Stop Creating Zombie Remote Workers – Use “High-Touch” Remote Onboarding

Dr. John Sullivan and Michael Cox

I call them zombie remote workers. During the first few months of working at home, these new hires will slowly wander (at least mentally) not knowing what’s expected and feeling completely isolated from their team. You can credit the creation of these zombie new-hires to the hastily put together remote onboarding process implemented after the work-at-home orders were issued. They can aptly be labeled as zombies because they appear to move slowly without energy, direction or commitment.

Their onboarding process was fully automated without enough “high-touch” features that would make these new-hires feel that they were treated more like numbers than humans. If you’re not familiar with the term, “team level high-touch remote onboarding,” we define it as a planned team level onboarding process that is designed specifically for 100% remote workers. It is executed remotely and electronically so that the new-hire doesn’t have to ever visit a worksite during their onboarding process. And, even though it is done remotely, it contains numerous “high-touch” team level features, where remote workers feel that their managers and team members are intimately and personally involved in their assimilation.

The Business Case For Effective Onboarding

Do you remember the first day of your job with excitement or mind-numbing paperwork? Like most individuals, you have a clear picture of every problem and frustration on your first day of work. These problems lead to buyer’s regret and with nearly 30% of employees mentally deciding to leave (Aberdeen Group) during their first week. Not only can great onboarding lead to a reduction in turnover and major cost savings, but great onboarding can also lead to a 70% increase in productivity.

Under the current approach, new employees, no matter where they are located, are often overwhelmed on their first day because of the volume of new-hire paperwork, introductions to new people and the work that is being done. As a result, they forget as much as 76% of the new material. One study found that 77% of new hires take more than 8 months to become fully productive. However, today’s pandemic means that onboarding, at least for the immediate future, can no longer occur in-person. And because of technological advancements and the global workforce, over time a higher percentage of new-hires will be working remotely. It makes sense to have both powerful face-to-face and remote onboarding capabilities in your organization.

What’s Wrong With Most Remote Onboarding?

Let’s face reality, most of the new features of remote onboarding at the corporate level were added primarily with administrative efficiency in mind. As a result, most remote onboarding efforts should be more accurately called “remote sign-ups with information overload.” We would note that for those of you that are familiar with our writing, it might seem strange that we are advocating for more of a human touch. And, we in fact are. Only because there is plenty of data supporting the premise that when new-hires don’t individually “feel” directly connected with the team that numerous serious problems arise. One recent study published in the Harvard Business Review found multiple issues with remote workers. Those problems included engagement, focus, camaraderie, team building, purpose, deadlines, morale, stress, retention and most importantly productivity.

These problems can be avoided with a structured, adaptive process for new hires. For example, one just-in-time five-step high-touch onboarding program at Google reduced a new-hires’ time to reach their minimum productivity level by 25%.

The Importance Of Adding “Team Level Onboarding”

Our research has found that many corporate onboarding programs fail to reach their goals. In large part, the more formal corporate level onboarding is so broad that the information is useless to the new hire’s first ninety days. This broad information overload leads to onboarded individuals with very little memory of the event. Up to 90% of the information is forgotten by the end of the first month! To stop wasting everyone’s time and energy, onboarding requires a more targeted onboarding approach at the team level. Even though most of the actions covered in this article can be executed at the corporate level, most of them are best applied at the team level after corporate onboarding has been completed.

Utilize high-touch Features And Tools In These Focus Areas 

Under a data-driven process, it makes sense to prioritize the different focus areas of remote onboarding at the team level. For example, whether you hand them their computer personally or mail it to them, doesn’t have much of an impact on them reaching their productivity goals faster. Yet, remote access IT support can lower stress caused by new technologies and lead to a faster time to productivity. After studying effective onboarding for over two decades, there are 20 remote onboarding goals that will be met faster when they include high-touch approaches.

  • A personalized onboarding plan – one size seldom fits all. If you want to maximize the impact of onboarding on remote new-hires, a personalized plan must be developed.
  • Increasing new-hire productivity – personalized and detailed actions that reduce the time it takes the remote new-hire to meet their initial minimum productivity goals, including the best ways to manage the new-hire in order to get the highest productivity.
  • Increasing new-hire retention – high-touch personalized actions that increase the retention rates for new remote hires like showing them why their work matters, the #1 employee motivator.
  • Continuous two-way communications – high-touch actions that increase the level of two-way communications and open dialogue. Improve visibility into who is doing what, why, and improve handoffs.
  • Understanding expectations – 1:1 high-touch actions that help the new-hire understand the manager’s role, responsibility, performance expectations, and the team’s expectations regarding values and sharing.
  • Building their network – guided steps that help remote workers quickly build their internal and external professional networks including multiple mentors, professionals and social groups.
  • Building trust – high-touch proactive communication and responsive actions that build trust between the team and remote workers including identifying and fixing employee frustrations, women’s issues, sexual harassment, diversity, and environmental issues.
  • Increasing a feeling of belonging – actions that demonstrate they are wanted, needed and that they are equal teammates including, clarifying the team’s daily progress through remote meetings.
  • Direct peer support – providing more high-touch support by assigning a peer buddy or mentor to remote new-hires.
  • Assessing their progress – actions that periodically assess and communicate the remote worker’s progress.
  • Understanding their interests – high-touch personalized questions to help other teammates understand the interests and career aspirations of remote workers. 
  • Understanding their motivators – proactively creating profiles that help managers and other teammates understand what motivates individual remote workers.
  • Understanding and communicating the team’s culture – conversations and guides for ensuring that remote new-hires fully understand and appreciate the value of the team’s culture including what the team wants more of and less of.
  • Remote relationship-building – remote actions that improve individual relationships and bonding. As well as increasing team cohesion, camaraderie and the full inclusion of remote workers. Be particular about people in different regions/time zones as they are most susceptible to being excluded.
  • Transparency – actions that make information and data equally accessible to the remote worker. Assume that every employee must be provided detailed information on KPIs, goals, why rules and policies are necessary, and how the work process operates.
  • CRM reminders – automated reminders that lead to periodic high-touch communications actions to keep remote workers from feeling as if they are forgotten.
  • They are investing in me – high-touch actions that make the remote worker feel like the team in the company is investing in them. Do not use one-size-fits-all professional development strategies.
  • Increasing the focus on onboarding – making the business case to the hiring manager and the team for emphasizing and extending onboarding. Including high-touch features for the remote worker.
  • Retaining onboarding information longer – high-touch actions that increase the amount of information that the new-hire remembers acts on using gamification, learning paths, and learning nuggets.
  • Start-up information and sign-ups – whenever needed, adding customized actions to the normally automated administrative aspects of onboarding.

We want to emphasize that during this time of physical distancing, these high-touch onboarding features have a dramatic impact on your new employees. Employees are not only seeking the security of a job in these ambiguous times, but they are also searching for connection and purpose. Do not isolate your employees now as they will immediately start searching for their next position for security.

Remote Work And Onboarding Is Now Easier With These New Technologies

In addition to the high-touch tools that will be highlighted next week. There are now many new technologies that make remote work and remote onboarding more possible. This is important because interest in remote work is increasing.

For example, a Gallup 2020 panel found that at the beginning of March 2020, 39% of U.S. workers were working remotely. This number dramatically increased to 57% by April 2 and it is continuing to rise. The pandemic has increased this trend and likely made it a permanent percentage of the workforce. At this time, almost 60% of these remote U.S. workers would prefer to continue to work remotely and only 41% would prefer to return to their workplace. Furthermore, remote work has been steadily increasing over the last decade as new technologies and the global workforce has become interconnected into the workplace.

Although most of these new technologies don’t have many “high-touch” features, they still make remote work much easier. Here’s a quick glance at the many new technologies that make remote work and remote onboarding easier.

  • Internal networks – Chatter, Currents, Slack – include pages/channels for projects, onboarding support, and openly challenge the company to do better.
  • Internal communication tools – Slack, G Chat, HipChat – add a department, team, fun, news, projects, and corporate business sections.
  • Scheduling – Google Calendar, Outlook, Calendly – clarify schedule expectations and help individuals create customized work hours, project handoffs, and employee visibility.
  • Video discussions – Zoom, Meet, MS Teams – decrease confusion by adding more communication richness through voice and video.
  • Chatbots – Slack, Microsoft Teams, G Chat – for onboarding, employee referrals, and project management. 
  • Project management – Asana, Trello, Basecamp, MS Project – make work visible, handoffs easy, and limit work in progress.
  • Internal shared document repositories – Confluence, Dropbox, Google Sites – these knowledge management systems hold project files, onboarding, how-to guides.
  • Professional work environment tools – Trello, Krisp.ai (noise-canceling), Whiteboard (online sketch tool) – create the virtual office by incorporating tools and processes that improve visibility and professionalism.
  • Remote access software – Lets you take remote control of one computer from another.
  • Shared moments – Online games, Spotify, shared screens, pictures, Amazon shipping, Grubhub – create shared moments from simple trivia apps to meals together.
  • Automated emails – MailChimp, Constant Contact, or your HCM – follow Humu’s lead using JIT and drip campaign emails to provide the right information in memorable ways to improve onboarding, remote work, and productivity.
  • Password Managers – LastPass, 1Password – provide remote access to employee passwords on shared accounts securely.
  • Machine learning – Soon machine learning assisted software will make identifying the critical success factors for remote onboarding much easier, so make sure to collect process and on-the-job success data.

Next Week’s Follow-Up Article Will Cover High-Touch Tools

On 4/20/20 we will publish a follow-up article on www.drjohnsullivan.com entitled “High-Touch Tools For Remote Onboarding – Part 1“. This will cover dozens of inexpensive high-touch onboarding tools and actions that you can use to fully engage your remote workers.

Author’s Note: If this article stimulated your thinking and provided you with actionable tips. Please take a moment to follow and/or connect with Dr. Sullivan on LinkedIn and to subscribe to his weekly Talent Newsletter.

Image from Pixabay.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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