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How we’re trying to make virtual onboarding better

When the pandemic started, life – and work life – changed overnight. For one thing, my commute to work got much shorter. (It’s approximately 8 seconds now.) There’s no more sitting in traffic or running to catch a train. And I definitely don’t miss ‘sardine-ing’ into the office elevators in the morning. Instead, I now make a quick stop at “Café Sana” and join the Talent team’s standup, fully rested and un-squished.

But what hasn’t changed for us at the Canadian Digital Service (CDS), is our need to recruit, hire and onboard new members. Since March 2020, we’ve welcomed over 40 new employees from across the nation.

Starting a new job is stressful enough. Not having the right resources or information when you start can contribute to the anxiety. And being virtual adds a new layer of isolation and complexity. Onboarding can help with these things. It can also offer employees a preview of their time with a company. So, while we were pretty happy with our existing onboarding practices, we had to make some adjustments to make them as impactful as possible in our new virtual realities.

Pandemic pivots

At CDS, agile methodology isn’t only used in the products we deliver. We apply those principles to almost everything we do. Which means we’re pretty good at pivoting. Our day-to-day business shifted fairly seamlessly to 100% Google Hangouts and Slack communication. Afterall, we were a distributed organization from the very early days. But onboarding virtually? That was new to us!

Our first pandemic hire was starting the same week we were all working from home. We went into survival mode and did everything we could to make sure they had the basics for their first day.

That new hire was Andréanne, our Head of Product Management. We tried to make some quick adjustments to provide her with tech equipment and documents, like our employee handbook. The handbook is a pretty good resource to learn about our organization and how it’s built, but it’s drier than my first-year stats textbook.

I took a step back and looked at all the documents we were sharing. It was a lot of information for one person – too much information. We wanted to welcome and equip people with all the knowledge they needed to succeed, not give them flashbacks to cramming for exams.

I also reflected on the interactions people had with other team members in the office – like hallway chats or turning your chair to ask a question – which are not as easy to replicate in a virtual environment. Considering my own struggle of adjusting to this new remote environment, I knew more had to be done to also make our onboarding experience more welcoming and interactive for our new colleagues.

But first, research

When we notice a potential problem in our product teams, we do research to make sure we understand the issue before trying to fix it. It was no different for this operational challenge. So, for the first eight months of the pandemic I met with every new employee for a 2-month and 6-month check-in.

At the 2-month check-in, I made sure our new colleagues were settling in well and they had what they needed to do their day-to-day work. I also asked them about their onboarding experience at CDS.

At the 6-month check-in, I dug a little bit deeper into their time at CDS. Now that they’d been with us for half a year, what could we have done differently? What can we do to make the experience better for future employees?

The answers from the 20+ employees were pretty similar. They wished they had all the information about CDS and how it functions before they started working in their product teams.

Specifically, they wanted to have a better understanding of:

  • our product teams and each community’s function within them
  • how we choose who we partner with and what services we can help improve
  • how CDS fits into the grand network of the Government of Canada (GC)
  • and, for those new to it, how the GC works

Iterating on insights

Based on my findings, it was clear that our onboarding needed tweaking to help new employees familiarize themselves with CDS and the GC. How we work is unique, and in this fast-paced environment, it’s important to have all the information before diving deep into the work.

Reading documents on your own can be a daunting and lonely activity. So, we decided to build an interactive orientation program to help new hires learn in a less overwhelming way and socialize with their colleagues.

Our orientation program

“CDS Orientation” is inspired by school, where people attend different classes to get a better understanding of their field of study. (In our case, the field of study is the Canadian Digital Service.)

The program takes groups of new hires through 30-45 minute sessions with each Head of Community – design, outreach, policy, development, etc. In these sessions they learn how that community contributes to our organizational goals and how they work with other communities. There are also sessions about the history of CDS to help them understand our journey so far.

In addition to providing people with the tactical information they need before they jump into work, new hires benefit from the chance to socialize with their teammates. They get to have facetime with people from communities that they may not always interact with regularly (especially now that everything is digital).

Learning lots

We’re only a couple of months into this program. Since our Talent team is always trying to improve employee experience, we’ve been regularly soliciting feedback from new hires. The feedback we get helps us as we onboard our growing team.

So far, it’s been very positive. People tell us that the orientation sessions have given them a space to ask questions, meet managers, and make new friends. Now at our all-team meetings, people recognize more faces on their screen. That’s music to our ears! In our current fully virtual work environment, we want to keep our new employees connected and make sure they feel welcome!

How has your onboarding changed since the pandemic started? Reach out – we’d love to learn more!