The trend toward virtual onboarding has only increased during this period of recent global uncertainty. Virtual onboarding, though not without challenges, provides many exciting opportunities that benefit your learners as well as your organization.
Starting a job in a new company or changing roles in your current company is one of the most exciting and stressful times in your career. Remember what that was like? You have so many questions, and at the same time, you don’t know what to ask. There is so much to figure out, from access to tools and technology to understanding how you fit in the organization. These days the trend is for onboarding—defined as the process by which new employees acquire the necessary skills and knowledge to become effective members of an organization—to occur all or in part virtually.
Whether your organization is transitioning to a virtual onboarding program from a face-to-face one or developing a virtual experience from scratch, virtual onboarding programs can be associated with both challenges and opportunities. There are still some common misconceptions about virtual learning, though—what it is and what it isn’t, when it can and cannot be effective—that are worth unpacking in this first article in our series about virtual learning.
Some of the challenges are obvious, but others you may not have considered.
One of the goals of any onboarding program should be to integrate the new person into the organization. New employees need to connect with real people who can be genuinely helpful throughout the process. Ideally they need to connect with these individuals as well as integrating a cohort of new joiners that will serve as an ongoing network long after the initial training period. Though more challenging in a virtual environment, establishing direct human connection is not impossible and should be made a priority.
Consider developing a virtual buddy system or a more formal mentoring program if your organization doesn’t have one already. Leverage existing collaboration sites to create a space for new joiners to post, comment, ask questions. Even in virtual onboarding, recognize that more than 50% of the learning will be informal, and a good virtual onboarding program will provide opportunities for that.
Another challenge with virtual learning generally and onboarding specifically is keeping it engaging. When converting from a face-to-face program to a virtual one, it’s tempting to simply convert your in-person sessions to webinars or even worse, just to record your expert presenter and distribute the video. Simple virtual instructor-led training (VILT) can be draining for both learner and instructor and is often not the most efficient way to convey your content. And video, while very effective in small doses, must be mixed with other opportunities for interaction. An active learner absorbs more new information than a passive one, so consider how you can keep your learners active. For pointers on increasing engagement in your virtual onboarding, be sure to see our article on 8 Innovative Virtual Learning Design Tips to Engage Your Remote Teams.
Access to Technology and Content
The new joiner is a unique population within an organization—often not yet connected to the resources afforded a full-time employee. If your organization provides laptops, tablets, or smart phones for employees to use to conduct their work, when in the hiring process are those items provided? It is often days or even weeks into employment before they can distributed. Meanwhile, the content to be conveyed in an orientation is often considered confidential and may only be accessible behind the company firewall. And what if your new employee’s internet at home is inconsistent or being shared with others? You can develop the very best virtual onboarding experience, but it will fall short if your new joiners can’t access it. Factor in that accessibility and networking infrastructure when designing and housing your onboarding.
Highly Technical Hands-On Content
One challenge that many teams are facing in the move to remote work is the delivery of highly technical hands-on skills training in effective virtual ways. Training that might once have occurred in a laboratory must now be delivered virtually. (Ask the science department at any university about this challenge!) Organizations around the world are struggling with providing such training. If your onboarding program includes highly technical hands-on training, you’ll need to explore other possibilities for successful virtual delivery. Is virtual reality (VR) an option for your audience? Is there a local lab that your new joiner could visit in order to practice? Depending on what specifically you need to teach, you may need to get creative to provide appropriate learning opportunities.
A final challenge to explore is the question of sustainability. As you migrate or create from scratch your virtual onboarding program, select your media with care. Those elements that are the costliest to develop—high-end eLearning, production-quality video pieces, or custom animation—should be saved for topics not likely to require updates. Content that is likely to need frequent revision can be provided in easier to maintain formats. Build in a review process for your onboarding content and review it regularly. Outdated information and broken links damage your credibility with new joiners.
Once you’ve navigated the challenges you can look toward some of the advantages. Delivering your onboarding program virtually presents so many new opportunities! Here are our top 5.
Showcase Company Culture
You can really leverage the multitude of virtual media and methods to highlight the elements that make your organization unique. How about virtual video tours of parts of the organization that new joiners rarely get to see? Or include the next company-wide town hall in your onboarding to give a real taste of how things work. Have participants “listen in” to a sales call or participate in an online collaboration session to design a new product. You can invite colleagues to introduce themselves virtually in a way that best reflects your culture—a one-slide bio or maybe a silly home movie.
Here is a fun example of a virtual learning experience used by Deloitte that really showcases company culture. This one is pre-boarding rather than onboarding, but you’ll get the idea.
Connect to Useful Resources
One of the most frustrating things about being new is tracking down key information that everyone else seems to know intuitively how to access. If your onboarding is exclusively virtual, that makes it easy to curate the best resources in one place. Create a webpage, portal (see this sales example), repository, or (if your time and resources are limited) a simple list of important links on a slide or in an email. Onboarding programs should of course leverage existing information whenever possible.
Convey Consistent Messaging
A huge advantage of virtual onboarding is consistency in messaging. If you’re using eLearning or video components, you can be sure that all participants are getting the same information every time. When considering media and formats for different elements of your onboarding program, you should reflect on which content, like safety or policies, might require consistent messaging. Those can be developed in stable formats. Yes, it requires time and effort up front to create new eLearning elements, but such high-quality learning assets can be re-used again and again.
Manage Cognitive Overload
Remember what it felt like to start a new job? Maybe you went through a traditional multi-day face-to-face training program or maybe you were just expected to learn on the job. Either way, do you recall how overwhelming it felt at times? There was so much to learn! Another great opportunity with a virtual onboarding is managing the cognitive overload by spreading the learning out over time. Adults learn best with short bursts of new information followed by breaks and time to process and integrate. We also need repetition, review, reinforcement, and feedback to really internalize the new information. Incorporating self-paced as well as synchronous learning elements in your virtual onboarding will give participants more control over when and how they learn.
By the same token, this will alleviate the workload of the handful of facilitators within the organization, thus better distributing the burden of support for your new joiners.
Personalize the Learning
Perhaps the best opportunity that virtual onboarding provides is the possibility to individualize and personalize the training. Not every new joiner needs exactly the same information. Interactive learning maps or even simple role-based checklists can guide new joiners to the information they need for their specific role. Assessments like simple skills tests or peer observation may be used to determine which parts of an onboarding curricula are needed for any specific individual. One of the big complaints about general and generic onboarding programs is providing information that isn’t specific or relevant to the audience; this objection can be overcome with a highly modularized onboarding program.
Compared to traditional instructor-led onboarding programs, virtual programs not only reduce travel costs and facilitator time, but they have many other key benefits that organizations can appreciate. Yes, they take some work to develop and are associated with some inherent challenges, but if the program is well-designed, the pros definitely outweigh the cons.
What once was perceived as an impossibility (the process of orienting new employees without their stepping foot in a brick and mortar building) is now the norm. Many organizations no longer even have a shared physical workspace at all!
Watch for our continuing series on this important learning trend as we provide insights, tips, and practical advice about virtual onboarding of new and returning (reboarding) employees.