Hybrid Onboarding: A Guide to Leadership Success

Dara Fontein

12 minutes

Employee onboarding can be a difficult process even for the most experienced and organized businesses. A recent survey from Gallup found that only 12 percent of employees believe their organization does a great job onboarding new employees. 

Various complex elements contribute to a successful onboarding process, from getting new hires up to speed on their roles and responsibilities to making sure they feel welcomed and included in company culture. The rise in hybrid workplaces due to COVID-19 has magnified these challenges, with many businesses completely rethinking how they onboard new employees and leaders. 

In a hybrid environment, it’s more important than ever to pay close attention to the employee onboarding experience. A PwC survey recently found that more than 30 percent of employees find the onboarding experience worse now than in pre-COVID times. 

So, what can an organization do to ensure the hybrid onboarding experience is as positive as possible?  In this post, we’ll outline the differences between regular onboarding and hybrid onboarding, explore some common challenges of virtual and hybrid onboarding, and take a look at how effective communication can positively impact the onboarding experience.

→ Download Now: The Essential Guide to the Hybrid Workplace

Hybrid vs. “Regular” Onboarding 

Every stage of the onboarding process can be adapted to fit a hybrid workplace model. From pre-boarding to the three-month check-in, there are ways organizations can adjust and optimize the onboarding process to suit remote and hybrid workers. 

Let’s look at some of the standard phases of onboarding to see how they can differ and adapt between hybrid and traditional models. 

Pre-boarding

The onboarding process doesn’t start on someone’s first day. The pre-boarding stage of onboarding begins when a new hire signs their contract. Pre-boarding sets the tone for the rest of the onboarding process, so it’s important organizations don’t neglect this stage.

In a traditional workplace model, this stage might consist of setting up the employee’s computer and desk area, sending them a benefits package and any other important company documentation to read, and setting up any key meetings and meet-and-greets for their first week. Employees might be given a company email address during this time. They’ll be able to log in and start communicating with the HR department rather than through their personal email accounts. 

With hybrid onboarding, an organization should send employees everything they’ll need to hit the ground running on their first day. Whether they’ll be working fully remote or in-office occasionally, they’ll need certain things to streamline the experience. 

This includes technology—like a computer, monitor, external keyboard and mouse, and headphones—as well as documentation, information packages, and an explanation of what to expect during their onboarding process. Our recent hybrid onboarding webinar participants shared that receiving advice and messages from their new colleagues before their first day was also a welcome touch. 

The First Day

An employee’s start date is their official first impression of their new workplace. Organizations should aim to make this day engaging yet not overwhelming so that new hires feel confident that joining your company was a good choice. 

With classic onboarding, the first day is where you’ll show a new employee their desk, introduce them to their teammates and direct reports, and give them a tour of the premises. They might also watch a welcome presentation, have a team lunch, or sit down with the HR department for a check-in. 

The first day of hybrid onboarding will look a little bit different. Rather than simply following the same protocol as in-office onboarding, but virtually—such as facilitating team icebreaker activities over Zoom rather than in-person—it’s important to tailor the process for the remote experience. Do this by taking the time to understand the challenges that remote employees face during the onboarding process.

For example, while a new hire’s first day in the office might consist of the activities mentioned above, a remote employee’s first day will look very different. Instead of walking around, they’ll probably be sitting at their computer all day. Make sure you don’t overwhelm and exhaust them with back-to-back meetings, 1:1s, and virtual HR presentations on their first day. Instead, set them up with a few key people to touch base with (as informal mentors and point people), provide them with one or two pieces of necessary company literature (or better yet, include this in their pre-boarding process), and encourage them to take breaks away from their desk.

Orientation and Training 

The orientation and training process is where new hires are introduced to company knowledge and key policies and trained to do their job according to the standards set by the specific organization. Regardless of their level of seniority, this is an important part of the process for all employees. 

With traditional onboarding methods, HR departments could simply group new hires based on their start date and set up a few in-person meetings and workshops. Here, employees were taught about the organization and had their questions answered, and they had the opportunity to form social relationships with others in their cohort. 

Hybrid onboarding requires a bit more planning. As organizations will now have a mix of in-office, fully remote, and hybrid employees, these processes need to engage all new hires—regardless of where they’ll be working. However, creating a hybrid onboarding plan that allows all employees to participate and learn equally may require trial and error. Ensure time is set aside to meet with new hires and receive feedback regarding their onboarding session, whether in-person or remote. From there, you can adjust your onboarding strategy as needed.

The Challenges of Virtual and Hybrid Onboarding

Social Difficulties 

One of the most difficult parts of the virtual and hybrid onboarding experience is social relationships. As a study conducted by the UC Davis Graduate School of Management shows, “maintaining work relationships is a huge challenge for remote workers.” 

Before COVID-19—and before remote work was widely accepted—employees learned about their new workplace and built relationships through informal conversations with teammates. They might have a lunchtime chat with a new colleague about a popular TV show they’re watching, overhear other employees chatting about a new client, or join a group of team members for impromptu after-work drinks at the end of their first week. 

In a hybrid work environment, these spontaneous opportunities for social interaction are much rarer. For many employees during their first few days at a new job, even reaching out on Slack to ask a quick work-related question can feel like a bother. 

However, managers, HR teams, and the new hire’s other teammates must come together to cultivate a trusting foundation necessary for any future team collaboration. 

Managers and HR workers need to introduce the employee to their teammates and others across the organization through events like virtual coffee dates and welcome lunches, fun workplace Slack channels such as those for hiking enthusiasts or art lovers, and other virtual team-building events like Friday afternoon trivia. Even setting aside a half-hour once a week for a virtual and informal, non-work-related team chat can do wonders for helping a new hire feel that social connection needed to avoid isolation and increase a sense of belonging. 

Disorganization

It can be a challenge to stay organized when trying to onboard in a hybrid workplace. As multiple teams, departments, and even offices may be involved, it’s easy for details and processes to get mixed up. 

While flexibility is always needed during any onboarding process, it’s important to have an established and proven structure to bring new employees aboard. Create facilitated checklists for hybrid employees so that you don’t miss anything and ensure a consistent onboarding process for all employees. 

Proximity Bias 

As Protocol explains:

Proximity bias is the idea that employees with close physical proximity to their team and company leaders will be perceived as better workers and ultimately find more success in the workplace than their remote counterparts.”

For example, when choosing between promoting a candidate who works in-office and one who works from home (or who is partially remote), proximity bias determines that more often than not, the individual with more face time with leadership is more likely to succeed. With hybrid onboarding, proximity bias can be magnified. 

With online job searches for remote positions jumping 460 percent in the two years between June 2019 and June 2021, the number of people who will experience either a fully remote or hybrid onboarding experience is rapidly increasing. With more and more people virtually experiencing their first day at a new job, there are significantly fewer opportunities for face time with their organization’s leadership team and others across the business—causing the gap between in-person employees and remote or hybrid workers to get even bigger. 

To combat proximity bias as much as possible, leaders need to set an even playing field for all employees that starts on their first day. For example, this could include sharing (in new employee orientation) an established process for meetings that asks all attendees to dial into a conference call individually, rather than having in-office employees appear together in a meeting room on one screen. With some simple tweaks, you can reduce proximity bias in the hybrid workplace. 

A Clear Purpose

One of the key parts of the onboarding process has always been learning about an organization’s core purpose. While there’s usually a presentation or handout explaining the business’ main direction, principles, and overall strategy, employees usually obtain peripheral information through their daily interactions with others in the organization. 

When a new employee joins team members working together in an office, they can understand the business purpose and goals. Whether through brainstorms with colleagues, casual chats by the printer, or their first in-person all-hands meeting, they gain insight into what drives their teammates, what they’re all working towards together, and how their work connects to the overall objectives of the organization. 

With a hybrid working environment, this sense of purpose and direction can be challenging to share and maintain. Leaders across the organization need to work together to effectively communicate the business’ overall vision, each department’s core purpose, and, most importantly, how these two intersect. 

Effective hybrid onboarding relies on communication 

A successful hybrid onboarding practice requires an effective communication plan. A new hire’s relationship with the organization is directly impacted by how positively or negatively they feel from a communications standpoint. Let’s look at some of the ways organizations can foster effective communication during the hybrid onboarding process. 

Superiors 

Employees who feel connected with their superiors (even through virtual methods like conference calls and instant messaging apps like Slack) are more likely to succeed and stay with an organization. Everything from organizing a welcome Zoom lunch with their new team to daily check-ins will greatly affect how quickly a new employee settles in. 

While executives and C-Suite partners are usually incredibly busy with their tasks and projects, they must dedicate the time and effort to communicating with their new reports and facilitating connections and relationships with the hire’s new team members. 

Set expectations and let the employee know where they can reach you and when. If you know you respond best to a Slack message rather than email, let them know this. Starting a new job is nerve-wracking, so knowing they can count on you and reach out with any questions or concerns, both informally (through a quick message) and formally (with dedicated and scheduled check-ins), will create an open line of communication and collaboration necessary for a successful manager-employee relationship. 

HR Team

HR Teams are responsible for ensuring all new employees have a clear understanding of company expectations and company culture. 

At the orientation level, HR Teams should ensure new hires know how to use the company’s preferred communication tools — and who they should contact if they need help. These communications tools are critical to an employee’s overall experience in a hybrid work environment, so making sure they’re comfortable using them is an important part of the HR Team’s job. 

Like managers, HR Teams can provide details around which communication methods are widely used across the organization and how they’re utilized. Perhaps your business uses Slack for urgent issues, informal chats, and team-building, while email is a strictly business-related communication channel. Every organization is unique, so you must communicate these expectations to new employees regardless of whether they’re in-office, remote, or hybrid. 

An HR member should have scheduled check-ins with new hires at designated milestones. At these check-ins, employees can ask any HR-appropriate questions that have come up as they get settled and provide feedback on the onboarding experience. A one-week, one-month, and three-month check-in is usually a good cadence, but it’s up to your HR team—and your employees—to determine what works best for them. 

Colleagues 

Starting a new job can feel isolating for even the most senior-level employee — especially when working remotely. A welcoming and communicative team can make all the difference.

A buddy program is a proven way of integrating existing employees into the onboarding process for new employees. A manager or HR team member will consider the interests and skills of the new hire and strategically match them with a current employee. 

They’ll have scheduled coffee chats and check-ins, with the more experienced colleague being a friendly point of contact for the new employee while helping to get them up to speed on the organization. If time allows, it’s ideal for the buddy pairs to schedule informal check-ins for at least the first 90 days of the new employee’s job. This gives the employee a sense of consistency and connection that’ll help them feel part of the team quickly. It’s also a great opportunity for employees of different seniority levels to connect in a way they may not otherwise have the chance to. 

Communicating through instant messaging channels like Slack is another way to ensure a new employee can have a positive onboarding experience. When a manager or HR team member announces a new employee on Slack, people across the organization can respond with their excitement and welcome messages. From there, the employee can reply and engage with their new team and join and participate in any relevant Slack channels. 

How ThoughtExchange Can Help Accelerate Onboarding

Digital tools like ThoughtExchange can play a key role in ensuring your remote and hybrid new hires are supported and feel like part of the team throughout the onboarding process

As successful organizations know, communication is key when it comes to onboarding in a hybrid workplace. However, as mentioned above, ensuring everyone is on equal footing can be a challenge. With ThoughtExchange, you can encourage open and unbiased discussions with your team and new employees. 

For example, during the pre-boarding stage, managers can launch an exchange with current staff members asking them to share their best tips for the new hire. The team can then read and vote on their favorites anonymously. The top five or ten pieces of advice can then be shared with the newest team member on their first day as part of a welcome package, instantly creating a sense of camaraderie and belonging. 

ThoughtExchange can also be a valuable feedback tool during and after the onboarding process. For example, HR managers can create exchanges with a group of new employees who were part of the same cohort (or who all joined in the same month) and ask for their perspective on the onboarding process. You’ll quickly discover which questions or concerns are most popular amongst new employees — and where you may need to adjust your onboarding program to address them. Since you can keep records of these exchanges, you’re able to track your progress over time. 

With ThoughtExchange, you can quickly and easily create connections throughout the entire hybrid onboarding process.

About the Author

Dara Fontein

Dara is a copywriter and content creator born, raised, and currently based in Vancouver, British Columbia. She’s written for companies including Hootsuite, lululemon, Article, and ThoughtExchange. When not playing around with words, Dara can be found updating her cat's Instagram account and wandering the aisles of home decor stores.