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ATD Blog

Tips on Developing Your Virtual Onboarding Process

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

By mid-May 2020, within just a few months of the onset of COVID-19 in the United States, unemployment claims climbed past 36 million, according to the Department of Labor. It might seem impossible to believe that in this sudden downward economy companies are searching for talent, but many are hiring. LinkedIn posts show these job openings at companies like Amazon and grocery store chains as well as in industries such as health and financial services.

While recruiting and hiring during the coronavirus pandemic has become tricky enough with its mostly- or all-virtual process, onboarding presents new challenges as HR offices are shifting to virtual onboarding processes. We have long known that onboarding is a vital part of the employee experience and directly affects an organization’s bottom line. Many reports—including those from Glassdoor and the Human Capital Institute—link employee retention and productivity to a successful onboarding program. As a result of today’s health crisis, companies are reimagining the vital aspects of onboarding and transforming them to virtual offerings while doing so without losing the human connection that is essential to a successful program.

Building human connections can be tougher to do virtually, but it is a must if virtual onboarding is to become or remain successful. Putting faces to managers and team members is imperative for new hires to bond with their colleagues and the organization. Multinational engineering firm AECOM shared its plans for their newest onboarding program—one that relies heavily on virtual tools and processes to create human connections and starts well before the new hire’s first day of employment.

The AECOM new onboarding program is a 90-day journey for the new employee starting weeks before the new hire’s first day. The welcome packet is sent out after the job offer acceptance and includes organizational fact sheets and brochures as well as books and swag from the company. This is followed by an email from the new hire’s manager and a prehire onboarding portal invite to take care of the paperwork. Videos, live webcam chats, and a cohort of other new hire and social media interactions help to build and strengthen the personal connections throughout their onboarding process.

Keep the Human Connection First

When a new hire is brought on board, they have an excitement for their new job. Keeping that “emotional momentum” is key, said one 2018 report from Enboarder. One way to do this virtually is to keep the new hire feeling connected with regular webcam check-ins from team members and their direct manager.

Some companies have “buddy” programs. When a new employee starts at ATD, they normally have a one-on-one lunch with their manager and a separate lunch date with their buddy, someone not in their department who can give them the lay of the land. Since the pandemic hit, our buddy system continues virtually. We check in with our buddies via Teams then invite them for a virtual company happy hour and check back on them often.

Dawn Klinghoffer, head of Microsoft’s people analytics, wrote about their buddy program last year for Harvard Business Review, noting such positive outcomes as boosting new hire productivity, employee satisfaction, and a chance for the more seasoned staff members to show off their leadership skills. AECOM also includes virtual company buddies in their latest onboarding program and starts new hires within a cohort.


Starting new hires in an experience-based cohort allows for a few benefits: It fosters friendships and builds those human connections to other members in the cohort; offers some healthy competition; makes the onboarding process more efficient; and makes it easier to apply benchmarks and monitor performance.

Some aspects about virtual onboarding can be considerably tougher.

Employment verification, for example, can be tricky. The Wall Street Journal reported on a Calendly new hire who had to flash his passport to the human resources manager to receive his computer while standing (we hope six feet away) in a Target parking lot. Until March 20, the Department of Homeland Security was still requiring physical presence to ensure the identity of a new hire, but they have since relaxed their verification requirement. However, it can still be hard to collect all the necessary documentation online.

The investment in the right technology, such as servers, encrypted verification systems, and laptops, should be a part of all onboarding practices. Along with these technology must-haves, an organization should invest in microlearning videos. AECOM noted they provide some microlearning videos during the onboarding process, including help with IT setups, business acumen, and compliance training.

Developing these microlearning videos can be time-consuming, but once the initial investment is made, videos can save HR managers and new hires time and headaches later and will prove useful after distancing restrictions lift.


Throughout all your onboarding steps, collect feedback. Without feedback and analysis about your processes, you will miss out on how to improve your program for now and the future.

To recap:

1. Do not lose your human connection:

  • Set up a buddy system.
  • Have regular one-on-one check-ins with the new hire and their direct manager.
  • Set up happy hours and team meetings for the new hire to get to know their team and company on a more personal level.

2. Have the new hire start with a cohort as a means to develop bonds with others throughout their lifespan at the organization.

3. Invest in the technology that will save your onboarding now and forever:

  • verification systems and encrypted email and/or document signing software
  • laptops, virtual private networks (VPNs), high-speed servers, and phones that can be forwarded to other phone lines
  • microlearning videos for new hires on IT setups, business acumen, the field in general, and compliance training.

4. Collect feedback

  • What you don’t know will hurt you. Survey the new hire and all those within the program to see where the holes are in the program and how to best fill them up.

If you are looking for new hires, post a job on the ATD Job Bank, the number one job search site for qualified talent development professionals.

About the Author

Formerly the senior content manager at ATD for career development and host of the Accidental Trainer podcast, Lisa Spinelli writes about career development and pathways. She is the editor and main author of Teachers to Trainers (ATD Press) and is working toward her ACC accreditation with the International Coaching Federation as a career and transition coach. Currently, she is director of content strategy at Degreed. Spinelli also volunteers her time outside of work coaching and assisting transitioning military service members and spouses as well as disabled entrepreneurs in their new career paths.

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Hi Lisa,
Great Sharing!
Just became a Power Member, having been a Volunteer at ATD Dallas; I am also Coach/ Volunteer
at Career Alliance at St. Jude's Catholic Church in Allen, TX, though Virtually until the Coast is clear from Covid. Our Website is:
What would you recommend to us as we attempt to attract Displaced Veterans in need of Employment? Just curious..
Thanks in advance!
Hi Rick,
Sorry! Just saw your comment here. I can certainly give out your name for displaced veterans but can't recommend one company over another. Thank you for reading and joining ATD!
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Onboarding employees is tough and doing it virtually is a completely different ballgame. Read through our tailor made checklist to avoid any chinks in your amour and onboard like a pro-
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Thank you Lisa for your article! We are just going through the same process of implementing a fully virtual on-boarding process. This is really helpful information for us at this moment . An the most important thing is keeping in mind that virtual doesn´t have to be cold or unpersonal, and seems that AECOM has done an excellent job taking that into consideration.
Thanks for the comment Diego and for reading! I agree, virtual onboarding doesn't have to feel cold and impersonal at all. Thank you again!
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