8 Steps to Creating a Virtual Employee Onboarding Program

November 3, 2020

Screenshot of new employees in a video onboarding program

It was a Wednesday early in the pandemic 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 LinkedIn was asking its Bay Area workforce to start working from home and she needed to have a virtual program in place for the new hires who would join the company — the following Monday.

Kelly understood what was at stake. An effective onboarding program 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. 

Kelly was not alone. She had counterparts in every corner of the business world who were tackling — or just about to tackle — the exact same challenge.

So, Kelly overhauled LinkedIn’s one-day onboarding program with input from her immediate team and from global colleagues who had already started dealing with changes driven by COVID-19. She quickly developed a weeklong virtual program, which was rolled out the following week with 42 new hires from all over North America. Since that virtual program launched, Kelly and her team have gone back to the one-day format and have made continuous tweaks and refinements.

If your company is struggling with how to create a virtual onboarding program, here are eight tactics that Kelly and her colleagues used that may be helpful:

1. Reconsider your onboarding schedule 

Initially, Kelly decided to take what had been a one-day program and spread it out over a week, offering the programming in shorter bursts over a longer time frame. But the extended curriculum collided with smaller, more technical training programs — like engineering bootcamp and sales training — that many new hires were expected to roll into early in Week One.

So, Kelly agreed to reconsolidate her weeklong program into a single day. The first thing she did was reexamine everything in the program using what have become her three critical questions:

  • Does it make people feel like they’ve made the right decision in joining LinkedIn?
  • Does it make them excited about the company’s mission and vision and how their new job aligns with that?
  • Does it help them build relationships that they’ll feel like they can expand on?

“If I had time in the program that wasn’t directly contributing to one of those three areas,” Kelly says, “I took it out. For example, we’re not going to talk about transportation, food, or anything else that can be covered in an email or follow-up video. Really, we just want new hires to walk away feeling very excited.”

Here’s what LinkedIn’s current Day One onboarding schedule looks like:

2. Embrace the idea that you can’t possibly overcommunicate

In brand-new situations, 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 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’s team as well as their manager (see No. 7 below), their buddy (ditto No. 7), 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 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. At the beginning of 2020, EPE was looking for ways to enable 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, whether it runs on Windows or macOS, 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 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. After the morning welcome, she rolls right into LinkedIn’s mission, vision, and culture. Later in the day, she introduces LinkedIn’s company values.

5. Use breakout rooms, frequent check-ins, and superanimated facilitators to keep new hires engaged 

When Kelly’s team switched to an all-virtual footing, they had never heard the term “Zoom fatigue,” but they immediately understood how much more work they would need to do to keep participants engaged.

“I am about one and a half to two times more animated when facilitating virtually than nonvirtually,” Kelly says. “A lot of it is how am I using nonverbal communication, like how am I using my hands, how am I using my facial expressions, am I looking at the camera, am I pointing at people, am I using names? I’ve made it less formal and invite people to butt in at any time.” 

In order for Kelly and other facilitators to stay focused on content and connections, they always work in tandem with a partner who focuses on managing the technology. “We always have our producer on the call,” Kelly says, “and they are life-saving in terms of creating the breakout rooms, trouble-shooting, all things tech. I only need to think about facilitating, and that’s huge.”

To keep participants engaged, Kelly has some other tricks she uses frequently. She asks participants to use the chat function: “Tell me what you had for breakfast this morning.” She asks for signals: “Raise your hand if you’ve heard of the social impact team.” Every hour she does an energy check: “How is your energy level? Zero is I feel like it’s 3 a.m. Ten is I am so on and excited to be here.” 

She puts a lot of her energy into being an active listener, so that if one new hire talks about owning a cat, later in the morning Kelly may ask, “I remember from earlier that you have a cat — has that contributed to your happiness working at home?”

Kelly aims to have her participants doing something interactive or engaging every 20 minutes. Often that entails sending new hires to a virtual breakout room to discuss a question for five to eight minutes with other onboarders. The prompt may be “What’s something that’s not on your LinkedIn profile?” or “How has LinkedIn created economic opportunity for you or someone you know?” 

6. Nurture opportunities for new hires to connect with one another

Kelly’s breakouts also give new hires a chance to start networking and building relationships with other new LinkedIn employees. In a successful onboarding, new hires not only get to know the company, they get to know one another.

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. 

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.

7. 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 in many cases the how has become completely virtual.

LinkedIn provides hiring managers with the Onboarding Manager Digital Kit, which is loaded with tools to create a positive first impression and help draft a plan for the new hire’s initial 30 days. 

It’s a formidable set of tools, but it is, as Kelly notes, mostly geared to an onsite experience. The good news is that most of its points translate smoothly to a virtual onboarding process. 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 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 onboarding. GitLab has a well-structured buddy program that the company believes is essential for helping new employees avoid anxiety over their new role and the transition to an all-remote culture.

You can also watch this video with Sara Dowling, who used to be Kelly’s boss and is now the head of learning and talent management at SurveyMonkey. The video offers some helpful tips on how managers can best welcome new hires to a virtual work environment.

8. Model continuous learning by asking for feedback and acting on it quickly

When hiring managers “pick up” their new LinkedIn employees in the afternoon, that does not end the first day of onboarding. The end will come when new hires receive a survey on how the day went.

“Virtual onboarding is new to us,” a follow-up 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.

Kelly and team have also organized focus groups to see how employees who were onboarded virtually are doing, to find out what worked and what didn’t about the process, and to explore if there are other resources that need to be developed.

“We’re still learning,” Kelly says. “We’re definitely not perfect, and making people feel welcome in a virtual environment is a huge challenge. The qualitative feedback 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 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 anything except for effective recruiting.

While virtual onboarding is 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 their roads to success look like.

Remember that one of the first things Kelly did was reach out to global colleagues who had already had to adapt to virtual onboarding. 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 onboarding will have better engagement, retention, and talent branding. And there’s almost nothing that will turn new hires into enthusiastic company ambassadors as much as seeing your team putting in an extra effort to make them feel welcomed and valued.

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