First impressions are one of the most influential factors for us as individuals. The first impression of a new employer will define attitudes, but in the world of remote working both the employer and employee face new challenges in making this a success.

Onboarding programmes that form the heart of these first impressions need to be rethought. As employers this is our first, and only, opportunity to impress.

Objective of onboarding programmes

The objective of the onboarding programme can be defined as bringing an individual successfully into an organisation so that they understand:

  • what the purpose of their role is and the expectations of them as a result;
  • how their role contributes to the success of the organisation in achieving its purpose;
  • how they contribute directly to their team in achieving this; and,
  • how their work adds value to the organisation’s clients.

An effective onboarding programme helps in the retention of new employees. The Trendence UK Graduate Survey 2019 stated that 49% of students across all areas questioned expected to stay in their first job for one to two years. While retention rates may vary, these initial perceptions will enable individuals to decide whether they wish to stay with an employer, or indeed, within the profession. We can only expect the retention rate to fall if new joiners struggle to assimilate into their new organisations.

Remote challenge

The challenge for organisations is that much of this was achieved through workplace activities which have become more difficult to perform in the current working environment. Whether somebody is joining as a graduate or school leaver into the organisation, or as a more experienced hire, their previous experiences will be influenced by their recent situations.

For those coming from education the path has been disrupted and may well have been full of uncertainties regarding the world of work and the expectations of them. It is worth remembering that the sense of fear and anxiety from the pandemic affects our responses and heightens our concerns in other areas. The new organisation may be daunting.

For the employer, the need to bring an individual into the culture and ways of working of an organisation as quickly as possible is important. Yet much of this has been traditionally achieved through workplace courses and direct interaction which is difficult to replicate.

First steps

What are some of the steps that employers can take to optimise the process for all involved? These fall into two categories, activities before the official start date (termed preboarding) and those once the individual has formally joined (termed onboarding).

Preboarding

The preboarding phase is an important tool in remote onboarding. The objective is to help the individual joining to feel that they can hit the ground running – to be as effective as possible from day one.

Activities that can be undertaken in this phase include the following:

  • Explaining the purpose of the organisation and its strategy from the perspective of the leadership but also from the team of which the new employee will be a part. This can be done by video recordings. In so doing it creates a sense of purpose that the individual seeks.
  • Providing details of the history and achievements of the organisation.
  • Establishing a clear definition of the role that the individual is taking up; what the expectations and outcomes are and the lines of accountability.
  • What common systems the individual might be expected to use (such as collaboration, office and communication software) so that they can communicate from the first hour of formally joining.
  • Provide the technology necessary to join.

Onboarding

Typically, onboarding processes are a mixture of communication, legal and human resource activities. Organisations typically spend days explaining information. In the remote world we need to optimise that process such that the individual joining feels that they are productive from day one. It is essential to establish a clear understanding of culture and identity at the start.

At the core of the onboarding process for the individual is being a valued part of a team. In our article Secrets of good remote management we discussed some of the techniques necessary in this environment to manage and lead effectively.

Bruce Tuckman in his article Developmental sequence in small groups describes four phases of team development; forming, storming, norming and performing. For the new joiner, establishing themselves in an established group is always a challenge, and is all the harder when this is forced to happen remotely. They need to feel that they have accelerated their speed to capability and are adding value to the organisation at as early an opportunity as possible.

In the application of Lombardo and Eichinger’s 70-20-10 model where 70% of an individual’s learning experiences happens on the job through challenging assignments and 20% is from developing relationships, it is these areas that are crucial in the onboarding experience. The 10% from structured, class-based learning is less important but often receives the greatest attention.

  • Some actions that can be taken to assist the new joiner include the following:
  • Setting team rather than individual goals for new joiners as they work towards establishing themselves in the organisation.
  • Having clear milestones and expected outcomes in tasks, especially in the early stages.
  • Encouraging social collaboration and relationship building amongst peers and immediate team members (using networking tools as well as informal gatherings) including the sharing of achievements and lessons learned.
  • Delivering on-boarding content on a more phased basis to allow the new team member to focus on their role and establishing what is expected of them.
  • Developing experiences that the new joiner can participate in that promote an understanding of the culture and strategic purpose of the organisation – including work shadowing with senior leaders.

Establishing trust among the team members is essential. As team members, understanding the signs of stress within each of team is important. These may be harder to detect in remote circumstances yet are more vital to understand if team performance is to be maintained.

Onboarding is something that we need to get right. We need to be prepared to challenge our traditional approaches and to innovate for success.

Clive Webb is senior insights manager at ACCA. Sharon Critchlow (ACCA Council), Keith Jones (Alchemy Worldwide), Nigel Spencer (Oxford Saïd Business School) and Dmitry Milaschuk (Integral coach) also contributed to this article