Forging authentic connections through virtual onboarding

Forging authentic connections through virtual onboarding

No matter how much technology has changed the way that people work, it still hasn’t fundamentally changed how people think and function. First impressions, particularly when it comes to onboarding, still matter – both in the short-term in helping get employees up to speed, and for long-term employee engagement.

However, because of the pandemic and the global nature of some jobs, virtual onboarding has become far more pervasive. This will likely be true even once the world emerges from the pandemic, and more companies and employees are recognising the benefits of having a hybrid model for working. Studies have shown that more than 20% of the workforce could work remotely three to five times a week as effectively as they could if working from the office.

Because of this, now is a good time for companies to stop thinking of virtual onboarding as a stopgap measure, and instead relook at fully taking advantage of the many unique features of virtual onboarding as part of a company’s overall employee experience management.

Challenges to virtual onboarding

At its core, virtual onboarding should have the same objectives of “traditional” onboarding; Introducing new hires into the new job, acquainting them with the organization’s goals, values, process, and socializing new hires into the team – all with the ultimate goal of ramping up and retaining new talent from day one. Research has found that the first few weeks will determine if a new employee feels at home with the organisation and it is not unheard of for new hires to leave a job after a disastrous first day.

However, the major difference lies in the medium of onboarding. Many virtual onboarding programmes fail to take into consideration that concentration spans are much shorter online, which has led to a completely new phenomenon; Zoom fatigue. This missing history of connections cultivated before the pandemic can lead to difficulty in socialising for new hires, as it is much easier to fade into the background. Conventional Icebreakers which typically allow for natural socialisation do not occur in the same manner online. Technical support, insecurities about connecting virtually such as bad lighting, fuzzy connections, repetitive “Could you repeat that, please” and a host of other issues can add on to the challenge of a valuable, engaging, inspiring and connected onboarding.

8 key characteristics of an effective virtual onboarding programme

An effective virtual onboarding process will always be customised to the needs and resources of a company due to different requirements and resources, and can even be different even within the same organisation for different functions. However, there are 8 key characteristics that are universal in an effective virtual onboarding programmes:

  1. Similar goals, different medium. Despite the virtual medium, organisations should still focus on fundamental in person onboarding goals; getting new hires familiar with the company, its mission, and values, connecting them with bosses and colleagues to make them feel welcomed and included while also providing effective tools and trainings. Only once these goals are clearly articulated should the virtual medium be decided on. Some of these virtual mediums include: 1-on-1 virtual calls, pre-recorded seminars, live training sessions and interactive lessons. Of course, if the situation permits, in-person sessions should also be catered for when possible.
  2. Consider new hires’ perspective. Organisations should place themselves in the shoes of new hires, anticipating new hire’s needs with expectations exercises and curating interactive check-ins and coaching sessions. Leaders can also take this opportunity to adopt a proactive and empathetic stance, part of which includes acknowledging challenges and sharing their own experiences in on-boarding.
  3. Reach out to new hires early. Start early and reach out to new hires before their start date. Personalised messages to new remotes hires will help to make a good impact and build a good connection, as well as alleviate any anxiety that new hires might have before starting. Practical tools and resources should also be shared early to ensure that the new hires are fully equipped to perform their role and reduce additional teething stress from system and connection difficulties on the first day.
  4. Longer onboarding duration. It takes time to integrate new remote hires into the company culture, thus it would be good to increase the duration of the onboarding process from an average of 30 days to 90 days. Work done remotely is different from onsite and organisations should get new hires involved rather than dictating expectations, timelines, and task adherence.
  5. Organisational Culture is vital. Organisational culture training is crucial as a strong culture is a common denominator among most successful organisations. Organisations should try to immerse new hires in their values, mission, and workplace connection despite a lack of physical culture. A good practice is to give new hires a “cultural ambassador” who act as a guide to help new hires understand the nuances of a company’s unique culture – which comprises of shared beliefs and values which are translated into perceptions, behaviours and understanding. An onboarding buddy can also be an invaluable contact will not only give new hires an open hand and ear, they are one of the first few critical contacts who forge an unforgettable first connection with new hires. They could be an additional empathetic outlet and sounding board – essential in soothing new hires’ anxieties in the transition to a new role. They also provide a “safe space” for new hires to ask questions that they may not broach in a formal setting.
  6. Adjusting the medium to the message. It is critical update and adjust training approach for virtual onboarding to ensure content is being packaged in a format that best suits the information. A good practice is to mix up content formats and consider the pacing as well. For example, dense technical materials may be pre-recorded, but paced out to allow time for new hires to process the information. For materials that are more complex, or more people centric, having small group live session may be more effective.
  7. Communicate and connect with new hires often. Communicating and connecting often will help new hires with the virtual onboarding process. The uncertainties surround a new job can be unnerving for new hires and having a personal interaction can go a long way in reducing anxiety. With virtual onboarding, it is better to have both formalised and informal check-ins along the way to both reassure new hires, as well as to get a better sense of their progress.
  8. Get feedback. Virtual onboarding needs feedback to become more effective and aligned with business and staffing needs over time. A good way achieve this is by leveraging technology to gain real time insights with employee engagement surveys and feedback, manage employee experiences effectively by continuously talking to employees to capture feedback and using those insights to drive ongoing improvements with SAP Qualtrics Employee Engagement solution.

Ultimately, the goal of these 8 characteristics is not just effective information dissemination, but also ensuring new hires have an authentic connection to the company and their team. At their core, every virtual onboarding programme puts the employee experience first and is built on a sensitive, empathetic approach.

Leveraging Technology for better onboarding processes

By its very nature, virtual onboarding will be built on technology, but this is also true for how most organisations will work in the post-COVID world. Organisations’ employee experience management must focus on enabling digital-first experiences where technology is the primary means of working and interacting – including onboarding.

By leveraging technology, companies can curate a distinct, intentional virtual onboarding experience for that still builds authentic connections while reaping the benefits of technology, such as greater scalability and real-time data collection and analysis. SAP’s Qualtrics Employee Engagement is one such product that improves employee engagement organisation-wide by pinpointing experience, engagement, and productivity drivers so organisations can act in real time to create a world-class culture. Organisations will also be able to have an overview on how actions impact productivity and performance by enabling upper management with personalised dashboards to be mapped to the organisation’s hierarchy. Organisational managers are empowered with data and guided action planning to identify the actions needed to improve the employee experience.

In essence, by leveraging technology to gain real-time insights with employee engagement surveys and feedback, organisations can reduce unwanted employee attrition, retain, and develop top performers, improve employee engagement, and increase the productivity of its workforce.


Losing an employee negatively impacts the organisation beyond the obvious costs of identifying, hiring, and training replacement staff. An organisation immediately loses potential contribution, business knowledge, employee relationship with stakeholders and a general disruption in the day-to-day flow. Other adverse impacts include major distraction for employees, dents to customer service and quality, compromised competitive advantage, and it all could eventually lead to lack of motivation and low morale within the organisation.

An intentional and structured onboarding process can help in reducing turnover, however a negative experience has shown that employees are more likely to look for other future career opportunities and in fact could further negatively impact the organisation as these ex-employees are unlikely to recommend an employer after their onboarding experience.

In this new normal, now and the future, the right technology can help solve virtual onboarding problems by adding social and emotional experience to create and retain clarity around the organisational culture with a shared vision for achieving organisational goals. Forging truly authentic connections and communication through virtual onboarding with the right foot forward.