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How the Pandemic Changed the Onboarding Process — and How You Can Retain Top Talent in the New Normal

2020 might have been the year of industry disruption, but 2021 is on track to become the year of reinvention. From stepping confidently into full-fledged digitization to redefining core operating processes, organizations are ready to rebuild, beginning with employee populations. According to a recent survey, 50% of companies are kicking off Q1 with dedicated focus on hiring initiatives.[1] However, finding top talent and convincing them to join your organization is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. HR professionals know that the real work begins after the hire.

Gallup reports that only 12% of U.S. employers do a “great” job of employee onboarding

If organizations are to rebuild workforces without the financial blow of high turnover, they will need to make vast improvements to their onboarding processes. Of course, developing a structured onboarding experience in the era of remote employment is far easier said than done. Before diving into strategy, it’s important for HR professionals to understand the deeper meaning and purpose of a well-orchestrated onboarding process.

Onboarding vs. Orientation

Employee onboarding is NOT the same as employee orientation. The purpose of orientation is to cover basic employment information and complete paperwork required to get new hires started in their role. While orientation can be completed in a day and checked off a list, onboarding is ongoing and involves numerous activities focused on the following core objectives:

  • Explain the new hire’s role independently and as it fits into the larger team dynamic.
  • Introduce and acclimate new hires to the company culture.
  • Clearly define expectations related to the role and cultural values.
  • Familiarize the new hire with resources needed to perform their role.

Why Onboarding Matters

A structured onboarding process that delivers a positive new-hire experience can:

  • Accelerate the time required for new hires to reach the same level of proficiency as their peers.
Employees that undergo longer onboarding programs gain proficiency 34% faster than those that undergo shorter onboarding programs
  • Lower turnover rates, increase retention and nurture employee loyalty.
69% of employees are more likely to stay with an employer
  • Improve employee engagement and participation in company activities.
Employees that undergo a structured onboarding process are 54% more engaged
  • Increase employee productivity and performance while reducing attrition.
Structured onboarding increases productivity by over 70%


Rule #1: Have a Plan

One of the greatest things organizations can give to employees right now is a structured environment that makes life easier and provides a sense of security and predictability in a time when neither is guaranteed. Onboarding plans will vary depending on your industry and goals, but all processes should:

  • Communicate expectations regarding the new hire’s responsibilities, performance and integrity.
  • Clarify important policies, including those related to workplace behavior, safety, time off, remote work, cybersecurity, disaster recovery, etc.
  • Help new hires understand the intricacies of their role, including chain of command, resources, and any other information that will be crucial to their success.
  • Introduce new hires to company culture, including cultural norms, unique language and other attributes that define your community.
  • Make connections with peers.

Rule #2: Commit to One Year

A widely accepted “assimilation period” for new hires is about three months. However, research shows that longer programs produce better results. Commit to a full year and design your onboarding program around checkpoints — for example, 30, 60, 90 days after an employee’s start date, etc., to provide new employees with the opportunity to discuss any challenges they may be having.

Rule #3: Create a Checklist for Tracking Progress

An onboarding checklist is like a roadmap for the onboarding journey that will help HR deliver a more consistent employee experience and manage every new hire’s progress along the way. Once again, onboarding checklists will vary depending on your industry and objectives, but all organizations should define and execute activities that pertain to before, during and after an employee’s start date. 

  • Before
    • If in-office, have the new hire’s workstation cleaned, stocked and ready.
    • If remote, confirm equipment was received, provide a setup guide for equipment and set up virtual meet and greets.
    • Create a to-do list for the new hire:
      • Tools to acquire
      • People to meet
      • Accounts to set up
    • Inform team members of the new hire’s start date and discuss how the team can help acclimate their newest member.
  • During
    • Make the first day special.
    • Streamline paperwork and enrollment with integrative HR software that provides a simple, straightforward user experience.
    • Take time to connect new hires with their peers and managers, and encourage socialization.
    • Help the new hire feel like a productive member of the team by giving them a project that will keep them busy for the first day (or longer).
    • Observe the new hire’s work style as they tackle their first project and adapt onboarding activities to align with their needs and preferences.
  • After
    • Continue to socially integrate new hires with their peers.
    • Follow through with the checkpoints you set throughout the year.
    • Ask specific questions to encourage honest feedback about what’s going well and what could be going better.
    • Be proactive about helping new hires tackle and overcome challenges.
    • Upon completion, welcome your newly assimilated employee’s feedback regarding the program’s efficacy and success.


1. Digitize Paperwork

Spending an employee’s first day filling out documents is NOT the way to make the occasion special. By now, your HR software should negate the need for paper-work. In addition to going digital, provide new hires with early access and get as much of the documentation out of the way as possible before their first day on the job, such as:

  • Tax Documents
  • Legal Documents
  • Company Agreements
  • Company Handbook
  • Payroll Forms
  • Background Check
  • Employee Contract

2. Integrate Enrollment Software

Odds are, the company benefits program played a significant factor in your new hire’s decision to join the company. Deliver on promises by providing an employee benefits experience that begins with an exceptional enrollment process.

Only a small percentage of workers have the practical knowledge to maximize the value of their employee benefits. A well-orchestrated enrollment process that focuses on benefits education and provides crucial support services, such as chatbots and decision-making tools, will ensure your new-hire understands the full value of their benefits and how to use them properly. However, keep in mind, success in this endeavor will depend on having an intuitive platform that makes the enrollment process effortless.

3. Formalize a Remote Onboarding Plan

Digitizing paperwork and the benefits enrollment process is an excellent first step in converting your onboarding process for remote new hires, but assimilating a new employee into a dispersed workforce will require HR leaders to push boundaries even further.

  • Send a Welcome Kit: Deliver work equipment well in advance to ensure the new hire has plenty of time to set up their work station. Go the extra mile and include fun items like company swag, snacks or lunch delivery.
  • Bridge Geographic Divides: The one product that hasn’t experienced a shortage since the pandemic is communications software. Since new hires will not have the advantage of absorbing team dynamics and culture in-person, use video platforms and collaboration tools to create a virtual team dynamic. Include a virtual welcome message from the CEO, management and direct team members. Likewise, have your new hire share an introduction video with the team and ask interesting questions to inspire the conversation. While it is important not to overuse video platforms like Zoom for meetings, it is essential to get team members face-to-face regularly, especially in the beginning.
  • Provide Online Training: Slow down the pace of training and avoid putting added pressure on new employees. Settling into a new role is difficult enough without the added stress of adjusting to remote work-life and building relationships over the internet. Additionally, use video, gamification, quizzes and other interactive tactics to keep new hires engaged in training. Bonus points if the training process allows HR to track and measure a new hire’s progress through the material.
  • Assign a Mentor: Employees who are assigned an “onboarding buddy” are 97% more productive than those who go it alone.[7] This is especially true for remote employees, who may not know where to go or who to turn to for specific questions, resources and support. Ideally, your mentorship program should be a long-term activity that involves career mapping and focuses on connecting a new hire’s goals with relevant opportunities.
  • Encourage Socialization: The faster a new hire feels welcomed, included and entrenched in the team dynamic, the faster they will commit and contribute to the company’s mission. To socialize new hires, create casual interactions that do not focus on work-related topics. Hold virtual lunches and deliver meals to remote employees. Foster camaraderie through a wellness program that encourages employees to team up and work together toward goals — for example, a step-count challenge.

4. Automation

The HR-facing experience has everything to do with the experience HR can create for a new-hire. To that end, workflow automation is paramount to bringing structure and fluidity to your onboarding process. Automating back-end processes will also cut down on time, reduce instances of human error, and assist in collecting data to support people analytics, which will help improve the new hire’s experience over time. Automation software should streamline all activities across the onboarding program, including:

  • Sending and tracking paperwork.
  • Monitoring the set-up and adoption of technology resources.
  • Managing eligibility and benefits enrollment.
  • Scheduling meetings and social time.
  • Assessing new hire progress and performance.
  • Setting up training modules, orientations and workshops.


Above all else, be human. Anticipate the struggles that someone might have adjusting to a new role and meet them with compassion. Understand the behind-the-scenes stressors of living amid a global pandemic or adapting to remote employment and adjust expectations. Don’t shy away from allowing “personal” details into the workplace. Lastly, treat all employees with the same level of inclusivity, respect and personalized support.

Whether the new hire is a lower-level employee or upper-level management, the cost is significant to replace any employee. To that end, an organization's onboarding process should be consistent across all levels of employment and prioritize every new hire regardless of their station.

Likewise, the tactics used to onboard employees should appeal to all generations. Keep in mind that not all employees adapt to technology at the same pace and ask if they need extra help getting set up. HR teams should also deliver information using a variation of mediums, including emails, print brochures or booklets, video and digital channels to ensure they appeal to different learning styles. 

Learn how to attract and retain top talent of all ages. Get the guide


[1] 50% of employers expect hiring to become fully active after Jan 2021: Survey

[2] Optimize employee onboarding to better retain top talent

[3] HR Basics: Onboarding

[4] [Infographic] The Onboarding New Hire Statistics You Need to Know (with 2018 Updates)

[5] Don't Underestimate the Importance of Good Onboarding

[6,7] 10 Mind-blowing Employee Onboarding Statistics