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Tips on Developing Your Virtual Onboarding Process

Wednesday, May 27, 2020
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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.

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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.

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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

Lisa Spinelli is the Senior Content Manager for the Career Development, Talent Management and Finance communities as well as the ATD Job Bank administrator and host of the The Accidental Trainer podcast. She is also the creator and manager of the ATD transitioning military service member workshops, Troops to Trainers, and editor of the ATD Press book Teachers to Trainers.

Prior to joining ATD, Lisa worked as a content strategist, editor, and journalist for over 14 years. Some of her freelance work was previously published with Fast Company magazine, Huffington Post, Mental Floss, Northern Virginia Magazine, Houston Chronicle, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Associated Press, to name a few. She grew up in Rome, Italy, and is an alumna of the University of Virginia and the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. She currently resides in Northern Virginia with her three little divas and USAF veteran husband. Follow her on Twitter @atdcareerdev.

6 Comments
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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- https://s.peoplehum.com/gffm6
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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.
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Thank you Lisa! So good to know that companies are working hard to create and keep human connection.
Thanks for reading Priscila. Yes, the human connection is the toughest piece right now I imagine!
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