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How to make remote onboarding more effective

One of the biggest challenges of the pandemic is the loss of human connection. We’re all struggling with this, at work and at home.  In businesses, this can have some pretty negative impacts. None more so than on recruitment and onboarding. Recent research by Glassdoor found that organisations with a strong onboarding process improve new hire retention by 82% and productivity by 70%. That’s massive! So you have to make sure that lockdown and remote-working don’t wreck your onboarding experience. 

As a big advocate of face-to-face, this intrigues me.  I’ve always felt there’s no substitute for being in the same room with someone. But, through necessity, my clients are coming up with new ways to ensure they find and bed-in the talent they need.  And they’re obviously working.  One of my January exercises is talent assessments.  We’ve looked at the number of A-Players clients have recruited and retained in 2020.  It’s a great mechanism to work out if their recruitment and onboarding process is robust – and in many cases it is. 

New Signature has received strong feedback about the success of their remote onboarding.  This may be a reflection of their established remote culture. Even before COVID, 60-70% of their employees were mostly remote. But other clients have also reported success. 

Clearvision concluded that out of all new hires last year, only one was a B-Player. They’ve used COVID as an opportunity to hire A-Players from other geographical areas. They’re moving from a 100% office-based culture to a hybrid model.  As well as staff at their HQ in Hedge End, they now have talented people, working remotely and spread around the UK. To try to ensure parity, they’ve introduced a ‘remote-first’ policy for meetings and other interactions. In my experience, it can be challenging to make this work in the long term – I’m interested to see how it develops.   

So how do you make remote onboarding more effective? Here are some great insights from my clients. 

Ensure new hires are handled by A-Players

Great people won’t join your company if they’re interviewed by B or C Players during the hiring process. This applies whether your process is virtual or face-to-face. They want to know your company hires the best, so put your best in front of them.

Every aspect of the recruitment and on-boarding process needs to be meticulously planned.  It’s all about confirming that the candidate has made the right choice.   Don’t get them to shadow someone because you haven’t thought through what to do with them on day one. Particularly if the person they’re shadowing is a B or C Player.  Within five minutes, your new hire will be thinking, ‘I can do that job way better than them’.  

    No more than four stages to recruitment

    Clearvision has a four-stage process for recruitment that has hardly changed during COVID.  This seems to be the optimal approach – a conclusion reached by Google when they were examining the recruitment of A-Players.  Looking back retrospectively, they found there was no return on time given to a fifth stage. 

    According to Clearvision’s HR Director, Kathryn Tombs, there is now, ‘No face to face element’ to their recruitment process.  Instead, they’ve added in a remote cultural interview with two people from the area the new starter will be working in.  That’s really useful.  It gives candidates the opportunity to talk to the people they’ll be working with but also gives the team a veto. 

    Double down on communication

    There’s no doubt – communication is harder when everyone’s remote.  And that means you have to double your effort to communicate with new employees.  Rosie Nugent, Head of HR at New Signature, explained that, even though they’ve been working remotely for nine months, they still get new hires asking what time they need to be in the office.  Her advice is, ‘Never assume’. 

    Another client, Six Degrees, has a portal set up when COVID started.  It contains FAQs and home-working policies – an ideal place to direct new hires towards.  Their HR Director, Liz Cook, said, ‘We do more communication now because of the fact we’re virtual.  I think you have to do more to keep the same level as face to face. Because someone can just walk up to you when they’re in the business but when they’re at home they don’t have these touch bases or conversations’.

    Put yourself in the candidate’s shoes

    Liz recommends putting yourself in the shoes of the new starter. ‘If you’d just joined a business when you can’t actually meet anybody face-to-face, how would you feel? How would you feel if nobody contacted you on your first day and you were just sat there? How would you feel if you waited a whole week for somebody to talk to you? How would you feel if you weren’t introduced to the team and you didn’t have that visual?’  Her advice is to take 10 minutes to sit down and write these things down – you’ll find you come at it from a completely different angle. 

    Back in the days when I was MD at Rackspace, we’d often nick ideas that we thought were examples of best practice. One of these we heard about through the Management Today Service Excellence Awards.  Sending a welcome card, signed by all the team, to people’s houses the weekend before they joined. 

    You can imagine how nervous people are at this point. Good candidates never need to give up a job. They’ve done all their due diligence, passed their interview but there’s still a nagging doubt in their heads. Have they made the right choice to jump ship and join your company?  Then a cheery card lands on their doormat saying, ‘Hello, welcome, we can’t wait to see you on Monday.’  I’ve had men and women tell me this made them cry. It landed at just the right time and alleviated all their fears.

    One of my newer clients, QCS, has gone one better. Their Content Director, Damaris Daniels, has thought through all aspects of the onboarding from the candidate’s point of view. 

    ‘A few weeks before they join us, we send our new starters a couple of books on the EOS methodology with a note that we’re really excited that they’re joining the team – here’s a little reading to help them settle in quickly, ‘ she said. ‘At the same time, we put together an onboarding plan, bespoke to each new starter and start to fill their meetings calendar with key people. A week before they start, their line manager gives them a ring to check they’re ok, reassure them about their start and just have a catch-up and check-in.  And in the first couple of weeks, we send an onboarding gift which is tailored to the new starter – it might contain some chocolate, a gift for their children, tea or coffee, little things that we know that they will love from the personal information we have already gathered from them.’   Fantastic!

    Get everything ready before new starters arrive

    There’s nothing worse than turning up to a new job and not having the right kit.  Or finding you can’t log-on from your home office.  Six Degrees hit some initial problems when the country was suddenly thrown into the first lock-down. Getting kit out in time, before new starters joined, became a priority. More recently, they’ve had great feedback. Apparently, their virtual onboarding experience is rated better than new hires have experienced in real life in other organisations.  Well deserved praise!

    Liz attributes this to organisation and forward planning. ‘You need to be ahead of the game, particularly in the COVID scenario. If people haven’t interfaced with you directly, they don’t necessarily get the culture of the business.  We make sure everything is ready on day 1. Organisation, planning and being ahead of the game is important. It’s not rocket science, it’s just good practice.’

    Pre-COVID, they had an orientation-type welcome and an IT briefing on the first day.  Now, these are virtual – new starters have a slot with IT before joining to go through everything and get connected.

    Find ways to integrate virtual starters informally

    It’s the informal moments of connection that people miss when they first join an organisation remotely. At Rackspace, Peer 1 and IT Lab, we got all new starters to write, ‘10 things you don’t know about me’ to spark conversations.  These were emailed around the whole company – we even put them up above the urinals in the Men’s loos and on the cubicle door in the Ladies.  Way more effective than using a staff noticeboard that nobody ever reads!

    At QCS, they share one-page personal profiles of new starters and a fun fact sheet. Where they live, their hobbies, what they like to do at the weekend etc. They also have an informal coffee conversation rota where the whole company commits to a virtual fortnightly chit-chat meeting with someone they don’t usually work with.  New starters are automatically added to the list so they get to meet many different people in the organisation. Six Degrees also assign a ‘buddy’ so they have someone they can talk to who can help them with any issues or problems.

    Get feedback

    New starters are a mine of useful information.  Treat them like they have a superpower because they really do.  For the first few months, they will have a different view of your world and their suggestions are invaluable.  

    Six Degrees have a focus session every eight weeks and new starters are automatically included. It’s an opportunity to say how things are going, what’s good, the things they like about the business but also the things that frustrate them. This feedback is a great opportunity to pick up on niggles or point people in the right direction to solve a problem.

    Make weekly 1:1s and daily huddles compulsory

    In his newest book, ‘9 Lies About Work’, Marcus Buckingham gives strong evidence for the value of weekly check-ins.  He describes how Cisco moved to a weekly rhythm of 1:1s with managers but this was rolled out inconsistently. They got an amazing set of data tracking performance against the frequency of 1:1s. If these took place weekly, there was a massive uptick in productivity.  This dropped dramatically when 1:1s were monthly and at six weeks or more, they had a negative impact, meaning you were better off not doing them at all.  This is even more important when staff are remote as when they’re in the office.

    Whether you’re a new starter or not, Six Degrees insist that remote 1:1s happen weekly. They don’t have to be very long, but Liz mentioned that frequent connection with line managers has become even more important now employees are working from home. For new starters, they make sure managers check-in, at a minimum, two or three times a week in the first four weeks. And it’s not an email, it’s an actual face to face call. 

    Also important are team huddles.  My personal view is that these should be daily.  This is how you integrate new starters into their teams right from the start and enable them to understand their working priorities.

    Turn cameras on

    Ah yes – cameras on or off?  This is a big bugbear of mine. Some businesses don’t have a corporate policy to have cameras on at all times.  I just don’t get it. So much of communication is non-verbal.  The technology’s there.  Why wouldn’t you use it?  I’ve had some pretty robust conversations with Exec teams that this should become a corporate cultural thing. If you’re not happy to have your camera on, you’re not right for this business.  It’s not an innate human right. It’s like coming to a meeting and then not participating. You’re either part of the team or you’re not.

    Liz at Six Degrees feels that turning cameras on is even more important for new starters. ‘They’re new and have zero idea of how you are as a business and how you operate,’ she said. ‘It’s about how you really engage with somebody.  Take time to think about that and then how you bring them into the team.’ 

    Tailor virtual events differently

    Think carefully about tailoring induction events for a remote audience.  Rosie from New Signature described how they used to hold day-long inductions to bond large numbers of new starters but they don’t work virtually.  Instead, they on-board smaller groups regularly rather than larger groups less frequently.  These virtual sessions of two or three people allow for more conversation where everyone gets the chance to speak. 

    Similarly, Six Degrees have changed their full day induction to two half days.  They still have presenters who do icebreaker activities and they get people to post pictures to reflect different things to retain a fun element.  Two weeks after these half days, there’s a further session with follow-up content.   

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    Written by business growth coach Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here. Read his new book, ‘F**k Plan B’ here

    Thanks to:

    Kathryn Tombs, HR Director and Company Secretary, Clearvision

    Rosie Nugent, Head of HR, New Signature

    Liz Cook, HR Director, Six Degrees

    Damaris Daniels, Content Director, QCS

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