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4 lessons I learned virtually onboarding employees a week into a brand-new role

As a newly employed “Chief People Officer,” this HR executive discusses some of the lessons he learned while employed during a novel and tricky period of the coronavirus.

4 lessons I learned virtually onboarding employees a week into a brand-new role
[Photo: Nick Fewings/Unsplash]

Over my career, I have dedicated my time to the following—the success of talent, development of strong work culture, and ethical delivery of human resources. I have worked for several companies and clients to do just that over the past three decades. But when I started a new job in early March as the COVID-19 pandemic hit North America, everything changed.

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My second day as Chief People Officer at MaRS Discovery District, an innovation hub in Toronto, was spent working with organization leadership to develop a comprehensive remote work plan for the health and safety of our employees. My fourth day was spent joining my coworkers (about 95% of the organization was considered “nonessential”) in moving to work from home for the foreseeable future.

While I share the experience of taking work home with millions, I feel compelled to offer lessons learned during a somewhat more unique experience of virtual onboarding as a new hire and chief HR officer.

Reinvent human connectivity

MaRS is located in a physical hub with a staff that provides critical support to over 1,400 startups and multinational companies along with research and development labs working across sectors powering the global economy. As soon as the pandemic hit Canada, we moved all-hands and regular meetings to video calls, internal staff conversations to Slack, and asked high-profile executives across industries to log on from home for virtual events.

Despite the uncertainty during the first few weeks of the pandemic, it was clear to me from the start that in-person meetings and random workday encounters at the coffee machine, within hallways, or at the lunch table were to be a thing of the past.

As I begin to think about what work at MaRS (and for companies in general) looks like in a post-pandemic world, I believe creating moments of randomness between remote colleagues and maintaining company culture without direct human connectivity will persist as a multipronged challenge. There should continue to be a sense of spontaneity to the work day and to the operations of HR. Therefore, to replicate this dynamic, companies must make adjustments and put in work.

This will become even more necessary as time goes on and staff turnover leads to new people joining our company, many with no connection to the a “pre-COVID-19 culture.”

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Lead with personal choice and public health

Regardless of when, or how, organizations return to physical workplaces, they need to empower employees to decide what works best for them. Speaking as an HR industry veteran and as a new hire, I believe that organizations should take steps to access real feedback in a way that makes sense for the organization and, most importantly, for the people offering the feedback: employees.

At MaRS, we’ve turned to biweekly, all-hands and regular employee surveys to gain an understanding and inform talent management moving forward. Collecting voluntary direct feedback from employees is important for HR and business leaders because it reveals real sentiments on the employee side and exposes gaps in empathy or understanding on the employer side. A more transparent, data-driven approach to talent management helps us to gain a clearer understanding of what individual employees are balancing, along with their work, such as handling roommates, child or eldercare, healthcare, or some other unavoidable part of life.

Throw out the HR playbook

Amid an initial flurry of reactive work to simply help MaRS staff from the C-suite to our summer interns get set up at home, I realized that it was time to completely rethink how to apply decades of HR and talent management experience to an unprecedented situation. The past and present of work will not be the future of work.

One of the earliest, and most personal, lessons I learned from the pandemic was remote workers need time to figure out how to balance life outside of work with their job to-do lists. And while I think that the interconnection of personal and work life has always been there to some degree, the two sides of daily existence for many people are weaved together and merged more than ever. As a result, I believe that companies hold the responsibility for helping employees understand how to adapt to remote environments more than ever.

As organizations, like MaRS and leaders in HR, like me, map out the coming months, employee-oriented corporate policies must evolve to account for flexibility, empathy, and humanity in talent management.

Embrace a new path forward

The COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on society and the global business community will be felt for years to come. My own experience onboarding virtually, adapting organization HR policies in real-time, and trying to make real connections with colleagues over videoconferencing exposed the true value of empowering people to provide feedback. In the immediate future, we need to rethink how everything from business dealings to human resources to employee engagement to company culture is delivered.

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Anecdotally, it seems that the grand “work-from-home pilot” thrust upon the world by the coronavirus is working out better than many expected. Frankly, I welcome the notion that we have broken some outdated constraints and perceptions around the traditional model of work. For instance, having a single employee operating on the other side of the world and delivering a specialty to support a team remotely already seems more plausible than it did at the beginning of 2020.

Moving forward, building more flexibility and empathy into HR practices will be invaluable to rethinking how organizations like MaRS recruit, develop, and support talent. There’s no longer any question in my mind that collecting authentic, honest data from staff helps inform talent management decisions. I am still on the path to answers, but I am certain we need to look forward, not behind, to prepare for a new future of work.


Rajesh Uttamchandani is the chief people officer at MaRS Discovery District, based in Toronto.

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