“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Whether professionally or socially, it’s a safe bet that we’ve all been on both sides of a bad first impression. Most readers are likely familiar with the unmistakable sights, sounds and sensations: The blushing. The awkwardness. The perspiration. The bad taste in your mouth. The desire to teleport literally anywhere in the world except for the place you happen to be… Not only can a bad first impression be damaging on multiple fronts (i.e., reputation, relationships, opportunities lost, etc.,), but all parties involved typically try their best in the aftermath to avoid the people and circumstances that led to the experience in the first place. And while the above quote – one old enough to have been attributed to everyone from Oscar Wilde to Head and Shoulders – may be slightly stale and outdated given the evolution of social norms in the digital age, when it comes to human capital management, the proverb still rings true. As we move further into the second quarter of 2020, enterprise organizations must continue to adjust to the strange and unfamiliar business landscape of our post-COVID-19 world. While hiring freezes from March and April are likely to subside, “working from home” is almost guaranteed to remain a staple for the foreseeable future. As such, many companies will be forced to shift to a remote hiring model until things return to normal. Those organizations willing to rethink and recommit to their virtual onboarding experience in the present moment are well-positioned to see key improvements in engagement, time to proficiency and decreased churn as virtual onboarding shifts from an abstract start-up talking point to the new “normal.” And while onboarding in this sobering reality of social distancing is likely to lean heavily on the power of SaaS solutions, a dependence on technology doesn’t mean forgoing the human touch. In this post, we will take a look at a number of different strategies that organizations can implement to help humanize the virtual onboarding experience. Let’s dive in. Focus on Social Onboarding When all is said and done, onboarding is not about the company, it’s about new hires. A successful onboarding experience will provide new hires with a supportive network to help show them the ropes, offer technical advice and provide career guidance. Nevertheless, the fact remains that traditional onboarding is an experience that new hires are more likely to associate with administrative paperwork and corporate training, than with the intentional construction of social/professional networks. That being said, as onboarding typically manifests via a series of face-to-face meetings involving HR, team members and managers, there is a certain degree of collateral networking that occurs as a consequence of the traditional model. And yet, in a business environment where virtual teams have evolved to become essential in the aftermath of COVID-19, new employees are likely to find the detached and entirely solution-dependent nature of peer interactions a difficult adjustment to say the least. As such, the first priority for organizations looking to onboard virtual employees should be to structure the experience in a way that promotes a sense of community. Not only is the scourge of workplace loneliness a very real problem for new hires, but, according to Harvard Business Review, it is one of the main factors contributing to high levels of employee churn. Organizations can look to improve new hire retention by creating an onboarding schedule that both encourages and enables relationships, even if they are indeed purely digital. From video call coffee breaks to virtual check-ins, a “camera-on” attitude can help overcome the isolation often experienced by remote employees, while simultaneously providing new hires with a much needed “early win” in their onboarding experience. Personalize the New Hire Experience Prior to Day One One of the most important goals of any onboarding program is to help new hires settle into their roles as quickly, effectively and efficiently as possible. An easy way to expedite this “settling” process is to actively engage new hires during the phase known as “pre-boarding.” Pre-boarding refers to the pivotal period of time between when a candidate accepts an employment offer, and their first day of work. Unfortunately, most organizations tend to classify pre-boarding as nothing more than a convenient workflow for eliminating administrative tasks prior to the start of official employment. In reality, it is a unique and often overlooked opportunity for organizations to communicate personalized value in the days, weeks or months leading up to a new hire’s first day. Why “personalized?” Well, keeping in mind that you never get a second chance to make a first impression, personalization helps ensure that the one you make is, in fact, a good one. It is important to recall that most new hires will likely be navigating the intimidating transition from the relative security of a current employer, to the insecurity and uncertainty of a new role within a new organization (i.e., your organization). With all of the social, professional and familial upheaval that such a transition is likely to necessitate, this is not the period of time to “go dark” on a new hire. Rather, it is an opportunity to move beyond the basics of email subject line personalization and engage new hires in a way that recognizes the special set of skills, knowledge and talents that they will very soon bring to the table. With the right platform and tools, organizations can provide new hires with fully branded, relevant and targeted pre-boarding communications based on any number of parameters, including role type, seniority level, and geographic location. Be it a description of tasks and responsibilities, an initial welcome email from a supervisor/senior team member, job specific training opportunities, or a virtual agenda for the first week of onboarding, personalized communications in the pre-boarding period lay the foundation for a long, prosperous and mutually beneficial remote employment – and all before the official start of day one. Empower New Hires With a Virtual Mentor A final “high-touch” strategy that organizations should immediately consider incorporating into their virtual onboarding processes is a formal mentorship program. Although more traditionally associated with leadership development for existing employees, mentorship in talent management has long been renowned for its ability to positively impact employee engagement, retention and inclusion. As organizations look to optimize their virtual onboarding processes, mentorship as a tactical strategy must evolve from the post-onboarding, organizationally passive “self-serve” option that most companies currently employ, to a formal program of onboarding/pre-boarding mentor appointment. As a practical matter, virtual mentors help guide new hires through the stages of remote onboarding, thereby easing the burden of other HR stakeholders while simultaneously stimulating positive engagement. From a social intelligence perspective, the warm welcome of a virtual mentor will go a long way in assuring new hires that, while geographically dispersed, they are not alone. Beyond providing new hires with plenty of structure and resource materials, organizations should also consider assigning mentors and mentees in groups. Although this may depend on the number of new hires in any given onboarding class, it will provide an initial network from which organizations can promote internal mobility while simultaneously helping new hires build social capital and connect with colleagues across departments. To Conclude… Unforeseen business challenges often arise in harmony with countless opportunities for innovation and success. The recent shift to remote and dispersed teams is no different. Those organizations willing to rethink their virtual onboarding practices – from personalization to mentorship – will be well-positioned for success as we continue into 2020.