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Onboarding New Employees in the COVID-19 Era Takes Extra Planning, Effort

A person using a laptop and a cup of coffee.

​You only get one chance to make a first impression on a new employee. Despite the fact that initial interactions are often now remote instead of in person, welcoming a new employee to your company is vitally important. Consider how you can make new workers feel like part of the team. 

"Someone left another company to come work for you," said Adam R. Calli, SHRM-SCP, principal consultant at Arc Human Capital Consulting LLC in Woodbridge, Va. "Don't make them regret their decision."

In the remote age, onboarding employees is still a critical business function. Establishing culture and expectations, coordinating delivery of technology and other tools, and delivering and completing paperwork can't be skipped. 

"Onboarding has been especially difficult for companies that are antiquated in their processes," said Maria Clyde, SHRM-SCP, director of human resources for BHI, an insurance agency headquartered in Delaware.

Remote onboarding is uncharted territory for many managers. Here's how several are finding ways to reinvent the process.

The Paperwork Pile

Paperwork is part of the onboarding process. How will remote employees complete it?  Will you send a stack in the mail, or ask the worker to download, print, sign, scan and send it back to you? Not every employee owns a printer, scanner or fax machine.

"Something so simple can become a stumbling block," Calli said. "After a client asked if we could send paperwork through an e-sign platform, we realized from a logistical and technical point of view we had to step back and evaluate."  

There are multiple affordable and easy-to-use e-sign options. Clyde encourages employers to explore the features built into their payroll or benefits administration system. In some cases, an onboarding feature is already included and can be activated.

"Start with finding out what options are available through payroll service," she said. "This is especially good if you're working on a low budget."

SHRM Resource Spotlight
Remote Work

Even before COVID-19, increasing numbers of businesses hired remote workers. Filling out the Form I-9 was tricky. Electronic verification options fill the gap. Calli estimated services can cost as little as $60 to $80.  

"Find a vendor you like and trust with good processes," Calli said.

If you're sticking with paper and visual verification, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is currently allowing employers to postpone in-person identity confirmations. Policies are continually changing, and updates are posted to the USCIS website.

Make Them Feel Welcome

Social distancing requirements may have put a damper on bonding over lunch, but that doesn't mean the ritual has to be abandoned. Calli recommended scheduling virtual lunches delivered by DoorDash or Uber Eats. Depending on the people involved, it could be one lunch or a series of lunch hour meetings.

Sending a box of company swag including pens, T-shirts and job-related gadgets is another way to connect with newcomers. Clyde said tech gifts like cellphone stands with the company logo are popular and practical.

"We have a $40 to $50 budget we've set aside and created a list on Amazon that someone can pick from," she said. "It includes things like the Echo Dot and a pair of Beats headphones in that price range."

Even when most staff are working from home, some individuals are still going to the office. If you go to the office, take the opportunity to give new hires a sense of the space.

"Take a picture of their nameplate outside their door or walk around the office and give a virtual tour," Calli said. "It gives you a chance to show the interpersonal side of this process, and it makes them feel good to see it."

Support Young Professionals

In March, the mining company where Sidney Vidaver is a compliance officer instituted a hiring freeze. By June, it was clear hiring must resume. He quickly saw that the onboarding process extends far beyond the first day of describing the company culture and environment to new employees. The process is long and must be intentionally planned.

"Until this, I didn't realize all the impromptu meetings we had in the office. Now everything has to be deliberate because we're not getting the chance to see someone," he said.

Working in such a specialized field also means there is no textbook for young professionals to study. To fill the void, he has hosted monthly two-hour webinars on Zoom to introduce them to specific technical topics.

"We've even opened them up to anyone in the company who wants to learn about the topic," he said.

Manage Expectations

In office settings, if new employees weren't clear on a task, they could walk down the hall and check in with their supervisor. Now that these spontaneous drop-ins are nearly impossible, managers must be proactive in communicating their expectations. That includes how often they expect to hear from the employee, how the company values are manifested at work and what kind of relationship they want to build with new employees.

"A lack of communication tends to [lead] to people thinking the worst, especially at this time," Clyde said. "You don't want them to fill that void with negativity. Fill that void, even if the daily update is that you don't have an update. They want to know where things are at."

Katie Navarra is a freelance writer in New York state.

[For a more in-depth look, attend SHRM's upcoming Employee Relations: Creating a Positive Work Environment live online program.]


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