Physical vs Digital onboarding of new employees: what are the pros and cons?

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By Lindie Fourie, Co-head of HR Club, APEX, Daphne Rosseeuw, HR Club Member, DLA Piper and Darren Robinson, HR Club Member, Anderson Wise as featured in Insight Out Magazine #26


The HR club explored this topic; the precedent was set during lockdown where new joiners went through virtual onboarding, including training and introduction to processes, company, and teams. However, the retention of these new joiners after returning to the office became an important question in exit interviews or post discussion with line managers.


This raises the question; did virtual onboarding work better than physical onboarding?

The benefits of digital are evident in the time saved and the ability to condense topics into online training, as the persons involved are limited compared to physical integration in an office environment. This allowed many topics to be recorded and standardized as training material across the company or jurisdiction.

Benefits for the employee itself were a greater exposure to the business in a shorter amount of time, and a better understanding of the clientele and team tasks. Tasks had to be allocated clearly within a team, as the expectation for new joiners coming to the team was clearly set for daily tasks. The upcoming tasks could be better planned for a longer period to ensure items are picked up between members seamlessly in a virtual environment.

The negative aspects were unforeseen. Company culture, team spirit, and connection to the teams were not established with strong concrete links, as spontaneous discussion or transmission of the company spirit was not as evident during the digital process. As a result of this observation, a leading recruitment firm noted that “those new (and existing) employees who lacked or lost the cultural connection were more open to alternative career opportunities”. This led to more new joiners deciding to leave shortly after joining the company, as they felt distant and disassociated from the company or their team members in a market where there are more jobs available than candidates. Company culture is becoming an increasingly common topic raised in interview. Job seekers are now including emotional connections in their considerations when accepting a new offer – mainly because they may lack such connection within their current companies.

How can we then cope with the above issues?

This question was asked to the HR club members who are leading their companies from a human resources or operational strategy point of view. Here are some of the key focus points which were raised:

  • The first concern is the pace at which such change was implemented. Things went from 0 to 100 in a few weeks, HR Teams had to come up with new ways to onboard candidates in a very short timeframe, which led to inefficiencies. On top of this, candidates and teams had not been prepared for such change leading to difficulties in the integration within the company or the team.
  • Going fully digital is also questionable. HR and team managers often recommend new joiners to come to the office on a daily basis for the first couple of months to enable a better understanding of the company culture, create bonds with the team and easily ask questions. This is also an ask from many new joiners. The missing piece here is often the team itself: if they are used to the comfort of specific home working days or of a satellite office, a key person that could act as anchor for a new joiner may not be here on a couple days during the first weeks – which can have a major impact. It is therefore the team manager’s responsibility to ensure that key stakeholders make efforts to maintain an office presence for new joiners. So far, companies that have been successful with fully virtual onboarding are companies where home working is part of the DNA, crypto-currency companies for instance. More traditional employers have been getting better results and feedback with a mix of virtual and onsite presence post covid.
  •  One of the HR members adopted the “collaborative Thursday” principle, with a mandatory presence at the office this day. They have the highest attendance rate on that day and are convinced that regular presence at the office is essential, especially during the first months to create a network, develop good habits and take on the company culture.
  • Other HR club members highlighted many tools to promote the integration of new employees and nurture the corporate culture through regular attendance such as: all team calls, welcome lunches, team lunches, “village”, “plage”, open door events with management, budget allocations for team events, etc.
  • One member defined flexibility as having at least 50% of the time spent in the office over a two-week period.

The above are mostly best practices based on recent years’ experience. As a conclusion the key objective for companies and their HR leadership teams is to find the right balance between automation of onboarding procedures (induction, template, task automation) and privileged human contact with key stakeholders (welcome lunch, buddy, training sessions and one-one team led initiatives).

The next topic for the HR club will be to see the impact and opportunities of AI and how this can be used to improve the employee experience.