Relationship building is an essential part of onboarding. The most essential relationship is the one between an employee and his or her boss. The strongest relationships are built with face-to-face interactions.
So, how important are face-to-face interactions for onboarding?
Essential when it comes to the relationship between a boss and employee. Essential when it comes to the relationships between critical stakeholders. But not necessarily essential for other things. In those cases virtual tools can help.
Onboarding done well involves aligning, acquiring, accommodating, assimilating and accelerating new team members, whether they come from outside or inside the organization:
- Align: Make sure your organization agrees on the need for a new team member and the delineation of the role you seek to fill.
- Acquire: Identify, recruit, select and get people to join the team.
- Accommodate: Give new team members the tools they need to do work.
- Assimilate: Help them join with others so they can do work together.
- Accelerate: Help them and their team deliver better results faster.
(This is taken from our book, Onboarding.)
In the most simplistic terms, communication can be divided into indirect communication, direct communication and emotional communication.
- Indirect communication is your message delivered by others, leading to awareness.
- Direct communication is your message delivered by you one-on-one, in a small group or in a large group leading to understanding.
- motional communication almost always involves an intimate dialogue on the way to belief and commitment.
Virtual tools are particularly well suited for indirect communication, can help with direct communication and are risky for emotional communication. One thought is that initial meetings should take place face-to-face and video-conferencing and the like can be used for follow-up meetings.
InterCall's Eric Vidal took me through some of the efficiency and cost-saving advantages of utilizing a virtual environment for some aspects of onboarding. InterCall's virtual environments are two-dimensional. This makes them far richer than normal "flat" onboarding portals and far easier, faster, and less costly to build and maintain than three-dimensional virtual places like Second Life.
One of InterCall's clients is IBM. Vidal says IBM has one of the world's largest virtual environments. They use it for product development, marketing and training. IBM's Mid-Market briefing environment is leveraged by employees, customers and partners. Some of their environments are web-portals, some are three-dimensional, and some are two-dimensional. Their virtual onboarding environment is built on InterCall's two-dimensional platform to make it easy for IBM's people to keep it fresh.
InterCall's approach is to make their environment deliver an "almost in-person" experience. Users log in and then come into a central hall. From there they can go into different rooms to join: large group lectures, small group workshops, libraries of information, or experts' offices for pre-scheduled virtual office hours. As people move through the environment they see their own icons and the icons of others that are in the environment at the same time so they can communicate with them in real time.
This "almost in-person" approach has advantages.
Indirect. "Almost in-person" communication beats indirect communication because it's "almost direct" and not filtered by another person. This will work particularly well for delivering information, especially in the accommodation phase of onboarding - giving new employees the information and tools they need to do work.
Direct. "Almost in-person" is a form of direct communication, completely appropriate for follow-up meetings and pulling people together for group discussions across all stages of onboarding.
Emotional. "Almost in-person" is hugely risky for emotional communication. Roughly 10 percent of communication comes in the words. 35% is tone. 55% is body language. While you can deliver words "almost in-person" and can get most of tone, body language doesn't come through completely, potentially leading to an "almost emotional" connection. So, use "almost in-person" tools for assimilation and acceleration when face-to-face is not an option; but compensate for the gaps and risks with over-communication in other ways and other times.
Net, while virtual tools are not the right choice for all situations, they can make a big impact when leveraged appropriately.