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Welcome to the Team, Remotely

With the pandemic stretching on, companies are experimenting with ways to help new hires fit into the company culture in a virtual environment

Illustration by Raj Verma Illustration by Raj Verma

Diageo India considers its factories the backbone of its operations, so much so that all new recruits are taken on a half-day tour of the alcohol maker’s plant to give them a sense of what the company does. It’s a part of their two-day assimilation process where newcomers are brought together under one roof at the company’s headoffice in Bengaluru. But that was before the pandemic hit.

“When a new hire comes to one of our sites, a lot more than the conversation comes through. They see the factory and get to connect with the company, which is bigger than meeting just the interviewer on Zoom. How to get candidates excited about the company, the culture and opportunity without meeting the person now?” asks Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) Aarif Aziz.

Covid-19 has thrust a large section of the white-collar workforce into remote working almost overnight. While many have eased into it over the past 15 months, there is a section of employees hired and onboarded entirely remotely that has never stepped into office or met their colleagues.

With little scope for an immersive and organic experience that includes everything from the paint on the building wall to the food at the cafeteria offered to new employees, companies across industries are grappling with challenges of helping them assimilate into the office culture entirely virtually.

Diageo’s solution to the problem was to develop a 360 degree virtual walkthrough of its factory to help appreciate its commercial functions. “All new employees, irrespective of roles and levels, are assigned these simulations which they can experience at their time and place of convenience,” says Aziz.

Building A Human Connect

The virtual hiring process itself has not been such a challenge. For a number of companies and employees, it has even worked out to be more efficient. The trickier part is to enable new hires to mesh with the brand values and ethos, an aspect many companies rate as important as a candidate’s core competency.

Zomato, for instance, counts cultural compatibility and domain knowledge as key focus areas while looking for a new hire. But how does one foster that belongingness in a virtual set-up once a new employee is brought on board?

The food delivery app’s answer was to get new employees perform a frontline task critical to the firm’s everyday operations on the first day itself. “Our biggest success within this programme has been the ‘Customer Delight Activity’, where new Zomans get a chance to be a customer support agent and solve live customer queries. It is the best form of introduction to the responsibility, ownership and learnings that await them,” says HR Head Daminee Sawhney.

Tata Motors has found that empowering fresh hires with decision-making powers helps them integrate into the system faster. “When the pandemic first hit, people on the ground had to take decisions in real time. New hires come with a fresh pair of eyes and question things. Because they have more empowerment and authority delegated to them, they have found it easy to line up, as well as shape our culture,” says CHRO Ravindra Kumar G.P. The firm says it onboarded 300 people over the past one year, a good chunk of them being campus hires.

New employees joining HCL Technologies before the second wave of the pandemic were rotated between offices for the first two-three months to give them a better understanding of the company, says CHRO V.V. Apparao. “At any given time, almost 50-60 people were in rotation. But now we are not able to do that.” The IT major, like others, relies instead on a scaled up ‘Buddy’ programme to hand-hold new hires in the first few months.

Bonding Virtually

Studies have highlighted the correlation between an engaged workforce and higher productivity. Plus, attrition is expensive for companies. In the absence of the ice-breaking water cooler conversations and impromptu coffee breaks with colleagues that help new employees find their footing in the first few months at a new job, firms are attempting structured measures aimed at fostering a casual rapport with new employees.

Regular check-ins by HR managers during the first three-six months, informal virtual catch-up sessions with managers, virtual townhalls and online team events involving family members have become the norm for most large companies.

The focus is on building proximity because work-life has become virtual, says L’Oreal India’s CHRO Roshni Wadhwa. “It’s no longer about just hiring, giving basic company information, explaining the project and introducing new employees to the right stakeholders and then leaving them on their own.”

The beauty retailer, which has onboarded more than 100 people virtually across functions, has created a day-long ‘Culture Decoding’ session and a conversation-centric ‘FIT’ programme to define responsibilities and customise goals. “On an average, each newcomer has around 50 FIT meetings in the first six months,” says Wadhwa.

The Tech Touch

With 14 months of remote onboarding experience under their belt, most companies have an array of technological tools to streamline the nitty-gritties around the joining process. Many of these tools have been so efficient that they will find a place in the post-pandemic onboarding process as well, according to HR heads.

Infosys Head HR Richard Lobo says the company’s mobile-first, paperless, self-service platform Launchpad was a huge advantage in seamlessly transitioning to 100 per cent remote onboarding during the pandemic. “Day 1 is now more about interactions and connecting with leaders and managers, thereby making it more engaging for our new hires.” The IT major has created smaller virtual communities, Q Cafés, for new employees to interact with peers.

Consumer goods major Marico has created a virtual listening tool ‘Amber’ for employees to share their feedback. “A module on Blink, our digital learning platform, also helps members navigate the digital onboarding process,” says CHRO Amit Prakash.

Meanwhile, personal care products firm CavinKare is betting big on videos and interactive sessions. The company finds them more powerful compared to slides in getting information across. New employees are taken through them over a span of 10 days. “Our induction platforms Swagatam and Gurukul convey cultural values and functional information, respectively. For sales roles, especially, the functional integration has to be stronger. They may have joined us from our competitors. The way of working could be different from ours. They need to be oriented thoroughly about our products and distributors,” says Rajesh P, Vice President, HR.

Logistical Roadblocks

Following the nationwide lockdown last year, companies say they are better prepared to do business even in the face of disruptions. But restrictions on movement in subsequent lockdowns during Covid 2.0 have waylaid some of their plans designed to help employees continue working remotely based on last year’s learnings.

A crucial part of putting new employees at ease in a remote working model is to deliver configured laptops and other gadgets to them a day before they start work. But the process is as much a challenge as a priority for organisations with thousands of employees working across the country because of localised movement restrictions.

“It is a complex logistical exercise to deliver gadgets across the globe to our new employees, which we need to manage,” says Wipro Chief Operations Officer Sanjeev Singh. “That we are a technology company and do these things to help our clients, helps,” he adds.

In cases where they are unable to deliver laptops home, Marico is planning to introduce virtual desktops.

CavinKare, too, said a pilot project planned to help new employees touch and feel their products has not taken off because of hurdles in sending goods across.

Not The Real Deal

Virtual onboarding strategies have served as a stop-gap measure, especially with good job offers being limited to a few industries currently. But their inherently informal and inorganic nature is hardly a replacement to the in-person welcome, admit employees and HR managers. “It takes more time to establish an interpersonal connect as such connections happen naturally in an office context as new members assimilate with their colleagues socially,” says Marico’s Prakash.

It does have an impact on new employees because a bigger portion of their experiences come from informal learning and observations, adds CavinKare’s Rajesh.

Wipro’s Singh says the efforts to engage employees virtually have driven up the number of communications. “But informal communication may have gone down, despite our best intent and effort.”

‘Satisfaction A Mixed Bag’

With hardly any physical cues from employees available to gauge satisfaction in their new roles, firms have been relying on feedback from employees through a combination of surveys, virtual assistants and AI-based chatbots.

US-based Gallup, which conducts employee engagement and satisfaction surveys for select companies in India, says the overall sentiment of new hires has been mixed. Experiences have been specific to companies and industries, with most firms passing off inductions as onboarding. “In global best practices, a good, solid onboarding goes on for about a year. It has to help the employee achieve peak performance. It’s the only thing that links talent acquisition to performance,” says Gallup’s Regional Director for India Rohit Kar.

Firms that had good processes in place even before the pandemic hit have done well virtually. For others, the shift to virtual has made things difficult. A lot of people leave within six months to a year of joining because their expectations didn’t match the reality, says Kar.

“As it is when a person changes a job, it is quite a dilemma. The first three months are very crucial because employees are constantly asking themselves if they did the right thing by moving out of their old jobs. It is very easy for new hires to get lost in large organisations and this is compounded by remote working,” says Anne Soumya, India Director, The Adecco Group, a recruitment firm.

HR leaders, however, maintain their early attrition rates are under check because of constant communication.

‘New Mindset Needed’

Changing rules of work life in the new normal requires employees to come in with a different mindset, too. It is becoming clearer that the workforce of the future will be more fluid and skill-based. It will be a combination of gig, temporary, contractual, project-based and permanent employees. “It’s true that if you don’t have an opportunity to connect with the organisation, you work like a machine. There has to be an emotional connect and engagement, but to the extent that it’s going to be transient. At some point we have to start drawing some professionalism in all of this,” says L’Oreal’s Wadhwa.

If the nature of workforce does change in the post-pandemic world to become location agnostic, as several companies claim, virtual onboarding may need to be humanised more to bridge the gap between what employees expect and what organisations offer.

@SaysVidya