to flexible hours: The pandemic has made the 9-5 workday difficult in many cases. Many employees need flexible hours to coordinate childcare as schools and daycares changed hours or closed. The incidence of mental illness has increased to include up to 40% of adults. Consider focusing more on goals and benchmarks than “hours worked”. When you’re on-site it’s clear that you’re “working” even when you’re thinking, planning, organizing or building relationships. Encourage employees to engage with and document these processes off-site, even if they look different.

Talk about accessibility and accommodations routinely and explicitly: Managers and leaders need to make accessibility and accommodations considerations clear to everyone on the team.  Avoid using an individual team member as an example; everyone needs this information whether they have disclosed a need or not. State explicitly and give regular reminders that it’s ok to turn cameras off. Tell your team that you understand that their children will show up on video and audio calls, then demonstrate that understanding when they have “unexpected guests” and give them a moment to address it even if it’s inconvenient. Develop a backup plan to adapt to technical difficulties. Check in both as a team and privately to assess energy levels and adapt as needed day-to-day. Review your cross-training plans and assign more than one person to work on public-facing, priority or time-sensitive tasks.

Working remotely into the future

Given the benefits and relative ease of moving to a remote workspace, we can expect to need online onboarding even when the pandemic ends. All of the tips and tools we’ve used during the pandemic will improve on-site onboarding and the workplace environment. Our ability to adapt and be flexible has been tested during the pandemic and for the most part we’ve succeeded in the face of challenges we could never have imagined. The best lessons we’ve learned about online onboarding will influence the ways we relate to and lead teams into the future. We have a unique opportunity to learn from these challenges and intentionally build a culture of remote work that is productive, accessible and positive.

Dr. Carolyn Hibbs helps nonprofits improve their governance and operations, drawing from 15 years of leadership experience with student, labour and healthcare focused associations. Connect with Carolyn on LinkedIn.