Last updated: 31.10.22

Changing the onboarding process: the impact of COVID-19

Onboarding is a human resources industry term referring to the process of introducing a newly hired employee into an organisation. It’s an important part of helping employees understand their role and position within their team and organisation, and gives new starters an insight into the company culture so they can seamlessly integrate. A good onboarding process also has long term benefits for the business. It’s actually been proven that a strong onboarding process leads to an improvement in new employee retention by 82% and productivity by over 70%.

The onboarding process can vary in different organisations. It usually involves introductions to team members, mandatory compliance, a welcome gathering, an overview of tools for productivity and anything else to help employees feel settled. 

In this article we will be exploring how the onboarding process has been affected by recent changes to working patterns and the introduction of remote and hybrid working, aswell as giving you tips on how to onboard effectively.

How has onboarding changed over recent years?

The Pandemic

Before 2020, HR managers devised onboarding plans that were based on new starters travelling into their place of work. The onboarding process mainly consisted of face-to-face introductions with team members, social gatherings and even face-to-face mandatory training sessions.  

As we entered 2020, that all disappeared and the world was, infact, forced to turn to remote working. HR managers really didn’t have a choice but to change the way they onboarded new employees.

It’s clear that since the pandemic the employment market has changed drastically. The arrival of the Great Resignation alone has meant that organisations are experiencing skills shortages. As businesses try to recruit more staff to close skills gaps, they must also ensure their existing employees feel valued and new staff experience a positive onboarding process to maintain employee retention rates.

Hybrid Working

As we have now entered a new phase of hybrid working where staff are travelling into work for part of the week, onboarding procedures have changed again to include a blend of face-to-face interactions, digital introductions and online training.

Many hybrid, and even fully remote, job roles require new starters to come into the office for the first few weeks of employment with the aim of a smooth transition into their new role. Seeing the workplace, the environment and their team members helps them connect to their new organisation.

However, this is not always possible for those working in different time zones, or different areas of the country. Although remote working has opened up doors to recruit people from across the globe, it also raises questions, such as, how does onboarding work for them? When a physical presence in the workplace is not an option, onboarding new staff must be done virtually.

Virtual onboarding is a cost-effective way to onboard but it comes with its challenges. Firstly, it requires a more dedicated focus. The main challenges are seen when managers in charge of the onboarding plan have never led remote teams. Things like connection and culture is hugely important at this stage.

Fiona Robinson HR Manager at Virtual College explains how the onboarding process at Virtual College has changed since 2020.

As Covid restrictions eased, we encouraged new starters to come in prior to their start date to collect their VC kit and goodie bag.  They also came in to do their HR induction and some other face-to-face meetings with their line manager. As we introduced a flexible and blended working policy, we were even more mindful of keeping in touch with new starters prior to their start date, to ensure engagement and a sense of belonging. We have staff working all over the UK so it’s really about encouraging them to come into the office now so they can start to avoid that feeling of isolation.”

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We have staff working all over the UK so it’s really about encouraging them to come into the office now so they can start to avoid that feeling of isolation
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Fiona Robinson, HR Manager, Virtual College


How has staff training been affected during the onboarding process?

Digital training became a huge part of many people’s personal and work-related development plans through the pandemic. Organisations invested in their people through this time by helping them upskill online through different digital mediums such as e-learning, webinars and social learning. Now that flexible and hybrid working seems to be the norm, there’s been a shift towards blended learning, using digital and face-to-face methods to train new employees.

Learning professionals have realised after the pandemic that our ability to engage in new ideas has been reduced. Digital fatigue and increased screen time during recent years has meant that we are flooded with information which can lead to us “switching off” before we usually do. This has made training departments really think about the training process and how they keep their learning engaged and just-in-time learning or bitesize learning seems to be the answer.

Bitesize learning is breaking down e-learning content into small, digestible chunks, as opposed to information dumps, which is easier for learners as they can work at a pace and time that suits them. As remote working and then hybrid working is being used by so many today, digital learning content is now being created with bitesize learning in mind.

During the onboarding process, new starters are required to undertake mandatory training courses which are usually health and safety courses or business compliance courses depending on the business environment and requirements. And more organisations are moving towards bitesize learning during onboarding too.


Top tips for onboarding effectively

Assign an onboarding buddy

The main challenge that a new starter can face is not knowing who to turn to for advice if they’re having issues with things like technology, administration, project leads etc. This is why an onboarding buddy is perfect, as they can direct new employees to the right people within the organisation. It’s important for new starters to feel comfortable enough to approach people and ask for advice. The onboarding buddy is also perfect for helping new starters settle into a new company culture. This is even more important virtually than it is face-to-face.

Use informal communication

We’re all human and we all feel slightly overwhelmed when starting something new and unfamiliar. Having a digital space where people can chat informally to co-workers can make introductions a lot easier. Even scheduling informal coffee chats, virtual video calls or chatting on internal social media channels can all make a new starter feel more settled in those first few weeks. When onboarding virtually, close attention needs to be paid on connecting with colleagues and getting to know the company culture.

Schedule check-ins with new starters

Virtual onboarding can often leave employees feeling lonely, isolated and as if they don’t fully belong. So that’s why it’s so important for managers and team leaders to have regular 1-to-1 meetings so new starters can raise any challenges, concerns and even positive feedback about their onboarding experience.

Onboarding new employees virtually requires a thought-out plan and, most importantly, an understanding of the need for human connection. Building personal relationships and informalising communication can really help new starters feel welcome. In hybrid work settings, always try to encourage employees to come into the workplace for the first few weeks. This can make finding their feet a lot easier.

If you’re struggling with engaging team members whilst working remotely, check out our resources on engaging and empowering staff whilst remote/hybrid working here.