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These are the hidden challenges of onboarding in a remote environment

Now that most white-collar employees are joining remotely, the process of welcoming new workers is more and more complex.

These are the hidden challenges of onboarding in a remote environment
[Source image: kieferpix/iStock]
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When you are the newest employee of an organization, the experience can be both awkward and terrifying. Once we figure out where the bathroom is located and how to use the copier, the real work begins—namely, figuring out “how things are done around here,” otherwise known as an organization’s culture.

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This important socialization process, sometimes called newcomer onboarding, is complicated enough without the influence of the pandemic. Now that most employees are joining remotely, the problem is exponentially more challenging, but not necessarily in ways that are readily noticeable.

Onboarding remotely

In an attempt to get a handle on remote onboarding, researchers from HR software company TINYpulse recently analyzed 100 organizations that onboarded 500 face-to-face new hires between April 2019 and September 2019. They compared that data with the same organizations’ onboarding of 500 remote new hires during the same time frame a year later, so between April and September 2020.

Interestingly, when comparing face-to-face and remote onboarding, there is no change in employees’ satisfaction with the onboarding process. At first glance, it appears that everything is fine. But there is an overlooked issue swelling beneath the surface.

The findings illustrate that new employees gave 34% less recognition to colleagues through the cheers-for-peers feature when working remotely in 2020 compared to when working face-to-face in 2019. Further, for the peer recognition that was provided, they were 20% less likely to “tag” the praise to a specific organizational value. This means that new employees are more disconnected than ever and that they’re not fully in tune with how their colleagues add value to the organization’s mission.

This is a strong reminder that newcomer onboarding is about much more than employee handbooks and getting usernames and passwords set up. It’s about building a team of colleagues that know and trust each other personally and professionally. It’s about creating the conditions for inclusion and support.

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According to Johnna Capitano, management professor and director of Westchester University’s Center for Newcomer Onboarding, “Turnover rates are highest in the earliest months of a new employee’s tenure.” She also pointed out that in a recent study, she and her colleagues “found that many employees who quit within the first year were thinking about leaving within the first few weeks and actively looking elsewhere soon after.” This highlights how critical the onboarding period is to keeping talented employees.

Incorporating socialization

To build a strong culture requires interacting. Capitano regularly advises organizations dealing with virtual onboarding, suggesting that they should “proactively schedule one-on-one meetings for their newcomers with their key stakeholders and encourage peers to reach out to new employees.” Doing so, she suggests, will help them “build the solid social connections that lead to a sense of belonging.”

At my company, Cloverleaf, for example, since the pandemic began we’ve remotely onboarded eight new hires to a team of 20 or so employees. To ensure these employees get socialized, we use our team-building platform, which allows everyone to view the personality profiles of one another. Facilitating a clear understanding of each other’s characteristics ensures that everyone connects on more than skills and background—also on values, work preferences, and instinctive drives.

We also conduct a weekly Wednesday lunch meeting over Zoom. We have an organized approach to sharing the floor and allowing everyone to talk about what is on their mind—the good and the bad—about work or life. It’s during these sessions that team members give shout-outs to their colleagues, commiserate about life’s annoyances, and talk about where the company is headed. Yes, the weekly, one-hour time commitment is a productivity loss, but it’s worth it in the long run. Newcomers need to know what motivates their colleagues and why. When they do, it facilitates a supportive work culture, which is critical to creating a high-performing organization.

The workforce adapting over time

As a workforce, we can be shockingly nimble and resilient when life’s circumstances force us to. After months and months of working remotely, we’ve learned how to get things done without hallway encounters and conference room brainstorming sessions.

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But we’re not done learning yet. Remote work is instigating several changes to workplace phenomena that we don’t yet fully understand—newcomer onboarding being one of them. Although we can’t fully replicate the face-to-face experiences of yesteryear, we should continue to make genuine connections with our colleagues, new and old.


Scott Dust, PhD, is a management professor at the Farmer School of Business, Miami University, and the chief research officer at Cloverleaf, an integrated performance-development platform.