How is Virtual Onboarding Different from In-person Onboarding?

How to curate a distinct, intentional virtual onboarding experience.

Post-COVID, McKinsey suggest three to four times more people could work remotely than before. If remote working continues at anywhere near that scale, virtual onboarding isn’t just today’s challenge: it’s here to stay.

As its own distinct discipline, not just the virtual iteration of your pre-pandemic processes.

The businesses that recognize that, and invest in mastering virtual onboarding, will put themselves leaps and bounds ahead of the pack. (While those that are slow to capitalize risk plummeting engagement and retention – and a competitive gap that becomes harder and harder to close.)

Here’s everything you need to know to curate a virtual onboarding experience that does your culture justice.

What is virtual onboarding?

“Onboarding is a process of introducing new hires into the new job, acquainting them with the organization’s goals, values, rules, responsibilities, procedures, and socializing the new employee into organization culture” (Chillakuri, 2020).

That’s what onboarding’s about. And virtual onboarding focuses on achieving exactly the same things. Introducing, integrating, acquainting, socializing.

The issue is, how you achieve those things is very different. Here’s how Kate puts it:

“The needs of new hires are not that different when they are onboarded virtually, versus in-person.

Although their needs are the same, the approach is drastically different. Instead of trying to translate the on-site experience, try curating a distinct, intentional virtual experience that is aligned with your organization’s culture.”

But what does a ‘distinct, intentional virtual experience that is aligned with your organization’s culture’ really look like?

How your virtual onboarding experience might look different

Distinct and intentional virtual onboarding doesn’t happen in spite of being virtual; it happens because of it. That is, it recognizes – and capitalizes – on the uniqueness of technology as a medium. It’s not a like-for-like.

Let’s take the first day – the most important eight hours of your new employees’ career with you. (4% of new hires have actually had such a terrible first day they’ve left, if that gives you some idea!)

In-person, your first day’s onboarding probably includes things like:

  • A welcome presentation
  • An HR sit-down to address key questions
  • A Q&A with senior leaders
  • Introductions to key people
  • A sit-down with IT for tech induction
  • An office tour with introductions
  • Team lunch or team after-work drinks
  • Popping your head in to see how their first day went

If you’re doing a great job, that’s a brilliant experience. New hires feel valued, engaged, inspired and connected. They’re starting to understand what makes you unique. And they can’t wait to come back tomorrow.

The problem is, if you just recreate those experiences virtually – for example, screensharing an hour-long welcome presentation and making email introductions – you neglect what’s really important: the impact of those experiences.

Instead of new hires feeling valued, maybe they feel ignored while you regurgitate the same old presentation. Instead of feeling inspired, they feel bored. Instead of connected, shy and uncertain. Instead of starting to understand your culture, they’re confused and overwhelmed.

(Here’s a quote from one of Kate’s thesis participants, about their lackluster virtual onboarding experience: “People don’t realize what you are going through. They just skim over it and don’t talk about it. It was demoralizing. It’s just too much information sometimes…I just kept wondering ‘Am I stupid?'”. Not the ideal onboarding experience, by anyone’s books).

Curating a distinct virtual experience means tailoring onboarding to the virtual medium. That means being aware of the new challenges virtual starters may experience, so you can overcome them.

Like, being aware that concentration spans are shorter online. And that socializing is more difficult, because fading into the background is easier. Or that icebreaking won’t happen naturally in the same way. (Here are seven virtual icebreaking ideas worth thinking about).

And maybe new hires’ will need some technical support they mightn’t otherwise. Or some extra support setting up their home-work space. (Kate’s thesis reports that remote work can increase total-factor productivity by 20% to 30% – but only with an intentional and thoughtful remote work set up). Or a kick-ass remote wellbeing program to help safeguard work/life boundaries.

And maybe they’ll have different insecurities about connecting virtually. (Bad lighting?! Bad angle?! Awkward goodbyes?! Accidentally talking over you?! Fuzzy lines and endless ‘please can you repeat that’s?!) Maybe they’ll find accessing the right support and resources harder.

But although going virtual brings new challenges, it also brings new opportunities.

Delivering a distinct virtual experience also means capitalizing on the transformative power of technology to build new experiences.

Like using gamification to help new hires learn things and collaborate. Maybe getting colleagues to record individual welcome messages straight from their phone.

Or creating a virtual office tour, for when employees are back in-office. Or a virtual company tour that has nothing to do with physical space, with an interactive hierarchy with individual videos from teams and key people.

Or automating delivery of bitesize content, so nothing’s overwhelming. Creating one-click manager tasks to ensure nothing’s forgotten. Delivering regular pulse surveys. Investing in virtual collaboration and live chat tools.

(For more ideas from Kate on curating an awesome virtual onboarding experience, check out this 8-step checklist.)

Best-practice onboarding is the same as ever: employee-first

Every business is scrambling to adapt their in-person onboarding processes right now, so it’s absolutely normal to feel overwhelmed. As Kate points out, “in the world of virtual onboarding, organizations are making it up as they go”.

The truth is, nobody has a blueprint. Getting virtual onboarding right’s bound to involve trial and error. But that’s the important thing – that you are trying; you are learning.

What we’ve always said about onboarding holds true virtually just as much: put the employee experience first. That’s the sensitive, empathetic approach that’ll start moving the needle.

(If you’re not sure how to get started, kick things off with a meeting to brainstorm how you want your new hires to feel after day 1, week 1, month 1, month 3, month 6. Then you’ll have a better sense where to step next.)

Whether it’s virtual or in-person, we’re on a mission to empower every organization to put experience first. See for yourself why many of the world’s most innovative, people-first businesses trust Enboarder, here.