Best-Practice Virtual Onboarding [Part 4]: Empathy

Posted in Best Practice

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


A few weeks back, the fabulous and insightful Kate Pavlina took the time to share her findings from her recent thesis on virtual onboarding.

Based on extensive research and on interviews with new hires who’ve recently experienced virtual onboarding themselves, Kate’s thesis has been an absolute goldmine (thanks Kate!).

Kate discovered that the best virtual onboarding has four main elements: logistics, managers, connection and empathy. This week we’re looking at that final puzzle piece.

Keep reading to learn why empathy’s the foundation of a better employee experience, why COVID is a massive threat but also a massive opportunity, and, of course, a checklist of actions to nail empathetic virtual onboarding.


Empathy is the foundation of everything

We’re digging into the essence of experience-driven onboarding here. If you really boil it down, whether you’re talking about setting up IT, organizing social activities or nudging managers to get feedback, empathy is the foundation of everything Enboarder stands for.

  • Understanding new hires’ needs and designing an onboarding process that’s sensitive to their experiences.
  • Recognizing new hires’ challenges and providing resources and support tailored to overcome them (without being overwhelming).
  • Predicting new hires’ fears and allaying them. Appreciating new hires’ priorities and catering to them.

All with a view of not just improving productivity, accelerating time-to-productivity and slashing early hire turnover (although those too). But of helping new hires’ feel valued, appreciated and inspired.

Read more: Designing an empathy-based product – a personal journey  and Building a business case for employee onboarding software 

Sarah Fern, Saba Software’s Director of People for EMEA, wrote a powerful article on empathy recently for The HR Director. One quote leapt out at us:

“For more than 100 years, work has been a contract between employee and employer. But it’s always been a rough fit because employees don’t experience work as a contract. They experience work as a relationship”

That’s exactly what empathy’s all about – understanding how our people see the work dynamic, what expectations they have, and how we can best live up to them. (You’ve probably seen us refer to a moments that matter approach to onboarding. Empathy is the foundation).

And it’ll be absolutely no surprise to you that empathy is only more important during a crisis like, oh you know, a global pandemic.


Empathy in a crisis: a high-stakes game

What COVID’s really done is shine a light on the work dynamic. Everyone’s asking new questions about the working relationship; about mutual expectations and boundaries; about rules and processes.

And it’s more noticeable than ever when businesses fall short. Look at this quote, from one of the new hires Kate interviewed:

“People don’t realize what you are going through. They just skim over it and don’t talk about it. It was demoralizing. It's just too much information sometimes...I just kept wondering ‘Am I stupid?’”


In that sense, COVID has drawn a laser-focus onto employee engagement as enterprises realize letting their people down now could cause a major engagement and retention crisis. A crisis that hurts the business long after the pandemic is a distant memory.

The truth is, post-COVID the stakes are higher than ever. But that’s also a huge opportunity.

When all the pieces have been thrown in the air, you get a chance to decide how they’ll come back down.

Businesses have the chance to redefine the employer/employee relationship on more empathetic terms. To show up for their people in new ways – and doing so, earn loyalty and commitment that will spur business recovery.

Because here’s another stand-out quote:

“This company has an intense culture, and starting remotely made me worry about ramping up fast enough and my performance...but there was consistent messaging [that] really helped me be more relaxed. I probably would have been more anxious starting in person because of the culture, but this made it less stressful.”

By tapping into empathy, this virtual onboarding experience didn’t just match but actually improved on in-person onboarding. When you ladder that one experience across every new hire experience, that adds up to a significant movement against critical business outcomes. (Not just people outcomes).

Let’s talk about how to get there.

people working together at a computer

A checklist for empathetic virtual onboarding

Kate’s research identified three main areas that new hires were crying out for empathy:

  1. Setting expectations and creating context
  2. Intentionality and cohesion of experience
  3. Understanding the emotional side of onboarding

Everything we’ve shared throughout this mini-series has an empathy angle, but let’s look at some specific actions across those three.

Setting expectations and creating context: 

  • Create a pre-start roadmap that breaks down tasks and timelines
  • Deliver all logistics info in good time – to leave plenty of time for questions

25% of Kate’s participants didn’t receive information about first day logistics until one or two days before their start date. They emphasised that knowing logistical info was critical to providing a sense of cohesion and reducing stress.

  • Check-in with new hires pre-start to actively solicit questions
  • Have managers co-set work expectations and clear timelines with new hires
  • Ask managers to provide positive and constructive feedback regularly
  • Educate managers to thoroughly brief new hires with historical project context
  • Create a terminology deck that explains any in-office or industry jargon
  • Provide new hires with plenty of systems support – and clear help channels

“It was hard being external. No one explained the systems or the lingo. It felt like some things should be a given, but as a new hire, nothing is a given.” 

Intentionality and cohesion of experience:

  • Communicate a clear, structured onboarding process and timeline
  • Champion a culture of transparent communication about company direction
  • Ask leaders to meet new hires, one-to-one ideally, to emphasize their value
  • Communicate how you’re planning to handle returning-to-work
  • Invite new hires to meetings and learning opportunities – with context!
  • Create a culture and values handbook to help new hires acclimatize

Understanding the emotional side of onboarding:

  • Assign team members for daily check-ins or coffee chats
  • Ask managers to schedule short regular ‘how are you doing’ check-ins
  • Proactively recognize the impact of external events and direct to resources
  • Embed flexibility in new hires’ schedule – co-set meetings where possible
  • Be wary of overwhelming new hires – give them space to breathe!

“The experience was exhausting. I ended up working four weekends in a row right after I started. I wondered if this was what my life was going to be like and really started to regret my decision [to join the company]”

  • Create a clear process for debriefing new hires on missed meetings
  • Ask managers to explicitly and frequently communicate their excitement
  • Consider providing short templates and reminder nudges 👆

Ready, set...GO

It’s been a tumultuous time – and we don’t know about you, but we’re also hearing a sense of excitement. In some ways the pandemic feels like it’s been a long overdue shake-up of our working dynamics, forcing enterprises to question how they show up for their people.

That’s a huge opportunity. If businesses were ho-hum about progressing engagement initiatives like experience-driven onboarding before, they’re absolutely not now.

We’re hearing from heaps of HR and onboarding professionals that getting exec buy-in to drive real change feels easier. Everyone’s racing to transform – the playing field has been levelled – and every business has a chance to come out ahead.

We’re Enboarder. We recently won half of all G2s Winter 2021 Onboarding Awards because we’re damn good at helping businesses like yours take onboarding to the next level.   

If you’re looking to transform your onboarding – to deliver incredible, early hire experiences that move the needle on your most important people and business outcomes – we’re the people to talk to. Book a demo.  

Become an Enboarder insider!