Bringing new people into an organization is one of the biggest investments any company makes. As a result, supporting that investment with a focus on effective orientation and onboarding makes solid business sense. Employees who receive effective onboarding are more likely to stay, more effective and happier in their role than employees who miss out on this important stage in the employment process.

The Difference Between Onboarding and Orientation

Onboarding and orientation are related but not the same. Orientation welcomes a new employee to the company and is often used to set a common ground for everyone who begins the employment journey at the organization.

Onboarding is a series of events that helps new employees understand how to be successful in their day-to-day work. By necessity, it is not the same for everyone, because different people have different roles. With an effective program, it often takes 30 to 90 days to fully orient and onboard a new employee; with an ineffective program, full orientation can take longer or may never happen.

Virtual Challenges

Many of the tried and true engagement techniques available to us in a face-to-face workplace have become impossible in a virtual workplace. The pandemic has changed our ability to bring large groups of people together to tour facilities and facilitate small group conversations. It’s no longer possible for department heads to come into a room, meet all the new employees and talk for an hour about what their department does.

Of course, that approach was never an ideal orientation or onboarding practice, as such sessions center around what makes existing employees feel heard and valued. Without an intentional design in place, those sessions often fail in the goal of making the new employees feel centered and comfortable in an unfamiliar environment. We must carefully examine jargon, inside jokes and cultural assumptions in our orientation and onboarding sessions to make sure that our new people aren’t alienated by the process.

Making Onboarding Effective

Here are four strategies that can make your onboarding program more effective:

1. Use Checklists

Atul Gwande’s book “The Checklist Manifesto” provides a strong case for the effectiveness of checklists in both simple and complex situations. Onboarding is a perfect use case for a good checklist, because it’s a situation with specific requirements and one that most people don’t engage in repeatedly.

In the case of onboarding and orientation, checklists are appropriate for both new employees and their managers. Each has important requirements to fulfill, and a checklist can clarify those requirements and support the process of completing them.

2. Flip Onboarding

Traditionally, a big part of an employee’s first day and, often, his or her orientation session, is taken up with paperwork and lecture. These practices aren’t engaging in an in-person setting, let alone in a virtual environment. As much as possible, send paperwork or links to standard information ahead of time so new employees can work through it in their own time.

Then, when you have a group of employees together in a live virtual session, focus on creating opportunities for interaction. Discussion of the materials employees reviewed beforehand is a more valuable use of time than reviewing material together.

3. Help Build Relationships

Having a strong relationship with at least one person at work increases success and reduces turnover. You can’t decide whom someone should be friends with, but you can introduce new people and provide some structure to help build relationships. This structure might come in the form of a list of suggested conversation topics, a series of meetings or a series of workplace tasks for employees to complete together.

4. Chunk Learning

The concept of chunking within learning interventions helps aid retention, because the brain can only process so much information at once. A whole job’s worth of expertise is a lot to learn, and chunking expectations for new employees can help increase the speed at which they become effective.

It’s tempting to assert that people need to know the whole job before they can start, but that statement is almost never true. As author Daniel Pink points out, mastery is an inherent motivator. Starting new people with a small number of meaningful tasks can help quickly bring them to productivity, increase their value to the organization and improve job satisfaction.

Virtual onboarding and orientation can still be engaging and effective. It requires more thought and effort to engage with someone you don’t share physical space with, but it is one of the most meaningful and effective learning interventions you can invest in.

Want to learn more on this topic? Sign up for the virtual Training Industry Conference & Expo, and attend Lisa’s live session with her colleague Nancy Dickerson.