How virtual onboarding is failing employees

In a hybrid workforce, connecting new hires to your organization’s culture is more important—and also more difficult.
By: | April 1, 2021 • 6 min read
(Image: Adobe)

Employees today are experiencing a crisis of connection. According to Gartner research, only 40% of employees feel a sense of belonging at their organization. The problem is even worse for new employees; just 32% of employees hired in the past 12 months feel a sense of belonging to their organization.

Remote work makes it harder to create connection. While most companies implemented remote work out of necessity at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, remote work will outlast the pandemic. According to Gartner analysis, business leaders project that nearly half of all employees will continue working remotely at least part-time after the pandemic.

HR leaders report that the biggest challenge with expanding remote work isn’t sustaining productivity; it’s maintaining the organization’s culture. Employees shifting to remote work report interacting less often with their coworkers, with interactions that are more transactional. With less meaningful connection, HR leaders tell us some employees feel like they could be working for any company. This is particularly true for new hires. Instead of immersion in a new office with its own rhythm and culture, they sit at the same desk and simply swap one company laptop for another.

The message is quite jarring: Cultural connection is at risk. With this insight, a more challenging question emerges: If existing employees—people with ties to, and an understanding of, the organizational culture—feel disconnected, what hope do new hires have to develop a sense of belonging?

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Cultural Connection Drives Organizational Value

A strong organizational culture isn’t just a nice-to-have; it’s a competitive differentiator. Gartner’s 2020 Employee Experience and Talent Mobility Benchmarking Survey reveals 70% of HR leaders believe culture is very important to their organization’s financial success. These benefits extend to employees. When remote employees see improvements to their organization’s culture, they also report higher engagement, intent to stay and inclusion.

RELATED Why virtual onboarding needs a redesign for employee satisfaction

Typically, HR leaders have used onboarding to help new hires understand, acclimate to and connect with the organization’s culture. But traditional onboarding methods have not been delivering for new hires. Pre-pandemic, only 44% of recruiting staff said their organization’s onboarding process integrates new hires with the company culture. Further, only 33% of employees are satisfied with their organization’s culture and education training.

Related: Why remote hiring isn’t going away, and what that means to HR

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Though traditional onboarding often missed the mark in connecting new hires to company culture, HR leaders often assumed new employees would absorb corporate values and ways of working organically. This made sense; new hires connected to organizational culture by living it and witnessing it play out in their day-to-day interactions via getting to know their desk neighbors, having casual conversations in the break room or attending happy hours with their team. But whether employees work remotely or on-site, these opportunities are far more limited today—it’s harder to pick up on norms from virtual meetings or to connect with peers when you don’t know who to reach out or how receptive they will be.

HR leaders need to create intentional connections with company culture, starting on day one of onboarding. HR leaders should shape their onboarding programs to:

  1. Reinforce values and purpose
  2. Show your real-world impact
  3. Teach values through action

Reinforce Values and Purpose

Employees feel a stronger connection to organizations that communicate their values and purpose, particularly if the organization’s values mirror their own. Gartner’s February 2021 Post-Election Survey of 3,000 employees revealed that 68% of employees would consider quitting their current job and working with an organization with a stronger viewpoint on the social issues that matter most to them. The same survey found that employees whose employer has taken a strong stance on current social and cultural issues are twice as likely to report high job satisfaction.

Messages about organizational values and purpose are common in employment branding. These messages appeal to candidates’ own values, encouraging the right candidates to apply for a job. Unfortunately, according to Gartner’s 2019 Candidate Survey, only 60% of new hires say an organization’s branding matches the experience they had once they joined the organization. This mismatch can disillusion new hires and lead them to seek another job.

To create a strong connection, HR leaders must be intentional in communicating and reinforcing messages about the organization’s purpose throughout onboarding. This goes beyond a brief online learning module. Values should be shared by HR and by hiring managers through personalized onboarding programs and values-aligned trainings that help new hires connect the organization’s values to their own.

See also: ‘Now is not the time’ for employers to back off mental health focus

Show Your Real-World Impact

While purpose and values sound nice, they must also guide the organization’s actions. Increasingly, employees look for their organization to go beyond making statements and take action. In fact, a June 2020 Gartner survey of 600 employees revealed that employee engagement declined when their employer simply made a statement with no action behind it. When a company took action on a social issue, employee engagement increased by 20 percentage points.

New hires need to see how an organization delivers and follows through on its purpose. Tenured employees may know how organizational purpose translates into business impact through network connections and lived experiences. Unfortunately, new hires don’t have the same visibility into the organization. HR leaders must carve out opportunities for new hires to learn how the organization creates impact through its mission and purpose.

HR leaders should share live or video testimonials, impact highlights in newsletters and internal social platforms. But these impact stories shouldn’t just come from managers and employees; they should share stories from customers and community organizations as well. Onboarding programs should also highlight volunteer opportunities, mentoring opportunities and other ways new hires can act on their shared purpose with the organization.

Teach Values Through Action

Even when new hires understand what the organization’s values are and why they matter, it’s not always clear what behaviors actually align with those values. Gartner research finds only one-quarter of employees know how to translate cultural values into what they should do in their day-to-day jobs. Even when they do know, 77% of employees report encountering cultural tensions that create confusion about the right behaviors. It may be harder for new hires to see how they should “live” the organization’s values in their everyday behavior, especially with so little visibility into others’ actions.

Leaders and managers must explicitly demonstrate what the organization’s values look like in action and how they translate to behaviors. In a virtual environment, progressive organizations are utilizing simulations that provide new hires with the opportunity to apply company values to critical business decisions. In these simulations, new hires team up to work through real-life business scenarios, discuss their responses and receive constructive feedback on how the responses aligned with business values and ideal behaviors.

Faced with a virtual environment that has reduced opportunities to build organic cultural connections, it is on HR leaders to create intentional connections for new hires. HR must guide new hires to connect with the organization’s purpose and values, see their real-world impact and translate organizational values to day-to-day behaviors.

Jamie Kohn is a director in Gartner’s HR practice, developing research and best practices focused on recruiting. Her team studies topics such as recruiting strategy, talent attraction and sourcing, hiring needs definition, selection, candidate experience and onboarding. Ms. Kohn has also conducted research on corporate strategy, digital transformation and organizational culture.