Nicola Sullivan: Shining a light on virtual onboarding to better connect with graduate recruits

If there’s one indelible mark that coronavirus is leaving on the world of work, it’s this: uncertainty. Conservative estimates suggest that the UK economy will shrink by 10 per cent by the end of the year, with a sharp rise in unemployment expected once the Government’s furlough scheme ends.

But perhaps those facing the greatest level of uncertainty are the talented young people just about to start their careers – graduates. The jobs market was already extremely competitive. But now – and here’s the double-whammy – not only are graduates having to compete with more of their peers to find work, these potential new employees could very well be joining organisations they’ve never even set foot in. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), at the start of July, almost a third of UK adults were exclusively working from home. Graduate hires will add to this tally – but few companies are assessing what impact this will have on new-hire engagement, productivity, and creating that all-important emotional connection between the recruit and their new employer.

The only way to do this in these remote-working, remote-hiring times, will be to make onboarding far more structured and use digital platforms to boost levels of engagement. The benefits of this tech-savvy approach go far beyond the initial onboarding stage. Research has found that new employees are 58 per cent more likely to stay for three years or longer if they’ve completed a strategically planned onboarding process, and these new hires also increase performance by up to 11 per cent.

Creating this structure means demystifying all points of uncertainty in the onboarding process and creating regular opportunities for connection. With graduate recruits in particular facing huge insecurity, they are likely to require more support and encouragement to make them feel ‘part’ of the business and part of a definable culture – one where they really understand the role that they play.

On-boarding, on-demand

By taking advantage of digital platforms and tools, it’s possible to create a tangible virtual onboarding experience across various immersive and interactive environments. Rather than just coldly sending new recruits the detailed job description or company handbook, organisations can set up a series of live chat events (either one-to-one or with groups) where recruits can hear from their new co-workers and team leaders, and ask questions on what to expect and how to quickly establish themselves. These recruits are far more likely to absorb this information if they’re hearing it first-hand from their new team and getting the opportunity to connect with them in a meaningful way.

Alongside these online chat events, pre-recorded and live videos can be arranged that show new starters not only what to expect, but allow them to gain an insight in to the culture of the organisation. A company could, for example, live-stream a video of the CEO talking about how the company was started and its values as a business. During lockdown, many companies created regular online events for employees to keep them connected – everything from virtual workout sessions to online pub quizzes. These are great opportunities to involve recruits and let them chat with new colleagues in a less formal and intimidating environment.

This strategic approach to planned onboarding activities extends to post-joining events, too – arranging live chats, check-ins and team Q&As to keep up engagement levels. It’s all designed to build stronger connections and then make graduate recruits feel accepted as an integral part of the business.

A structured virtual onboarding programme also offers the opportunity to help upskill recruits and ensure they have the right capabilities to hit the ground running on their first day. For example, each new recruit should be given the opportunity to access a personal development resource online where they can sign-in to courses and be notified about useful training content as it becomes available. Investing in recruits before they’ve even started the role is one of the most effective ways that companies can show they care and quickly build a stronger emotional connection.

Employees are consumers too

The COVID-19 pandemic expedited the move towards a more virtual approach to onboarding and to work in general. People are unlikely to change their behaviour any time soon, even if a second significant wave is avoided.

Embracing a more virtual and engaging onboarding experience is also more pressing due to the fact that employees increasingly expect their at-work experience (especially how they interact with technology) to mirror their consumer experience. They want lots of ‘micro-moments’ of relevant action or insight. New recruits, particularly the current cohort of graduates, are demanding the same frictionless but consistent level of communication from the palm of their hands. By embracing virtual tools and platforms, leaders can deliver on this demand and mitigate a large portion of their own recruitment risk with less manual effort.

Coronavirus has made the recruitment landscape more daunting for graduate recruits, but it’s also an opportunity for companies to carve out deeper, more profound connections. By shining a light on their virtual onboarding process, businesses can pave the way to more efficient and holistic ways of working. More importantly, it allows them to harness an inclusive cultural ethos that empowers new employees with a lasting sense of security and wellbeing from the outset. In an age of chronic insecurity, it’s this core value that will help progressive employers stand out above the rest.