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Human Resources

Onboard and Online

Personal, fun, and interactive employee orientation programs
University Business, May 2011

Remember the first day you came to work? For some people, first days are overwhelming—with new rules, processes, and software programs to learn, new coworkers to meet, and myriad choices to make, from which health plan to choose to the amount of taxes you want deducted.

To help new staff ease into the onboarding process, many higher ed institutions are now offering online orientation. New hires can view these self-paced tutorials even before setting foot on campus. Employees may learn about their new employer's mission and goals, required training programs they must complete, how to perform routine administrative tasks, and what optional benefits are available.

The upside is that many of these orientation programs are fairly robust. The downside? They're often bland and can even produce a few yawns. But that may be changing. Some schools are taking advantage of technology to deliver the same information in more creative and interactive formats. Consider an online video of a school's president or department chair welcoming new staff or faculty. Or how about a GPS-guided campus tour? Schools can now unleash their imagination and implement features that were considered futuristic just a few years ago.

During the past year, The Catholic University of America (D.C.) began taking and posting online group photos of new hires as part of the orientation process. Any of the university's 2,500 faculty or staff can click on the group photo, linked to an online weekly newsletter, to learn the names, positions, and departments of any new hire in the photo.

"We've gotten a lot of feedback, saying, 'It's cool—this is really nice and it's helpful when we meet people on campus,'" explains Christine Peterson, associate VP and chief HR officer. "We [offer] a very community-oriented environment. The photos have raised other types of interest that we're now considering." One is a photo gallery of all faculty and staff, which will help build camaraderie among the institution's workforce and make it easier for employees to actually find each other on campus when meeting or working together for the first time.

CUA's orientation program also includes a half-day, face-to-face session with various university administrators addressing topics such as benefits, policies, and public safety. But in between speakers, Peterson says the focus shifts back to information offered in the online program so "you don't sit there for hours listening to talking heads."

In the future, Peterson hopes the online program will also include other components, such as a mission statement and videos of a campus tour and president's message. That would allow HR staff to have more time to focus on sensitive personnel issues—which even the most sophisticated software can't address.

"I believe that is the ultimate balance in an HR practice," she says, adding that at least half of the employees who responded to a recent survey stated that they noticed and appreciated HR's ability to deliver more personal services when serious issues were involved. "People become frustrated and aren't excited about paper-pushing. They want to be able to truly solve problems and work with people. That's why they go into HR."

While a high-tech approach certainly has value, not all employees prefer learning online. That's why more schools have introduced a blended orientation program.

Take the University of Washington, which supports about 70,000 employees who work on campus and in its medical facilities. Although its comprehensive online program is almost 10 years old, the university recently introduced an in-person orientation covering topics like the school's values and vision. "We're making a shift for individuals who need that connectivity," says Ujima Donalson, director of professional organizational development at UW. "We recognize some people do much better with an online orientation, but others may want that face-to-face."

'Some people do much better with an online orientation, but others may want that face-to-face.'
-Ujima Donalson, University of Washington

Many HR professionals believe explaining something as complex as benefits or as important as introducing key administrators are best done in person. It makes sense. Questions can be immediately answered. Confusion about benefits can be minimized. Employees receive clear, consistent messages. An online version could potentially breed misunderstandings—and an onslaught of calls or e-mails to HR. "It's certainly much more efficient for [new employees] to go to a website," adds Linda Yuhas, director of compensation and employment services at Grand Valley State University (Mich). "But face-to-face is so much better because there's interaction and networking."

Besides, she says a traditional seminar may be an employee's only chance of personally meeting the university president and other senior leaders. No online video will ever replace shaking the president's hand. Establishing that personal connection is critical and helps senior staff send a clear message to new employees: we're here because you're important to us.

Still, Yuhas says there are components that online orientations handle very well. Grand Valley's online program has a "First Day" to-do list with links to HR and other departments. There are campus maps, campus videos, a virtual campus tour, school facts, and relocation assistance, as well as information about parking and bus schedules. The web address is included in appointment letters so new hires can get a jump start on learning about the school's people and processes. While the online orientation program is thorough, Yuhas hopes the school never eliminates face-to-face sessions for its 3,100 faculty and staff. "I hope we never go directly to an online orientation because I think we would lose something very valuable," she says.

Nothing can fully replace the personal experience, but social networking comes awfully close. Administrators can create an employee Facebook page and invite new hires to network online with their peers who can help them acclimate to the culture, people, and environment, says Doris Sims, president of the Texas-based consulting firm Succession Builders and author of Creative Onboarding Programs (McGraw-Hill, 2010).

To take it one step further, consider setting up online groups of new employees, encouraging them to share their insights, observations, and onboarding stories in a real-time framework. Online peer groups are quickly becoming the norm for employee communication, says Kass Larson, chief executive officer at Granite Technologies in Golden, Colo., which offers an online software service designed to bridge the gap between old learning systems and business process management systems.

Likewise, GPS-guided campus tours are gaining popularity. Using web-enabled cell phones, employees could download a mobile app or log online to access a program offering information about every building on campus.

In five years, Larson predicts, advances in speech recognition software will enable people to carry on conversations with their cell phones. "They'll be exclusively mobile and the interaction you'll have with your device will almost be like talking to a person," he believes. "You will ask questions and [get answers] in light speed."

In the meantime, colleges can also adopt some creative ideas from the business community. Several companies recently set up interactive organizational charts online. New hires can click on a department to watch a welcome video featuring a manager explaining the department's responsibilities, says Helene Geiger, chief executive officer at Prometheus Training, an instructional design firm in Lansdale, Pa., that developed the program.

Online organizational charts could allow new hires to view a video on any department's responsibilities.

Her company has helped another organization build a unique database. Some employees were uncomfortable meeting coworkers for the first time or experienced difficulty finding their office. Now they can access an online map of each facility featuring every cubicle and office. After clicking on an area, the employee's name and photo pops up.

Other companies offer online questions for new hires to ask their supervisor or peers, which should help them be more successful in their job, adds Karen Perron, an onboarding strategist and product manager at Silk Road Technology, a talent management solutions firm in Austin, Texas. Those suggested questions include:

  • What are some of the company's top priorities we're working on today and what can I do to support them?
  • What skill development opportunities should I focus on?
  • Who should I talk to or work with to help me catch up to speed regarding my job responsibilities?

Perron says the onboarding experience can be personalized by embedding videos about an employee's job responsibilities, information about team members, or the department's specific goals.

"Orientation programs need to be more dynamic and be able to give employees coming in additional information as they're going through the onboarding or assimilation process," Perron says, adding that orientation programs should offer incremental information to employees well past their probationary period. "Make sure it's not a stagnant process and is personalized to the employee. Not everyone [should] get the same experience."

Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who specializes in covering HR issues.