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The Importance of Onboarding Remote Workers…it’s all about retention!

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If you’re like the +70% of human capital management leaders surveyed by Gartner this year, some of your top priorities include optimizing costs while still innovating processes, improving operational excellence, and executing business transformation — a tall order and all of which put your people at the center. 

One of the most important people-centric initiatives leaders are focusing on right now is retention. According to Josh Bersin’s March 9 article, we are entering one of the hottest job markets in a decade, which includes 13% more open jobs than last year. Constrained by a potential workforce shortage, the most successful leaders are identifying critical gaps in the employee lifecycle and spending more time on the employee experience — and it all starts with onboarding.

As unemployment continues to decrease and job openings are high, people have many choices when it comes to where they want to work—so it’s important to engage and retain employees from day one. An effective employee onboarding process can help you accomplish that. In fact, research from Glassdoor, found that organizations with a strong onboarding process improve new hire retention by 82 percent and productivity by over 70 percent. And those who indicated a negative onboarding experience become 2x more likely to start looking for opportunities elsewhere (Digitate).


So while bringing in a new team member can be a significant relief not only to management but to the team as a whole, especially if the new person is filling a stubborn or critical vacancy, the real work is now just beginning. The hiring manager may feel as if they have completed the hiring process when the new hire arrives for their first day. But for those charged with onboarding this new team member, the first 30, 60, and 90 days that follow his or her first day have become more critical than ever.


For 2021 and beyond, strategic employee onboarding continues to be a key focus for many organizations. While recruiting and hiring during the coronavirus pandemic was tricky enough with its mostly- or all-virtual process, onboarding presents new challenges. Today, with companies more open than ever to remote-first talent pools, HR leaders are reimagining the vital aspects of onboarding while trying not to lose the human connection that is essential to a successful program.


Despite the benefits the Human Capital Institute has found for companies invested in improving the onboarding experience, especially within a virtual or remote employee context, which include increased engagement levels, decreased time to proficiency, and decreased turnover — effective onboarding is a missed opportunity for many companies, with mounting costs. So let’s explore some of the key considerations for an effective onboarding program…and don’t forget to download our handy checklist for onboarding remote employees.


What is remote employee onboarding?

Employee onboarding is a series of activities that allow new hires to get to know team members and learn about the company’s behaviors, motivators, attitudes, methods, products, and services. Remote employee onboarding is the same process, but when the new hire is going to be working remotely rather than from the office, it requires a virtual onboarding process. 


From an employee’s perspective, an onboarding program is an opportunity to get acquainted with a new environment and learn more about an organization’s culture. It’s an opportunity to gel with team members and better understand expectations for working within and across functions as well as with their boss. For an employer, it’s a valuable time to share all of the elements that will help new team members be successful as they learn more about their role in the company.


Onboarding can be formal and informal (and usually, companies use both approaches so the new teammate is fully ramped up). Formal onboarding usually includes a series of workshops, training sessions, video calls and exercises. Informal onboarding can be more ad hoc and include shadowing other people on the team, getting to know various stakeholders, as well as understanding the company’s conventions and approach to problem-solving through observation and impromptu coaching with the new hire’s manager. 


When your new hire is remote, this period is critical. It will set the tone — whether it be one for success or for failure. Without a comprehensive formal and informal onboarding strategy that allows you to pivot from in-office to virtual onboarding depending on circumstance, then you run the risk of losing your new hire along with these other associated costs.


The Costs of Staff Turnover 

Research suggests up to 20% of new hires leave in the first 45 days of employment, 

putting a giant question mark over the effectiveness of the onboarding programs those early leavers experienced. 


In the U.S., when an employee quits, businesses spend 50 to 60 percent of the employee’s annual salary to replace them, while SHRM reports that the actual, total costs associated with individual turnovers can range from 90 to 200 percent of the employee’s annual salary.


1. Time-to-replace a hire: Typically, it takes 8-12 weeks to replace a knowledge worker, and then another month or two to ramp the new staff member up to full productivity. This timeframe is shorter for entry-level positions and progressively longer for experienced positions.


2. Time-to-train a new hire: Smart leaders will put the best people in charge of training a new hire, but what about the impacts on the production capacity of the most efficient staff members. Training is a necessity, but there are at least three people that are affected by this: the trainer, their manager, and the trainee. During the new hire’s first 3 months, those hidden labor costs can quickly add up. In fact, studies show that even when training is done, new employees will still take 6 to 9 months before they are productive and profitable.


3. Lost engagement: A Bersin by Deloitte study found that frequent voluntary turnover has a negative impact on current/established employee morale, productivity, and company revenue. Another startling finding from the study is that in any given organization, more than 25 percent of employees can be categorized as flight risks. We should not discount the lost productivity associated with having an open headcount in the team, and the resultant lack of capacity, nor the impact that comes when continuity is removed from the team. As employees begin to feel the ripple effects of recent hire turnover, they’ll begin thinking about their own trajectory with the company. Ultimately, what results is a significant impact on an organization’s culture. 


4. Client relational impact: Many client relationships are based on working closely with small teams or individuals within your organization. High employee turnover means these relationships are reset and require new attention. With possible slippage in the timeline of projects, breaching of deadlines, as well as the usual productivity issues with interrupting continuity, you’re at risk of either damaging or losing client relationships.


How to Overcome Common Virtual Onboarding Challenges

Onboarding is one the most influential factors when it comes to the employee experience. Companies that have effective onboarding processes in place achieve 2.5 times more revenue growth and 1.9 times the profit margin compared to organizations with poor onboarding strategies.


However, creating a great onboarding experience isn’t easy. Like many other processes in remote and distributed teams, onboarding requires more documentation, more structure, and more focused collaboration time. And without a physical work environment, you’ll have to work harder to help the team member feel emotionally connected to coworkers, the company, and the organization’s mission. 


So when we boil it down, there are five key areas to a successful remote employee onboarding strategy, along with a quick list of steps not to be overlooked. So let’s start with critical areas you and your hiring manager should focus on for your new hire.


Schedule expectations: Is your new-hire’s role highly structured or highly flexible. It is vital to be completely transparent with expectations around hours of work, especially if the kind of work requires the person to be physically at their desk and online during specific hours of the day.


Communication expectations & tools: Make sure your new hire understands the expected methods and modes of communication. Provide them immediate access to training, if needed, on the tools used within their team and the organization for communicating with one another. Remember, feelings of isolation begin when a new hire is uncertain on how to properly communicate with their leader and colleagues. Feelings of separation can become overwhelming if it’s unclear as to who/how/when to communicate.


Performance expectations: Be sure you and the hiring manager are clear in setting, sharing, and tracking goals with your new hire, so they understand your expectations of them during the onboarding process. Having clear goals will increase engagement and should inspire motivation.


Repository of resources: When starting a new position, there’s a lot to learn. During your initial orientation call and daily check-ins with your new hire, utilize a video conference tool to record and share those conversations with your new hire. Create a repository of recordings and resources so they have immediate and ongoing access to support documentation during their onboarding and orientation processes. 


Cohort & buddy up: If the new team member is not in-office or you’re shifting entirely to a virtual onboarding process, try to recreate one of the biggest in-office advantages — the feeling of connection. In a virtual environment, we’re often stripped of those small-talk experiences which often help build relationships. So let’s get creative…if you have a number of new hires starting soon, try to batch their start dates and create onboarding cohorts to facilitate connection. 


Also consider developing an opt-in or voluntary buddy or mentor system with established employees. A lot of companies run some kind of buddy system for new hires because it works. Here’s how Google actually gets the most out of this system:


  • The buddy system is opt-in, so no one is forced to take on the responsibility.

  • The buddy’s primary role is to be their “go-to” person for any questions the new hire has that they might not want to bother their boss with.

  • The other major buddy responsibilities are to introduce the new hire to existing team members, explain communication/workflow procedures, and run casual monthly check-ins.


This also shifts some pressure away from the manager and provides a built-in avenue for relationship building that not only supports your new hire but also increases engagement for your current employees. 


With these key components in minds, you can then structure your onboarding process:


1. Develop (at least) a two-week plan

Remote workers take longer to onboard because they aren’t in an office with others. Creating a plan, setting up all the meetings (three or four per day) with agendas and video links will reduce the stress and anxiety new hires can have and ensure they are getting introduced to all the people, processes, and projects that will be a part of their work.


Balance the more work-based sessions with some informal chats and fun ice-breakers. If you have employees who live near each other, they can meet in person for coffee or lunch. Or you can get food or coffees delivered to two people who can share a meal “together” over video as they get to know each other.


2. Start with a small project

Collaborate on developing a clear plan for the new hire’s first 30-60-90 days so you’re both aligned on the expectations for the role. Encourage your hiring manager to assign them activities within the first couple of weeks that require cross-team collaboration or knowledge discovery to introduce them to other team members and information at the company. Added bonus, figure out how to document these activities so they are useful as part of your onboarding repository of support resources.


3. Onboard in cohorts

Reminder, onboarding in groups is a great way to minimize the effort and redundancies of onboarding new hires and training them. It also creates a sense of community amongst your new hires. Companies that onboard using a cohort model report feedback from their team that everyone felt more comfortable and welcomed. When possible, these companies have incorporated this method into both their standard and virtual onboarding best practices for new employees.


4. Ask for feedback

If you’re not experienced in onboarding a remote team, there’s a good chance you might experience some hiccups initially. Ask each new remote employee to pay close attention to the process and tell you what worked and what didn’t. This will allow you to continuously improve the process for your future hires and also demonstrate how much the company values feedback from employees.


5. Empower personal connection & collaboration

Ask your team to reach out to new hires and introduce themselves to start building relationships from the first week. If you can, invite new hires to spend some time together at the HQ, have lunch, or have an offsite with everyone. If this isn’t realistic for your team, you can still create some remote-based traditions or ceremonies for teams to spend non-work-related time together. 


When it comes to collaboration in a virtual or remote-work environment, this can often be one of the more challenging pieces. Consider the tools you use and how empowering your team with emotional intelligence data could help bridge the gap between being in-office and picking up on how best to work with one another. Plug-in collaboration apps are available that can accelerate that process!


Your remote employees’ start dates will come and go. When onboarding is successful, they will become important members of the team and valuable company employees. But to make sure they do, you know the process of onboarding an employee is never really over. Continue streamlining your onboarding process with these ever-present goals — fostering collaboration, empowering employees, and building a stronger company through a people-centric lens — and the time and effort you invest in your plan will be invaluable down the road.


With the hunt for talent more fierce than ever and the costs of replacing recently added talent staggering, coupled with the benefits of higher retention and productivity when onboarding is successful, there’s a huge opportunity for most organizations to do more in order to make their onboarding processes more effective. Download the checklist for quick takeaways and template for how to streamline and structure your onboarding process.


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