Are you Hiring New Employees these weeks? – Here is Inspiration on how to Onboard New Employees in COVID times

By Julie Salskov Cand. Psych & Frederik Holtum Stud. Psych


Denmark and the rest of the world are in an extraordinary situation, affecting everyone from the individual to companies to states and countries. COVID-19 has brought many consequences. Many are forced to shut down their offices and workplaces, and those who can work from home stuck in quarantine. This has created a lot of turbulence in the daily lives of many people, and maybe you were in the middle of onboarding new employees into your organisation.

You might find yourself in a situation, where you have employees who have just had their first working day and must now work from home – or maybe your new employees’ first day of work is right in the middle of the pandemic. Several employees might also be in a situation where they will be onboarded into new or temporary positions – given the changing requirements for the positioning and survival of companies. Meanwhile, the main question is how we receive and integrate new employees during a societal crisis, a time where we must stand together by distancing ourselves.

In the shadows of emotions

Onboarding is a process that ensures retention, productivity, and commitment. More importantly, it is a personal experience that helps create direction and storytelling. The new employee has a lot of emotions in play during the early phase of hiring, and there are many questions that need to be answered and a lot of expectations that are to be met. These onboarding emotions can be challenging since the close relationship between the workplace and employee has not yet been built. In addition, for the employer, it can seem challenging to talk about and handle the many needs in a good and constructive way.

Onboarding is a process where it is essential to focus as much on the personal experience of the new employee – as on the company’s need to inform and instruct. Under normal conditions onboarding rhymes with emotions such as anxiety, excitement and doubt, motivation and with considerations such as; “Is this the right job?”, “I wonder if they like me, or if I like them?”, “Can I perform my tasks?”. But what does it mean for a new employee that shortly after starting her new job – this period which may already be a sensitive one – she will be sent home with no defined end date on returning to the office? In times of a crisis, as with COVID-19, it is to be expected that these considerations are supplemented with thoughts like; “What if the crisis hits my family?”, “Will anything drastic happens to my work?” and “Would I be able to keep my new job at all?” etc.

We know that, under normal circumstances, up to 25% of all new employees leave their job within 12 months. During a societal crisis such as COVID-19, it is assumed that this number is at risk of increasing. Motivation, commitment, and attachment of the new employee are motivators that are in danger of being decreased if the onboarding process stagnates. Therefore, it will be crucial to guide the employee in a practical and professional way while considering the emotions that arise during the onboarding period of which are further influenced by the current societal crisis.

Forming, Connecting and Unfolding

From a theoretical perspective, onboarding psychology entail three tracks that the new employee must go through. These tracks evolve around how the new employee is being formed, connected and unfolded.

Forming means becoming part of the company and finding deeper meaning and a sense of belonging to the workplace. Creating this meaningfulness is always a challenge and an important task for the employer. Nevertheless, in a time of crisis, this process will be a lot more challenging. For some new employees, the crisis might be perceived as meaningful. E.g. a nurse working in the ER at a hospital experience working in the heart of the crisis. On the other hand, there may be other positions that may seem pointless in a time when a lot of people need help. For many, it may also be a matter of having to look after their own family. Thus, as part of the forming track, there may be uncertainty about whether the new job is meaningful or important.

Connection deals with creating relationships and being able to navigate inside the organisation. Establishing relationships and networking can be a sensitive process. If you work remotely as most employees currently do, it’s even more challenging to reach out to your colleagues. Perhaps as a new employee, you may not have had the chance to meet all your colleagues at all. Feelings of insecurity and loneliness easily arise, and it can seem difficult and nerve-wracking to contact colleagues of whom you haven’t yet met physically.

Unfolding is about gaining a sense of mastery and development in the new job – all of which can be difficult to grasp working remotely. As a new employee, it can be difficult to know which tasks should be prioritized, how they are to be completed and how often one should report back on them, etc. Feelings of being ‘on hold’, worthlessness, as well as role uncertainty, can easily arise.

With the COVID-19 crisis in mind, one can argue that there is a basis for emphasizing the importance of emotions more than ever, and thereby the perspective of the new employee during the onboarding. But what can be done working remotely?

The role of the manager during the remote onboarding

The manager always plays a key role in the onboarding process – a role that only becomes more important during a period of great uncertainty. As described, the high degree of uncertainty may lead to various forms of disorientation thus stressing the importance of present management. Hence, the manager’s primary task is to create direction and transparency.

Being available and continuously reaching out through dialogue and feedback are key competencies during remote onboarding. Communication will be the best remedy for the potential negative feelings and concerns that may arise. No communication will also be a way of communicating. Hence the manager is responsible for leading and guiding the new employee despite the challenging circumstances.

Given the high degree of unpredictability, it may be difficult for the manager to facilitate a predefined virtual onboarding schedule. The manager must focus on having an adaptable mindset and behavior. For the manager, this may require that she will need to give up some of the overview and control that is normally associated with onboarding and instead communicate more frequently via up-dates. This can, of course, create a feeling of powerlessness and frustration caused by the lack of overview associated with the new employee’s progression with tasks, etc.

Thus, remote onboarding will require a greater degree of mutual trust and patience than usual. It requires the manager to be able to balance the focus of getting work done and being sensitive enough to address the more emotional aspects of the new employee.

Onboarding usually takes place in the interaction between HR and the nearest manager. Given the circumstances, it is possible that HR or other colleagues in the team need to be more supportive when it comes to the onboarding. It may be a good idea to make use of ‘onboarding ambassadors’, i.e. selected buddies or mentors who can help support onboarding. By nature, this coordination also needs to be done virtually.

What can be done working remotely?

Even though onboarding is challenged by working remotely, there are plenty of activities that will help facilitate a good integration into the new organisation.

First and foremost, one should make use of the technological opportunities available. The possibilities of virtual forums are many; Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Trello, Skype for Business, etc. You could even create an open chat room where everyone could ask and answer questions or be in contact with others from the nearest team, department or the organisation.

Finally, it is important to have a quantity in mind. Reading websites for longer periods and participating in long virtual meetings can be ineffective and exhausting. Virtual collaboration is a discipline. Practice and create room for input for improvement.

Cultural introduction

One of the things that may be particularly difficult to communicate remotely is your company culture. Many people are currently experiencing how much of the culture can be tied up in buildings, offices, decor, Friday bars, social gatherings, coffee machines and so on. Thus, it can be difficult to communicate the culture without having these remedies and artifacts. Therefore, in a time of crisis, it may be even more important for the new employee to get a sense that she is part of an organisation with an overall mission, vision, and values. Links to CEO company presentation or employee career narratives will enhance the feeling of belonging while providing inspiration for the new employee’s own career paths in the organisation. An example of this could be Googles Intern video.

Give clear and simple instructions

A digital welcome package including information on how the organisation is handling the COVID-19 crisis will be relevant for all employees working from home.

However, it is important to keep the frequency in mind especially when it comes to handing over the formal information. Rules usually make good sense when they are directly applicable in the context of which they are used. Rules that only needs to be read and remembered are rarely motivating. Consequently, one could divide the rules into small chunks and perhaps make small interactions around them. Some organisations have set up dedicated ‘COVID-19 response teams’. In that case, information on how to contact the team will also be relevant.

Reduce the distance by connecting yourself

New employees should experience that they have a secure job in an organisation where there is room for openness and a culture of mutual collaboration – most preferably from day 1.

Under normal circumstances, a new employee meets with the team from day 1. However, this activity can still be accomplished – simply in the virtual space and by using platforms such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom. You can also supplement team meetings with other and more informal connections in the virtual space including Friday bars, music quizzes and more. Encourage new employees to meet 1:1 over digital coffee meetings with one or two colleagues – for instance, to discuss professional issues. As an alternative, new employees can start every working day with a digital coffee meeting with a colleague and without any special agenda besides meeting and talking to each other.

A sense of mastery

New employees should experience that they have come to a professional place that puts professional development and learning at the forefront. If you have internal e-courses or a learning platform, this is obviously time to take advantage of these resources. You could also establish a ‘learning log’ where the new employee briefly reflects and writes down what has been learned every day. It allows for the new employee to get a sense of progression and learning during the onboarding.

They need my knowledge and skills

New employees should feel that they have achieved tangible results during the early stage of their onboarding period and that they have contributed to something important. It is, therefore, crucial to list and align specific goals and to set clear expectations for and during the period of working from home. This could be alignment on expectations on when one is expected to be available online and what’s expected to be delivered. Check-in on a regular basis and allow for continuous mutual feedback. If necessary, arrange a weekly meeting to provide brief updates, feedback, and progress on tasks and the likes.

Home office

Finally, you may help your new employees create a good home office space. We list six great tips for a healthy practice of working from home:

  1. Have a permanent and as far as possible noiseless workspace at home
  2. Structure your day
  3. Remember to take breaks – e.g. 20 minutes of work, 5-minute break.
  4. Communicate with your team, including when you log in, set goals, document work, etc.
  5. Maintain a good ‘speak up’ culture where it is possible to safely share doubts and concerns

And most importantly remember to

  1. Log out!