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Reimagining Onboarding in a Virtual Environment 

Starting with Week 1, the challenge is not about the what but the how.

Onboarding a new hire in a virtual work environment might be a new experience for many who have quickly transitioned to remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve heard from advisors that this is top of mind as many have continued to hire during this time or plan to in the coming months. 

Some firms may already have a limited digital onboarding process in place—leveraging things like online training, virtual new hire sessions, and digital guides for CRM systems and collaboration tools. But, things that have traditionally been done in person—like getting technology set up or shadowing other associates—are now being reworked for a remote environment. As your firm evolves its approach, a good framework is key to thinking about how you can adapt each phase of the experience, from the foundations of “Week 1” to a sustained onboarding period and then to full integration. 

The Basics: Setting New Associates Up for Success in “Week 1” 

Many firms have a standard technology setup for new hires on their first day in the office, so the challenge is most likely not about the what but the how. To safely get necessary equipment—including any home office needs, such as webcams or additional monitors—to new hires for Day 1, firms can consider shipping technology bundles to associates’ homes or offering contactless pickup at the office. Whichever approach you take, review the latest CDC recommendations and work to ensure your process keeps you and your new employee safe and healthy.  

What else can help your new hire be successful in Week 1?

  • Precommunication to help relieve nervousness that the new hire might be experiencing. This can include things like a preview of their schedule or an email introducing them to the broader team and sharing their personal and professional background to help establish a connection before the first day.
  • Ongoing clear communication and frequent informal check-ins to help them get up to speed on systems and processes, make sure they feel connected and define goals for the first 90 days. 
  • A balance between training and social interactions. Consider creating a somewhat structured schedule for your new hires with a mix of self-guided and live training and introductory meetings. This can also help them to understand the firm’s virtual culture norms around communication channels or meeting cadence.
  • Easy access to the right resources, whether that’s a library of virtual trainings on things like cybersecurity, VPN access and collaboration tools, or a directory of key contacts at the firm to help them navigate HR and technology onboarding issues. If you don’t have virtual training today, consider recording live training sessions to repurpose for future hires and checking what resources your network (e.g., clearing and custody providers, technology platforms and industry organizations) may have available.

Thinking Beyond “Week 1”: Creating a Sustained Onboarding Experience

Even in an in-office environment, many firms focus their onboarding experience around Week 1, but it can take a long time to effectively train a new employee. Thinking beyond the first week is even more critical in a virtual environment where your new hire won’t have the benefit of observing the pace and activity around them in a shared office space. Firms should consider how they can recreate that “observe and learn” period virtually and leverage an expanded team to broaden exposure to the whole firm.

Here are some ways that firms can do this:

  • Onboarding “buddies” provide new hires with dedicated resources from the broader team, help introduce them to the “ins and outs” of the firm and can answer questions they may not feel comfortable asking their manager. Identify two or more “buddies” that span role levels to help foster connections with peers as well as those who are more senior. 
  • Access to the direct manager is important, but also consider rotating 1:1s to create a “divide and conquer” approach to training that provides schedule relief for managers, additional connections for new hires and a chance to leverage the strengths of the full team. 
  • Virtual shadowing can open even more opportunities for your new hires. With the prevalence of video meetings, it’s easier than ever for new associates to join in as an observer. Follow-up conversations to address questions and discuss observations will help aid learning, too.

The End Goal: Integrating, Not Just Onboarding

Last, but certainly not least, is the question of how to integrate new employees into the firm’s culture. Onboarding will prepare your new hires for working, but how can you make sure they feel a sense of community and connection to the firm’s mission? 

Fidelity has held several virtual roundtables since March to help advisors learn from each other about how to adapt to this new environment. One thing that consistently came up was how to create and sustain culture without physical proximity. Some firms have sent a welcome gift to the new hire’s home, while others have organized virtual events ranging from TED-style talks where team members discuss a personal skill or passion, to trivia games, at-home scavenger hunts or cooking classes. Include news hires in client events early to ensure they’re integrated into the client experience, not just the firm culture. 

Other ideas for integrating new hires into the firm include:

  • Mentoring programs to help associates network with people outside of their reporting line and provide valuable connections and opportunities well beyond the onboarding experience. If you have multiple new hires, creating a regular meeting for them to share their experiences can be a form of mentoring, too. Also, consider connecting new associates to industry groupssuch as the Association of African American Financial Advisors or Financial Planning Associationto access mentors and development opportunities beyond the firm. 
  • Leveraging existing communication channels, like chat or your firm’s intranet site, to go beyond talking about daily tasks and host group experiences, like photo contests, book clubs or recipe exchanges. 
  • Hosting virtual social activities that help new hires learn about their co-workers, like a virtual mystery lunch where the associate gets to meet other employees via clues given to them beforehand or having the new hire interview peers and then give a creative presentation on what they discovered in the process.

Whether you’re hiring now or in the future, I encourage your firm to be intentional about your onboarding process. Don’t just invest in it for our current environment but consider how the changes you make today can impact your talent strategy long term. Collect feedback from your new hires to inform your approach. We’ve heard from many firms that virtual is here to stay, but even if it isn’t, this framework for onboarding can help your firm create more meaningful experiences in any environment.

Anand Sekhar is vice president, practice management & consulting, Fidelity Institutional.

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