Welcome to the virtual team: Executive Onboarding in a remote environment

Even as the confinement due to the Covid-19 health crisis is gradually lifted, companies will continue to maintain restrictions on third-party visits to their facilities, face-to-face meetings and travel, and remote working will certainly continue. This situation has forced a rethinking of the usual patterns of face-to-face contracting and induction (“Onboarding”) to a remote format. While some companies are used to working in a virtual environment, many others are not.

Second only to the hiring decision, Onboarding is the most critical factor in determining a new hire’s success. The first 90 days of “organizational socialization” impact the future results of the employee mid-term. The best organizations, that have robust induction processes, achieve 2.5 times more revenue and 1.9 times more profit than those that do not. It’s important to note that a failed management hire can cost 10 times the salary. While 40% of new hires derail after 18 months, this figure drops to 10% of those who experienced an excellent onboarding process.

Most companies have some kind of induction programs for new hires, but they vary in extent. Dr. Talya Bauer cites at SHRM that in greater or lesser depth, they address issues such as: Compliance (basic rules and procedures of the organization at the administrative level); Clarification (regarding the expectations of the new role and expected performance); Culture (the formal and informal rules of the organization); and, Connectivity (Fostering interpersonal relationships with different stakeholders). While all elements have an impact, in a virtual working environment the most complex issues are the socialization of the new hire and his/her immersion in the company’s culture.

Onboarding starts before the joining date, during the recruitment and hiring process. Apart from establishing the fit of the potential hire with the job profile, during the selection process the clarity of the hiring manager regarding the expectations for this new hire will later impact directly on the future performance of the manager. In remote processes, special attention needs to be placed on measuring the candidate’s potential fit with the company’s culture. Frequently more points of contrast are introduced in the selection process to generate additional evidence that supports a hiring decision, either through more interviews, more interviewers, or more numerous references… Before the first day, it is good practice to provide welcome packs with reference data, summaries of ongoing projects, financial data, etc., and to collect personal details and signed authorizations, etc. There are now virtual methods to collect valid signatures, such as DocuSign. Ideally, the person running the Onboarding program will also call the new hire and explain the schedule for the first few days.

Virtual onboarding process extend over a longer period of time, slow down the transfer of information, and spread out the training sessions. Introducing flexibility and additional time into a remote program allows managers more chance to absorb information, ask questions, and digest content at their own pace. LinkedIn, for example, has moved its one-day classroom program to a blended program over the first week.

Connecting with people in the organization is one of the biggest challenges when there isn’t opportunity for face-to-face interaction. Those participating in the onboarding program should receive specific training for building ”emotional connection” and empathy in the virtual setting. The remote experience will be different for the new executive than a face-to-face process, and will impact his/her feelings. This makes proactive and more frequent contact of the essence: checking in how the executive is doing, what questions he/she may have, what challenges he/she is facing. The many interactive platforms that are now available help to build human contact and links with the new executive.

In a virtual program, it’s key that the roadmap goes beyond just transferring information to create the ties that give the new hire a sense of belonging. This requires consciously creating formal and informal opportunities for contact, such as: “coffee hours” scheduled at a particular time and with open attendance; virtual visits to see different facilities and meet their teams; facilitated meetings via platforms that allow for plenary and “breakout” sessions; wellbeing and recreational initiatives; connection to the departmental or corporate WhatsApp or chat; attendance at “town halls” with updates from the CEO. They all add up to build connectivity, confidence, relationships and a window on what the culture of the organization is like.

HR Departments are usually well organized in terms of the basic content around “Compliance” issues (knowledge of the company, structure, who’s who, specific technical requirements for the job). In a virtual process, it is simply a matter of changing the format, transforming these actions into interactive tools using the company’s technological platforms. It is important to document the changes made to the standard process and ensure that all documentation is up to date, since typically in remote settings, there is greater ambiguity.

The direct superior is a key figure in the Onboarding process as she/he provides clarification of the role and expectations, conveys standards and culture, and generates connectivity with the organization. For the newcomer, an early immersion in the company’s operations and strategic plans (where the company is going, how it plans to get there, what changes are necessary, how this will impact the business and what is expected) allows the individual quickly to understand where his strengths and resources are best applied. Research shows that those who establish a relationship with their boss in the first few days, after 3 months have a 12% wider internal network of contacts and a greater sense of belonging, participate in higher quality meetings, and spend more time working with their teams than those who had not met their boss during the first week. During the first one or two weeks of a virtual onboarding process, one to two quality meetings per week between the new hire and the superior are best practice, followed by an ongoing weekly in 1-to-1s.

Some Onboarding programs incorporate the figure of a “Buddy”. This person, who is usually a counterpart, ensures that the process runs smoothly through continuous personal contact with the new-comer. With this personal and supportive link, the rookie can channel questions and doubts as they arise and get answers. “Buddies” should be trained and provided reference materials regarding the role, the dedication required, what is expected, the information to be shared with the new executive, and above all, how to generate a close relationship through virtual contact.

When an executive is hired through an executive search firm, the strength of its executive assessment processes (structured interviews, personality questionnaires, benchmarking) as well as its post-hiring processes should be a priority. The follow-up conversations between the consultancy firm and the candidate after placement, which need to be more frequent in a virtual context, also serve as an early warning mechanism should the manager experiences gaps between expectations and the realities of the job. Caught early, issues can be dealt with quickly before they escalate. If there is no Headhunter, remote coaching sessions help the Manager to navigate the uncertainty of the new role.

The senior executive who joins a company with a high level of remote working has to adjust his/her agenda of priorities for the first 100 days. His/her success will depend on achieving clarity around the new role, integrating socially and fitting in with the culture of the organization. It is essential that he/she invest time in developing relationships, looking for informal opportunities for contact, and in scheduling time to chat with colleagues. Because of the lack of physical encounters and observable reactions, the new-comer will be “flying blind” to some extent regarding his/her impact on the organisation, and will need to proactively seek feedback and listen to it. The new executive needs to focus the first few days and weeks on getting to know and building a relationship with their new boss, to clarify expectations, define responsibilities, and then be able to generate early wins.

In summary:

Onboarding can accelerate performance of a new hire and minimize the risks and costs of a possible “derailment” in the future. If designed as a well thought out journey, it will provide a positive experience and a higher level of engagement for the new manager. In virtual work settings, special care must be placed on offsetting the lack of physical presence and socialisation to ensure connectiveness, understanding of expectations and cultural alignment.

By
Krista Walochik
Partner at Talengo
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