Your Online Onboarding Process is Costing You — Here's How to Fix It

Jennifer Smith, CEO
September 30, 2021
min read
September 19, 2023
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An online onboarding process needs to prepare employees AND make them feel like an integral part of the team. But it's not so easy in a virtual world. Here are surefire ways to engage your new employees — virtually.
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You don’t need us to tell you that turnover is costly for your business.

Losing an employee can cost your organization anywhere from 50 to 200 percent of that worker’s salary. But while 93 percent of employers say a positive employee onboarding process is critical for retention, only 12 percent of U.S. employees surveyed said their company does a good job of it.

Complicating matters, onboarding — like many other processes — went virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic as employers cut down in-person operations. That means that at many companies, an already subpar experience is now taking place entirely through a computer screen.

To avoid a revolving door of employees (and the associated costs), your online onboarding process needs to do more than just prepare new hires to perform the functions of their job. It should also make them feel like an integral part of the team — without any in-person contact.

We’ve helped hundreds of companies onboard remote employees. Here are the top tips we’ve discovered for improving the online onboarding process, along with examples of how some companies are doing it.

Give managers a leading role in the online onboarding process

Employees are 3.4 times more likely to feel that their onboarding was successful when their manager takes an active role, according to a Gallup survey. And with a strong onboarding, employees say they feel twice as prepared and three times as committed to their new job.

Career guidance firm Ivy Exec’s VP of Business Development, Sam Lippin, said of the transition to online onboarding:

“I believe the core principles of onboarding are the same — you want to set up a new person to succeed in their role and develop in their career, but that the level of intentionality on the part of managers is different.

“It’s tough,” Lippin continued, “but you have to do everything you can to build a rapport virtually.”

He’s not wrong: A recent paper published by Harvard Business School showed that virtual water-cooler sessions with managers improved job performance by 7-10%.

Build extra touchpoints into your online onboarding process to help new hires understand expectations, set goals, and ask questions as they arise. For example, at remote-first 360Learning, new hires meet with their managers (which they call “coaches”) every day during their first week. At Ivy Exec, team leaders set “bookend” meetings with new hires at the beginning and end of each day.

Foster a sense of belonging and psychological safety

It’s hard to make meaningful connections in a remote working environment — yet 47 percent of employees say being able to “be themselves” with their colleagues is one of the most important factors when deciding whether to stay at a job.

Joei Chan, a director at 360Learning, wrote in a blog post about onboarding: “If your onboarding program helps new hires feel like a part of your company’s team, everything else will fall into place much, much easier.”

In addition to setting regular meetings with managers, organizations should be intentional about creating opportunities for new hires to get to know their teammates and develop a sense of psychological safety.

“If your onboarding program helps new hires feel like a part of your company’s team, everything else will fall into place.”

Becoming a part of the team should start on day one. Assign an onboarding buddy to debrief the new hire after a team meeting or a day of training to provide more context and help navigate the dos and don’ts of the company culture. Sara Bent, People Ops Specialist at all-remote Hotjar, writes in the company’s onboarding guide for newly remote teams:

“Kick off the person’s first day with some contacts. If their team lead—or a mentor or peer—can take a call with them early on their first day, that person can help to briefly explain what to expect during the first week.”

Make sharing know-how easy and asynchronous

New hires may be reluctant to disrupt their coworkers to ask for guidance, and tenured employees may find it difficult to stop what they’re doing and hop on a Zoom call to help. This can create feelings of isolation and lead to turnover.

Sara Farkas, Chief People Officer at Ivy Exec, said:

“With virtual onboarding, you’re essentially talking about a person sitting at home, alone, possibly wondering what to do next and how to do it. They can’t turn to their neighbor or manager to check in and ask for guidance,” she continued, “so we need to give them the tools to tackle their day independently.”

Invest in onboarding tools that enable tenured employees to share information and processes with minimal disruption and new hires to learn at their own pace. For example, 360Learning organizes its online onboarding process through Trello, which leads new hires through a series of steps to complete. At Hotjar, employees have a dedicated Slack channel where new team members can ask questions — for any available colleague to answer—at any time.

And with a tool like Scribe, veteran employees can easily share their know-how with new hires. Scribe auto-generates step-by-step guides based on actions the user is already taking, so new employees can get the instruction they need without disrupting the workflow of your tenured experts.

Measure the effectiveness of your onboarding program

Only 29 percent of new hires feel prepared and supported to excel in their role once they’re onboarded. Does your onboarding prepare employees for success? You won’t know if you don’t measure it.

To gauge the effectiveness of your onboarding process, your organization should track metrics such as employee performance, engagement and advocacy, and retention rates—especially during a new hire’s first few months.

Only 29% of new hires feel prepared and supported to excel in their role once they’re onboarded.

At 360Learning, “Coaches are really rigorous with new hires,” said Content Lead U.S. Robin Nichols in a phone call. “There’s a clear plan of what the new hire should accomplish at 30 days, 60 days, and 90 days.”

Assess new employees at regular intervals to see if they’ve mastered the skills learned during onboarding, and ask for their feedback throughout the process. Encourage them to speak up if something doesn’t make sense or could be improved. You should also have employees complete a more formal survey about their experience once onboarding is complete.

Finally, use those responses to improve your online onboarding process. More than 30 percent of companies don’t regularly act on employee feedback. Don’t be one of those companies.  

Good things take time

Now that hybrid and remote-first work is the norm, it’s time to examine your online onboarding process to ensure it’s optimized for employees who may never set foot in your office.

Since people who onboard remotely don’t have the same opportunities to learn through casual conversation and observation as those who onboard in person, plan to take more time and care—and continue to schedule regular check-ins with new hires well beyond the first 30, 60, or 90 days.

“After 90 days of onboarding, you’ve successfully cleared the new-relationship hurdle,” writes 360Learning’s Chan. But “you’re not quite married, per se. In fact, your chances of tying the knot—long-term employee retention—increase if strong onboarding practices continue throughout the new hire’s first year.”

A majority of hiring decision-makers surveyed agree that it takes more time—and money—to onboard employees remotely than in person. But doing so will pay dividends—not just through higher rates of retention, but by creating a more engaged, productive, and satisfied workforce.

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