At the outset of the pandemic, our clients were in crisis management mode, focused on prioritizing employees’ immediate health, getting them quickly set up to work from home, and making short-term plans for adapting to a new reality. As weeks turned to months, our clients could catch their breath and turn an eye towards the future. For many, that planning gravitated toward areas of their business that would very significantly—perhaps permanently—change due to the pandemic. And often, it was accompanied by the realization that this disruption revealed some broken or outdated processes and provided an opportunity to reimagine them for the future.
One of our clients, Vir Biotechnology Inc., a small Bay Area-based firm, homed in on new employee onboarding. With significant growth plans in place pre-pandemic, Vir decided to accelerate hiring even further when they identified an antibody that may lead to a treatment for Covid-19: between April and the end of this year, they plan to bring on board nearly 200 new full-time employees and contractors, effectively doubling their workforce. Early in 2020, Vir acknowledged that their onboarding practices were growing stale—and as the pandemic deepened, they realized their practices would not translate well to a Work From Home (WFH) environment. HR leaders approached us to collaborate.
They asked a simple question: “How can we best equip our new hires to quickly ascend the new-job learning curve?" Vir was clear that any innovations we recommended to their onboarding practices should apply to the realities of hiring while their employees were mainly working from home. Still, it should also be adaptable to an eventual return to the office. Through continued conversations with Vir's HR team, we agreed that the goal was to reimagine their onboarding process so that it better enabled new hires to quickly:
- Understand their role and responsibilities
- Build important relationships in their function and across the organization
- Ascend the new-job learning curve, so they’re contributing meaningfully in days, not weeks
- Experience and appreciate the company’s culture
"…any innovations we recommended to their onboarding practices should apply to the realities of hiring while their employees were mainly working from home."
So, we set to work. We sat in on various orientation sessions and spoke to 20 new hires and 12 hiring managers to hear about their recent onboarding experiences.
New hires made it clear they wanted to hear more from company leaders about the organization’s mission and vision. They wanted to feel ignited and engaged. What they got instead was a long, dry, and exhausting day of training on Zoom. Our analysis resulted in two significant findings. First, there was an obvious opportunity to give senior leaders the stage earlier in a new employee’s journey in order to share the narrative about what makes the company special. Second, new hires—whether they’d ever set foot in the office or wouldn’t for months to come—need to be immersed in the company culture. It’s worth noting that the pre-pandemic culture of Vir was strong. They worked in an open-office space in tight quarters that weren’t organized by function; taking a simple walk around the office often sparked productive dialogues and collaboration. They also hosted frequent community-building events and provided opportunities for anyone to sit down to lunch or a coffee with company leaders.
"New hires made it clear they wanted to hear more from company leaders about the organization’s mission and vision."
Hiring managers, on the other hand, consistently indicated they wanted more guidance on how to onboard new team members. Lacking clarity on best practices and relying on experiences from past companies, they employed a variety of approaches to engaging their new direct reports—some met with the new hire regularly, others took a hands-off, jump-into-the-deep-end approach. Vir is an extremely fast-paced organization, and without some structure, new hires tend to get swept up in the action before they can get their bearings. The hiring managers wanted to equip their new hires for success, but some simply didn’t have the capacity to do so.
"Hiring managers...consistently indicated they wanted more guidance on how to onboard new team members."
With this feedback in mind, we began iterating a new approach to onboarding in partnership with Vir's HR team. We completely revamped the “Day 1” agenda to make it much more engaging while still providing the training necessary to comply with legal requirements and enough tech support to ensure each new hire could communicate and begin adding value immediately.
We also drafted standard agendas for hiring managers to follow when meeting one-on-one with their new employees on Day 1, at the end of Week 1, and at the end of Month 1. This encouraged hiring managers to schedule check-ins throughout the onboarding process and ensured they covered key topics at the appropriate times.
Another recommendation was to repurpose a monthly meeting—aimed at introducing new hires to company projects and business news—to highlight a senior executive by allowing them to lead an “unplugged” session. During these free-flowing conversations, the leaders share a bit about their background and describe their function while communicating excitement for Vir's mission and bringing the culture to life.
"…to repurpose a monthly meeting—aimed at introducing new hires to company projects and business news—to highlight a senior executive by allowing them to lead an “unplugged” session. "
Additionally, to address the new hires’ challenges with understanding company culture, we suggested that HR assign a pair of “onboarding ambassadors” to each new hire cohort. These veteran employees greet the new hires on Day 1 and check in with them regularly to help answer any questions they may have and share the company’s beliefs and behaviors first hand. We also recommended that everyone have easier access to new hire bios to help as conversation starters and a way to communicate culture since the new hire doesn’t have the advantage of running into team members in the hallway or cafeteria.
Finally, to ensure the onboarding process continued to evolve and improve, we suggested the establishment of an “onboarding squad” —a team of people from various parts of the organization who regularly participate in onboarding—to evaluate the process each quarter and develop new approaches where needed. To ensure this group has current, relevant data, we also designed a simple survey that new hires complete at the end of Week 1, Month 1, and Month 2.
These recommendations and actions are only a sampling of the project outcomes. However, they do relate specifically to the five things we feel are required for successful virtual onboarding.
Requirements for Successful Virtual Onboarding
- Don’t overwhelm a new hire on Day 1—space out onboarding training activities. Give the new hire plenty of time on their first day to get to know their new team and spend substantive time with their hiring manager.
- Talk about culture from Day 1—every new hire should hear from a company leader about the organization’s mission, vision, and values from the first day on the job.
- Ensure new hires have all the tools and training necessary to be productive from home on Day 1—technology, and the IT resources who provision it, are more important than ever.
- Guarantee each new hire has several 1:1s with their manager—encourage hiring managers to meet with their new hire on Day 1, at the end of Week 1, and at the end of Month 1—at a minimum. Provide draft agendas for these conversations so hiring managers can deliver consistent experiences for new hires across the organization.
- Solicit feedback to continuously improve the onboarding process—ask new hires, their managers, and others involved in onboarding to share their perceptions of the process and suggestions for improvements, then analyze that data to evolve your approach.
Today, more than ever, organizations need to reevaluate and reimagine key processes. Those that leverage crisis to enable positive change—by, for instance, redesigning onboarding to suit a WFH workforce—set up their company to succeed for many years to come.