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Post-covid employee engagement

Fiona Passantino, January 2022

Remember those first few weeks, months, at a new job? How lost and useless you might have felt? Overwhelmed with new information, hundreds of names to remember, a raft of new tools, platforms, processes and ways of working to internalize? Understanding the org chart, supply chain, business units, who’s who in the food chain as quickly and thoroughly as possible, and somewhere in the back of your mind, considering how you will eventually fit in to the new organization and deliver some value?

Take that same feeling and place it into the Covid context, where there is no physical office to go to, and your only connection to the organization is the internet cable attaching your laptop to the outside world. This doubles, triples, your onboarding stress while at the same time subtracting what’s nice about a fresh start: the live lunches, the physical coffee meetings and informal get-togethers with our new colleagues where we find out who’s on Keto and who’s non-binary. Onboarding during Covid means mapping hundreds of stakeholders, interests, departments in your head using only the digital channels available to you in two dimensions.

Onboarding is the first vital touchpoint a company has with an individual, the first impression. And this first impression colors a person’s entire experience later down the road, and also affects how they will onboard, should they be hiring in the future.

Doing this right saves everyone time, money and sends the message right at the beginning that the organization cares about its people, and is invested in setting them up for success.

Most of the time, we do this badly. From sex to cocktail parties, count on Covid to make everything worse, onboarding included.

So how do you make people feel connected, inspired, engaged and seen when everything is remote, fully digital and flat?

Have a bit of patience for those who are onboarding in two dimensions.

Onboarding in the dark

Well before Covid we were widely using euphemisms to mask the lack of structured, patient onboarding offered to the new person (otherwise known as “NonBoarding”). We “hit the ground running”, “get thrown in to the deep end of the pool”, “sink or swim”, and are often told to just “let it all just wash over you”.

Often these things are said with measure of pride and machismo, as no one currently at the company onboarded any differently. Sort of like hazing. Figure out company structure, culture, understand who all these people are and what they do and how they relate to one another, and learn what you need to do your job without the assistance of any planned, compressible learning track, the ability to shadow your supervisor for a week (thanks, Covid!) without the commitment from management to slowly and gently release a few small, contained assignments at the start while you find your sea legs. There’s no chance of that; the whole reason you were hired in the first place is because everyone quit during the Great Resignation and everyone is working three jobs simultaneously.

We all suffered through those first few months, faked our way through until we figured things out, somehow.

The reality is, no one has time to stop and help the new person. Even those extra 15 minutes one might need to explain how to lodge a travel expense or register vacation hours are hard to find in the typical, Covid back-to-back meeting day. We send the new guy a few learning videos here and there, let him read about the company history, suggest a few digital coffee meetings with key individuals and expect him to be hitting targets and contributing meaningfully to meetings after a brief honeymoon period of 60 days.

And there might be all kinds of other stressors in the onboarder’s personal life that no one is aware of that might affect short-term memory loss.

Getting it right

Onboarding in the dark means taking extra time, having more empathy and being more present as the hiring manager, the onboarder-in-chief. There are a few easy fixes to this problem.

Assign a buddy.

Specifically, someone who knew the organization way back when, pre-Covid. This is essential for conveying a sense of culture and ideology. This buddy needs to assure the new person that eventually, we will see each other again in some form, whether once a week or once a month or even once a year for a grand, full company MegaTownHall. Have this buddy start every day with the new person, just a 10-minute standup, and tuck the person in at the end of the day, checking out for 10 minutes.


Make sure the new person is appropriately welcomed in a large format, whether a department meeting, a unit retro or full-scale town hall. The person should be allowed to shine, talk a bit about herself, and identify a few things one might only find out about her after a drink or two. If this is not her cup of tea, give her the option of opting out, providing her introduction in writing, on video or as a series of photo montages of hobbies, pets and children, as she feels comfortable.


A present. Something small but classy. Flowers, a bottle of wine, a gift card to something appropriate. Something physical that drops on the mat, that the person can enjoy no matter his religion, nationality, dietary choices or restrictions, gender identification, number of pets, kids or family members living with him or values.


Make sure this person has a good 60 days to fully onboard without the expectation of getting anything done, without judgement, taking people’s personalities into consideration. Like a newborn wildebeest, some people can run with the pack instantly, moments after they get their codes and laptops while others burn with a longer fuse and ignite in a whirlwind only at day 45. In short, don’t give people shi*t to do until they’re ready for it; rather, let them pull at the tickets at their own pace, allowing them to ramp up, assuming that every new hire wants to please and is eager to deliver value as soon as possible.


Make sure the hiring manager is listening carefully to how the new person is doing and that he operates in a safe enough space that he can be honest and express his issues, problems, concerns and, most of all questions. No question is a dumb question in the first 30 days, and be patient when the person needs the same thing repeated a few times.


Make sure other members of the team are inviting, equally happy to have the new person join. Potentials conflicts, tensions, personality differences are often spotted early, even when everyone is on their best behavior at the beginning. Get in front of any disagreements or microaggressions. These are easily defused now and hard to pry loose later.


Make sure the new person has the chance to bring their outsiders’ point to view to the meetings. This outsider’s view vanishes quickly, generally within 6-8 weeks, and they, like the Borg, they join the OneThink way of seeing and doing. But that outsider’s perspective – when we notice things, question things – is extremely valuable to the organization and should be brought up, out in the open, before it wears off.

Special thanks to the excellent reporting by @investopedia, @kelly, @Forbes