Hiring in crisis: How startups are onboarding new recruits during the COVID-19 pandemic

Mina Radhakrishnan

:Different co-founder Mina Radhakrishnan. Source: supplied.

As the COVID-19 crisis plays out, it’s becoming clear there are parts of business and of life that may never go back to the way things were.

One of the major cultural shifts has been the move to remote work, as social distancing rules forced people out of the CBD and into home offices.

Last week, we explored the way that hiring new employees could be altered forever. Will people feel differently about spending an hour in an enclosed meeting room with strangers? Will people ever shake hands again?

But, while actually finding and selecting new staff brings its own challenges, that’s just the beginning. The next hurdle is actually onboarding a new hire, and integrating them into the team, without the benefit of water-cooler chats and after-work drinks.

For some businesses, this will be a temporary challenge. But, as COVID-19 has forced a move to remote work, there are suggestions that for others, this will become the norm.

Social media giant Twitter last week announced employees would be able to work from home permanently, if they so desire, saying staff have proven it can work.

Research from Zoho, conducted back in March, found that 47% of surveyed SME owners said they would work remotely more often if they could. While 32% already prefer remote working, a further 18% said they plan to implement it in the future.

So, how do you bring a new recruit on board without them ever meeting their colleagues face-to-face?

Startups :Different and Clipchamp have both been in a position to continue hiring throughout the COVID-19 crisis. But, the situation has led both to reconsider a few things.

Just before the pandemic hit full swing, :Different hired a new employee based in Singapore, who was planning to relocate to Sydney. Before they could move, however, the travel ban came into effect.

Founder Mina Radhakrishnan tells SmartCompany the situation made her and the leadership team think a little differently about the role in general.

“We’ve always felt pretty strongly that this [role] does need to be here in Sydney,” she explains.

Now, they’ve switched the position to be a contract, and are treating this as a test period, to see if the job can be done remotely.

“We’re trying to expand our views on that,” she says.

At the same time, :Different has been running online social occasions, to try to integrate new hires into the team.

“Our team does virtual ‘wine-downs’ every Friday,” Radhakrishnan says ⁠— although she stresses the drink can be one of your own choosing.

In these sessions, the team has been doing pub quizzes and playing games such as Pictionary, she adds. The goal is to get people talking about something other than work.

Putting effort into social events is more important now than ever before, the founder says. When you can’t go for a quick coffee, or have a casual chat in the kitchen, you have to find ways for your employees to get to know each other.

“Employees who like each other do better work, and ultimately, the result is a better company,” Radhakrishnan says.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Caroline Henshaw, head of people and culture at Mantel Group, has hit pause on hiring at the business for the time being. But, there were individuals who were hired pre-lockdown and had to be onboarded into a newly remote team.

Integrating these newcomers in a social capacity was “my biggest worry”, she tells SmartCompany.

Henshaw’s approach has been over-compensation, she says.

There have been organised online social interactions ⁠— welcome drinks and lunches ⁠— one-on-one conversations with people they may usually have met in passing, and every new starter has even been issued a ‘people guide’ who is responsible for including them in events and introducing them.

And, when Henshaw has checked in with new starters herself, she says there were things going on she didn’t even know about, with staff members stepping up.

“During challenging times, an organisation shows its culture,” she notes.

“No one asked them to, but when we introduced new starters a lot of the team took it upon themselves to call, introduce themselves and check-in, whether by Slack or by video,” she explains.

“Everyone feels empathy for someone starting at this time.”

While some businesses may be used to remote onboarding, and others may be doing it for the first time, Henshaw’s advice for everyone is to communicate as much as possible.

“You can’t over-communicate,” she says.

And it’s not just about volume, it’s about using different means. You can deliver an employee’s equipment to them, talk over video chat, call them for a phone chat, and communicate through Slack and email.

Checking in in just one way “could be a really boring experience”, Henshaw says.

She also advises over-compensation in terms of introducing new employees. You can’t be sure who’s met who, she notes.

“So I’m just constantly re-introducing … making sure everyone has met,” she says,

In the same vein, it’s important to actively include newcomers in meetings, inviting them to ask questions, and helping them feel included and confident to speak up.

A newcomer to a meeting may have something to say, but feel hesitant initially, she notes.

“When you’re in a meeting room you can see people’s reactions a little bit more. You can pick up on social cues,” Henshaw says.

“That’s one of the things I think is really important ⁠— giving people lots of opportunities to ask questions, in different ways.”

Doing it better

Brisbane startup Clipchamp has been onboarding newcomers at an average rate of two-a-week since COVID-19 forced the company to go remote.

Speaking to SmartCompany, head of culture and talent Julia Poloai says she also felt the pressure to make a fully-remote onboarding experience work.

“We want our new team members to get to know the team, we want them to get to know the company,” she explains.

“We want them to understand that they’re integral to the set-up, we want them to feel productive right away.”

The startup does already have some full-time remote workers, and processes around onboarding them. But, as well as posing a challenge, the COVID-19 situation presented an opportunity to hone this aspect of the business.

“We challenged ourselves,” she says.

“How can we do that even better?”

Poloai says she saw this as “an opportunity to get really good at something”.

The idea is to “make sure every single person is getting the attention they deserve to actually get up and running right away”, she explains.

The team implemented an onboarding portal and a buddy system for newcomers. And, each co-founder has made time to sit down on a video call with each new recruit.

Making a quick shift to remote onboarding as BAU has been something of a learning curve, Poloai admits.

“We’ve been surprised to learn how much better we could be making that experience for everyone,” she says.

But, it’s also been timely. The startup is starting to expand to the US, and will no doubt be bringing more people on board overseas and completely remotely, even after the pandemic has passed.

“It’s pretty fantastic to be learning right about now,” Poloai says.

For Clipchamp co-founder and chief Alex Dreiling, it’s testament that this growing startup can still do a very startup-y pivot when it has to.

“The last few weeks were a very condensed period of change,” he says.

Usually, adapting the onboarding process would have taken time, testing and trials.

“We would have tested and trialled, and failed and re-considered, and turned these things into huge projects,” he explains.

“But it just had to work, and we made it work.”

As a founder, he realised that if changes need to happen, the startup can make them happen. And, you could learn things you didn’t expect to.

“You can create a really good, lasting cultural aspect of our business around this,” Dreiling notes.

“In some ways, the office environment, and the culture that comes with it, can’t be replaced. But there are some processes that have been improved through forced remote work,” he adds.

“That’s something we need to reflect on … which parts of the cultural aspects we’ve developed now do we want to retain, and which parts do we want to revert back to what we had before?”

Ultimately, where remote onboarding has the potential to feel disconnected and distant, it can be a positive experience for employees and employers alike.

For Clipchamp, at least, the feedback from newbies has been “incredible”, Dreiling says.

“They don’t comment that it was a decent experience, given the circumstances,” he says.

“They very often say this was the best onboarding process they’ve ever had.”

NOW READ: The death of the handshake: COVID-19 has changed the way we hire, and there’s no going back

NOW READ: Cameron Adams: How Canva’s culture came to be, and how it has guided the team through COVID-19

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