Cartoon featuring a split scenario of three people chatting together in an office environment with coffees versus a lone worker sitting at a desk in a blue room.
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How Irish workers have adapted to virtual onboarding over the past year

12 Aug 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic and the mass closure of workplaces across the country left companies in a bind when it came to onboarding new staff. How did they adapt?

Starting a new job can be daunting at the best of times, so it goes without saying that most new hires would baulk at the thought of adding a pandemic to the mix.

And yet, that is exactly the scenario many of us who have started new jobs in the past year and a half have had to contend with.

I include myself in the category of people who have started jobs during the pandemic and, like many others, I have found myself in the rather unique situation of going through the onboarding process entirely remotely.

Onboarding, the process by which new hires become assimilated into their new company and role, is important – not just for job performance but for a whole lot of other holistic things including company culture, ethos and personal job satisfaction.

A successful onboarding experience has traditionally depended on actually meeting colleagues and bosses in a new workplace. Covid-19 stopped all of that for many.

Companies and staff alike had no choice but to adapt – and many did.

Employee engagement consultant and career coach Sarah Lennon, who runs her own business Story Coach, knows all about the challenges faced by businesses and their new employees.

From her perspective as a consultant, Lennon says that onboarding has changed a lot since the pandemic. After an initial dry spell during which companies scrambled to understand what they should do to adjust to the new reality, she helped clients construct remote onboarding programmes.

Lennon believes the pandemic has diversified the traditional onboarding model as most clients now realise that remote onboarding is an option, whereas they may not have considered it before.

“Now we’re looking at a hybrid model with the clients that I work with, so they want to look at both remote onboarding, but also in-house onboarding for when they can – if they’re going to be bringing people back into the office,” she says.

‘Remote onboarding can be just as effective as in-house onboarding, it just depends on how open the organisation is to having that kind of remote-first mindset’

There’s a lot for a company to consider during this process, both in the pre-onboarding stage before an employee starts and in the actual onboarding.

“Remote onboarding is different to in-house onboarding in that [for] remote onboarding, you need clear communication,” Lennon says of the differences between pre-pandemic and now.

“You need to make sure that a company educates its new hires coming in on its culture and its company values; then the next thing is making sure that their IT set-up is all done and correct; and then the final element is to look at making sure that from an employee wellbeing perspective, that they are taking care of themselves while working remotely.”

Most of the IT and admin set-up should be taken care of at the pre-onboarding stage, she recommends, so that new employees know exactly what they are supposed to be doing and are fully able to communicate with colleagues and managers while working from home.

“The worst-case scenario, or the stories that I’ve been hearing, is that sometimes people are starting at organisations and there’s no plan for when they start on their day one – they’re just there and it’s, ‘here’s your computer, get going’. And there’s no structure and no guidance as to what they should be doing, who they should be meeting with.”

This kind of hands-off approach to virtual onboarding, Lennon believes, is bad for employee morale in the long run.

“There’s no communication there and that, really, from the employee side of things, can make them feel as if they aren’t recognised [and] there’s no value there in them coming to start with the organisation. And then it has an impact on potentially how long they will stay with that company if from the get-go that’s the experience that they’re having,” she explains.

Of course, the bigger the budget a company has, the better able they are to adapt to new ways of working. And it’s perhaps no surprise that some multinational corporations have transitioned to providing a remote onboarding model with relative ease.

One company that has shifted to virtual onboarding is fintech platform Revolut. New employees have joined the company from Ireland, the UK, US, Kraków, Porto, Vilnius, Berlin, Tokyo, Singapore, New Zealand and Australia in the past year, and each one participated in the company’s remote initiation process.

According to Michael Russell, communications manager with Revolut Ireland, this approach has enabled the company to tap into an “entirely new pool of talent”.

“Since the introduction of these policies, we have hired exceptionally talented people who live hundreds of miles from any Revolut office.”

Pre-onboarding, employees receive Revolut-branded welcome packs containing hoodies and other merchandise, as well as the necessary IT equipment to facilitate their work at home. The company’s HR team carry out background checks and provide prospective employees with the information they need for onboarding day.

The agenda for virtual onboarding days at Revolut consists of a series of meetings over Google Hangouts with experienced company members who brief the new starters on everything from how they support remote working and wellbeing to product vision and KPIs.

Post-onboarding, so-called ‘Rev-rookies’ can expect to be assigned a buddy within the company who can answer their questions. They also get access to a Slack channel called ‘Revplace’ which provides “wellness posts, ergonomic tips, work-life balance tips”, according to Russell.

Revolut even has a bot called ‘Safety Sally’, which assesses a worker’s home for ergonomic suitability.

“Such is the success of our remote model that we have since adjusted our global strategy on teams and real estate: we now offer all employees hybrid working where they can choose to work from home or the office, and can even work from anywhere in the world for two months a year,” Russell said.

‘Such is the success of our remote model that we have since adjusted our global strategy on teams and real estate’

While not every company is going to be in a position to send its new hires a hoodie, there are plenty of things that can help make the transition a little easier for recruits. Lennon thinks that remote onboarding can work very well depending on the company’s culture and how willing it is to adapt to workplace changes.

“I think that remote onboarding can be just as effective as in-house onboarding, it just depends on the needs and it also depends on how open the organisation is to having that kind of remote-first mindset, versus the hybrid mindset,” she says.

Hybrid working is something that is predicted to soar post-pandemic. But Lennon says that if a company decides to switch to this model, it must make sure it’s “putting the remote employees front and centre so that nobody feels left out, nobody feels like because they’re not actually physically in the office, that they’re not getting included in meetings, in team projects, in the potential for progression and that side of things”.

Given the variations in budgets for virtual onboarding and the fact that people still like to meet each other on occasion, does Lennon think workplaces will continue with remote onboarding? She says the remote onboarding process is probably harder on young workers and those with precarious living situations.

As for me, and thousands like me who still haven’t met our colleagues in person yet, we will possibly be seeing our colleagues’ living rooms, kitchens, dogs, cats, bookcases and children for some time yet.

But Lennon says in-person interactions will still have a place, whatever the future of work looks like. “Developing relationships with the manager, with the team and the cultural side of things, bringing people in-house, it’s kind of best of both bringing those two together so that people can experience both.”

Good news for those of us who wonder what kind of shoes our colleagues wear.

Blathnaid O’Dea
By Blathnaid O’Dea

Blathnaid O’Dea joined Silicon Republic in 2021 as Careers reporter, coming from a background in the Humanities. She likes people, pranking, pictures of puffins – and apparently alliteration.

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