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Onboarding During a Pandemic: A Virtual Experience
virtual onboarding image of woman meeting with team remotely

Onboarding During a Pandemic: A Virtual Experience

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Office accessories were delivered to homes across the country as companies sought to equip their regular and incoming employees with the resources they needed. In this new world of work came the opportunity for companies to re-evaluate orientation practices and discover better solutions in the process.

By Marsha Lynn Bragg, SWE Contributor

COVID-19 spread across the globe in 2020, causing major disruptions in how companies, airports, schools, restaurants, small businesses, and mass transit operated. Employees who could work remotely did so, leaving hospital workers, first responders, and other essential workers to venture out into their work environments.

Many companies shut their doors temporarily as instructed by federal and state governments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As U.S. scientists, researchers, and elected leaders grappled with how to handle the coronavirus, CEOs were left to determine for themselves how to safely proceed when so much remained unknown.

They also had to consider how to onboard new hires — and in some cases, temporary workers and interns — when much of the onboarding typically takes place in person and on-site. Many saw the pause in operations as an opportunity to evaluate priorities, strategically partner across the organization, and devise better solutions.

According to onboarding and offboarding company Sapling, the average new hire will have three documents to sign, upload, or acknowledge, and 41 administrative tasks to complete. They also will have 10 outcomes, which are achieved learning goals around the company culture, market knowledge, and role alignment. These 50-plus activities are to ensure that the new hire is fully acclimated and integrated into their new role.

location icons over city at night to show location data points virtual

DuPont, Texas Instruments, Raytheon Technologies, and Vocalink Global were among the numerous companies worldwide that had to quickly pivot from in-person, new employee orientation or onboarding to a virtual process. The shift required talent acquisition, recruitment, human resources, diversity and inclusion, information technology, and safety and security personnel to rethink how to best welcome and train newcomers to start their positions miles away from key staff in charge of guiding them through the onboarding process.

In addition to virtual onboarding, new hires had to acclimate to meeting supervisors, colleagues, clients, and other staff through an array of online platforms: Microsoft Teams, GoToMeeting, Skype, Zoom, and Webex, among others. Although these tools have proved to be essential for communicating across an organization and getting work done, they cannot replace human sensibilities and personal interactions.

Texas Instruments (TI) moved to a virtual onboarding strategy March 2020. Factories maintained their essential production role, and employees in nonessential roles were able to work remotely almost immediately, said Kris Spears, corporate communications manager. Typically, onboarding for all new hires kicks off 30 days before the employee’s start date, though it depends on the person’s preference and needs, Spears said. A university student who accepted an internship may have to complete their semester first, while a new hire may just need to submit their two-week notice. New hires receive information via an onboarding portal that includes all of the employment documents and ways to learn about the company.

Zack Olson

Raytheon Technologies, a global aerospace and defense company, took a conservative approach and decided early to split its roughly 190,000-employee workforce with about half going on-site and the remaining 100,000 working remotely, said Zack Olson, strategic partnerships and programs manager.

“Some jobs you cannot do remotely as we have a lot of manufacturing positions. Some of our work needs government clearance or security clearance.”

Olson has two direct reports who work from Texas. He onboarded both virtually. He used Microsoft Teams, Skype, and Zoom to meet and collaborate with them. One is an events logistics coordinator; the other is on an eight-month rotation as an HR leadership development associate. For Olson, maintaining connections with his staff and providing a positive onboarding experience was imperative. HR studies show that employers can experience as high as 20% staff turnover in the first 45 days of employment if new employees fail to grasp the nature and purpose of their jobs.

“I must admit, I was meeting happy when I started with my direct reports,” Olson said. “We had daily meetings for the first few weeks, making sure that xyz work would be done, checking if they had questions about process or a project. Most afternoons I met with both to set the tone for the week and to stay connected. I left my schedule pretty open.” He now has weekly one-on-one meetings and uses the platforms’ chat features to review assignments and previous discussions.

The DuPont Pencader Plant in Newark, Delaware, has an employee base of about 150 and onboards about 10 people a year. Managers are responsible for onboarding their own hires, said Wanda Watson, quality manager at the plant. “Most employees [here] are essential workers, so the onboarding is in-person but with social distancing in place.

Wanda Watson

“I onboarded a new quality engineer, and we completed her onboarding via Microsoft Teams even though we were both on-site,” Watson said.

Much of the content during the onboarding process depends on the nature of the job, she said. However, all newcomers must undergo safety and security training, IT, as well as benefits and human resources training.

Zora M. Pannell, interpreting strategy manager with Vocalink Global, said part of her duties include onboarding. The Dayton, Ohio, company provides multilingual language and translation services for engineering and auto industry leaders and has remote workers all over the country, she said. Pannell transitioned to this job two days before Ohio Governor Mike DeWine ordered all restaurants closed. She received two days of onboarding over Microsoft Teams, Skype, and Zoom, and returned to the Cleveland area prepared to onboard others.

Zora Pannell

“We must be more flexible with people, especially during and after this pandemic. We’ve done a lot more back and forth scheduling, how can we make this work, more small-group onboarding versus large, massive onboarding, and we found new tools to help,” Pannell said.

TI onboards about 1,300 new employees across all sites in the U.S. with start dates every one to two weeks, Spears said. Pre-pandemic, formal onboarding for most was one day; two days for those in a manufacturing role that requires a second day of safety training based on location. For TI’s global rotation programs, training continues months after the employee has started to ensure their success, he said.

While many companies put the brakes on hiring, others maintained their hiring schedules, welcoming new hires willing to take on the risks along with a new opportunity.

Although Jordyn Crossley was already employed as a quality engineer with DuPont, she had to undergo a new series of onboarding activities before transferring to a new position. It included multiple discussions over Teams and site-specific safety training. To connect with other people, Crossley scheduled one-on-one virtual meetings with colleagues as a means to get to know them and their work and vice versa.

“The most challenging thing for me was recognizing everyone’s role in the company and learning the boundaries of my role. It was difficult to understand where my responsibilities should stop and others’ roles take over,” Crossley said.

Meetings over Teams, making phone calls, and following up helped her to avoid miscommunication or misunderstanding.

Olson said that while these platforms are a boon to workflow and communication, what’s lost in the virtual space is that new employees can’t develop relationships organically. “Sometimes you meet people while passing in the hallway or in the lunchroom. We had a ping-pong table in our Connecticut site where people would gather. If you have a last-minute project, you may not feel comfortable asking someone for help if you don’t know them or you may not even know who to ask.”

“Now you must be intentional when onboarding new employees,” he said. “Let them know ‘here are the folks you need to meet,’ add them to meetings, suggest to them others they should talk to. We must really be intentional in this virtual space.”

Along with being intentional, Pannell said it’s important for new employees and companies alike to manage their expectations. “Being honest with yourself about what your social needs are outside of work will help you manage expectations for what to expect from your job. It’s important to be open to innovation and new ideas, to be flexible with people.”

2 women interns working in office looking at monitor

Don’t Forget the Interns

As organizations worked to transition new hires, many also sought to retain their summer internship programs.

Texas Instruments welcomed its first-ever virtual internship class in 2020. More than 500 students from across the U.S. had a virtual experience in such areas as engineering, finance, IT, human resources, and more. TI established a virtual intern task force that consulted with units across TI and recommended the structure, training, support, and tools needed for interns to have a fulfilling experience, explained Jacqui Mackewicz, vice president, global talent acquisition.

Interns joined a Facebook group to build a sense of community and were invited to submit videos about themselves, which were compiled and edited into a short welcome video. Virtual events took place throughout the summer, including a town hall with the CEO, virtual lab and fabrication plant tours, virtual campfire chats (each intern received a s’mores kit prior to the chat), and a diversity network talk to expose interns to unconscious bias and its effect on the company.

Once their internship started, they attended a live, interactive virtual intern orientation and tuned into two learning channels. The channels offered curated trainings on such topics as time management while working from home, virtual etiquette, and managing performance. Virtual social and professional development programs continued throughout the session.

Mackewicz said it was important for TI to not only retain and retool the internship program but also provide a worthwhile experience.

Jacqui Mackewicz

“We approach the internship experience as an extended interview process (that works both ways) with the intent of making offers at the end,” Mackewicz said.

“With careful planning and advanced forecasting, we are generally able to provide offers to those interns who meet expectations throughout the course of their internship.” Each intern receives an offer decision before they finish their internship, Mackewicz said. If the virtual onboarding and summer experience is positive, it’s likely many interns who qualify will accept offers because they generally know what to expect.

A Virtual Future

Companies and organizations that decide to keep onboarding as a virtual enterprise must not only be purposeful about the ways in which new employees are trained, but also about what they do to make them feel connected, Olson said.

As operations resume and employees begin to head back to their offices, Pannell would like to see more grace extended to people. “Having glimpses into people’s home lives and personal lives and personal situations and the different ways that people stack their ‘Jenga’ blocks to keep their health afloat, we have this opportunity to be incredibly compassionate. Some places have done that really well, and I’d like to see that extended beyond the pandemic.”

Dupont’s Watson said moving forward, anything is possible. “Pre-COVID I would never have thought that my team could accomplish all of our goals semi-virtually. It has opened my eyes that we can allow more flexibility in roles that we previously thought had to be 100% working on-site.”

Spears agreed. “Onboarding in a virtual environment can be done. We plan to keep nearly all of our onboarding processes virtual. We have a project underway that is dedicated to making this a great experience for years to come. This includes the increase of social media and other engagement opportunities.

“We’ve proven over the past year that it can work successfully,” he said. “While it may not be perfect, the fact we can do it gets us over a big hurdle with key stakeholders. Now it is up to us to continue to improve the process and find unique ways to balance in-person with the virtual experience.”

“Work from home used to be taboo before the pandemic; now it is the norm,” Olson said. “The question now is do people need to come back?”

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