Virtual Onboarding During COVID – What Are We Missing?
By Simone Putnam, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, Partner-in-Charge, Managed Human Resources
Many nonprofit and for profit executives were pleasantly surprised when employees transitioned to a fully (or almost fully) remote workforce. We felt proud of our IT infrastructure, which kept everyone “plugged in” so they could do their jobs. We felt proud of our employees for rearranging home responsibilities to allow them to be highly productive from their home environments. Many organizations saw revenue remain in line with budget projections and, in some cases, increase. So what are the downsides to operating in a fully remote environment?
Over the past year, team members who had worked together in the office pre-COVID have identified some downsides as being:
- Reduction in team cohesiveness.
- Dip in employee morale.
- Distancing from brand identity.
If a fully remote workforce can make existing team members feel disconnected, imagine what it is like for new hires who start a job virtually without having the benefit of bonding in-office with their team and organization at large.
Teams that used to partake in friendly office banter, eat lunch together and participate in bonding activities outside of the office built a level of cohesiveness that new, virtually on-boarded team members have not yet experienced. Similarly, team members who participated in organization-wide meetings, in-person conferences, etc., felt a stronger connection or sense of brand identity with their organizations than team members who have not participated in those activities.
Being socially isolated from one another has had a negative impact on employee morale in a lot of organizations. Video conferencing has become a great substitute for in-person meetings, but its use is almost exclusively business-focused. Employees do not generally use video conferencing to replace friendly office interactions. Given our social isolation during the work day, we are glued to our screens many more hours than pre-COVID. When employees want some down time, rarely are they enthusiastic about spending that downtime on yet another video call, even to engage in a relaxed conversation with a colleague.
When we noticed turnover and an uptick in hiring activity during the first half of 2020, we were initially surprised that there was so much movement among jobs during a pandemic. We took it as a good sign that the economy was healthy despite the circumstances. But now that we’re several months into the tenure of employees who were virtually on-boarded and have been working in a fully remote environment, we are seeing a lot of employee relations issues. Many of these issues center around miscommunication.
Most new team members have never met a colleague (or anyone from their company) in person. Because they do not have the experience of getting to know their colleagues from in-person interactions, they do not have a personal relationship foundation on which to build a working relationship. Leaders recognized that virtual onboarding in a fully remote workforce would be “different”; much time and energy went into revamping the onboarding process to give new team members the greatest likelihood of success. Technology equipment was shipped to employees’ homes, new employees met virtually with HR and then were turned over to their team members virtually to get up to speed with their new job responsibilities. But the sense of team cohesiveness was lost.
Almost every employee in every organization has reported higher levels of stress, working longer hours and greater difficulty balancing work and home life responsibilities since COVID. So it is understandable that team members are heavily focused on getting the work done and have less time and energy to focus on building personal relationships in the virtual office. This is an OK temporary pause for those employees who worked together in person historically, but it leaves out the new team members who are trying to get to know their colleagues and feel connected to people they have never met in person.
So what are organizations to do?
- Brainstorm with your team members to generate ideas for activities you can weave into the work day that allow for touch points with colleagues that are not always business-related.
- Interview your newest team members to find out what they think you did well to make them feel connected to the team and ask what you could have done differently.
- Connect with other leaders outside your organization to learn about their experiences with virtual onboarding and share success stories and pitfalls to avoid.
Remember, all relationships take work, and while we are busy focusing on the onboarding experience of our newest team members, we must also be aware of the employee morale of our existing team members. Take the time to ask your employees how you as a leader can continue to foster the feeling of team cohesiveness and sense of belonging that many team members felt with daily in-person interaction pre-COVID.
While many people agree that work life post-COVID will look different from work life pre-COVID, I’m hopeful we’ll blend the best of the in-person workforce with the best of the remote workforce to achieve the perfect balance for everyone.
Marcum’s Managed Human Resources Services team is here to support organizations with any HR needs that arise during this time of crisis and beyond. If we can be of assistance, please reach out to Simone Putnam at firstname.lastname@example.org<.