Strategies for onboarding virtual employees

Steps to making new hires feel like they’re part of the team
HR stock image
Editor's Note

This article originally appeared in the spring edition of HR Update. Read the full issue here.

If you think about it, a new job is kind of like a first date except that, even if it goes badly, you’re still going to have to see each other again.

That’s why the onboarding process is such an essential part of hiring employees.

“It creates the first impression,” says Maurice Le Maire, director of advisory services for RCGT (Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton) Consulting. “If it’s a lousy first impression and you’re not meeting the employee’s expectations, that’s what they keep in the back of their mind during the time they stay with the organization.”

Having to virtually integrate a new employee into an organization presents a unique set of challenges for employers. Key to making everything run smoothly is good planning and scheduling that involves the team and other colleagues with whom the new hire will collaborate, says Le Maire.

He suggests non-intrusive check-ins by managers to see how their new employees are adjusting, to point them in the right direction, or at least ensure there’s a colleague to show them how to use tools and materials.

“We have come to expect people to be comfortable with technology and with working in a remote environment, but that’s not always the case,” says Le Maire. “People will do it, because we have no choice, but that doesn’t mean we’re all overly comfortable with technology.”

Not convinced? Count the number of times, more than a year into the pandemic, you’ve seen a speaker on a video call stuck on mute.

There’s potential to overload a new hire with information if you’re trying to cram everything into a 30-minute meeting instead of sharing details throughout the work day, as one might do in an office setting, says Le Maire.

Working in a remote environment can also make it harder to pick up on non-verbal cues and to have a fluid conversation, he points out. 

“Because there’s a time lag, you cannot interject as much. You always have to wait until the other person is finished talking.”

Kaitlyn Buse is human resources manager at Positive Venture Group, a finance-based management consulting firm. She says communication is key to the virtual onboarding process.

"People find a way to connect that maybe they wouldn’t have before."

“It’s really about making sure nobody is siloed,” she says.

Her company is constantly evolving and improving its virtual onboarding process, she notes.

“When we shifted to remote, it was new for everybody. I was always really upfront with candidates when they were interviewing with us, telling them, ‘This is new, we’re learning. What we need from you is to communicate with us if there’s something we can be doing better.’”

She believes employees can still forge connections with one another in the remote work world that will keep them happy and engaged. 

“People find a way to connect that maybe they wouldn’t have before,” she says, citing examples of how the surprise appearance of a pet or child during a video call can bring employees closer together. 

“You almost gain this insight into other people’s lives that you wouldn’t have had before, which is kind of interesting.”

Rethinking HR

In recent years, the role of human resources has moved beyond what was once simply paying employees and managing employee benefits. Human resources professionals are now contributing to an organization’s strategic decision-making, says Carol Ann Samhaber, a professor and academic co-ordinator with Algonquin College’s School of Business as well as the Ottawa chapter board chair of the Human Resources Professionals Association. 

“If you think backward and not that long ago, most people who were practising in HR were doing it more in a service capacity or without academic credentials or professional designations,” says Samhaber. 

“Nowadays, good human resource management has a deeper involvement in the organization. That person or group of people are directly involved in the organizational strategic planning. They’re sitting at that table, they’re helping to contribute to the design, the implementation, the evaluation of the business strategy.”

Human costs at work are very expensive, she notes.

“The ability to attract and retain the right people, keep them healthy and safe at work – all of those pieces have to be very elegantly managed to keep your workforce.”