How to successfully onboard employees in a work-at-home world

There’s no overstating the importance of a quality employee onboarding. “A meaningful onboarding experience has the power to set a positive and memorable tone for an employee’s future experience,” says Donna Kimmel, EVP & Chief People Officer at Citrix. However, amid widespread shelter-in-place orders, new hires won’t be greeted with a balloon at their desk or a team lunch on the corporate card any time soon. This may cause some leaders to fear that they’re not putting their best foot forward. Digitally mature organizations, though, can rest assured that even absent the pizza party, they’re setting their new hires up to succeed from their first week onward.

Consider this: In research commissioned by Citrix, The Economist Intelligence Unit found that 37% of C-suite and rank-and-file employees reported that well-implemented workplace technology had a positive impact on the employee experience. With the pandemic forcing companies to reconsider everything from mobile device security to workplace culture, an effective digital onboarding for remote employees isn’t just a nice-to-have; it’s mission-critical.

So where to start? Drawing on expertise from both inside and outside of Citrix, we’ve outlined best practices to consider to get companies on proactive footing as they create digital onboarding processes for remote workers.

Create a warm digital welcome.

Over the past few years Florian Wies, regional lead for country integration at Merck, has helped his employer shift to a digital-first process called “From now to WOW.” Its purpose: to impress new employees with the most effective onboarding they’ve ever experienced.

“We start the process well in advance of their start date,” says Wies. Indeed, new hires can access not just HR documents but also information about their new roles and departments, as well as their new colleagues and managers, weeks ahead of officially “landing.” By orienting the onboarding process toward digital efficiency, Wies and his colleagues create an environment where new hires hit the ground already in full stride.

Dismantle barriers between IT and HR.

Designing a memorable, effective remote onboarding program is not the sole responsibility of HR, nor is it purely a technology function best suited to IT. “There needs to be a very strong relationship between HR and IT to make this a seamless and positive experience for employees and hiring managers,” says Scott Ballina, Senior Director of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging at Citrix. “If the dots are not connected between functions and there’s a lack of collaboration, things will fall apart,” he warns.

That may mean creating new ways of working, and even new roles within your remote teams. At Northwell Health, New York State’s largest health care provider, IT professionals are embedded directly in the HR department. Elina Petrillo, the assistant vice president for HR technology at Northwell, is a lynchpin figure, serving as a liaison to her organization between the HR and IT functions. Her boss determines the strategy for HR, she says, and “I have to tell him what’s possible from a technology perspective.”

According to Petrillo, a greater facility with technology contributes to a better employee experience. Her team uses YouTube videos to help staff in HR become familiar with new technologies and to track their comfort level with them. “Then we’re able to understand how people are using technology and can quantify the response to any initiative.”

Don’t let culture take a back seat.

In the rush to onboard new personnel, a critical piece of the enterprise puzzle can be overlooked. “Virtual onboarding can feel very transactional and impersonal, if you aren’t deliberate about creating connections and reinforcing company culture,” says Ballina.

It may strike some leaders as ironic that digital onboarding can actually help an organization communicate its culture more effectively, from the employee’s very first day. “Automate the tedious tasks of getting IT accesses set up, selecting benefits and completing employee profiles,” Ballina says, “and you can then spend time sharing stories with and between new hires, and building experiences that demonstrate your company’s culture and values.”

Among businesses and employees surveyed by The Economist Intelligence Unit, technology ranked just behind organizational purpose and culture as a determinant of the employee experience. The applicable lesson for HR and IT is clear: To attract and retain talent, digitally mature organizations don’t just supply oodles of tech. They ensure that the tech ultimately serves to strengthen the company’s culture and the employee’s experience.

Advantage, digital.

It’s difficult to overstate the role of effective onboarding. But rather than viewing the digital version as a runner-up or half-measure, organizations should embrace it for the opportunity it is.

“All of our new employees now engage and connect in the exact same way,” Ballina says. “While the items on our onboarding checklist haven’t shifted much, 100% virtual onboarding has let us devote all of our efforts to creating a great employee experience.”

Equipped with these best practices and hard-won perspectives, businesses should feel confident shifting to a digital-first onboarding posture. There’s no time like the present.

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