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​Employee Onboarding in a Virtual World

Bringing on new hires presents unique challenges in a work-from-home environment.

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​Virtual onboarding has become a necessity for organizations in the COVID-19-created work-from-home environment. While 75% of executives anticipate at least half of office employees working in the office by July, according to a recent PwC report, the work-from-home model is expected to remain a permanent fixture of the business landscape. The study, It's Time to Imagine Where and How Work Will Get Done, indicates that work arrangements most likely will take the form of a hybrid in-office/work-from-home model.

Meanwhile, onboarding of new employees will have to adapt to the post-COVID world. In fact, The IIA's publication OnRisk 2021: A Guide to Understanding, Aligning, and Optimizing Risk identified talent management as among the most relevant risks for 2021 and a priority for improvement.

Integrating new employees into the organization — which can include everything from payroll and benefits to an introduction to the corporate culture — is crucial to their success and the likelihood they will stay with the organization. Employee turnover was a problem even before the pandemic. What People Really Want From Onboarding, a 2018 study by human resources (HR) software provider BambooHR, found that 31% of respondents quit a job within six months of starting it. Additionally, a 2019 survey by employment website Indeed found that in jobs where people left within the first six months, 40% say a more effective onboarding process could have helped them stay longer.

Adapting to Remote Processes

Despite the disruption caused by the pandemic, the basic elements of onboarding — payroll, benefits, and other paperwork  — have gone well at IIA Global Headquarters in Lake Mary, Fla., says HR Managing Director Stacy Brooks. The IIA started using DocuSign several years ago, so it was ready when the onboarding process moved remote. New employees also were able to access other documents through an online workforce management portal and were emailed IIA-specific internal forms to upload and review.

Zoom chats, phone calls, and emails all play a role in communicating with new hires to make sure IIA staffers are available to answer questions. "It was not that far of a stretch, just a different experience in that they were no longer sitting across a conference table from us," Brooks says.

New hires face a learning curve in terms of communication, says Stephanie Lopez, senior internal auditor at Hasbro Inc., a toy, board game, and media conglomerate based in Pawtucket, R.I. "It does take more work to think about how to engage in communication virtually with coworkers in the day-to-day."

New hires put into the virtual work-from-home world face challenges, because the work environment cannot be controlled like that of an office, Lopez says. The challenge is to get the employees out of their home environment and into a work environment. "When you hire someone you have to train their mind to focus in a virtual environment and on the benefits of creating a work space at home," Lopez says. "The big risk would loss of company time, so we have to find ways to avoid that, by setting up meeting times, reminders on the calendar, or even coffee breaks to come together as a team."

Motivation is an additional concern. "Part of the hiring process is asking yourself, 'Is this person self-motivated?'" says Robert Cahoon, manager, internal audit, at Hasbro. "If they are not, this can be a challenge when the person is working from home." Cahoon says he assigns a mentor to new hires, while Lopez herself mentors new hires.

However, the new employee's experience also can play a part in onboarding. A person without much work experience coming into a job in this work-from-home virtual world might find it harder to connect with coworkers at different levels in their careers, says David Petrisky, who recently joined The IIA as director, Professional Practices. For his part, Petrisky says he has had little problem with the onboarding because he has more experience working in organizations, and no problem working independently.

Toby DeRoche, an internal audit consultant based in Jacksonville, Fla., says assignment of a mentor has helped him learn the culture of his employer. His mentor calls weekly and has been proactive in reaching out, DeRoche says. "Having more touch points and more frequent communication makes a huge difference."

The average new hire has more than 50 activities to complete during onboarding. Some ways to organize that process include:

  • Covering the right information. This includes key company information such as policies and values, overview of teams and departments, and where to find resources.
  • Tailoring digital onboarding materials for impact. Create content in different formats (videos, one-on-one training, screen sharing, phone calls, etc.) to avoid Zoom fatigue. Consider different ways for remote employees to set up their technology, such as videos with step-by-step instructions.
  • Being flexible. Acknowledge the juggling of work-life balance, and consider letting new hires work through some resources at their own pace.
  • Thinking beyond the first week. Spread out onboarding tasks to give new hires time to absorb important information. Look for ways to build engagement and connection.

In addition, Indeed lists 16 steps, plus a day-by-day schedule, to follow when building a successful virtual onboarding experience.

Learning the Company's Culture

Apart from the basic payroll and benefits paperwork, new employees also face an arguably greater challenge of becoming part of their new organization's culture. The IIA Practice Guide, "Auditing Culture" (2020), defines organizational culture as "the invisible belief systems, values, norms, and preferences of the individuals that form an organization."

Helping new employees understand and feel a part of an organization's culture can be especially challenging now. Brooks cites hurdles associated with making new hires feel instantly engaged and welcomed when they are not able to come to the office, get a tour, and meet other staff members. "That piece of engagement for a new employee can be a bit of a challenge," she says. Zoom meetings and telephone meetings are both critical in the new-employee onboarding process; for those who live locally, in-person meetings at The IIA's headquarters in Lake Mary may take place.

Pre-pandemic, onboarding at Hasbro was a multiday event, introducing new employees to the company and its history. Shannon Urban, vice president, chief audit executive, joined the company in late March shortly after the work-from-home policy was instituted and received a condensed 1.5-hour online onboarding session.

A hiring freeze gave the company breathing room to refine its process. Despite the brevity, Urban says she felt the process went well for her; she received responsive IT support, and she was able to contact an HR representative when she had any questions or concerns.

Relationships are important in her role, and all in all, Urban says she is learning the company's culture. But she also has to work harder to adjust to some of the nuances of a remote working environment. Knowing that it would be hard to build relationships initially and get to know the organization, Hasbro's chief financial officer scheduled 50 meetings with various executives the day Urban started.

"I actually think being remote worked out well," Urban says. "Everybody was home, nobody was traveling — everybody made time. I was able to have some really good first conversations with a broad swath of the organization." Even so, she says, it has been frustrating that she hasn't been able to meet her team in the company's Rhode Island, U.K., and Asia locations in person.

Successful assimilation of new employees is important in terms of their longevity at the organization, DeRoche says. Employees working remotely have a lot less invested in the organization, and therefore less willingness to stay. "You're basically an outsider looking into it from an assimilation point."

So much of culture is informal, DeRoche notes, such as the ways workers interact and the cues they observe from top management. These elements can be lost when working remotely. One possible solution would be to have group onboarding sessions, say, once a month, DeRoche suggests. New hires could introduce themselves; managers, including company top management, could give live welcomes to the organization. Once the employees are on board, short daily team meetings along the lines of Agile scrum meetings could help bring the new hires into the company culture.

Looking Ahead

Another side to the new world of remote work needs to be considered, as well, Urban says. People are working more than ever, or are having to flex their workday because of child care or elder care responsibilities. "Anything and everything is now interrupting our traditional pattern," Urban says.

The post-COVID-19 new normal will encompass some people in the office full time, others remote full time, and many employees in the middle, in the office a day or two a week. Long term, organizations will need to address how they can help new hires assimilate the elements that make their new employer special. "A lot of the things that we have put in place initially to navigate this in terms of how we manage people, how we support people, how we develop people on our team, have to be rethought," Urban says.

For its part, Hasbro is having active discussions to ensure the company's culture and the sense of fun that comes from being a toy and entertainment company remain intact in the new virtual world, Urban says. "There's a sense that we can't afford to lose that because that's one of the things that makes working at Hasbro really unique."

Geoffrey Nordhoff
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About the Author



Geoffrey NordhoffGeoffrey Nordhoff<p>Geoffrey Nordhoff is a content developer and writer, Standards and Professional Knowledge, at The IIA.​</p>


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