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How to Evolve your Virtual Onboarding to Help New Hires Feel Like Part of the Team

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Alexandra Paquette
Ten Thousand Coffees Team -
May 25, 2020

"We're building the plane as we fly it."

This phrase was coined by Brien Convery, National Director of Early Talent Acquisition for RBC. It's a feeling that many talent leaders can relate to,  just over two months in to transitioning their teams to remote work and programs to virtual for the first time.

Brien just launched the first ever fully virtual summer internship program at RBC. The dust is settling from transitioning these key programs, and employees are finding their groove. Now leaders are looking at how some of these early programs can act as a model to be applied to their broader talent strategies moving forward.

Going remote has had a lot of impacts on talent strategy. Business needs are quickly evolving. Recruiting and interviewing look different than before. Onboarding has to be completely rethought.

"While many companies were quick to cancel upcoming talent programs, the decisions that business leaders make today will have downstream impacts on recruiting and hiring brands for years to come."

- Bridget King, North America Events & Branding Manager, Early Professional Hiring, IBM

IBM has made news recently. Amidst all the cancelled internship and new hire programs, the tech giant chose to convert their summer internship program to remote rather than cancel. They're innovating to deliver a brand-new world class internship program.

In addition to leveraging Ten Thousand Coffees for the networking and informal mentoring component of their program, IBM has introduced a variety of optional programming for their interns, from trivia nights to a three day hackathon focused on the COVID-19 response effort.

RBC and IBM are proof that despite the many companies whose hiring plans have been significantly impacted by the changing climate, many are continuing. This means that virtual onboarding will soon be the default for many.

Poor onboarding = Low employee engagement and poor retention

HR professionals cite their biggest challenges with onboarding remote and distributed employees, as:

  1. Making new hires feel like part of the team (17%)
  2. Providing clarity and context about role expectations and career growth (17%)
  3. Integrating into company culture (15%)
  4. Establishing communication norms (13%)

Source: Doodle

The onboarding experience is critical to employee satisfaction, career development, and retention. But HR professionals are worried about their ability to deliver a great experience virtually. This could lead to two major issues: low employee engagement and poor retention.

The cost of employee turnover

Long before the challenges of going fully virtual overnight, doing onboarding well was a challenge:

  • Only 12% of employees strongly agree that their organization does a great job onboarding new employees (Gallup).
  • Employee turnover can be as high as 50% in the first 18 months of employment (Gallup).
  • Estimates suggest it costs 6-9 months of an employee's salary to onboard a replacement (Society for Human Resource Management).
  • Many companies only account for the hard costs of turnover (e.g., recruiting, background checks, temporary labor) which are only the tip of the iceberg.
  • Soft costs (e.g., reduced productivity, interview time, lost knowledge) represent much more (Society for Human Resource Management).
Cost of employee turnover. Source: Work Institute

Key ingredients to onboarding success

Experts say there are four key domains to master for new hires:

  1. Business orientation
  2. Expectations alignment
  3. Political connection
  4. Cultural adaptation

The last two are the most important indicators of long-term success. But they're the hardest for hiring managers to pass along. What's a new hire to do when the traditional avenues of building these - team events, hallway conversations, water cooler moments, casual lunchtime encounters - are all gone?

5 Steps to build an intentional culture of connectivity

1. Start early with pre-boarding

Integrating new hires into your organization starts before their first day. Particularly in these uncertain times, candidates appreciate more frequent communication throughout the interview process.

With recent news of job offers being rescinded and layoffs within a month of starting a new role, new hires can suffer from uncertainty and concerns about job security. Uncertainty is a common cause of anxiety, and right now a lot of things are unclear. Having access to a point person before they start can allay a lot of concerns. This point person should be someone with the right information about the status of their role.

2. Implement an employee buddy program

In addition to a pre-onboarding point person, new hire buddy programs are a great way to reduce first day jitters. Buddy programs match new hires with current employees. This is an opportunity to make current employees ambassadors of your company culture.

In the past, opportunities to make new friends within the organization was dependent on in-person events like team socials, conferences or new hire outings. This needs to be much more intentional to be delivered in a virtual setting.

Buddies also act as a safe space to ask questions that new hires might not feel comfortable asking their manager, like the time allotment for lunch or expectations for working hours. Implementing a buddy program is a first step in making sure new hires don't feel isolated as they're getting up to speed in the company. Buddies should be within one level of seniority of the new hire.

Ten Thousand Coffees make introductions to like-minded employees,

3. Give the HR team and people managers a break

HR teams can't shoulder the burden for employee engagement and wellbeing on their own. Managing a successful matching program often means drowning HR teams in administration. By our count, it would take over 14k emails to run one three month program!

Example number of touchpoitns necessary to facilitate a successful matching program.

As a result, many HR teams have no choice but to pass the tax to the people managers. People managers are already overburdened with an endless list of responsibilities, and now they're trying to manage more frequent check-ins, keep their teams in the know and balance their own personal and professional lives. Consider that the average people manager has 11 direct reports. Imagine trying to navigate all their own day-to-day deliverables and creating the right connections for a new hire. It's an impossible task. Hinging the success of an onboarding program on the manager creates a single point of failure. That's really risky. Organizations can overcome this by giving employees access to other colleagues than just their manager. We've shared the 7 people interns need to meet to be successful.

4. Be deliberate about giving permission and access

Challenges #1 + 3 above were about making new hires feel like part of the team and integrating them into the culture. The answer is to be deliberate and consistent about building connectivity and relationships within your organization. You can't expect them to do it on their own without a systematic way to do it.

Feeling the permission and confidence to reach out to colleagues is a challenge that many leaders can't relate to. This is because most leaders would not be where they are today without the benefits of a strong professional network. They forget that networking and relationship building are skills honed over time. Consistently when we speak to senior leaders, they overestimate how much these connections are happening spontaneously.

Early talent (up to 10 years into their career) and minority talent often face these challenges more sharply than other groups. Though it's typically common across the employee population.


In our research with enterprise employees:

  • 65% don't feel they're allowed to speak to colleagues on different teams or levels of seniority
  • 73% don't feel confident about what to say to a more senior employee

5. Host small group sessions with leaders

Companies can address this by reinforcing the permission and access to networking and informal mentorship within the company across all levels of leadership. Get executives talking about the importance of building relationships within the organization. Leaders and people managers should echo this too.

RBC does this well by hosting virtual walk and talks with executives. Before the shift to remote working, executives would lead these sessions with groups of 3-5 employees. They were in such high demand because they offered an informal setting to get to know company executives on a more personal level. Many companies do well with mass communication channels, like town halls and company-wide updates, but miss the importance of more intimate settings.

Virtual roundtables can be hosted through existing video-conferencing tools such as Webex or Zoom.

In Summary

Virtual Onboarding Challenges

  • The biggest challenge with remote onboarding is making new hires feel like part of the team. Political connections and cultural adaptation are the two most critical pillars to engage and retain new employees.
  • Employee turnover is higher during the first 18 months of their tenure.
  • Every lost hire can cost a company 6-9 months of their salary in replacement cost.

Best Practices for Virtual Onboarding

Build an intentional culture of connectivity:

  1. Start early, even before their first day.
  2. Implement a buddy program.
  3. Give the HR team and people managers a break.
  4. Be deliberate about giving permission and access.
  5. Host small group sessions with leaders.

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