5 Things We Learnt About Onboarding New Employees in Lockdown

5 Things We Learnt About Onboarding New Employees in Lockdown

We all have memories of our first day in a new job and the mix of emotions that go with it.

When I joined Peakon, my experience was cemented in the indescribable jangle of nerves as I loitered, suddenly shy, unsure, and too early, at the doors of my new office. It was the blur of smiling faces and names that I vowed to commit to memory, the easy warmth from my new team, and the way someone I’d never met preemptively handed me a mug as I riffled blindly through drawers in the kitchen.

These initial encounters, big and small, form the core on how we experience work and how we begin to feel connected to our company. But imagine experiencing all of that remotely, from your kitchen table, in the midst of a global pandemic.

This is the experience that some of our newest team members have had as they’ve settled into their new roles at Peakon. Here they reflect on what they’ve learned from their experience, while our CPO Rick Kershaw offers his insight on how organizations can harness these experiences for the future of work.

The five lessons we learnt about onboarding in lockdown are:

  • First impressions are formed virtually
  • Natural social connections can be harder to recreate
  • Managers must focus on modeling empathy
  • Communicating processes and procedures can help alleviate new job stress
  • Creating an inclusive experience for remote employees is not one-size-fits-all

1. First impressions are formed virtually

As the saying goes, first impressions are often the most lasting. But when most of us think back to introducing ourselves to a new team, we remember the social aspects, like shaking hands, or grabbing a cup of coffee together. So how does the experience of onboarding remotely change that dynamic?

“My first impression of the people I work with has been how they behave on Zoom or Slack,” notes Suzanne, an Account Executive based in Lyon, France. “That’s just the reality of remote work. There are some people I’m looking forward to meeting in person, but although I know their faces, I don’t know if they’re tall or short — I don’t have that experience of meeting them physically.”

2. Natural social connections can be harder to recreate

“The problem with video calls is that it’s not the same as it would be in a typical social situation with a group of that size,” explains Emily, who recently joined Peakon as a Customer Success Manager in our London office. “In person, you’d split off and have those micro-conversations in smaller groups — that’s a difficult thing to recreate. Video calls can be more intimidating, because everyone’s eyes are on you while you’re talking.”

For CPO Rick, developing these early relationships is vital. “People can disconnect very quickly,” he explains. “This is why it’s very important to be clear about how you bring that person into your team and help them connect to the right people more easily.

“One thing you can do is proactively build out a new employees’ diary to point them towards the people they need to meet, and the things they need to learn — this is something that can be  more organic in an office, but when onboarding remotely, there needs to be a more deliberate approach taken to build a robust framework.

3. Managers must focus on modeling empathy

“I was a bit worried that when we went into lockdown, I’d need to be present online constantly,” says Yvonne, a London-based Customer Success Consultant who spent a mere two weeks in the office before lockdown hit.

“My manager reassured me from the very start that she trusted me, and that she wasn’t checking to see if I was online. She reminded me to take breaks, take time to practice self-care and was there to support me when I needed it. When I saw her role modeling the same self-care and empathy for herself, it made me feel safe to do that too.”

Managers are the critical link between employees and their organization, and if businesses are considering transitioning to hybrid or remote-first working models, empathy, listening and communication will become especially important.

“Managers will need to ensure they are being clear about their expectations and offer regular touchpoints,” Rick advises. “In those initial few weeks, managers must find ways to bridge those gaps in communication and be empathetic to each individual’s needs by truly listening to what is said and more importantly what is not being said.”

4. Communicating processes and procedures can help alleviate new job stress

The more practical parts of onboarding, like tech set-up and communicating processes, can present new challenges when onboarding employees remotely. Having these in place early on will allow employees to focus on truly connecting with the organization, rather than worrying about where to find things or who to talk to.

“Initially, the onboarding was quite spread out and I didn’t have a lot of customer contact,” says Emily. “This would have been an ideal opportunity to familiarize myself with the technology and systems we use, but it wasn’t always clear where I could find that information, or who to ask. Some of these things are second nature to the people that work there, but they weren’t for me.”

For Hari, a Financial Planning Analyst based in our London team, having the tech set up before day one made him feel set up for success: “My computer was with me the weekend before I started so I had the extra time to make sure I was set up to hit the ground running. That made my first day really easy from that perspective — I had so much support to make sure all the practical things were covered.”

Rick agrees, noting that part of this process will involve fostering a culture where new joiners feel safe asking the right questions. 

“The smaller things like equipment can really get in people’s way,” he notes. “You’ve got to remove as much anxiety as possible to allow new employees to focus on what’s important, like understanding the organization, and building relationships.

“It’s also about giving them permission to reach out,” he adds. “Sometimes this is something that needs to be signaled overtly, so that they feel safer asking those questions.” 

5. Creating an inclusive experience for remote employees is not one-size-fits-all

“When I first joined, we had some informal meetings to help me get to know people,” Sergiu, our Design intern based in Copenhagen, remarks. “Sometimes they were great, but sometimes there was an added pressure that you’d have to go into that video call and be sociable.”

Suzanne, whose first language is French, initially found it difficult to follow some of the in-jokes traded in team meetings: “Even though I speak good English, there are some jokes and cultural references in team meetings that I just don’t have. It does take time to make team memories, but these were things that initially made it more difficult to build social relationships.”

The ideal level of inclusion will look different for each employee, but the key, says Rick, will be making sure that this is personalized to each employee’s needs.

“Feeling included is a big part of joining a new company,” Rick agrees. “Individuals need to feel that their skillset is valued, and people are reaching out to them. It’s about over-extending in terms of communication and inclusion — and then letting the individual pull back depending on their need.”

Why understanding your employees’ onboarding experiences during lockdown is crucial for the future

As the debate has continued on what work might look like in the future, Rick thinks that this experience should serve as an important learning opportunity for organizations.

“A new role is hard enough, but doing it in these circumstances is even harder,” Rick nods.  “It’s a very artificial bubble of work where new employees can’t see, touch or be part of the organization.

“However, as we start to build out that experience for a hybrid world and think more remote-first in our mindset, we can learn from the real-life experiences of our people going through it.

“This is an opportunity for us to listen to our new employees and reconfigure the onboarding experience based on what different individuals need,” he adds. “We might even find that we need to rethink some of the things that we thought were working fine before.

“Having these conversations — and really showing employees that they’re being listened to and part of the process — that’s what creates a good employee experience.”