As summer turns to fall, many companies that shifted to a remote-work model during the pandemic are plotting the next phase of their operations. For some, that will include a return to in-person work for employees, some or all of the time. And for many firms, a number of their staff — recruited and hired during the past 18 months of remote work — will be entering their offices for the very first time.
With so many employees adjusting not only to new spaces but new workflows and procedures — as well as meeting their coworkers face-to-face for the first time in some cases — the coming months will be a reset for countless workplaces. If yours is one of them, experts have one recommendation: Consider re-onboarding as you reopen. Here’s why they recommend the process, and their best practices making it a success.
What Is Re-Onboarding?
Most companies already have a formalized introduction process, or onboarding, for new employees. The process generally covers big-picture and philosophical topics (like the company’s values and mission), as well as practical ones (such as meeting your colleagues and where to find your workspace). Re-onboarding is simply a refresher on that onboarding: intended to bring new hires, who may have attended company culture and mission briefings online when they started, up to speed on the things they need to know about the office itself.
But experts say companies planning to reopen can and should take a more expansive view. “Re-onboarding can be the frame through which companies come together and come to terms with the changes that have taken place,” said Pablo Listingart, founder and Executive Director of ComIT, a nonprofit that trains students in information technology.
Who Can Benefit
The first and most obvious candidates for re-onboarding are employees who joined when remote work was already the established practice during COVID.
"All the employees who onboarded during the pandemic should be re-onboarded into the new in-office or hybrid environment,” advised Alisa Cohn, strategy consultant, startup coach, and author of From Start-Up to Grown-Up: Grow Your Leadership to Grow Your Business. Bringing those teammates together as a cohort lets them create ties and build a sense of community, she said. “It should help employees adjust, get to know their colleagues again now that they'll interact in person, devise together their new ways of working, and feel more bonded to the company as a whole,” she added.
But many HR professionals suggested that firms returning to in-person work or a hybrid model should consider a re-onboarding process for everyone — not just new hires.
“It’s important after this worldwide pandemic for companies to have a re-onboarding process for ALL employees, because most employees are going to work at a ‘new place,’” said Secret Holland, VP of HR and Community Affairs for Atlanta-based natural gas provider Gas South. “The work world we abandoned last March is not necessarily what we will return to.”
What Re-Onboarding Looks Like
While the specifics of re-onboarding will vary industry by industry and firm to firm, HR experts said there are a few best practices that everyone should keep in mind.
Tim Mousseau, a New York City-based HR trainer and consultant, said companies should be proactive — especially around safety issues. “Publicize new policies well before people return to the office,” he advised. “This is especially true in everything related to health and safety when interacting with peers and external stakeholders.”
First and foremost, the re-onboarding should include addressing the question of how you are going to keep the workplace safe, stressed Terry Salo, senior HR consultant with Cincinnati, OH-based firm Strategic HR. “That’s the first question employees will ask, and you need to convince and reassure them that it is [safe],” she said. “Clearly show how you’re adhering to guidelines and recommendations for safety [and] cleanliness so you can take that question off the table right away.”
A second priority should be establishing the new business normal, especially if there have been permanent changes to the company, such as a restructuring born out of pandemic business adjustments or a permanent shift to a hybrid model.
“Clearly outline the communication methods moving forward,” Salo recommended.
“What meetings are going to occur when and where? Will they be in-person, virtual, or hybrid? Be able to clearly outline the company’s expectations on work arrangements and how they will change (or not change) moving forward.”
That can include going over how and when to access administrative and IT support, as well as HR staff — especially if hybrid work will be the norm, or if some departments will be on-site while others will remain remote, said Holland. ”It’s really a retraining process for how we need to work together in the future,” she noted.
For example, will on-site support for setting up video conferences be available at all times or will it need to be by appointment? If the staff who handled greeting guests will be working remotely three days a week, what’s the protocol for bringing visitors into the office on the days they’re not in the office? What expectations and preferences do each department (and the company as a whole) have for communication and have they changed? If the office environment after reopening will operate differently than before — and differently than some seasoned employees might be used to — that’s information all employees need to have.
Finally, it’s crucial to use the re-onboarding process to give coworkers the chance to meet and interact. “Hiring during the pandemic created a dichotomy in the workforce: the people we know and the people we don’t,” said Jennifer L'Estrange, founder and Managing Director of Fairfield, NJ-based HR consultancy Red Clover. “That has the potential to erode culture and damage productivity as we re-enter physical offices.”
Jean-Nicholas Reyt, PhD, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at McGill University in the Desautels Faculty of Management in Montreal, said that reopening in-person channels of communication should be a top priority.
“When employees have been onboarded online, they have had very little opportunity to ask questions to their peers in a safe environment. Instead, they have had to use official communication channels, for example, emailing their supervisor,” said Reyt. In-person re-onboardings, he noted, can “create safe environments for employees to ask questions without being judged. The goal is to show newcomers that the organization does care about them, and invests time, so they can truly become insiders.
“We're not talking about artificial team-building exercises, or other [formal] corporate events,” he continued. “We're talking about actual opportunities for employees to spend time together and discuss important issues.”
At the end of the day, experts agreed that re-onboarding is a natural extension of the company’s onboarding process.
“Re-onboarding should look a lot like onboarding: Small group settings where general information is gone over in a formal way, followed by one-on-one meetings with a more personalized focus,” said Hosea Chang, COO of the Hayden Los Angeles and Hayden Girls apparel lines based in Los Angeles. “You don’t need to rewrite the whole employee handbook; rather, cover the big changes. Take a big-picture outlook but also deal with people’s daily routines. Re-onboarding is more about settling down the state of flux and establishing a new normal with everyone on the same page.”
Making the time for a solid re-onboarding can do much more than help orient newer workers into the company, although it can and should do that, too. Done well, the process can set the tone for reopening and moving beyond the difficulty of the past year by demonstrating to employees that you’re invested in them.
“The single biggest factor for an engaged, productive, and loyal workforce is communication that shows you care about them and their families,” Holland said. “This is a great time to balance business needs with employee needs (personal preferences [like where and how to work], safety concerns, work/life balance, etc.) and earn some deep loyalty from your staff.”
And now is the time to do it, experts said.
“A process of re-onboarding is important in this moment symbolically,” Cohn pointed out. “It allows people to talk about what happened, digest it, and put it behind them. Talking about it helps colleagues regain intimacy that was lost. It also clears the way for new cultural norms to take hold and point everyone toward a more hopeful future.”