Is Remote Onboarding Here to Stay? How Orientation Looks Post-Pandemic

Building An Online Onboarding Program
SAP Litmos
Summary: In the past, onboarding meant a lot of in-person training. At some companies, new hires would sit in a classroom for a week, learning policies, procedures, and other important information about their new job and the work they’d be doing. How does that work now, in the age of COVID-19? Onboarding can be a tricky process already; your new hires need to get up to speed quickly. But with many employees still working remotely, and some permanent remote hires, what does that mean for onboarding?

The Importance Of Onboarding Training

You probably don’t need us to tell you why training is a critical part of your employee onboarding process—you’re here at eLearning Industry, after all. But just in case, it’s important to remember that employees rarely hit the ground running when they’re hired. It takes them time to ramp up, get familiar with the tools they need to do their job, and become productive.

It’s often difficult to prove the return on investment (ROI) of training of any kind, but one industry in which the ROI can be proven is sales, where job performance is directly related to the bottom line. Research from The Bridge Group finds that the average new salesperson takes 3.1 months to ramp up to full productivity in 2021. In some industries, however, it can take as long as six months to ramp up a new sales rep [1].

Onboarding is critical to getting your new hires productive as soon as possible; according to The Recruiting Roundtable [2] shows that a good onboarding program can increase performance by 11.5%, while Glassdoor research [3] says onboarding increases productivity by 70%. Effective onboarding training also keeps your employees around longer; Glassdoor research finds that a strong onboarding process improves retention by 82%.

Despite these findings, not all organizations have onboarding training; one survey [4] found that 24% of respondents had no onboarding program at all, a figure that backs up Harvard Business Review findings from 2015, which found that 22% of organizations lack onboarding.

The only thing worse than no onboarding program? A bad one. According to Gallup, just 12% of U.S. workers think their employers do a good job of onboarding. That’s a problem; employees who had a poor onboarding experience are twice as likely to look elsewhere for work [5] and less likely to recommend their workplace to a family member or friend.

So you need an onboarding program, and a good one. But it may also look different from onboarding you’ve done in the past.

What About The Pandemic?

In the early days of the pandemic, about 50 million people were working from home [6]. That number of remote workers has fallen in recent months as workers have returned to the office, but over the summer, there were still close to 22 million people working from their homes. They also prefer to work remotely; Gallup found that 35% of full-time workers would remain remote if possible. In addition, many organizations have begun hiring employees for permanently remote positions; according to a story in USA Today, many companies are allowing new hires to work from home permanently, taking advantage of the wider hiring pool that remote work allows.

Onboarding for these remote and hybrid workers will necessarily look different than traditional face-to-face training. Much of it will be online, but you’ll also have to build a virtual program that will engage your newest hires.

Building An Online Onboarding Program

No trust falls, no swag bags, and no team meals. How are you supposed to engage your new hires without the trappings of a traditional orientation?

Keep It Short

The traditional onboarding mentality is that “more is better.” Many companies have their new hires spend a day to a week in orientation, and often those sessions take hours. You can’t, however, ask new hires to sit through hours of onboarding and lectures at their home computers. For one thing, staring at a screen just isn’t engaging. For another, there might be distractions at home that don’t exist in the classroom (kids who need attention, pets, that neighbor who’s always doing yard work).

Trainers are addressing this problem by keeping onboarding short and snappy. Take the example of LinkedIn’s Kelly Chuck, who heads up LinkedIn’s onboarding program [7]. LinkedIn typically runs a daylong orientation, but during the pandemic, Chuck cut that program down to a few hours, removing anything that didn’t relate to her core vision of getting new hires excited about LinkedIn’s mission and building relationships that will help them move forward with work. Anything else, she said, can be covered in follow-up emails or videos.

Tailor Your Onboarding

Marcus Nelson, head of marketing for electric truck startup Xos Trucks, redesigned the online onboarding experience for a new employee after going through what he described as a “clunky” onboarding experience himself. Like Chuck, he boiled the onboarding down to basics, bringing it from three days down to a few hours, but his onboarding had a very specific audience: one new member of his team.

The new team member met company leaders and team members in a few hours of video conferences. He also learned how to find the information he’d need for work, messaging guidelines, and other important information. By creating an orientation just for his one team member, Nelson was able to keep him engaged and give him just the information he needed.

Use The Buddy System

Just because orientation is virtual doesn’t mean you shouldn’t assign training buddies to your learners. It’s a good way to break the ice, foster relationships, and break up large groups of trainees. Chuck at LinkedIn uses break rooms to connect new hires and break up long training sessions. Dom Merritt, chief people officer at Buildout Inc., uses a buddy program to pair new hires with established employees so they can have one-on-one guidance during their first months on the job, even if they’re working remotely.

Remember, You Might Also Be Re-Boarding

Post-COVID, onboarding doesn’t necessarily refer only to your newest hires. If you’re going fully remote, you may also need to train existing employees on the technology platforms they’ll be using to do their jobs remotely; 60% of companies expressed concern about training workers on remote work technology, according to research from Brandon Hall Group.

You may also be retraining existing workers for new jobs; Brandon Hall found that 56% of companies were concerned about reskilling workers who might return to different jobs than the ones they’d left, while 43% of businesses are concerned about determining whether employees will be returning to their old jobs, or whether their new jobs will change because of new business conditions. Ginni Rometty, executive chairman of IBM, interviewed on Fortune’s Leadership Next Podcast, likened the situation to throwing a deck of cards in the air. “Everyone’s not going to land back in the same spot,” she said.

Engaging Virtual And Hybrid Onboarding Is Possible

You may be concerned about how effective an online orientation may be, and with good reason, since onboarding is the first impression your employee will have of your company. If your previous experience with onboarding was classroom-based, a move online may give you pause; in the past, after all, the online piece of orientation was largely concerned with paperwork. Nobody finds paperwork all that engaging.

The fact of the matter is that online orientations may be here to stay. Traditional onboarding hasn’t necessarily been successful as Gallup’s research shows. 88% of employees didn’t think much of their organization’s onboarding program, pre-pandemic, so it was probably time to rethink traditional onboarding programs.

By going beyond paperwork and focusing on the individual you’re onboarding, cutting down the time they’re spending in lectures, and fostering important relationships, you can create an effective and impactful onboarding experience for your newest hires.


[1] Here’s How Long it Should Take for Your Sales Reps to Be at Fully Ramped Quota

[2] Extreme Onboarding: How to WOW Your New Hires Rather Than Numb Them

[3] The True Cost of a Bad Hire

[4] Employers Risk Driving New Hires Away with Poor Onboarding

[5] What the CIO sees—that other people don’t

[6] Millions of Americans are going back to work where they actually work

[7] 8 Steps to Creating a Virtual Employee Onboarding Program