Alison Young, director, Leaders in Change

The monthly leadership team meeting started with some good news from the CEO: their preferred CFO candidate had accepted the offer and would be starting imminently. On her screen, the CEO could see the gallery of smiles on her colleagues’ faces – they would soon be a complete team again, tackling together the challenges that the pandemic continued to lay at their door.

The CEO reflected for a moment: this would be an onboarding experience like no other. Off the agenda would be a welcome dinner with the team, informal one-to-one time, and the vital in-person visits the new CFO would make around the different regions and operations. Beyond standard papers and documents, how would the new CFO get to know how the company really worked, how it made decisions and what it prioritised?

A new employee working remotely may not know who to contact and may feel isolated. Allocating an onboarding ‘navigator’ can help

The CEO pondered, too, on the dynamics of the top team. She had made changes to the line-up and, while the trust was growing, the development of the team was still fragile. Working remotely had on occasion caused misunderstandings that had required a more conscious effort to work through. Nurturing close working relationships, team spirit and shared purpose was definitely more challenging in this virtual world. Onboarding the CFO needed to work.

Cover the basics

Companies in most parts of the world have been adjusting to virtual working, with onboarding going through its own evolution to match. Covering the onboarding ‘basics’ – contract and other employment documentation; online health and safety training; access to systems, information, key papers and financials – need not change. But when newcomers are working remotely, it’s more important than ever that these ‘basics’ are covered seamlessly.

A technical issue or payroll query can be resolved easily in the office by walking to the relevant department, but a new employee working remotely may not know who to contact and may feel cut off and isolated. Allocating an onboarding ‘navigator’ can help the newcomer speedily resolve their different queries as well as create a rewarding employee experience that gives an early taste of the company culture – at any level in the organisation.

Softly, softly

At C-suite and other senior levels, finding ways to navigate the ‘soft’ factors is particularly crucial. Roles at this level of the organisation are more discretionary in their nature and rely more heavily on working with internal and external stakeholders. Here, strong and trusting relationships are the key to a collaboration that can shift the dial on company results.

Virtual working requires everyone to dial up compassion and when this starts within the top team, it creates an environment where everyone feels welcomed

In addition, the leadership team carries the responsibility of creating and nurturing the company’s culture: what is valued, how decisions are made, how people are treated. If there is a silo mentality and lack of collaboration between members of the top team, it will ripple through the teams that report into them and beyond.

Silos struggle to survive when people work together physically. So the chance impromptu office conversation needs to be replaced by each team member scheduling time with their new colleague focused solely on getting to know each other.

It also gives the newcomer the opportunity to ask questions that tell the story about how the company really works, what the boss really expects and where some of the cultural pitfalls may lie. Nothing beats an opening question such as ‘Tell me about yourself’ to signal an agenda beyond the work itself to stimulate connections and chemistry.

Team members have a responsibility to create psychological safety for their new colleague in these moments by being open and transparent, and willing to make personal disclosures that help establish trust.

Make a safe space

The CEO has an important role in creating psychological safety, too – particularly in top team meetings. Clearly setting the scene for each agenda item, inviting voices to contribute, encouraging debate and dissent, and asking for what is not known just as much as what is known, work together to practically demonstrate that ‘we own this challenge together’. This will be one of the strongest signals for a newcomer to feel included and welcomed.

Holding a virtual ‘offsite’ with the top team to refresh on purpose, vision and strategy helps unite people and connect their individual goals to the team’s. While there’s little substitute for in-person onboarding, being able to include a session on leadership styles, respective strengths and blind-spots, and what team members need from each other, comes pretty close. This is about valuing connections and working together more highly than exchanging information.

Virtual working requires everyone to dial up care, compassion and connections, and when this starts within the top team, it creates an environment where everyone – newcomers and long-standing members alike – feel included, welcomed and ready to do their best.

Even as restrictions lift, employees at all levels may choose to work remotely. So perhaps investing now in a well-thought-through and fit-for-purpose approach to virtual onboarding will be used well into the future.