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5 Ways To Bring on New Hires in the Age of COVID-19 Telecommuting

Alison Gutterman
Alison Gutterman

The process of onboarding new employees always needs refining, but that's especially true while working remotely during a pandemic.

In the 1960s, group dynamics researcher Bruce Tucker identified what he viewed as the necessary stages of teams: forming, storming, norming and performing. Every time an additional person comes into the fold, the process begins again. From a business perspective, this means that with every new hire, supervisors can expect some ripples in the pond before it settles again into a balanced ecosystem.

That's where streamlined onboarding can provide huge advantages. When you follow tried-and-true protocols to train and develop fresh employees, you help everyone in your workplace or department return to high efficiency quickly. Plus, the new hire feels embraced and supported from the get-go, which helps retention and engagement.

Of course, this is much easier said than done. According to Gallup research from March 2020, businesses around the nation are stumbling along with their onboarding efforts. When asked, only 12% of team members said their employers' onboarding practices were great.

Today, onboarding is even more challenging than when that study was done. Countless businesses had to suddenly close their in-person operations and move to remote work when the coronavirus pandemic started its sweep across the nation. In this "new normal," what are leaders who need to interview and hire new team members supposed to do?

The struggle of onboarding during the pandemic

Before March, at our company, wedd been trying to fill two positions. By the end of March, we made job offers that were eagerly accepted. However, we realized that our onboarding had to change radically. After all, everyone was telecommuting.

In the best of circumstances, onboarding can be complex and fraught with pitfalls. For instance, it's easy to think that you gave your new employee all the important information they need to onboard, only to find out later that you forgot a key piece. Or you might not have a straightforward way to explain systems to someone from the outside. Plus, newer workers may not know which questions to ask. In other words, they don't know what they don't know, and that can lead to plenty of short- and long-term problems.

When you're working remotely, these barriers to early engagement and onboarding are amplified. Not only is it tough to tell what's happening with a new employee who is working remotely, but you're faced with trying to figure out whether the worker fits in. You can't rely on office rituals to indicate whether someone's a cultural match, and that's a huge obstacle.

When you're working side-by-side, though, you can pretty easily spot any disconnects. You can see that the new teammate is disengaged or having trouble with certain projects or protocols. You can also tell right away if a worker is finished with one task and needs more to do. After all, you're sharing the same rooms.

Why the onboarding process is key to employee engagement

Smoothing out the onboarding process is imperative, especially in this uncertain market. One-fifth of all employee turnover happens within 45 days of the start date, and it costs an arm and a leg to hire someone, once you factor in recruiting, training, salary, benefits, workplace integration and background checks. So losing them within that short time frame is not ideal.

Yet it's easy to see how a new remote employee could feel detached and disoriented during onboarding. The worker doesn't get face-to-face, in-person interactions with co-workers, so it's tough to form bonds. Any communication has to be done deliberately, rather than organically as part of the normal workflow. In this situation, many people may feel overwhelmed and start to withdraw. However, their supervisors might not notice until it's too late to stop them from submitting a resignation letter.

Is this a worst-case scenario? Maybe. Nevertheless, it's important to keep in mind, especially if you're onboarding team members while all or some of your company is working remotely, as ours has been.

How to onboard new workers while telecommuting

The following strategies worked well for us, and I encourage you to implement them as fits your own organizational rhythm and structure:

1. Leverage technology to beef up rapport.

Like all modern, progressive businesses, we've always leaned heavily on technology. When we went remote, we quadrupled our usage of everything from email and texts to Microsoft Teams video conferencing. Our goal wasn't just to get the work done efficiently, though; it was to stay connected and promote our company culture.

Each company has a specific feel and habits. And just because your team is scattered doesn't mean your culture has to fade away. We've done everything possible to make sure that we maintain our sense of camaraderie and humor, even if it's through quick texts or Slack messages. We encourage onboarding workers to participate in messaging platforms and videoconferences so they can find their niches in our company, as well as meet co-workers and foster colleague-to-colleague learning.

2. Review your handbook, guidelines, and procedures with new talent.

You probably wouldn't spend much time discussing policies and procedures with an employee who onboarded when everyone was working in the same office. However, that shouldn't be the case in a remote-work environment. Set aside time to have meetings with incoming workers so they fully understand expectations.

For instance, review their job description and define what they're supposed to do day in and day out. Lay out how they'll work with a supervisor and help them understand whom to approach if they have questions. Don't make them guess what's right or wrong when it comes to meeting and exceeding expectations. Having everyone on a shared project management software and calendar program can help all team members see who is working on what, and it can reduce friction caused by avoidable misunderstandings.

3. Establish a mentor program.

Most workers coming into a business would benefit from having a mentor who has experience at the company. This is especially true when people are telecommuting, as it provides an opportunity for the new employee to make connections. You can create a formal or informal mentorship, which will have a dual effect.

First, it will give the incoming worker (mentee) someone to initially bond with and reduce the "outsider" feelings so ubiquitous in certain workplaces. Second, a structured mentorship program will help the existing employee (mentor) work on important leadership and communication skills. Being a mentor forces you to think in creative ways, as well as hone your emotional intelligence. Just make sure that any mentors you pick are reliable, empathetic, knowledgeable and supportive.

4. Adhere to a virtual open-door policy.

I'm a big believer in being a hands-on CEO. I don't care how big my team gets: I want them to know that I have their backs and truly care about their needs in addition to our corporate success. Though it can be tough to show a new employee that you're an open-door person when working remotely, it's not impossible.

One way to indicate you like to be present is by communicating frequently in various forms. Send out text messages and email updates, and set up occasional check-ins with newer workers and their managers. You can even make phone calls to them throughout the day. You can't overcommunicate right now, and the more available you are online, the more your new hires will feel comfortable coming to you.

5. Exhibit tremendous patience with the onboarding process.

Onboarding in the COVID-19 era is much slower than traditional onboarding. It takes quite a bit longer for new team members to understand and embrace the culture and values of the company. Anticipate this upfront and implement specific ways to make the process smoother for everyone involved.

You can speed up the process, at least somewhat, by setting up themed Zoom meetings or other fun activities and safe, socially distanced events for everyone to come together in a relaxed setting. Remember: Your overarching goal is to have your new employees feel like they're family sooner rather than later.

It's a reality of business that your team dynamics will be affected every time a new employee comes aboard – more so now that people are telecommuting. That doesn't mean you'll get stuck in one of Tucker's earlier stages of teams. You might even bypass one or two altogether if you prioritize your remote onboarding. You'll know you succeeded when your new team member feels like part of the family.

Image Credit: AndreyPopov / Getty Images
Alison Gutterman
Alison Gutterman Member
Alison Gutterman is the president and CEO of Jelmar, the family-owned cleaning products manufacturer of CLR and Tarn-X products. She began her career at Jelmar in 1993 without a title or a desk, and in 2007, she was named president, bringing the company unprecedented success with her modern approach and leadership techniques. She also balances work with parenthood as a single mother of two children, and she resides in the greater Chicago area.