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Ramping Up Onboarding

Effective employee onboarding often begins with a click.

0510cover.gifWhen Trish Derrico accepted a new position at United Water, a national water services provider based in Harrington Park, N.J., she thought she knew what to expect of her first week—not much.

Derrico had worked for United Water about a decade earlier, and she remembered spending the first few days filling out paperwork, attending policy presentations, and waiting for her phone and computer to be set up.

But this time, soon after returning her signed offer letter, she received a packet in the mail. It included instructions on how to log on to United Water’s online onboarding system, which provided company background information and allowed Derrico to enter basic employee data, complete her W-4 and other required forms, and review and acknowledge key policies. "It took about 45 minutes," she says.

With the basics out of the way, Derrico’s orientation session on the first day was focused on corporate culture, vision and goals. The company welcome "was really a welcome, not doing paperwork," she says. "We got to the good stuff right away without sitting there signing your name a thousand times." And with her phone and computer up and running the first day, Derrico was able to have an impact immediately. "It was like I never left," she says.

Getting New Hires Connected

While job growth has been slow during the economic downturn, many companies plan to accelerate hiring in 2010. And many of them will be doing it with a smaller HR staff and budget. Experts say automating at least some aspects of the new-hire process can help companies provide a better onboarding experience that requires less staff time and often less expense.

In many companies, bringing a new employee on board requires reams of paper, coordination with multiple internal departments and hours of HR staff time. Signed forms need to be collected and filed; access to internal systems, buildings and parking lots needs to be granted; phones and computers need to be set up; and business cards and nameplates must be ordered. An error or delay in any step of the process can prevent new employees from beginning the work they were hired to do—and can plant seeds of doubt about their decision to join the team.

Experts say online onboarding can address all of these components—and, in some cases, much more—through an affordable, flexible system that requires little internal maintenance or support.

The majority of online onboarding solutions offer a new-employee portal, a forms management component and a task management function to facilitate communication with other internal departments. Most are offered through a hosted, software-as-a-service model; some are available as a stand-alone solution, while others are provided as an add-on to applicant tracking or performance management systems.

Content can be customized to reflect the company’s brand, structure and unique needs. During the implementation phase—which can take two to six months, depending on complexity—the employer can set up parameters to tailor the onboarding experience based on the job type and location: New hires and their managers see only the fields, forms and tasks relevant to their positions. Forms management modules include electronic signature and archiving capabilities and, in some cases, an automatic interface with E-Verify, the federal government’s online system for I-9 verification.

Task management functions automatically create custom task lists for the new hire, recruiter, hiring manager and other players, complete with due dates and e-mail reminders. The recruiter or hiring manager can then track progress to ensure that key tasks, such as establishing security and systems access and procuring a phone and computer, are complete before the new hire’s first day. Most employers establish a 30- to 45-day window for completion of tasks; however, some onboarding systems can accommodate up to a year’s worth of tasks,including steps such as mentoring sessions, employee training and periodic performance reviews.

Depending on the solution, additional capabilities may include interfaces with third parties such as business card vendors, Internet mapping sites and survey tools; side-by-side benefit plan comparisons; direct integration with other HR systems such as online learning; opportunities to add streaming video; and social networking frameworks to allow new employees to connect with other new hires, mentors, managers and team members.

A Warmer Welcome

The ability to deliver a rich online orientation experience can be particularly appealing to employers with workers in multiple locations. Houston-based ION Geophysical, an international seismic technology services firm with 1,150 employees in five countries, uses an online onboarding system to reach its new hires around the world. RedCarpet, a solution offered by Winston-Salem, N.C.-based software provider SilkRoad, allows ION to provide a consistent welcome message that is also highly personalized.

Through the new-employee portal, the chief executive officer offers a welcome message via streaming video. New hires can view photos and profiles of members of their work team, get instructions on setting up voice mail, and access career development information. Based on the new hire’s location, he or she can also view information on local amenities, such as dry cleaners, fitness centers, banks and restaurants. The system even accommodates multiple languages, so international employees can receive information in their native tongues.

HR professionals say online onboarding systems can be particularly helpful when a large number of employees need to be brought up to speed in a short time, such as during periods of seasonal hiring or after an acquisition. United Water first implemented its online onboarding system during a period of rapid growth: Over a span of 18 months, the company added nearly 800 employees through several new contracts and two acquisitions.

The first acquisition, which involved about 200 employees, was managed manually, with policy manuals, benefits information and ID badges mailed to remote locations. HR staff visited the locations months later. "Unfortunately, the employees felt like they were in the dark," says Claire St. Louis, SPHR, vice president of talent and career development at United Water. "They didn’t have information on the first day. They didn’t get all the updates on who acquired them. They didn’t know about the company."

Before the second acquisition, which involved an additional 350 employees in numerous locations, United Water implemented AnswerSource, an online onboarding system offered by Novato, Calif.-based software provider Enwisen. The acquired employees received a packet mailed to their homes; it included a user name and password and instructions for using the online system. Ninety-three percent of recipients logged on and completed their tasks within the requested time frame, and feedback was universally positive.

"There was a very real difference between the experience we were able to offer that first group and what we were able to offer less than a year later," St. Louis says. "While the previous group is still in the process of feeling like they are truly part of our company, the second group felt welcomed and embraced into the company immediately." United Water now has 2,600 employees across the country and uses the online onboarding system for all new hires.

Automating onboarding tasks can also lead to real process improvement. At McLeod Health, a regional health care organization based in Florence, S.C., the process of implementing SilkRoad’s RedCarpet solution forced the company to re-examine its onboarding procedures and streamline the process.

"We looked at each step and counted the number of people touching the [new hire’s] file, the number of times new hires had to sign their names and write their Social Security numbers," says Heather Henderson Grier, recruiting manager at McLeod. The HR team found that in the manual process, new hires had to sign their names 32 times. Now, with the online onboarding system, a signature is required only twice.

McLeod also cut the in-person orientation session time by one hour and refocused its content. Now, Grier says, new hires "get to learn about the heart of our facilities, what makes us unique and special."

These systems also have other applications. McLeod has created "tours" for the many contractors and student interns it hires. And employers can customize onboarding tracks for intra-company transfers and promotions.

Sizing Up Costs

Pricing models for these systems are based on a per-employee per-month structure, with fees starting as low as $5. Some vendors charge per new hire, while others count the total number of employees. Systems with many functions may charge per module.

Vendors also vary in their approach to implementation and maintenance. Some may charge for implementation, depending on complexity, and may require an annual fee for maintenance and support.

But HR professionals say the expense is worth it. "There’s a definite return on investment that can be realized, especially in thearea of compliance," says Deanna Newsome, HR information systems manager at ION Geophysical. ION realized processing efficiencies and bottom-line savings when it implemented the RedCarpet onboarding solution. "It would be shocking to most people what kind of return on investment they can enjoy with this kind of system."

Experts say most companies can realize a return on investment within the first year.

According to Karen Perron, director of onboarding strategies for SilkRoad, employers that implement the RedCarpet solution typically realize $400 to $800 in savings per new hire through the elimination of paper and shipping, reduction in HR and manager time, and improved new-hire time-to-productivity.

While pricing generally hinges on an organization’s number of employees, experts say there are other factors. "Some companies don’t have a lot of employees, but they’re very complicated businesses," says Barbara Levin, senior vice president of marketing and customer community for Enwisen. She adds that compliance issues, remote locations, and lots of independent contractors or seasonal employees are all factors that can contribute to the return on investment an employer can realize from online onboarding.

Making a Good Impression

Though it’s more difficult to measure, online onboarding also affects employee engagement and retention, according to HR professionals. "It engages your new employee in the space between the offer and getting them in the door," Newsome says.

Grier agrees: "It helps you recruit, train and show the new hire that you really care about them and that you’re a first-class facility."

United Water’s online onboarding experience certainly left a positive impression on Derrico. After completing the process, she thought, "Wow, United Water has become very contemporary, very progressive. This company has really done its homework."


The author is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.

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