The value of new-hire onboarding is not in doubt, although many companies still underinvest in it. Research from Glassdoor showed that effective onboarding practices improve employee retention by about 80% and increase productivity by more than 70%. At the same time, a poll by Gallup found that only 12% of employees think their organizations do a great job at onboarding.

As the COVID-19 pandemic enters a new, less intensive phase, many companies are struggling to embrace hybrid work models. An estimated 16% of global companies have committed to operating 100% virtually; less than 40% are attempting (in many cases unsuccessfully) to return to exclusively working in person. For the other 40% of firms, varying percentages of employees will be working entirely remotely. The net is that most companies will continue to need to virtually onboard substantial numbers of new hires.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that it’s quite possible to onboard new hires effectively in virtual work environments. This is true for both remote and hybrid new hires, where essential onboarding processes are done virtually — although it’s also helpful to have some in-person interaction if possible. Let’s take a look at eight principles to help you maximize the impact of virtual onboarding.

1.     Leverage the time before arrival.

The time before a new employee is formally introduced to their role is valuable and offers the opportunity to accelerate onboarding and instill a sense of belonging. This is the time to get some tasks out of the way, including required documentation, technology and virtual training. It’s also a great opportunity to conduct an orientation of the company, their role and their new team. As you do this, don’t forget that these early interactions are your new employees’ first real taste of your company’s operations and culture. Small gestures, such as getting the chance to meet the team or a call from their new manager will be appreciated.

2.     Support a structured learning process.

Effective learning is an essential foundation for onboarding success. To accelerate learning in a dispersed work environment, you should provide a structured onboarding experience. Include orientation resources online with background on the company’s history and culture. Also include a learning plan for your new hires once they are on the job. Your goal is to help your new hires get an overall view of the organization and their place in it as quickly as possible.

3.     Provide a robust stakeholder engagement plan.

Learning is one foundation of successful onboarding — building connection is the another. Help your new hires identify and build relationships with key stakeholders. With virtual onboarding, it’s especially essential to be more detailed and structured. You can start by identifying key stakeholders that work alongside your new hire. This may not be apparent to new hires. Once you’ve identified key stakeholders, reach out and align them on the objectives you have set for your new hire. This can help maximize the value of their initial meetings.

4.     Assign a virtual onboarding buddy.

Many companies have buddy systems during onboarding, with Microsoft being a notably successful example. A buddy is even more essential for new hires coming into remote positions. Good buddies play four key roles:

  1. They help orient new hires to the business and its context.
  2. They facilitate connections to people whose support is necessary or helpful.
  3. They assist with the navigation of processes and systems.
  4. They accelerate acculturation by providing insight into “how things get done here.”

Of course, you must choose buddies who have the time, ability and inclination to help, and you need to brief them on how they can be of most assistance.

5.     Orchestrate a great “day one” experience.

Every new hire, regardless of whether they are remote or hybrid, should have a positive experience on their first official day on the job. This includes getting an official welcome and meeting new team members as quickly as possible. As discussed, new hires should also have all the necessary technology, approvals and access to be productive. Depending on the situation, it could be valuable to give new hires live demonstrations of the video conferencing platform, communication channels and other company systems work. Doing so can reduce first day anxiety, minimize technical issues and allow new employees to be fully present.

6.     Be crystal clear about short-term objectives and early wins.

New hires must quickly determine how they will create value in their new roles. They need to clearly understand what success looks like for the first 90 days and beyond and understand how their responsibilities fit into the team’s overall success. Having a clear set of desired outcomes can help new employees prioritize and build a foundation for sustained success. Even a small amount of guidance on how they can get early wins and create positive impressions can go a long way.

7.     Remember that effective onboarding takes more than 90 days.

The survey by Gallup also found that new team members typically take around 12 months to reach peak performance. However, few companies have onboarding processes that continue beyond a few months and many are substantially shorter. The risk is that new employees may fall off a “support cliff.” After intensive early support, the onboarding process ends and the “sink or swim” process begins. This does not mean that onboarding processes need to last for a year. However, it does mean to continuously show support to employees to learn, connect and achieve peak performance.

8.     Don’t forget about reskilling.

Finally, as you apply these eight principles, recognize that effective virtual onboarding shouldn’t just mean helping new hires. Employees making internal moves to remote roles in different parts of your organization can face challenges as well. It’s just as important to help reskilling employees connect with team members and get up to speed fast. Use the same approach to accelerate everyone joining your company as well as making significant internal moves to new remote or hybrid roles.