7 Steps to Creating a Virtual Employee Onboarding Program
April 2, 2020
It was the first Wednesday of March and Kelly Chuck, who spearheads the curriculum for LinkedIn’s onboarding program, had just started noodling some ideas for a possible virtual orientation. Then she was told that the company was asking its Bay Area workforce to start working from home and she needed to have a virtual onboarding program in place for the new hires who would join LinkedIn — the following Monday.
Kelly understood what was at stake. An effective onboarding process boosts productivity, engagement, and retention. She had to figure out how to make sure new hires felt welcomed and excited in the absence of office tours, team meals, swag bags, and meet-and-greets with new teammates.
So, Kelly spent three days overhauling LinkedIn’s one-day onboarding program with input from her team and global colleagues who were dealing with the same challenge. By the end of Saturday, she had developed a weeklong virtual program that launched just two days later with 42 new hires from all over North America. And now that the program has launched, Kelly and her team make tweaks to it each week based on new-hire feedback.
If your company is struggling with how to create a virtual onboarding program, here are seven tactics that Kelly and her colleagues used that may be helpful:
1. Spread your onboarding program out over a number of days
One of the most pivotal decisions Kelly and her manager, Sara Dowling, made was to take what had been a one-day program and spread it out over a week. “We didn’t want to transition everything into a full day virtually,” Kelly says, “because we weren’t sure how new hires would respond after home life for so many people has changed so much. We felt we could best do that with shorter bursts spread over a week to allow flexibility with working from home, and then we could adapt as needed.”
Also, after a typical onsite onboarding process, a company is sending new hires into an office where they will be embraced by new colleagues, eager to meet them and make them feel at home. The five-day program creates an intentional plan of regular check-ins and touchpoints to make sure no new hire feels forgotten or overlooked.
Instead, Kelly designed a five-day welcome that starts with a one-hour live session on Day 1 that covers the company culture, values, and products and concludes on Day 5 with an Ask Me Anything session with an expert from benefits who helps new hires finish enrollment. Other activities during the week include a Day 2 video from Kelly (see below), an hourlong Day 3 session with a LinkedIn executive, and a Day 4 scavenger hunt where all the “items” are found in the company’s online resources.
The five-day approach not only helps new hires stay more engaged but also reduces some of the stress for facilitators and their production help as they juggle speakers, videos, slide decks, breakout groups, and polls.
Here’s a sample schedule for a five-day employee onboarding program:
2. Embrace the idea that you can’t possibly overcommunicate
In brand-new situations (and nearly everyone’s in one these days), people feel vulnerable. A new hire can feel the same anxiety that a student feels switching schools: How will I make friends when these people have all known one another forever? A good employee onboarding program will ease the jitters and allay the concerns.
Normally, a manager can make frequent stops at a new hire’s desk to see how they’re doing. Now, managers can stay connected with them through email, chat, and videoconferencing. Communication should cover both the practical — here’s what you need to do today and here’s how to do it — and the social.
New hires at LinkedIn hear from Kelly and her team every day. They’re also hearing from their manager, their buddy (see No. 6 below), the tech team (No. 3), benefits, and talent services.
While you don’t want to overwhelm your onboarding cohort, you do want them to feel welcomed and certain that they’re getting the tools and instructions needed to navigate the road ahead.
3. Get technology into the hands of new employees as quickly as possible
New hires at LinkedIn used to get their laptops in person during their employee orientation. Members of the Enterprise Productivity Engineering (EPE) team would hand them out and then make sure everyone’s computer was configured correctly.
Now laptops are shipped directly from the supplier to the new hire’s home. Earlier this year, the company asked its technical teams to make it possible for company-specific software and programs to be loaded remotely. Ashi Sheth, a senior IT manager for LinkedIn, says that that change was actually initiated to automate time-consuming work that his team had been doing. But the timing couldn’t have been much better.
When a new hire opens their laptop, they can download needed software and programs just by entering the right credentials. The download, which typically takes about an hour, happens as part of a one-on-one phone session that EPE now provides for every new hire. After that, the EPE team member spends an hour or two helping the new hire get network access and fully set up.
4. Emphasize your company’s culture and values
When it comes to keeping employees happy and engaged, company culture is king — and queen. A LinkedIn survey of over 3,000 U.S. professionals found that 70% said they would leave a leading company if it had a bad culture. Some 71% said they would take a pay cut to work for a company that shares their values and has a mission they believe in.
That’s why Kelly kept company culture front and center when she was rethinking the LinkedIn employee onboarding program. “Of all the things we do,” Kelly says, “I see the most excitement about being at LinkedIn when we talk about our culture and values.”
So, that’s what Kelly leads with. On Day 1, the two-hour live session includes an introduction to LinkedIn’s vision, mission, values, and products. It also includes a brief history of the company.
5. Make online employee onboarding interactive to keep participants engaged and connected
In a successful onboarding orientation, new hires not only get to know the company, they get to know one another. As Kelly thought about how to revamp onboarding, she also pondered how to keep it interactive.
“Zoom allows you to have breakout groups of three or four,” Kelly says, “and this gives new hires a chance to meet each other. We keep the breakout groups consistent throughout the sessions so that new hires can build relationships with people in their cohort.”
So, Kelly and her team have put those capabilities to use. For example, after new hires hear about the company vision and values on Day 1, they break into small groups to discuss the question, “What are you most excited about in joining LinkedIn?” On Day 3, after the executive speaks for half an hour, the new hires are placed in groups of four to discuss what struck them most in the leader’s talk. From there, each group generates a question for the speaker.
Kelly’s team also creates a Group on the LinkedIn platform for each cohort of new hires. This enables them to stay connected and to continue to build relationships with other newbies. The Group has a moderator from Learning & Development who poses questions to get the cohort interacting. The moderator also answers questions about anything that needs clarification.
At MHS Homes in the U.K., new hires are sent on a scavenger hunt on the company intranet. They’re given one clue — “Whose father-in-law was in a band with a No. 1 single?” — and they have to locate the new colleague in the company directory.
Some companies also ask new employees to take part in a rotating coffee klatch. The idea is a simple one: At random, have existing employees meet up with their new team member for a casual one-on-one coffee break to get to know each other. For example, Hotjar, a business analytics company, uses an app in Slack called Donut to pair up employees every two weeks for a 30-minute chat.
6. Emphasize the role of the hiring manager and a designated buddy
Orientation and laptops are only part of most companies’ broader onboarding efforts; hiring managers are central to a new employee’s successful integration into the company. What managers are expected to do hasn’t changed much. But the how has become completely virtual.
LinkedIn provides hiring managers with videos and resource guides on how to onboard new team members, from the moment they’re hired through their first 90 days at work.
Even before a new hire’s first day, a manager should have sent them an enthusiastic congratulatory message; shared the news with the broader team; sent messages to IT and facilities (well, maybe that desk setup can wait); and selected a team member to serve as a buddy for the new hire.
A buddy will give the new hire an open ear and an open hand. They will meet them for virtual coffee or lunch and share advice and guidance about how things roll at your company. They are a sounding board for figuring out who’s who and what’s what, and they are absolutely critical to an effective employee onboarding and orientation.
7. Model continuous learning by asking for feedback and acting on it quickly
The final event of the new onboarding program features an expert from LinkedIn’s benefits team in an Ask Me Anything session. But it doesn’t conclude the program. Fridays also include two emails from Kelly’s team. One recaps the week. The other asks for feedback.
“Virtual onboarding is new to us,” the second email says, “and we want to continue to enhance it for your fellow colleagues who are set to start in the coming weeks.” It directs new hires to a Slido survey that takes less than five minutes to complete. The survey asks them to rate various parts of the onboarding program and provides a chance for open-ended comments.
“The qualitative feedback,” Kelly says, “allows us to improve the program.”
Remember that the single biggest mistake in employee experience is asking for feedback and not acting on what you learn.
Final thoughts: Now is not the time to abandon employee onboarding — it’s time to double down on it
First impressions are everything. How you welcome a new hire and usher them into your company will have an enormous impact on how engaged they are and how quickly they reach their full potential and productivity. A report from BCG (Boston Consulting Group) looked at 22 HR practices and found onboarding to have more impact than any except for effective recruiting.
While virtual onboarding will be a new practice for most companies, there are a number of respected organizations like Dell and Marriott that have been doing it for years and have mapped what the road to success looks like.
Remember that one of the first things Kelly did was reach out to global colleagues who had already had to adapt to an online onboarding process. Lean into the best practices of others as you build a program that will also have flourishes that show what’s distinctive about your company and culture.
Companies that nail employee onboarding will have better engagement, retention, and talent branding. And there’s almost nothing that will turn new hires into enthusiastic company ambassadors like seeing your team putting in an extra effort to make them feel welcomed and valued.
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