Best-Practice Virtual Onboarding [Part 3]: Connection

Posted in Best Practice

This is part three of our content series exploring the four elements of best practice virtual onboarding. Part one is here and part two is here, if you missed them.


Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve been publishing this mini-series to dive into Amazon HR Business Partner Kate Pavlina’s recent thesis on virtual onboarding. So – hi, if you’re just joining us! And welcome back, if you’ve been following along.

In her research – shared with us in our recent webinar – Kate found awesome virtual onboarding does four main things really well: logistics, managers, connection and empathy. 

This article’s all about the third: creating connection. Something near and dear to our hearts, as you probably know.

Let’s dive into how connection has changed virtually compared to in-person onboarding, and then zero into some research-backed tips to nail this super-important principle.

Here goes!

gemma-chua-tran-jNVgCpQ0LhQ-unsplash (1)

The imperfect storm for (dis)connection

We were talking about the workplace loneliness epidemic and its impact on critical business outcomes waaaay before COVID-19 happened. For example, in 2018 Gallup reported only 20% of US employees agree they’ve got a best friend at work. Increase that to 60%, and businesses enjoy:

  • 36% fewer safety incidents
  • 7% more engaged customers
  • 12% higher profit

The business case for connection has been clear for years.

And then – shocker! – the whole global-pandemic, unprecedented-stress, work-from-home, juggling-a-billion-and-one-things thing has only exacerbated the problem. While simultaneously making forging and maintaining connections harder. Fantastic.

(For instance, one recent study talks about the “high cost” of the pandemic in causing “an acute, severe sense of social isolation and loneliness with potentially serious mental and physical health consequences”.)

Our State of EX: COVID edition research backed that up, highlighting pervasive negative emotions – with employees feeling anxious, uncertain, fearful, overwhelmed and vulnerable.

Facilitating connection has always been important but it’s become way more so. Across the entire workforce but especially for new hires, who’re joining your organization remotely without the same network your existing employees have.


Connection = Support + Belonging

It’s no surprise that 100% of participants in Kate’s research said connecting with people in the workplace was important to them. Moreover, 100% said building rapport and forming connections impacted their success.

The most common benefits of feeling connected were:

  • Being more comfortable asking for help – 42%
  • Feeling part of the team; belonging – 42%
  • Feeling good about going to work – 25%

Given those stats, we were heartened that 92% of participants said their virtual onboarding experience included at least one activity designed to facilitate connection. (Frankly, we wouldn’t hold out too much hope for the other 8 percent’s employee engagement…)

Kate’s research found these fell into three major themes. Let’s dig into the details, so you can spot any opportunity gaps in your own virtual onboarding process.  (Or skip straight to the end for a nifty checklist).


1 - Forming connections with the immediate team

New hires’ relationship with their immediate team is second in importance only to their manager relationship. It’s intrinsic to creating a high-performing team. (This McKinsey piece is great on the whole team thing).

Kate found businesses typically went about that in two ways: virtual icebreakers and social events.

On the virtual icebreaking front:

  • 83% said their onboarding included icebreaking activities like show-and-tell
  • 25% said their onboarding included team activities like breakout discussions
  • 17% said their onboarding included virtual games on tailor-made platforms
  • 8% said their onboarding included a virtual ‘get to know you’ portal

Read more: 7 virtual icebreaking ideas that aren’t boring, cheesy or cringe

Then 83% also said their company hosted social events designed to facilitate connection. Of those:

  • 17% attended team virtual summit or offsite event
  • 17% attended a team lunch
  • 17% attended a themed activity like paint night or wine tasting
  • 33% attended a team happy hour

(All good ideas but worth pointing out, remember to be inclusive. Be wary of *only* holding events like happy hour, for risk of alienating employees who don’t drink alcohol).


2 - Establish a buddy program

Only 50% of Kate’s participants reported their virtual onboarding had involved a buddy program – that’s an open goal for better onboarding! Of those who did have a buddy, 83% said they found it very helpful.

If you read last week’s instalment on managers, you’ll see we recommend managers are proactively involved with overseeing the buddy relationship. By tasking managers with assigning, supervising and setting expectations for buddies, you power a more consistent – and actually useful – experience.

Kate’s thesis backs that up, finding 50% of new hires who had a buddy weren’t sure if every new hire had a consistent experience. They also said they weren’t sure what expectations (if any) had been set for their buddy.

If new hires aren’t sure of the exact terms of the deal, as it were, they’re less likely to know how to get value from the resource.


3 - Facilitating company-wide connection

New hires’ don’t only want to connect with their immediate team – they want in equal measure to form company-wide connections. For example, 50% of Kate’s participants talked about wanting to connect with communities across the business.

Community groups and affinity-based groups are a major mechanism for this. Be more proactive than you might during in-person onboarding about making introductions and highlighting resources.

Social events have a role to play here too. Kate’s thesis found 17% of new hires’ experienced a company-wide happy hour and 8% experienced one-to-one chats with people across the business.

This latter especially is the gold standard for connection-led onboarding. As we explored last week – managers should actively take control over this process, booking meetings into diaries to make sure they happen.


Right. Checklist time.

We’re big fans of a handy quick resource, so here’s a checklist incorporating some of these ideas.

Forming connections with immediate team

  • Issue a pre-start questionnaire with icebreaking questions (like Cisco Meraki)
  • Have the team introduce themselves to new hires pre-start
  • Plan icebreaking activities and ensure managers are confident facilitating
  • Plan team bonding activities like breakout discussions and mini competitions
  • Consider investing in a tailor-made virtual game platform
  • Have managers intentionally set aside time for personal conversation on calls
  • Consider having special lunch treats delivered to the team for first day lunch
  • Plan a team happy hour – you could even send new hires a cocktail!
  • Create pre-start welcome pack with personal notes from the team (Shopify 👀)
  • Schedule one-to-ones with a different team member each day
  • Ask everyone to use video calls, to best mimic face-to-face experiences
  • Brief team members to avoid unintentionally excluding new hires
  • Establish solid WFH boundaries and expectations to avoid misunderstandings

Establishing a buddy program 

  • Ask managers to assign a buddy for new hires
  • Create a ‘buddy pack’ setting out expectations and support
  • Have managers brief buddies in person and answer any questions
  • Have managers make an introduction between buddy and new hire
  • Ask managers to schedule the first few weeks of buddy meetings
  • Give new hires clear guidance on how to best leverage their buddy resource
  • Seek feedback on the program (from new hires and buddy) – and act on it!

Facilitating company-wide bonding 

  • Send a company-wide email welcoming new hires to the business
  • Make cross-company social intros based on survey-surfaced shared interests
  • Arrange a regular, vibrant and diverse social calendar!
  • Create a resource for new hires detailing upcoming social events
  • Nudge managers to encourage new hires to attend, even if they’re shy
  • Incentivize employees to attend company social events
  • Create a cross-company list of contacts – and schedule one-to-ones
  • Create a resource detailing all your employee groups and relevant contacts
  • Prompt new hires to flag their interest in groups and make introductions
  • Ask key people – like senior leaders – to reach out to new hires at intervals


Ace virtual connection - and become pack leaders

It’s true that virtual onboarding is different from in-person onboarding. But connection has always been mission-critical to experience-driven onboarding. In that sense nothing’s changed.

Hopefully this article – thanks to Kate’s amazing input – shines a light on some of the simple, practical ways you can facilitate connection and support your new hires virtually.

Because here’s the thing – right now, the playing field has been levelled and everyone’s battling with fast transformation. That means companies who might’ve been tailing on onboarding have the chance to become pack leaders, practically overnight.

If there’s never been a good time to overhaul your processes before, you’ll never get a better chance than right now.

Let us help you seize it – book a demo.  

Watch this space for the final part in this best-practice virtual onboarding series next week, on empathy.

Become an Enboarder insider!