5 Tips for Onboarding New Hires in the Social Distancing Era

April 20, 2020 / POV
Andrew Miller

The following article was previously published on Adweek.

Two weeks ago, right when local schools, restaurants, gyms, parks and offices of nonessential businesses closed, I started my new role as an account director for Exponent PR in Minneapolis.

That’s for Exponent, not at Exponent. I haven’t spent a day at my new office yet. Physically being there will have to wait, unfortunately.

During my interview process in early March, the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic began to come into full view. While the dread was palpable, I don’t think many of us had the imagination to foresee how dramatically daily life would change.

It’s been a strange time to start a new job in agency land, but no one in my position should feel sorry for themselves. Economic volatility—a woefully inadequate euphemism if ever there was one—has forced many agencies to batten down the hatches and enter survival mode for the time being. I am grateful to have a new job.

The chaos in our industry and the abrupt change to exclusively working from home (WFH) has in no way diminished the quality of my onboarding experience. A few days prior to my first day, I received my laptop and an HR packet by courier, along with a handwritten note from our CEO. In a few short sentences, she thanked me for my flexibility and patience while adjusting to WFH. That level of thoughtfulness and concern has been present in each step of the onboarding process, and it’s had the effect of empowering me to jump in and contribute to the agency right away.

As conditions improve, hiring is likely to restart before agencies can fully reoccupy their offices, which means more new hires will start out working from home. Here are steps based on my positive experience that can be taken to ensure smooth onboarding for new hires in these anything-but-smooth times.

IT should stand for introduction team”

Information technology (IT) is a common day-one stop at most agencies, but when new hires are WFH, it should be the very first. My first hour at my new job was spent with IT remotely booting up the laptop and software I received by mail a few days prior. Getting a solid grip on all the apps and services that make WFH possible is critical to a successful start.

Pack the first week (or two) with meetings

You would think it would be more challenging to meet my new colleagues

when not in an office. The opposite has been true. Off the bat, my schedule included a welcome lunch, daily check-ins with my manager and a “virtual buddy,” daily integrated team meetings, onboarding meetings with our account teams and a new hire meeting with our CEO and CCO, all conducted via video chat. I have gotten more face time with more colleagues than may have been possible in the physical office setting.

Extend the agency culture to the home office

When an agency is known for its award-winning culture, you should feel it even when you’re not at the office. Extending culture to new employees is vital to making them feel welcome and allowing them to integrate better. Since staff left the office, the agency has facilitated lunchtime support meetings for employees who are parents working from home (like me) as well as singles isolated at home. There are weekly yoga sessions, Friday happy hours complete with a live DJ and several chats dedicated to interests including books, music, movies, cooking and, perhaps most relevant to these times, bourbon.

Regular communication from leadership is its own brick and mortar

It’s been essential to hear updates from leaders throughout the agency on a daily basis. Even if the updates are short and meant to provide a bit of good news or encouragement, they serve to create a sense of agency unity, even when we’re spread across 200-plus locations for now.

Embrace the discomfort

Whether an employee has been at the agency for 15 years or 15 minutes, WFH in the social distancing era is a major adjustment riddled with inconveniences. There will be spotty Wi-Fi, crying babies, barking dogs and noisy roommates. Extend grace and good humor to new hires to erase the pressure to be perfect. These are very imperfect times, after all.