Onboarding During a Pandemic

In an ironic twist, smart firms are finding ways to make executive onboarding more personal without any face-to-face meetings.

Everyone was anxious to get started. After six months, the new chief marketing officer’s first day on the job finally arrived. The day’s agenda started with her first meeting with her new marketing team and ended with an intense two-hour chat with her C-suite colleagues. But first she had a critical task to cross off: downloading Zoom to create a new profile.

Welcome to the world of virtual executive onboarding. For decades, organizations have relied on a series of set procedures to bring on newly hired executives, especially those at the higher level. But in what amounts to another pandemic-related seismic shift, some firms are tossing all that out in favor of systems that some experts say will continue well past COVID-19.

Ironically, at successful firms, the changes have turned what would appear to be an impersonal scenario—arriving at a company via email and video conferencing—into something more personal. As an example, Jamen Graves, a Korn Ferry senior client partner in leadership and talent consulting, says one recently placed hire got a call from the CEO on their first day on the job, a gesture that normally wouldn’t happen. “It’s flipping the process and setup to emphasize outreach and connection,” he says.

Historically, of course, the default position for onboarding often assumes that the human resources leader makes introductions and gets the new hire acclimated. In many cases, critics say, that has lead to a process that creates a clinical feel. Even in the executive ranks, it’s typically a routine process of office setup, required paperwork, introductory videos, and maybe a quick greeting with other leaders. And that’s if they are around—face-to-face meetings between new hires and other senior and executive team members can sometimes take weeks because of all the time they spend traveling.

This kind of routine, check-the-boxes onboarding often leads to new hires feeling invisible and isolated, says Andrés Tapia, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and strategist on global diversity and inclusion. In the current environment, however, “people are going the extra mile in making sure to reach out to new hires at least once a day for the first few weeks,” he says. Moreover, instead of a casual handshake and rundown of professional credentials, the use of video can create deeper, more interpersonal connections—after all, Tapia says, it isn’t typical to meet a coworker for the first time in their home.

Put another way, the backdrop of the pandemic is altering the balance between pushing for performance and providing comfort and care to a new hire. “Organizations are reining in their expectations of how new hires can hit the ground running and increasing their focus on integration and establishing trusted relationships,” says Karen H.C. Huang, Ph.D., director of search assessment services at Korn Ferry.

Graves believes the increased awareness on personalization in the onboarding process will carry over post-crisis, with human resources departments and hiring managers systematizing lessons learned. He says the benefit of the new approach to organizations in the form of increased engagement is immeasurable. “New hires are getting to know the organization and its people on a more intimate level than they normally would, and as a result they are feeling engaged and connected right away,” says Graves.