Coronavirus (COVID-19), Learning & Development, Recruiting

The Longtail of the Pandemic on Onboarding and Orientation

Companies in 2020 have had to react quickly to the COVID-19 pandemic and managing a fully remote workforce. HR departments were asked to quickly create work-from-home (WFH) policies when none existed, as well as modify existing policies.

Source: Graf Vishenka / Shutterstock

During the first few weeks of the mandatory stay-at-home guidelines to “flatten the curve,” HR departments focused on current employees and addressing technology and other employee needs to maximize WFH productivity. As the weeks and months went by, difficult decisions were made, and some companies had to furlough or lay off employees either because the job was not possible from a remote location and/or due to the financial impact of COVID-19.

Companies are now rehiring furloughed employees and onboarding new employees but in a work environment that may be drastically different from what it was just a few months ago.

Remote Rehire—Everyone Is Starting Over

Furloughed employees should be onboarded the same as new employees. The cost to companies of a bad hire, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, can equal 30% of that individual’s annual earnings. It is imperative that each new hire be set up for maximum success.

Currently, most organizations that moved to remote work are holding steady with that strategy while developing return-to-work plans based on local state guidelines. At some point, employers and employees will feel safe enough to return to the office, and in that case, employees will return to an in-person onboarding process—but perhaps not entirely.

Expect the future of onboarding to be multifaceted. Initial stages of onboarding will be virtual and cover the basics, and as the return-to-work movement takes shape, there will be more onboarding. Long-term employees, like returning or new hires, will face a wide range of new office policies, procedures, and protocols. HR departments will be faced with issues that had never been addressed before the pandemic and should prepare before the virtual and in-person hiring process begins.

Onboarding is crucial to the success of the new or furloughed employee. The workplace has forever changed, and the skills and security measures that each employee needs to be successful in this age of videoconferencing and technology are much different from the environment they left or when they initially interviewed.

The onboarding process needs a mix of technology, human interaction, team interactions, mentoring, and a safe work environment. At each part of this journey, all members need to embrace change and face their fears. The culture of the company will, in fact, be the major factor in the successful onboarding and retention of employees.

Culture and Communications Still Drive Success

Onboarding will continue to rely on technology for the more administrative tasks; however, keeping employees engaged in the process will result from the speed and effectiveness of the company to assimilate employees into the culture.

Companies that can effectively communicate and set up mentoring for new or returning employees will see a lower attrition rate. Employees need to be nurtured to integrate successfully virtually and then again in the physical environment, where everyone will need to feel safe.

Virtual onboarding at the beginning of the pandemic had plenty of growing pains; however, as HR and hiring managers grew more comfortable with the various technology platforms, the effectiveness of the process increased to the point where technology will be a permanent part of the onboarding process.

The right mix of video technology and human interactions will be necessary. Each new or furloughed employee needs to feel as if he or she belongs to the larger community and is part of the company’s plans moving forward. Managers need to hone their communication style and reach out to new employees before the day of their onboarding with a message of congratulations on joining the group and relate something personal from the interview delivered to new hires’ personal e-mails.

This is especially true for new employees who may permanently work from a remote location. Best practices include a regular cadence of meetings set up by the manager during the first 90 days to foster a relationship and encourage questions and learning. Once the foundation of this relationship has been built, the shift to the office will be an easy transition.

When onboarding large groups, the training needs to include breakout rooms and team projects so organizational assimilation can begin. A mentor should be assigned to all new employees, as well as activities for each new employee, to introduce themselves to the team.

Onboarding for large groups should resemble team-building and effective communication learning and development exercises. Each training session must be recorded, and the recording and transcript should be housed on a shared drive to account for different learning modalities.

Onboarding and Orientation for All

The role of onboarding is more than reviewing the I-9 form, benefits, and introducing the new hire to everyone—whether by walking around the office or via video chat. The HR department is an integral part of the learning and development process and fosters an environment where everyone feels safe.

HR needs to address the concerns of all employees—new, returning, and current—as the shift from WFH moves toward working in the office. The fears and anxieties of all employees need to be addressed, and supporting those concerns will become part of the culture. No company can promise not to lay off employees if another pandemic or financial crisis occurs. All a company can promise its employees is that their work environment is safe and that it will always treat their employees fairly and with respect.

The onboarding process will not be exclusively for new employees. HR needs to plan for return-to-work training and be prepared for a new pandemic or another shelter-in-place crisis. There will be many evolving phases and labels for this process; however, the common denominator is to provide employee orientation and training.

According to Brad Deutser, CEO of Deutser Clarity Institute, leaders and HR departments can learn from kindergarten teachers: Start the communication early, onboard in the middle of the week, and carefully prepare employees for new norms. Think of onboarding as the first day of school.

It would be nice to look into a crystal ball and see that the COVID-19 virus has been permanently eradicated and that employees have bounced back from the stress of the pandemic to grow and thrive in the workplace. Unfortunately, however, no one can really predict the future.

COVID-19 might fade into the sunset in 2021, but who knows what is lurking around the corner. One thing is for certain: HR departments will continue to play a vital role in guiding companies through crisis, and with the assistance of technology, they can weather any storm.

Reneé Zung is the Vice President of Keystone Partners. Zung is a client-focused Career Services Consultant, as well as a workshop and webinar facilitator. She brings over 10 years’ experience providing career-transition coaching to executives, senior managers, and individual contributors. Zung provides a professional and holistic one-on-one coaching style, ensuring the highest level of client satisfaction to professionals in career transition. She develops innovative and strategic business solutions for clients by applying local market trends, business experience, and analytical perspectives to improve and accelerate landing success for clients. She is well-versed in leveraging social media to gain exposure in a competitive job market.

Zung’s strengths in LinkedIn profile writing and optimization, coaching, and facilitation, coupled with her solid business understanding, enable her to advise individuals at all levels across different industries. She is Birkman-certified and an educational specialist by training. She received her MEd and BS in Education from Georgia State University.

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