Going fully remote was challenging and difficult for the whole HR team. We had multiple priorities, and no one to focus solely on onboarding and make sure the program is inclusive, informative, and is able to embed newcomers to our people’s culture. At that point, we didn’t even know what remote work would look like.
In the midst of it all, here’s how our onboarding unfolded in the first few weeks of the pandemic:
We all knew that this process needed to change, as we realized that the remote times are no longer temporary, and our company had taken the decision to turn to a hybrid workplace model.
Hence, we needed to adjust our onboarding process accordingly. Most importantly, we realized that these two interactions newcomers had with people teams were not enough to help them build a strong foundation to get them off the ground.
Pre-boarding is one of the first impressions and connections the newcomer makes with your organization. Having no contact with your new company before you start can bring uncertainty about what is expected of you, and what you can expect from your new employer. Thus it is important to have a proper process.
The onboarding phase was the most challenging phase. Next to the minimal onboarding sessions that newcomers received, there was little alignment and communication between people managers and the HR/IT teams. This meant that we weren’t as effective and impactful as we could have been.
Beyond the purely admin work, we were wondering how we can make sure that newcomers don’t feel siloed in their own homes, away from the culture and general social interaction that were in place before Covid.
We are hybrid, but we also have remote employees, who will most probably never go to any of our offices (Amsterdam, London, NY, LA). We had to make sure that everything we did for onboarding was inclusive, no matter where you live and which time zone you are in.
We had (and still have) ambitious growth and hiring plans. Each week, 1 to maximum 15 new hires can join our team. Given we have only one designated onboarding responsible, we had to make sure that there was a seamless cadence of onboarding sessions, that pre-boarding could be done in bulk, and that we minimize manual labor. Also, every element of the onboarding process had to be developed to be seamless, whether we had one person join in a week, or 14 (which is our record number of newcomers in one week).
WeTransfer is proud of being an inclusive organization, that is accepting and welcoming to all alike. This also means that we are fond of the “personal touch.” Sending handwritten notes, having personalized assets, getting 1:1 quality time with new colleagues are all super important to us. But how can we maintain this, if the onboarding program is fully remote? And again coming back to scalability, when we have 20+ people joining in a month, is it feasible to write each newcomer a handwritten note?
As mentioned, this is something that we already knew we needed to work on. Giving a guide and explanation on what the onboarding process is was not going to cut it. Managers are busy and already have a lot to do, so taking them by the hand and supporting them as much as possible is the way to include them in the process.
It’s January 2021, and the work begins. Thankfully, we had some help from two lovely freelance ladies, Sophie Dopheide from The Culture School, and Rebecca Trouwee from Bodhi by Rebecca, a certified trainer, facilitator, and session designer. We brought them on board to help us map out a new process that could work for WeTransfer, and that is feasible for one onboarding coordinator to manage.
We knew that we needed a change, and we had an idea of what that change needed to be, and how to implement it. But what did others think? How were the newcomers themselves experiencing the current onboarding process? Were managers happy with the level of communication and transparency we had with them, or did they want more?
So we created and sent out some surveys.
We asked newcomers about their pre- and onboarding experience, specifically focusing on their level of understanding for different areas. For example, we asked them:
This was really valuable information – people who have worked for an organization for a while value completely different information than someone who has been at the organization for 10 minutes. It really opened our eyes on the perspective we need to take when it comes to re-designing onboarding, and developing the process through the eyes of someone starting with a blank page.
We also surveyed managers on how they perceive the process and whether their roles and responsibilities are clear for them when it comes to onboarding a new team member. Thankfully, the strong culture within people managers to effectively onboard someone has not changed with the shift to remote work, but they did confirm our hunch that they would like more transparency on what the people teams are doing during onboarding, and what information is being passed on to the newcomer.
We also looked at our biggest resource, the internet. We knew that we weren’t the only ones rethinking our processes to accommodate remote employment. We listened to about 20 webinars on the topic, looked at case studies, and read several articles to see how others were dealing with this.
After receiving feedback from 50+ recent newcomers and people managers, we came to one fundamental conclusion. We already have a lot of good elements in place in terms of culture, but we need a centralized process to turn onboarding into an experience for our new joiners.
The onboarding process has become much more synthesized and logical. We took the employee journey into account, and developed sessions, check-ins, social elements to anticipate the newcomers’ needs. Because the content lives in an e-course, managers are easily able to access it themselves and see the experience their newcomers are going through. We improved our channels of communication between the HR team, IT, and the manager of the newcomer, to make sure that the process is not only a good experience for newcomers, but for us working in “the backend” as well. This started with a manager’s onboarding session to show them the new flow and how the process has changed, and as mentioned they receive regular notifications on their responsibilities, which they can also find explained in our company handbook.
The launch of the onboarding program was a great success. Because we believe that onboarding is a company effort (which is feasible for the size of the company we are), and not just the job of people teams, we recorded a promotional video of the new flow, and shared it with the company at an All-Hands meeting. We wanted everyone to know the experience newcomers were now getting, and called on our colleagues to be a part of this journey, by coming to host their team sessions or to join the group of creative colleagues in drawing Paper portraits for newcomers.
All onboarding sessions are in an Onboarding Google calendar that is available to view for the whole company, showing transparency, and again, just getting everyone excited about onboarding, not just those few who are working on it.
It’s difficult to measure the success of an experience that is almost fully subjective, but not impossible. We developed a survey that newcomers received after their first month, to gauge their experience, but also their general understanding of the company, which we worked to elevate through our onboarding culture sessions.
Our survey consists of both quantitative and qualitative questions, and is anonymous, unless a newcomer wishes to be contacted for further feedback and if elaboration is needed from our side. The questions ask both about the pre- and the onboarding phases and elements, as well as their understanding of our culture (note: we don’t ask “do you understand our culture?”, but instead ask “we have 4 core values. What are they?” and is thus a way to see if the newcomer was present at the opportunity at one of our sessions to understand our values).
While the onboarding sessions are individually evaluated for their format, the content that is being delivered is tested in this larger monthly survey.
Looking at our survey responses a couple of months after we launched, the feedback was recognizably more positive. Overall onboarding experience was rated an 8.6, compared to a previous 7.2. Newcomers reported feeling much more engaged and included in the company culture, and managers reported a general confidence in newcomers tackling their role and challenges from an earlier stage.
It’s interesting that I write this article, while the revamped onboarding process turns 1 year old (on 1 March, to be exact). A lot has happened since then, to our company structure, the way we work, and our people culture. About 6 months after the launch of the new program, I felt that we needed an update, to adjust a little to our changing environment. We also felt that we were still not giving enough attention to managers, and that we needed to work together more.
The biggest change we made was giving onboarding an identity within WeTransfer. The process itself is no longer called “onboarding process” or “onboarding journey”, but “The Download,” referring to the osmosis of information newcomers have to do, but also a reference to our flagship product, Transfer, where you can download files. We also gave The Download a visual identity, using what I like to call “the onboarding purple” for all our visual assets: the schedule for newcomers, the pre-boarding pack, a poster announcing a session will have that purple somewhere. I also worked together with a copywriter from the creative team, to build an overarching storyline for the journey, and tie our sessions and resources together as one. This really helped us in explaining, and for the newcomers’ understanding, in what they will be experiencing, and how it all relates to each other.
We also got rid of the onboarding e-course, and instead moved everything to our handbook, which is our single source of truth for the company anyway. We built a One-Stop Onboarding Shop, which I call the “oracle” of onboarding, and is the place to go whether you are a newcomer, a manager, or simply a colleague interested in what’s going on with “The Download.”
And this is where managers come in. While they are able to easily check out the newcomers’ section and browse through the content, the sessions, and everything that is being delivered to them, we revamped the onboarding toolkit for managers for ease of use. The entire onboarding process is mapped out for them, from the perspective of the manager and the perspective of the people teams, side by side, broken down by time periods.
Something new we are working on is “onboarding managers to onboarding.” As you probably guessed by now, we love a good play on words. What I mean here though is a live (but online), interactive session for new (and older) managers, to show them what “The Download” journey entails, to make them understand what their role is in the process, and for them to learn from each other as people managers. We will do this by introducing a small section of theory, and then play a game together, using the flow of The Download as a guide in a game board. The game is basically a Q&A, but there aren’t always right answers to a question. Instead, we include a lot of “reflection questions”, opening up the space for discussion among themselves, which will lead to key takeaways that they may use when onboarding their next newcomer.
I do have to reiterate, that managers were always very strong at onboarding a new member to their teams, however in the future, we really aim for this to be a collaboration between us, as it is a common goal for us all to provide the best experience we possibly can.
Each Sunday we compile the best L&D resources we find and send them right to your inbox.