Starting a new job can be stressful. Starting a new job during a global pandemic adds an extra layer of stress to that experience, especially for employees who work remotely. A robust onboarding program might relieve some of those stressors — but what happens when the onboarding experience is less than robust?

During the summer of 2020, I left an organization after 20 years of service. I loved my job, but I took a new one in order to relocate to Atlanta. I was optimistic about what I thought would be a lengthy and fruitful career there, but I quit the job after only six months.

I never felt connected — not to the organization, job function, manager or team. I didn’t learn about our corporate behaviors until prepping for my first course months after my start date. I never really knew how my role contributed to the overall mission of the organization. As a remote employee, I only saw my manager and team members from the neck up on a computer screen. While we all communicated, I felt unsure if they actually respected me, trusted me or found value in my contributions.

Thinking back on my short time with the organization, I realized I never received a proper onboarding experience. Completing new hire paperwork and a few periodic check-ins with my manager were the extent of the organization’s onboarding efforts. Sadly, the company lacked an effective strategy.

The Impact of Effective Onboarding

Organizations that offer an effective onboarding process typically see increased levels of employee retention. In fact, the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) cites a Wynhurst Group study that found that new employees who experience a “structured onboarding process” are 58% more likely to be with an organization after three years.

Employee onboarding is meant to accomplish a number of goals, including welcoming new employees to the organization, fostering relationships and setting up employees for success in their new role. While the intent of onboarding is the same as it’s always been, the way in which companies go about conducting onboarding must reflect the current state in which we’re all living and working.

Onboarding in a Remote Workplace

Virtual onboarding is here to stay, and organizations need to reimagine what onboarding looks like in today’s working environment. “Companies that have continued to hire employees during the pandemic need to shift their focus. They need to think about, ‘This is what it’s like to work here now,’ as opposed to, ‘This is what it was like to work here before COVID-19,’” says Michelle Baker, vice president of organizational development at Forum Credit Union in Indianapolis. “We now have a great opportunity for learning and development and [human resources] teams to find innovative ways to collaborate virtually and to increase efficiencies.”

According to Stanford University, 42% of the U.S. labor force was working from home full time as of June 2020. Organizations need to consider how to engage and enable those team members. “There should be consistency in onboarding to ensure that all new employees, remote or otherwise, receive the same level of support, training and care,” says Baker.

There are three specific areas of consideration organizations must address when it comes to onboarding remote employees:

    • Introduction/connectedness (e.g., formal and informal team meetings, social events like a virtual “happy hour,” or assigning a buddy or mentor).
    • Goals/expectations (e.g., monthly or quarterly goals, role-specific tasks, or “quick win” assignments).
    • Online resources (e.g., job aids, checklists, or meeting and collaboration software or applications).

These elements are just as important as the traditional aspects of onboarding, like the completion of required paperwork and setting up technology.

The Role of Training

Training should also be a significant component of the virtual onboarding experience. According to Baker, “There should be an intentional blend of formal training, coaching and relationship-building opportunities, as well as self-directed learning resources that are mapped out for every new employee, regardless of their role or level within the organization.”

Training that is successfully integrated into the onboarding process helps new employees master fundamental skills, acquire knowledge, build relationships and navigate the organization.

The Return on Investment

Virtual onboarding does take time and effort. According to Baker, who is co-author of “Talent GPS: A Manager’s Guide to Navigating the Employee Development Journey,” “New hire orientation is an event, whereas onboarding is a process that can take from several weeks to several months.”

Here’s the bright side: Onboarding usually results in a high return on investment (ROI) for both the employee and the company. When done well, effective onboarding typically results in higher levels of employee engagement, increased employee retention and productivity, and a stronger company culture.

For the best employment outcomes, make sure to invest the time and resources into a thoughtful and strategic onboarding program — one that informs your new remote employees about the organization, connects them with their geographically disbursed team members and sets them up for success on their job. As a thank you, that employee might stay around for many years of dedicated service to the organization.