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Happy Hires: What Matters When Onboarding Gen Z Remotely

Little has been said about onboarding Gen Z, even when remote work is gaining prominence, and 57% of all hires are fresh college graduates

Pavla Bobosikova Co-founder and CEO of WFHomie

by Pavla Bobosikova - July 20th, 2021


It's no secret that working remotely has brought new challenges — and benefits — for knowledge workers of all age groups. But it's become increasingly apparent that remote leadership efforts have been skewed towards mid-career employees. So, what do junior team members want when working from home? What are they missing, enjoying, and craving? What kind of support do they truly need from a remote leader? We've chosen to ask them directly! In this blog, you'll hear from Jad, Harneet, Hannah, Emily, and Tess, whose distinct perspectives share a common element: deep gratitude for their employers' kindness and the sense that work-from-home could be even better.

We've all heard horror stories about poor onboarding experiences at the office.

Here are a few examples from a Predictive Index survey:

"I'm standing outside the office and nobody is opening the door. I rang the bell a number of times without any luck." 

— A new HR manager calling their recruiter on Day 1

"Next to the desk lay a chair. I say 'lay' because it was in parts. Apparently, I was supposed to assemble it myself before getting down to work."

— A new hire, at a company that "wasn't even IKEA." Yikes!

Have you thought about what that looks like remotely? If your most recent hire has the wrong email login, is missing their computer, or can't figure out what paperwork they need to get started, you might as well have left them locked outside the office. Better yet, have you considered what the average remote onboarding experience resembles past day four?

Most organizations spend considerable time and effort finding the perfect recruit — with one study revealing that this costs them an average of $4,000 per hire. And once the papers are signed, the emails are sent, and the new employee is excited to start, they start dropping the ball. At first, there may be issues with a recruit's preparation before the first day, or some disorganization during the first week. But more often than not, it's after the first week that onboarding starts to suck.

In other words, your new remote hire got aboard, and then, they sunk.

As a result, only 12% of employees say their organization provides excellent onboarding to new hires, according to a Gallup poll. One SkillRoad Technology survey reports that nearly 10% of employees have left a company because of a poor new hire experience. Remember, that's $4,000 walking out the door… because of your onboarding program. On the flip side, organizations with a strong onboarding process improve employee retention by up to 82%. And those employees who stay even enjoy a boost in productivity of up to 70%!

Now, what about Gen Z remote onboarding? Little has been said on this topic, even when remote work is gaining prominence, and 57% of all hires are fresh college graduates. Nonetheless, their first day at work matters more than most; it may be "their first day of full-time work ever. And firsts are memorable."

It's just been a rough year for Gen Z in the job market.

Harneet, discussing the months following her graduation in May of 2020, shares, "The most stressful part was just hearing, 'Oh, because of the economy, there aren't going to be jobs, and 2020 graduates are going to have to be super resilient.'" Nobody wants to hear they're part of a lost generation, even if it's from sensationalist media. "I was like, alright, so, I'm doomed is what you're telling me," Harneet added with a smile, and "I'm going to have to figure out what to do with myself. I don't have a job; I don't have school. I can't travel."

More than usual, "onboarding is a magic moment when new employees decide to stay engaged or become disengaged," to quote Amy Hirsh Robinson at The Interchange Group.

What should your new Gen Z hires know coming in?

First off, think about the format and mediums you're choosing to convey critical information and prompt an emotional response from your new hires. Consider investing in design aesthetics and video content in your initial onboarding — even if that's just a dash of colour or a candid clip of you welcoming them to the team. Gen Z pay particular attention to the aesthetics of online content, and will appreciate anything other than raw text. Much like a brand's marketing, the format you tell your story should be coherent with your team's persona, priorities, and values. 

Of course, don't just mention your values; list them, with examples of how they are practiced on a daily basis. And as a general rule, don't just talk about the position in your onboarding documents. Instead, share what past employees in that position have struggled with, and point them to helpful resources for upskilling. This could include resources for soft skills in remote work, such as running meetings asynchronously or managing your time effectively.

Another thing you could do? Create a cheat sheet of the coworkers they'll work with, including conversation starters, personalities, skillsets, and communication styles. 

At the Carter Center, Tess notes, "They designate people. They'll say there's somebody on the team, like Mary, you can reach out to if you forget an acronym because they use so many, and they throw all these words out."

"They'll say there's somebody on the team, like Mary, that you can reach out to if you forget an acronym because they use so many and throw all these words out."

— Tess, at the Carter Center

Tess is one of three young professionals I interviewed who commented on the confusing use of acronyms at their Org. If your own company has a few, try creating a glossary your new remote hires can refer to. Moreover, consider adding an "Ask me about XYZ" section to each of your colleagues' profiles, where you can include these topics. Another perhaps overlooked aspect of the initial onboarding process is making sure young employees know exactly who to reach out to for IT support, paperwork, and documentation. Emily says she felt comfortable with her team in the Arrive bubble at RBC, but was confused by the broader company network.

"If I had tech problems or other issues like that, I did not know who to call at the beginning," she says. Beyond creating a repository with contact information for tech and HR issues, you can make sure to follow up on the issue and lend a hand when necessary. Emily's team "helped by telling me who would be the best point of contact. Then, if I wasn't getting the response I needed from those people, they would take it upon themselves to message that person to help figure it out for me."

Put emphasis on creating memories. At the end of the day, however, these are the basics to ensure your Gen Z worker is emboldened to take on the challenges of their new workload. You should be asking yourself how you can make them feel inspired, too, before they join their first video call. To make this happen, put emphasis on creating memories — through unique onboarding gifts, swag, and care packages delivered to their homes, for instance.

When choosing what kind of goodie box you'd like to send them, remember what TripAdvisor discovered in a study of hotel reviews; "when guests reported experiencing a 'delightful surprise,' an astonishing 94% of them recommended the hotel to peers, compared with only 60% of guests who were 'very satisfied.'" A small surprise can go a long way toward employee satisfaction, engagement, and retention.

The things to avoid on Days 1, 2, and 3

Although it may seem like a good idea to have your new Gen Z worker take it easy in the first few days, our interviews show they would benefit more from having an exciting task or project from day one. "We didn't have any work in the first week," says Hannah, who interned at RBC in software engineering last summer. "We were introduced to the projects we would be working on, but we didn't get to dive in immediately."

This leads to a feeling of restlessness at best and a touch of alienation at worst. Similarly, Emily says she was confused in the first few days when her team "packed in these introductory meetings with everyone. But then, when you're not in those meetings, you're kind of wondering, 'What am I supposed to be doing right now?'" Being able to own an easy but useful project in between calls could instead empower your Gen Z employee and give them a sense of direction from the get-go.

"But then, when you're not in those meetings, you're wondering, 'What am I supposed to be doing right now?"

— Emily, at RBC

Furthermore, for a young remote hire, having several onboarding calls in just a couple of days, or worse, having just one call with a huge group, can be particularly stressful. Hannah described her awkwardness, saying, "I'm awful at remembering names when there are 30 people on the same call, and I just don't know who's talking." In fact, four of the interviewees mentioned struggling to remember the names and titles being thrown at them during the onboarding process — making this another fun glossary idea for big teams. Joining a series of roundtable introductions can also feel particularly impersonal.

When I asked Harneet, working at Hamilton Health Sciences, how she would design an onboarding process for another new hire, she said she "would try to have not an agenda but more so a conception of what a 'Meet and Greet' for each team would be." She emphasized finding engaging meeting activities "rather than just doing a quick roundtable of 'This is who I am, this is my title,' next, so on." Harneet adds that the challenge is finding videocall activities that "wouldn't overwhelm this new employee but still make them feel welcomed and included in an engaging, fun environment."

How can you best eliminate the "new kid at school" feeling your Gen Z remote employees have as soon as possible? The trick here is finding a fantastic set of virtual icebreaker activities that you can use to transform your onboarding process. After all, you want your new Gen Z team member to feel comfortable with the team so they can give their best from the first week onwards. "Even I would just hate ice-breaking activities in the university," Harneet revealed, "But looking back, I think if they're done correctly, in an engaging, non-corny way, it can be very empowering to help you build those connections, which is probably what new employees are looking for."

"But looking back, I think if they're done correctly, in an engaging, non-corny way, it can be very empowering to help you build those connections, which is probably what new employees are looking for."

— Harneet, at Hamilton Health Sciences

The activities could range from This or That quiz games, scavenger hunts, and office Olympics to low-pressure Scribble and Code Name rounds. 

Otherwise, joining RBC remotely, Hannah took part in mini-hackathon projects, as well as trivia and Jackbox games. The key component to teambuilding activities, she noted, was the level of interaction. "I got to talk to other people that weren't on my team, but it wasn't an in-depth conversation. It was like, 'Hey, do you know the answer to that question?' And they'd say, 'Yes' slash 'No,' and we would just go from there." If the virtual icebreaker you choose is task-focused, make sure the tasks are interesting, and not always so intuitive. This helps spur discussion and build trust in your remote team.

Otherwise, as Harneet notes, "It's just hard to get to know someone based off the way they work, remotely." Yet getting to know your remote colleagues in outside-of-work contexts is what helps you work with them! As Harneet says, "Connections are what makes the world go round." Your onboarding experience is essentially your organization's handshake. Don't make it a dead fish — especially not for young workers this summer.As a remote manager or colleague, reach out quickly to the young professionals joining your workplace remotely in the first week.

Check in regularly for the first few days, synchronously and asynchronously. But most importantly, continue checking in. Just don't give your onboarding process a premature death. Most studies show that the first 90 days are crucial to an employee's comfort level and productivity on the job. As the Salveson Stetson Group's principal remarks, "Virtual onboarding should never be a 'one-and-done video session or phone call."

When I asked Tess how she would design an onboarding process for another remote Gen Z employee, she said, "After the first week, I would set up other meetings just to ask, 'Is there anything you're still confused about? Is there anything you didn't quite get or are you worried about?' When onboarding, I think those follow-up meetings would have been nice for me because I still feel lost on some things, but at this point, I'm too scared to ask."

"I'm too scared to ask. The more time goes by, the less you have beginner status."

— Tess, at the Carter Center

Unfortunately, your younger employees may be working less productively due to that confusion and those doubts. Meeting with them regularly to discuss topics related to work in addition to completely random topics could help release some of that tension. You should also encourage others to do the same — even small talk can make a huge difference in someone's day when it's their first day. Emily commented on her appreciation for unimportant but sweet messages from colleagues in Toronto, just to say, "Oh, how is it on the West Coast? What's going on? What's the weather like there?"

Encouraging onboarding chats and 1-on-1s with senior colleagues is extremely helpful for your newest employee to come to terms with their new responsibilities. As you see different bonds forming between them, pay attention to opportunities for mentoring and peer coaching. Try formalizing a mentor-mentee bond between two members on your team, or creating a coaching structure through which your employees can alternate between sharing and receiving feedback, tips, and hacks.

Not only does peer mentoring accelerate learning for your Gen Z workers, but it helps boost their productivity, builds up their leadership skills, and gives them a value-added perspective for your company. If anything, they will appreciate the interest you've demonstrated in their career growth.

"I appreciate that she genuinely cares for my professional development. That's important for me, and her support makes me feel comfortable in the team, even remotely."

— Harneet, at Hamilton Health Sciences

Ultimately, as time passes, you should pay attention to the signs of disengagement and bore out. As was evident in all five of my interviews, it becomes harder for Gen Z employees to get used to the 9-to-5 grind when they may not have experienced it before, maintain healthy time management habits, and cope with the level of asynchronous communication at your workplace. As Emily says, in a pandemic context, "You start lacking motivation because you get tired of working from home after a while." And when I asked Tess what she struggled most with working remotely, she sighed, "Oh God, the motivation... I'm sure you hear that a lot." 

You can pre-emptively reduce their potential decline in productivity following the 90-day 'honeymoon' phase at work by investing in care packages, virtual team-building activities, and other opportunities to build meaningful connections. As a remote leader, your ultimate role should be to enable others. And in more ways than one, employee satisfaction, engagement, and retention are all forms of perpetual onboarding — it's about ensuring that each remote worker is equipped to show up at work with a smile and thrive. Why should the 'delightful surprises' ever stop with onboarding?

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