The writer is a contributing columnist, based in Chicago
When I “onboarded” at the Financial Times in 1980, the word did not exist.
Or if it did, no one had the bad taste to mention it. But then again, no one mentioned anything else either — like what the newspaper believed in, or what I was expected to write. This was because I was in Ghana, and the FT was in London. We had not so much as a humble landline to connect us.
I fancy that makes me an expert on “remote onboarding”, that mixed blessing of a work-from-home world. Off-site onboarding had its pros and cons back then, too — for years, I was blissfully ignorant of the FT’s corporate mission, or what anyone who worked there looked like.
Communicating with my new employer meant hanging around all day at the malodorous Accra post office (which had toilets, but only intermittent running water) hoping to nab an open telex line to London. I’d have my articles ready to send, as spools of yellow ticker tape punched out on a blind punch machine, which poked holes in a pattern more or less corresponding to words.
If I was lucky, after I ran the tape through the only working telex machine, the FT operator in London would run over to the foreign desk and fetch me someone to chat to. And thus did I absorb — a few hastily mistyped words at a time — the culture of the company where I have now spent more than four decades.
Back then inducting new hires was all about informal mentoring: the FT hired decent people who were expected to treat underlings decently. They helped get new recruits up to speed — but even that was touch and go in my case, after one of my first articles sent the global cocoa market reeling.
Now, during this time of historically high worker turnover, getting new hires settled in quickly is even more critical.
“Poor onboarding is costly,” says Becky Frankiewicz, Chicago-based president of ManpowerGroup North America, a multinational staffing company.
“If it doesn’t make a new person feel welcome and clear on their role as part of the culture, then people will vote with their skills and take new offers.”
Kristin Barry, director of hiring analytics at Gallup, says employees still have the same needs, whether online or off. “What’s different about the pandemic is the mode of experiencing those things”.
New staff are always trying to figure out “what do we believe in around here”, Barry says, adding that “before they could do some of that sleuthing on their own, they could view the way people interact, when they gather and what happens, and could deduce the answer to some questions”. Now companies have to be more “intentional” about how they convey such messages, she says.
Michele Nelson, Americas Director of Onboarding and Transitions at EY, wrote on LinkedIn mid-pandemic that it’s critical to get to know new hires and “have fun”, even virtually. Her suggestions included that staff should share “a picture of their view from their workstation” or pet snaps. Since my workstation in Accra had no electricity or running water, not to mention a large resident rat, I’m glad the FT never asked me for workplace wildlife portraits.
“Reboarding” is another word that wasn’t current when I was last posted abroad, in 2008 to China. But now the human resources industry is all abuzz with advice for how existing employees should be eased, post-pandemic, into new offices or jobs.
“There’s nothing worse than showing up for a new job and feeling like nobody knew you were coming”, says Gallup.
Like everything else in life, there are pros and cons to building companies remotely. Virtual onboarding saves time, says Frankiewicz — and though it’s harder to build human connection at a distance, there are some silver linings.
“The insight that all the squares are the same size (on Zoom) is profound,” she says. Somehow, even down a blind telex line, I figured that out about the FT: that all the squares are the same size. Maybe that’s all I ever really needed to know.