By Kathryn Dill
For her first day on the job at Accenture last month, Danielle Mizrachi planned to walk to the consulting firm's offices near New York's Grand Central Terminal wearing the work clothes she bought after accepting their offer back in November.
Instead, Ms. Mizrachi, a 26-year-old software engineer, found herself at her grandmother's house in Stamford, Conn., awaiting delivery of her company laptop and attending weeks of virtual orientation.
She has plenty of company. As offices remain closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and furloughs and layoffs continue, employees fortunate enough to start new jobs are diving in alongside colleagues they haven't met in person. Human-resources departments and managers are enlisting virtual coffee dates, Zoom sessions and other ways to integrate new employees into the workflow of offices they have never visited.
At Accenture, Ms. Mizrachi joined about 30 other new hires attending online sessions about company processes and benefits. Periodically, they broke into groups of about half a dozen employees in similar roles for tech-focused training and team-building projects.
"It wasn't just like we were sitting in front of the computer listening to lectures all day," Ms. Mizrachi said.
Accenture hires about 100,000 people annually, and expects to maintain that volume this year, said Ellyn Shook, chief leadership and human resources officer. In the second half of March, 300 new employees were put through the company's virtual onboarding process, which kicks off each week. Other companies, including Slack Technologies and Facebook, have implemented similar processes, shipping laptops to new employees before their first day and then holding group discussions, Q&As and training sessions by videoconference.
Some aspects of onboarding, such as explaining company policies on compliance and other issues, are givens, said Lisa Brown Alexander, founder and chief executive of human resources firm Nonprofit HR. She also recommends efforts to encourage employee engagement and retention, like building connections with co-workers and learning where to find critical information. "Just dropping a 10-day onboarding process into a 10-day Zoom process is not the ticket," she said.
First-day jitters tend to be the same for new hires at any stage of their career. That has HR managers scrambling to address questions about office culture and dress codes while solving hiccups such as computers that won't log on to the company intranet.
Bringing new employees onstream virtually may be easier for companies that already have remote workers and offices in different time zones than companies with geographically concentrated staff. Kevin Bandy was supposed to show up for an interview for a developer job at Atlanta-based software company Calendly on March 16. But the interview -- including a technical segment that requires collaboration among developers and is usually done in person -- instead was held online. "Some of the people interviewing me were actually in Europe, and I didn't even realize that," Mr. Bandy said.
He was hired and his onboarding happened online with one exception: the verification of his employment eligibility. Mr. Bandy, who is 30, met a Calendly HR manager in a Target parking lot in Atlanta, where he presented his passport and received his company laptop.
New hires at Calendly usually have a lunch with their managers. Instead, the company had food delivered by DoorDash -- for Mr. Bandy, Joella's Hot Chicken -- and nine new hires and their managers logged on to a videoconference and ate together.
For some, the rapid transition to remote work has opened up possibilities. Kristy Daigle, 45, of Greenville, S.C., was interviewing for a job as a senior product manager at financial-tech company nCino, when the pandemic struck. The company had asked her to relocate to Wilmington, N.C., but Ms. Daigle couldn't because her elderly parents live with her. Ultimately, the company hired Ms. Daigle as a permanent remote employee.
For the moment, all of nCino's employees are working from home. The virtual meetings that keep them connected will remain the norm for Ms. Daigle even after her co-workers return to the office. "It doesn't feel like it's going to be a whole lot different, except I'm a hugger, so once I can meet them and hug them it'll make me so happy," she said of her new colleagues.
Lauren Nielsen had been preparing to move from Seattle to Munich to become a product designer at fitness company Freeletics. Once the pandemic hit, her move was postponed indefinitely and she began the job remotely, a situation made more challenging by the nine-hour time difference. These days, Ms. Nielsen, who is 30, begins work around 6 a.m. so she can overlap with her colleagues for much of the workday. She sometimes takes meetings late at night when her co-workers in Germany are just beginning their day.
Erica Newell's most recent interview and hiring process were entirely virtual; she has never met anyone from her new company in person. The same day in March that Ms. Newell was laid off from EveryoneSocial, a software firm in Salt Lake City, she had an online interview lined up for her new job, as a manager at Sandy, Utah-based employee-development software company Bridge by Instructure. "I was really fortunate in that it was early," said Ms. Newell, 31. "I was able to find something really quickly and slip in before some of these hiring freezes."
Ms. Newell, who had worked at startups before, was nervous about working remotely during the early phase of her time at a large organization. She prepared by reading books about onboarding strategies and was relieved to find that her new manager at Bridge had scheduled one-on-one meetings for her to get to know other people with whom she would be working closely.
One challenge of virtual onboarding is figuring out a company's tone and level of formality. Kathy Denning was the first person to be onboarded remotely at Landed, a San Francisco-based personal finance company, which she joined as director of customer sales on April 6. Ms. Denning, 42, was assigned a "culture buddy" to help her acclimate.
"She's someone I can just ask questions about norms," Ms. Denning said. "The thing that I think is most difficult about onboarding in general is absorbing company culture. It's one of the most important parts of onboarding."
Getting the Job Done
Employees who have successfully onboarded remotely to new jobs offer helpful hints:
Reach out in advance: "Two weeks before I started, people were reaching out by email," said Kathy Denning. "That was a huge thing."
Test your tech: "They sent directions on how to set up your laptop, everything in advance of Day One," said Erica Newell, who started her new job Monday, April 6. "I spent Sunday afternoon setting everything up."
Communicate even more than you might in person: "I've just tried to be explicit," said Kevin Bandy. "'Hey, is this appropriate? How would you approach this?' I'm asking, 'Does it feel like I'm producing enough?' 'Does it feel like I'm doing the right things for onboarding?'"
You can still wear your first-day outfit -- even if you're on Zoom: "My red glasses are my go-to for my first day," said Kristy Daigle. "They're usually a good talking point."
Don't skip the first-day festivities: Lauren Nielsen was looking forward to having her picture taken in front of a wall bearing a giant company logo, a first-day tradition at Freeletics. Instead, she says, "my picture was a screenshot on Zoom, with all our little squares like 'The Brady Bunch.' "
Keep it in perspective: Kathy Denning was happy to be her new employer's first virtual new hire. "No one's done this before? Fantastic. What's the worst that can happen? It's not worse than not having a job. Let's do this."