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Both experts and nonexperts agree that COVID-19 forever changed the workplace. Through the uncertainty of the pandemic, we learned the value of work-life balance. As a result, people began pursuing their passions and leaving unfulfilling, unpleasant careers and workspaces behind, a movement known as the Great Resignation. And although COVID as a pandemic is in the rearview, the Great Resignation is still looming. In fact, according to some studies, it is worsening.
The pandemic also revealed in-person and remote work benefits, leading many organizations to embrace a hybrid model. Now we’re being challenged to figure out what “office environment” and “workplace culture” genuinely mean. Defining them is particularly complex within the higher education landscape.
However, one thing appears clear: how we welcome new hires to our campuses significantly affects how well they thrive and succeed. The Society for Human Resources Management has reported that new hires are almost 70 percent more likely to stay with an organization for at least three years if they have had a positive onboarding experience.
Colleges and universities usually have a twofold process for onboarding employees: 1) the orientation required by the human resources department and 2) the employee’s department welcome. And given that how a person feels about being onboarded significantly impacts their long-term retention, both aspects of the process should have the same goals: to introduce the new hire to the campus culture and promote belongingness.
Human Resources Onboarding
Orientation for a new hire should be more than just an introduction to employee policies, benefits and retirement information. It should offer a high-level introduction to the campus culture and have a level of humanity by being just that: in person. In my experience, I’ve found that the most successful orientations do the following.
Create opportunities for new hires to connect. My first day at my previous institution included the regular university business done during new hire orientations—going over basic logistics, signing forms and the like. I didn’t learn much about the mission and values of the university. Still, this orientation had a significant impact on me. Why?
First, because being in person added a human element to the information, and, second, because all new hires received each other’s contact information. Occasionally, some of us would meet for lunch, and our various roles allowed us to help each other connect to resources that we otherwise wouldn’t have had knowledge of or access to. That helped me find a community on the campus and gave me a sense of belonging. Similar to how students become a part of a graduating class during orientation, creating orientation classes of new employees promotes collaboration and provides a support system for those new colleagues. The university human resources department should think intentionally about establishing such opportunities.
Add humanity to virtual orientations. As a result of the pandemic, many institutions created virtual orientations. They provided pertinent information through prerecorded videos and PowerPoints accompanied by voice-overs, but that often created a more robotic, less personal experience for new hires. Instead, new hires should leave such virtual orientations with a sense of belonging, the belief that they are in the right place and a level of understanding of the university’s values, mission and goals.
For example, I partnered with the human resources department and other campus units at my previous institution to create an online orientation experience that included a professional video production that was more engaging. Aside from the required training modules and paperwork, the orientation also offered information about the university through welcome videos that featured testimonials by the university’s chancellor, chief of police and public safety, and students, as well as highlighted the institution’s history, brand concept, philanthropic efforts and vision for the future.
After the human resources department completes its session, it is the specific department’s turn to orient its new teammate further. This is where the secondary but more significant work of introducing the new hire to the institution’s culture begins.
The department’s orientation is more personalized than the one the human resources department offers and can be multifaceted. Here are some ways you can create a successful process.
Establish an onboarding team. The administrative support staff usually leads the charge, but the process should be a group effort. Organizing an onboarding team could benefit any department for various reasons. The team could ensure that procedures are established and checklists are created to help with efficiency .Most important, a well-planned onboarding program will leave a lasting impression and help to retain the employee for many years.
As a member of the onboarding team, the members must be well versed in institutional knowledge: campus resources, organizational structure, employee benefits, discounts and the like. Members should be briefed by HR and other departments, such as the institutional diversity office, so they can provide complementary information to the new employees and learn best practices for creating belongingness. The onboarding team should also have knowledge of interdepartmental committees that may interest new hires.
Consistency is also essential when onboarding a new employee. For example, creating email templates for supervisors to greet new team members in the department can ensure the new hire feels welcome and keep the enthusiasm around the greeting consistent.
Create online resources. Although remote work removes the guesswork from the office space, it offers challenges. Culture is more difficult to transmit virtually. All employees can benefit from having access to a drive with need-to-know information. This drive should include the following:
- A glossary of campus terms and frequently used acronyms (although the use of acronyms should be limited);
- The campus structure;
- Building names and their tenants;
- The department structure;
- Interdepartmental forms; and
- A breakdown of the department, including a list of the team members and their roles.
It is also vital to keep the information in the drive up-to-date.
Prepare the workspace early. Many people who have just been hired at an institution have told me that their departments were often unprepared for their arrival. For example, a former colleague spent two weeks on the office suite sofa because the office designated for them was still occupied. The department eventually transformed a storage space into their office. Even I experienced not having a computer during my first week at a previous job.
Although such situations may seem harmless, they can leave a lasting impression on a new hire. Therefore, it is vital to begin prepping a space for a new employee during the interview process.
Consider nameplates with pronouns. Virtual meeting spaces like Zoom make it easy for team members to see everyone’s name and know their pronouns if the person chooses to display them. But that is more challenging in the in-person work environment. Depending on the team’s size, it can take a new employee months to learn everyone’s name.
I’ve worked in an environment where it was required for everyone to have identification on their door or cubicle, while other workplaces have made it optional. As more organizations embrace greater inclusiveness in workspaces, posting identifying door or desk plates with pronouns, if the employee chooses to include them, can help cultivate belonging and encourage greater connectivity among team members.
View onboarding as ongoing. Finally, every workspace is somewhat different, and tailoring your onboarding efforts to it is essential. Therefore, it’s crucial to solicit feedback about the process. Feedback is vital to motivating employees. Create a post-onboarding employee survey for recent hires that will allow the team to measure the results and seek opportunities for improvement. Constructive feedback will strengthen and support the success of the onboarding program and enhance new hire experiences.