Onboarding in the Age of Social Distancing: 4 Best Practices to Follow

It’s no secret that onboarding can be a strenuous task even under the best of circumstances. In fact, research indicates the average new hire is required to complete 54 activities during the course of a typical onboarding experience. That’s a substantial undertaking­­ for both new employees and their employers. Add a global pandemic to the mix, and the onboarding process can become even more complex, running the risk of frustrating or isolating new hires.
The risk is further compounded when you consider that employees hired during quarantine are at a natural disadvantage. The fully virtual nature of their onboarding processes often means they miss out on key team-building activities, and it can be hard to connect with new colleagues when your communication channels lack tone, body language, and/or social cues.
Fortunately, it is entirely possible to create a positive onboarding experience for new hires even in the age of social distancing. You just have to follow some key best practices:
1. Come Prepared
Life during a pandemic is more chaotic and uncertain than it normally is. The onboarding process is itself characterized by uncertainty and the need to adapt oneself to new surroundings, so onboarding during a pandemic has the potential to become downright disorienting.
One way to stave off this double dose of uncertainty is to come to the onboarding process as prepared as possible. New employees are likely to feel more at ease — and you yourself are likely to feel much calmer and more in control — if you can demonstrate that you know exactly what you’re doing in terms of onboarding procedure.
Before you bring someone onto your team, do your homework by:
• Having all the documents a new hire needs to sign ready to go and sent to the employee’s inbox as soon as possible.
• Making sure the new hire has all the equipment they need before their start date. In addition to providing physical hardware, that also means preparing logins for company software or networking platforms and providing the new employee with a list of usernames and passwords for easy reference.
• Scheduling specific times for welcome meetings and clearly mapping out the tasks to be performed in the first month so the employee has a solid sense of what needs to be done and when.
It’s important to note that tech solutions can take some of the prep work off your plate. Try enlisting the aid of digital tools to help streamline the process. Software you might want to consider includes:
• Internal communications platforms: Task management or collaboration software can quickly get new hires up to date on company campaigns, remote work best practices, and day-to-day activities.
• Digital learning solutions: Every dollar invested in training can yield $4.53 in revenue, a whopping 353 percent return. Online courses that teach new hires skills, techniques, or workflows they’ll need for their roles are an excellent way to make to the most of your onboarding process.
• Videoconferencing tools: No surprise here, as these tools are essential to doing business in a pandemic. Videoconferencing software helps ensure meetings are as warm and open as possible, despite the attendees all being in separate locations.
2. Consider Your Audience
You already know that onboarding isn’t a one-size-fits-all process. When overseeing any new hire, you have to tailor your approach to their specific personality and the particular experience they might be bringing to the table.
With COVID-19 lurking in the background, however, some managers might be fooled into thinking a simple, templated onboarding system will do for now. After all, a needs-must strategy is better than no strategy at all, right?
Wrong. Right now, onboarding should be just as personalized as ever. A by-the-numbers onboarding procedure doesn’t get the job done, no matter the circumstances.
Instead of treating each new hire the exact same way, make the most out of one-on-one time and get to know every single new hire beyond their resume. Need inspiration to get the conversation going? Ask questions like:
• “Which of your past jobs was most similar to this one? How so?”
• “What’s your favorite part of working on a project and why?”
• “What are your outside interests, and how do they relate to your new job?”
• “What are your specific goals for your time here?”
Your onboarding process should also differentiate between novice professionals and industry veterans with a lot of prior experience. For example, a new employee who has made a lateral move and holds virtually the same position they did at a different company doesn’t need a crash course in your industry, but a new graduate might. Be sure not to waste your new hire’s energy (or yours) on superfluous tasks.
Once you’ve become acquainted with your new hire’s personal background, it’s a good idea to let their individual objectives influence your onboarding process. If a new hire is interested in moving up the ladder, make a point of introducing them to some of their colleagues further up the pyramid. If they express a desire to start a cross-company softball team when COVID-19 subsides, steer them toward the HR rep who can help make that happen.
3. Be Patient
It takes time for a new hire to read, digest, and implement onboarding materials such as company briefings, training manuals, HR policy documents, and organizational mission statements. The process could take even longer than usual amid COVID-19, with many employees now sharing their workspaces with children, spouses, roommates, pets, and other legitimate distractions. (According to one estimate, it could take a new hire six weeks to get acclimated in a crisis.) Be sure to plan accordingly, and don’t expect new hires to have anything memorized in the first few days.
When it comes to work-related activities, “compassion” should be your watchword. While throwing a new hire right into the deep end is one way to discern whether they’re up to the job, a pandemic isn’t the best time for a baptism by fire. Instead, budget extra time for a new hire’s projects, at least for the first few months.
That said, it’s possible a slower, more methodical onboarding approach will feel less than optimal for your organization, particularly if you operate in an industry facing increased demand, such as online delivery. If this is the case for you, try assigning each new team member a more seasoned employee who can serve as a mentor. A partnership between a new hire and an experienced teammate might help tasks move along more quickly and efficiently.
Whatever your industry, it’s also advisable for leaders to regularly check in with a new hire’s colleague to see how they’re faring. If you notice that a new hire is struggling, another one-on-one meeting (or several) might be in order. The aim here is not to chastise the new hire, but to discuss roadblocks, identify solutions, and ultimately set them on the path to success.
4. Scale Your Welcome Wagon According to Your Culture
It’s tempting to think that employees onboarded during a crisis will feel more at home if you give them a huge shoutout during a video chat or set up a big virtual welcome celebration. However, for some new hires, these showy displays will feel like a bit much.
No single gesture can make up for a global emergency, so it’s best to avoid the impulse to overcompensate. Depending on your company’s culture and overall style, it might be best to go small. A gift basket or a more intimate virtual coffee hour with a few teammates could mean even more to a new hire than a grand entrance. Try scaling your welcome plans to complement your typical organizational tone. If your company tends to do things in a massive way, then by all means, go big. Just try not to overwhelm your new employee.
No matter how you choose to welcome your new hires, it’s essential that you make space for them to introduce themselves to their coworkers. Shared experience is an excellent relationship-builder, and joint activities over video can create lasting bonds among team members even during a pandemic. Integrate some virtual gatherings where colleagues can relax and socialize together into your onboarding calendar so you can start fostering a sense of community sooner rather than later.
To meet the challenge of COVID-19, organizations must carefully construct their onboarding systems with immense attention to detail. Thorough preparation and sensitivity to your audience’s needs will help you integrate new hires successfully, even as you face the tremendous obstacle of enforced isolation. As you guide your new employees through this transitional period, patience and the occasional slice of fun will serve both you and your team well.
Think outside the box and be as flexible as you can as you approach each new hire during this time. The more adaptable you are, the more likely it is that the onboarding process will be as smooth and painless as possible for all concerned.