Going fully remote was challenging and difficult for the whole HR team. We had multiple priorities, and no one to focus solely on onboarding and make sure the program is inclusive, informative, and is able to embed newcomers to our people’s culture. At that point, we didn’t even know what remote work would look like. […]
Going fully remote was challenging and difficult for the whole HR team. We had multiple priorities, and no one to focus solely on onboarding and make sure the program is inclusive, informative, and is able to embed newcomers to our people’s culture. At that point, we didn’t even know what remote work would look like.
In the midst of it all, here’s how our onboarding unfolded in the first few weeks of the pandemic:
- Pre-boarding. Our remote onboarding program started with your laptop being delivered to your doorstep. With offices fully closed, the best solution was to trust the IT team to ship computers to newcomers directly. Besides the laptop delivery, there was little interaction with a newcomer in the pre-boarding phase, which again was something we identified as an area of improvement for later on.
- Monday morning came, and the newcomer was greeted by a friendly IT Engineer who helped with the laptop set-up, and explained some of the most important security measures. This was followed by an HR onboarding session, where the HR coordinator explained our most important policies, employee benefits, and shared the links to our company handbook and other important tools. Additionally, newcomers also received several tasks in our HRIS to fill in.
- At the end of these two sessions (IT & HR), the newcomer was left in the hands of their direct manager.
This needed to change
We all knew that this process needed to change, as we realized that the remote times are no longer temporary, and our company had taken the decision to turn to a hybrid workplace model.
Hence, we needed to adjust our onboarding process accordingly. Most importantly, we realized that these two interactions newcomers had with people teams were not enough to help them build a strong foundation to get them off the ground.
Which phase of the process was a challenge? All of them.
Pre-boarding is one of the first impressions and connections the newcomer makes with your organization. Having no contact with your new company before you start can bring uncertainty about what is expected of you, and what you can expect from your new employer. Thus it is important to have a proper process.
The onboarding phase was the most challenging phase. Next to the minimal onboarding sessions that newcomers received, there was little alignment and communication between people managers and the HR/IT teams. This meant that we weren’t as effective and impactful as we could have been.
Beyond the purely admin work, we were wondering how we can make sure that newcomers don’t feel siloed in their own homes, away from the culture and general social interaction that were in place before Covid.
Challenges we faced and things we had to keep in mind
Hybrid vs. remote.
We are hybrid, but we also have remote employees, who will most probably never go to any of our offices (Amsterdam, London, NY, LA). We had to make sure that everything we did for onboarding was inclusive, no matter where you live and which time zone you are in.
We had (and still have) ambitious growth and hiring plans. Each week, 1 to maximum 15 new hires can join our team. Given we have only one designated onboarding responsible, we had to make sure that there was a seamless cadence of onboarding sessions, that pre-boarding could be done in bulk, and that we minimize manual labor. Also, every element of the onboarding process had to be developed to be seamless, whether we had one person join in a week, or 14 (which is our record number of newcomers in one week).
Keeping our culture intact.
WeTransfer is proud of being an inclusive organization, that is accepting and welcoming to all alike. This also means that we are fond of the “personal touch.” Sending handwritten notes, having personalized assets, getting 1:1 quality time with new colleagues are all super important to us. But how can we maintain this, if the onboarding program is fully remote? And again coming back to scalability, when we have 20+ people joining in a month, is it feasible to write each newcomer a handwritten note?
The communication between HR and managers.
As mentioned, this is something that we already knew we needed to work on. Giving a guide and explanation on what the onboarding process is was not going to cut it. Managers are busy and already have a lot to do, so taking them by the hand and supporting them as much as possible is the way to include them in the process.
Deep dive into current onboarding. How do people feel about it?
It’s January 2021, and the work begins. Thankfully, we had some help from two lovely freelance ladies, Sophie Dopheide from The Culture School, and Rebecca Trouwee from Bodhi by Rebecca, a certified trainer, facilitator, and session designer. We brought them on board to help us map out a new process that could work for WeTransfer, and that is feasible for one onboarding coordinator to manage.
We knew that we needed a change, and we had an idea of what that change needed to be, and how to implement it. But what did others think? How were the newcomers themselves experiencing the current onboarding process? Were managers happy with the level of communication and transparency we had with them, or did they want more?
So we created and sent out some surveys.
We asked newcomers about their pre- and onboarding experience, specifically focusing on their level of understanding for different areas. For example, we asked them:
- Whether they knew what to expect on their first day (they didn’t);
- And whether they felt welcomed and included by their team during their first couple of weeks (they did).
- We asked them what topics they missed from the HR session;
- And what they found the most relevant information to deliver during their first 1-2 weeks.
This was really valuable information – people who have worked for an organization for a while value completely different information than someone who has been at the organization for 10 minutes. It really opened our eyes on the perspective we need to take when it comes to re-designing onboarding, and developing the process through the eyes of someone starting with a blank page.
We also surveyed managers on how they perceive the process and whether their roles and responsibilities are clear for them when it comes to onboarding a new team member. Thankfully, the strong culture within people managers to effectively onboard someone has not changed with the shift to remote work, but they did confirm our hunch that they would like more transparency on what the people teams are doing during onboarding, and what information is being passed on to the newcomer.
We also looked at our biggest resource, the internet. We knew that we weren’t the only ones rethinking our processes to accommodate remote employment. We listened to about 20 webinars on the topic, looked at case studies, and read several articles to see how others were dealing with this.
After receiving feedback from 50+ recent newcomers and people managers, we came to one fundamental conclusion. We already have a lot of good elements in place in terms of culture, but we need a centralized process to turn onboarding into an experience for our new joiners.
What did we already have in place?
- Pre-covid times, it was a tradition for all newcomers of the month to attend a lunch with our CEO. This was a great opportunity to demystify the notion of “the big scary boss” and to offer an opportunity for an amicable “get to know you” discussion. When covid hit, this was one of the first initiatives canceled, as it was no longer possible.
- Newcomers did have contact with people teams during pre-boarding, however this was strictly for a practical purpose, like signing contracts, getting their personal details, sending the laptop, etc.
- We used the Slack extension “Donut” to connect newcomers with the rest of the company, so that they wouldn’t feel alone, and got the chance to meet people from different departments.
- We asked newcomers to record a short introduction video of themselves (if they wanted to), which we cut together and shared monthly during our company All-Hands (virtually).
What else did we want to add for a fully remote amazing onboarding experience?
- A welcome email from the people team 1 week before start date, to set expectations and explain what they will be doing during week 1. This connection also allowed for them to ask questions and clarify any doubts.
- Preboarding e-course: hosted on an authoring tool we generally use for L&D initiatives, we wanted to create a course to introduce WeTransfer to the newcomer, answer some general FAQs, and share what our culture is like through some articles from our internal blog, Ideas by WeTransfer.
- Send them a welcome pack, full of WeTransfer swag.
- Keep in contact with managers, by adding them to the pre-boarding email so that they could be part of the conversation, and send them reminders through our HRIS on what their tasks are, and what stage in the process their newcomer is in.
- Quick daily check-ins with someone from the people team, to get their day started, clear any doubts they may have, and just have a nice social coffee time. Remember, we started this process when restrictions were very strict, which meant that no one was allowed to go to an office, and newcomers were unable to meet their team or even their manager for weeks. We got rid of the daily check-ins as the offices started to open, plus we have monthly Slack groups for our newcomers, where they can ask all their questions, and even help each other out.
- Have an HR check-in with an HR coordinator and the newcomers, so all the employee benefits and policies can be explained, and newcomers can ask any burning questions they may have. This meeting is really beneficial for newcomers to break the barriers of unfamiliarity when slacking a stranger, especially when someone is new, and is timid of asking a possibly “stupid question” .
- Record team intro videos of each team, and add it to the onboarding e-course, so newcomers can become familiar with the make-up of the organization. Later on, we modified this idea to host live sessions with someone from the team instead of recording videos. With the way the company was (and still is) growing, the videos would have become outdated quite quickly. A quick 20 minute team introduction by a delegate is much more effective, and again allows newcomers to meet and talk to someone from another team.
- Trying not to overwhelm newcomers with information on day 1, integrate several short(er) informative sessions throughout the first couple of weeks, where we walk through some of the general topics that newcomers were missing, according to the survey. The top 4 were: the different departments and their function within the organization, our everyday tools and how to use them, social moments with people outside their team, and the WeTransfer products.
- An easter egg hunt – hiding the eggs within the content of our company handbook, combining learn + play, on our policies, employee benefits, company values. Unfortunately we had to let this idea go, because we quickly realized that as the content in the handbook changes, we would need to adjust our easter eggs accordingly, as well as the platform where the egg collection would be hosted. To monitor changes in the handbook content and adjust the clues accordingly was not scalable long term.
- Bring back the buddy system, and assign a buddy to each newcomer who will accompany their journey for the first few weeks. At first, we also let this idea go because it was not scalable. The company was growing so fast, that we would have had to find 20 buddies a month to pair newcomers with, which could have been a job on its own.
- Develop a session about our products, making newcomers excited about what we do here at WeTransfer, and turning them into ambassadors of our product suite. This is hosted by engineers from each product team, allowing newcomers to also meet colleagues from a diverse number of teams as well.
- Develop a session around our B Corp certification and the positive impact this has on our culture. WeTranser became a B Corp in June 2020, so in early 2021 it was still quite new even to those who witnessed this transition. We wanted newcomers to immediately be immersed in what this certification means for us as a company, and how it could influence their role as well. This session is hosted by our CCO (Chief Creative Officer), which, again, allows newcomers to converse with someone from the hierarchy in an informal way. Plus his presence really puts a stamp on the importance of this certification.
- Welcome newcomers in our own creative digital way, so that no matter where they join from, everyone will know that there is someone new on the block. We use one of the WeTransfer tools, Paper, to illustrate our newcomers and ask their manager to share their portrait and a little story about them on Slack. We implemented this right away, and it is one of the most successful elements of the onboarding process to this day.
The final product
The onboarding process has become much more synthesized and logical. We took the employee journey into account, and developed sessions, check-ins, social elements to anticipate the newcomers’ needs. Because the content lives in an e-course, managers are easily able to access it themselves and see the experience their newcomers are going through. We improved our channels of communication between the HR team, IT, and the manager of the newcomer, to make sure that the process is not only a good experience for newcomers, but for us working in “the backend” as well. This started with a manager’s onboarding session to show them the new flow and how the process has changed, and as mentioned they receive regular notifications on their responsibilities, which they can also find explained in our company handbook.
Launch and success
The launch of the onboarding program was a great success. Because we believe that onboarding is a company effort (which is feasible for the size of the company we are), and not just the job of people teams, we recorded a promotional video of the new flow, and shared it with the company at an All-Hands meeting. We wanted everyone to know the experience newcomers were now getting, and called on our colleagues to be a part of this journey, by coming to host their team sessions or to join the group of creative colleagues in drawing Paper portraits for newcomers.
All onboarding sessions are in an Onboarding Google calendar that is available to view for the whole company, showing transparency, and again, just getting everyone excited about onboarding, not just those few who are working on it.
Going back to evaluate success and make changes if necessary
It’s difficult to measure the success of an experience that is almost fully subjective, but not impossible. We developed a survey that newcomers received after their first month, to gauge their experience, but also their general understanding of the company, which we worked to elevate through our onboarding culture sessions.
Our survey consists of both quantitative and qualitative questions, and is anonymous, unless a newcomer wishes to be contacted for further feedback and if elaboration is needed from our side. The questions ask both about the pre- and the onboarding phases and elements, as well as their understanding of our culture (note: we don’t ask “do you understand our culture?”, but instead ask “we have 4 core values. What are they?” and is thus a way to see if the newcomer was present at the opportunity at one of our sessions to understand our values).
While the onboarding sessions are individually evaluated for their format, the content that is being delivered is tested in this larger monthly survey.
Looking at our survey responses a couple of months after we launched, the feedback was recognizably more positive. Overall onboarding experience was rated an 8.6, compared to a previous 7.2. Newcomers reported feeling much more engaged and included in the company culture, and managers reported a general confidence in newcomers tackling their role and challenges from an earlier stage.
What we kept and what we changed?
It’s interesting that I write this article, while the revamped onboarding process turns 1 year old (on 1 March, to be exact). A lot has happened since then, to our company structure, the way we work, and our people culture. About 6 months after the launch of the new program, I felt that we needed an update, to adjust a little to our changing environment. We also felt that we were still not giving enough attention to managers, and that we needed to work together more.
The biggest change we made was giving onboarding an identity within WeTransfer. The process itself is no longer called “onboarding process” or “onboarding journey”, but “The Download,” referring to the osmosis of information newcomers have to do, but also a reference to our flagship product, Transfer, where you can download files. We also gave The Download a visual identity, using what I like to call “the onboarding purple” for all our visual assets: the schedule for newcomers, the pre-boarding pack, a poster announcing a session will have that purple somewhere. I also worked together with a copywriter from the creative team, to build an overarching storyline for the journey, and tie our sessions and resources together as one. This really helped us in explaining, and for the newcomers’ understanding, in what they will be experiencing, and how it all relates to each other.
We also got rid of the onboarding e-course, and instead moved everything to our handbook, which is our single source of truth for the company anyway. We built a One-Stop Onboarding Shop, which I call the “oracle” of onboarding, and is the place to go whether you are a newcomer, a manager, or simply a colleague interested in what’s going on with “The Download.”
And this is where managers come in. While they are able to easily check out the newcomers’ section and browse through the content, the sessions, and everything that is being delivered to them, we revamped the onboarding toolkit for managers for ease of use. The entire onboarding process is mapped out for them, from the perspective of the manager and the perspective of the people teams, side by side, broken down by time periods.
Something new we are working on is “onboarding managers to onboarding.” As you probably guessed by now, we love a good play on words. What I mean here though is a live (but online), interactive session for new (and older) managers, to show them what “The Download” journey entails, to make them understand what their role is in the process, and for them to learn from each other as people managers. We will do this by introducing a small section of theory, and then play a game together, using the flow of The Download as a guide in a game board. The game is basically a Q&A, but there aren’t always right answers to a question. Instead, we include a lot of “reflection questions”, opening up the space for discussion among themselves, which will lead to key takeaways that they may use when onboarding their next newcomer.
I do have to reiterate, that managers were always very strong at onboarding a new member to their teams, however in the future, we really aim for this to be a collaboration between us, as it is a common goal for us all to provide the best experience we possibly can.