4 Tips for Virtually Onboarding New Employees

Thanks to COVID-19, in-person meetings are a thing of the past, at least for a while. The same goes for chatting with coworkers in the break room. This lack of personal contact creates difficulty for new employees, who are looking to make connections and find their footing. In his first article for AccountingWEB, Joe Cihak discusses a few ways to more effectively onboard new people and help new hires feel more comfortable.

Jan 11th 2021
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Ever since COVID-19 began, the normal, day-to-day business activities we were accustomed to changed dramatically. Paper documents are out of the picture, face-to-face meetings and in-person business lunches are rare, and it is uncommon to see your fellow partners or employees around the office. While working from home (WFH) is an attractive arrangement, there are certain aspects of working in an office that are hard to replicate--especially for those who are new to the public accounting profession.

One of the main drivers for people to join the public accounting profession is the connections they make while on the job, both within the firm and with their clients. These connections can be a challenge to form in the virtual environment, especially for new professionals. After being in the virtual setting for around a year and onboarding a group of 60 new accountants, I learned several lessons on how firms can improve their interactions with new employees.

Whether you are from a small, medium, or large firm, these four tips will be applicable whenever you hire a new candidate:

1. Leverage Technology

When I first started working, Skype for Business was the gold standard for instant messaging and phone calls. Today, that landscape has vastly expanded to encompass a number of solutions, including, but not limited to, Microsoft Teams, Slack, Google Hangouts, etc. All of these allow for some variation of instant messaging and video conferencing. While a firm can pick any one of these tools, it is important to use them to their fullest extent. In other words, make sure you utilize the video chat feature. After working for several months virtually, I noticed that several people began to experience “video fatigue” and elected to not turn on their camera during calls. This coincided with the onboarding of our new hires, resulting in new employees getting on calls without seeing the faces of their coworkers, or seeing them very infrequently. This can be quite demoralizing for people trying to get their bearings at a new job. Imagine working for a couple of months and realizing, “I could walk by my coworker on the street, and they wouldn’t recognize me.” It may be tempting to roll out of bed for a morning meeting and keep the camera off to hide the messy hair and pajama shirt, but I recommend taking the 10 minutes to fix your hair and throw on fresh clothes. You and your coworkers will be able to bond more effectively, creating strong relationships that last long after the onboarding process is over.

2. Create a Culture of Communication

When I talk to my peers about our new environment, I typically ask, “What is one thing you miss the most about the office?” A response I get the vast majority of the time is, “I am now unable to tell when my staff is struggling with a task.” This is not surprising at all. You can have a morning chat with a staff member, give them a task, and then not hear from them for three hours. Either they are completing the task, or they are sitting there with no idea what to do. In a normal office setting, most Senior Associates and Managers have developed a sixth sense and can tell when staff members start “spinning their wheels.” This is lost in a virtual setting. Giving employees room to exercise critical thinking is important, but only to an extent. Our profession is deadline-driven, revolving around tax filing dates or audit deliverables. When these deadlines are approaching, you cannot have idle staff. I suggest considering more frequent check-ins as well as daily team meetings. During these meetings, ask staff how the work is progressing and if they need guidance. More importantly, whenever you assign a task, emphasize your openness to fielding any questions. Knowing that your staff is performing at all times is one of the most comforting thoughts a manager can have. I recommend working to develop a culture that embraces informal check-ins and questions.

3. Manage “Away-from-Keyboard” Expectations

One of the many reasons people enjoy working from home is the increased flexibility. One can easily process laundry throughout the day or run errands that would otherwise be unfeasible if you had to worry about commuting. However, this can also create difficulties when it comes to team communication. There are times when I messaged a staff member with an urgent task, only to not hear from them for an hour and learn that they went for a run in the middle of the day. It is important to maintain communication with your team so they feel that they can take care of personal matters without compromising work quality. Encourage people to go for a run, grab coffee, run an errand, or eat lunch away from their desk to balance their work and life, but setting hours expectations and scheduling calls in advance ensures that your team is available during certain hours of the day. When new employees join your practice, tell them about the flexibility they can enjoy while working remotely, but also stress the need for communication. If someone wants to run an errand, ask that they message you before they go. Strong communication regarding these flexible arrangements can create a strong work environment that allows individuals to flourish in all aspects of their life.

4. Don’t Forget the Small Things

In a normal office setting, it is easy to tell an employee “good job in that meeting” in passing. It becomes significantly harder to do this in a virtual setting. When you are working remotely, calendars get bloated with meetings that would not have otherwise occurred, and between those, you are desperately trying to get work done. In this hustle, it can be easy to miss a staff member sending a well-researched question to their client, whereas, if you were in a meeting and that same question was asked, you would likely have noted it. For junior staff, this informal praise is highly effective and increases their feeling of purpose within the firm. These feelings of accomplishment and purpose are imperative for developing the next generation of the profession and are bolstered through informal praise.

Even though COVID-19 and societal lockdowns won’t be with us forever, many accounting firms will take a hard look at the WFH flexibility they offer their employees and the benefits that accompany it. If your firm decides to allow employees full or even partial WFH flexibility, keeping these four tips in mind will allow you to give new employees the flexibility that they seek while still incorporating them into your firm's culture and boosting their morale.

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