Blended learning is a highly effective instructional strategy. In the past, virtual learning assets (microlearning, video, etc.) were embedded as one aspect of a broader blended learning program. As we look forward, such assets will be the essential pillars of blended virtual onboarding. How will your in-house and remote workers benefit from this shift?
Imagine: Opening the heavy glass doors of the skyscraper. Getting into an elevator and pressing the button for the 24th floor. Smoothing your hair in the elevator mirror. Meeting your boss and walking through the open space straight to your new cubicle. Feeling the looks, returning the smiles. Sweating a little. Exciting, yes?
As the world turns, markets become global, internet speeds faster—and a virus wreaks havoc world-wide. One of the consequences: the palpable energy of the physical, in-person first day at work may be a thing of the past for many.
The initial adjustment is a hard one, with a multitude of implications: the cost of disconnect, of the difficulties that come with virtual onboarding, the cultural implications associated with lack of understanding and experience of the culture itself. Human beings are social animals, and the value of human interaction, networking, physical proximity, teamwork, and sharing as elements of the onboarding experience are only being fully appreciated in their absence.
But as time marches on, a prolonged virtual experience is looking more and more like a grim reality for new employees. And we must and can develop strategies to deal with this new normal—and find ways to make it much less grim.
As learning, development, and human resource professionals, the field is ours. And the remedy is relatively simple: developing a blended virtual onboarding plan or program is key.
But Why Blended?
Think of your regular, in-person, physical onboarding program. If it’s already a top notch program, you convey the information a new employee needs to review, learn, fill out, print out, sign, etc., in a simple and intuitive way. A good portion of your assets—perhaps an introduction to the organization, your health and safety information, all of the necessary administrative paperwork—might already exist in digital, on-line form. And if that’s the case, you’re a step ahead of the curve and we can leverage all of those assets. If not, creating or recreating such deliverables is one of the more easily accomplished tasks in terms of blended learning development.
The greater challenge is creating viable substitutes for the personal interactions that your new employees are most decidedly are not getting while sitting in a home office and clicking through a presentation on the history of your organization.
Blended learning describes a learning experience that can be adapted toward a specific audience, and which is not constrained by space or time. With this in mind, a broader definition could be: learning in which the audience learns at least part of the time in a classical educational space and the other part of the time with the help of an online environment, controlling their own time, place, path and/or rhythm.
Blended learning implies variety (or a blend) of learning methods such as lectures, web-based trainings, learning videos, animations, microlearning, quick reference guides, checklists, etc. It also incorporates elements of social learning. It is this last characteristic that makes blended learning particularly suitable for contemporary virtual onboarding plans and programs. Social learning provides ample opportunities for interaction among new hires, their peers and management in both formal and informal settings.
What are the concrete benefits of blended virtual onboarding plans and programs?
Benefit #1: Clarity and Transparency
One of the greatest benefits of a fully virtual onboarding program is the clarity that can be provided by a simple, intuitive layout and organization of the facts, tasks and deadlines that are usually required of each new hire on their journey toward becoming a productive employee.
There are two critical elements as regards the clarity of your blended virtual onboarding program:
- Location. Having your onboarding learning deliverables scattered in different locations is certainly an option. However, in a virtual setting your new employees may not feel particularly empowered to ask clarifying questions. The onboarding experience can quickly become a source of frustration for them and complicated for your HR department when deadlines are missed and the information you receive is missing or inaccurate. Gathering all resources in single location—whether a website, onboarding application, or a simply structured onboarding folder on your company’s public drive—will simplify the process for all those involved.
Tip: It’s not always possible to gather and maintain all necessary forms, documents, and questionnaires in one location. Consider creating an onboarding “hub” based on curating and linking to the resources that are necessary for new employees. This type of solution is generally not cost prohibitive and is relatively easy to maintain. The real trick is then creating an intuitive structure.
- Structure. In the absence of a single designated point of contact or only virtual contact with an HR representative or colleague, a clear structure and rational organization of onboading tasks is essential for both the new employee and the person in charge of successful virtual onboarding. The structure should be exceedingly simple, and should highlight expected milestones for new hires. A chronological listing of onboarding tasks makes the most sense.
- Having an electronic checklist with linked (or embedded) resources, forms and learning assets is the easiest method of organization. When designing virtual onboarding we often recommend checklists of tasks to be completed for Day 1, Day 2, Day 3 then Week 1, Week 2 then Month 1, and so on.
- Since we are using the blended learning methodology to bridge the gap between online assets and human connection, make it a specific point to include an element of social connection or even social learning for every milestone or at expected intervals. Ideas might include kicking off Day 1 of the onboarding process with a virtual town hall so new employees can introduce themselves to one another, then reinforcing those newly made connections with informal opportunities for them to interact and connect after the town hall. Or you might consider assigning a virtual onboarding buddy that can shepherd a new hire through the program and ensure that deadlines and expectations are met.
The transparency aspect of this benefit is inherent in the design of most blended virtual onboarding plans and programs. Ease of accessibility implies ease of review, ease of providing feedback, and ease of providing comments. As one cog in the wheel of a continuous improvement loop, user input on your program is invaluable.
Benefit #2: Efficiency and Consistency
One of the strongest arguments in favor of virtual onboarding programs is their consistent nature. Consistency allows tremendous efficiency, though this is not achieved without difficulty, and is characterized by a two-pronged effort:
- Design. Designing an effective blended virtual onboarding program not only sets the tone of the experience; it also underlies the success of the program itself. Your design should include all the elements of a classic onboarding program in addition to the adaptations for social learning and interaction. Organization and structure also come into play here, as both are impacted by the conceptual design.
- Execution. Onboarding is a unique stage of an employee’s professional lifecycle; it sets the tone for their future at the organization. From a consistency standpoint, a well-crafted blended learning onboarding program should be executed as it was designed and should be visually (look and feel) and structurally (dedicated website, onboarding app) distinct from the day-to-day job tasks of the new employee.
- Take another look at your new employees. What are their online habits? What do they respond to? Do they like to learn by watching YouTube videos or do they like to geek out over a book? How do they like to interact when online? Then take a look at your organization, its goals and long-term vision. Marry the two by developing an onboarding program that resonates with the new employees but also directly supports your business initiatives.
- The conceptual design of your blended virtual onboarding program should be as granular as possible. Use classic learning methodologies (ADDIE, formulating learning objectives, etc.) to design a robust program with a variety of learning experiences which will work for your entire target audience.
- Use the design of a blended virtual onboarding program as an opportunity to determine how well your existing learning assets fit with the overall design. Analyze both length (shorter and snappier is better) as well as on look and feel, and adapt both as necessary.
Benefit #3: Ongoing Improvement
Employing the principles of blended learning and creating a series of fairly short learning experiences to achieve your onboarding objectives serves you as a learning professional in more ways than one. One of the key benefits is the fact that it’s easier to improve relatively short learning assets as opposed to revamping a two-hour long web-based training.
To take full advantage of this benefit, you should:
- Focus on microlearning. Diminishing attention spans have contributed to the longevity of what was once a novelty in learning and development. Long-winded courses and mind-numbing seminars are no longer the strategy of choice, as it’s more widely understood that they don’t achieve much beyond ticking the “completed” box. Short format learning pieces allow your new employee more time to process and apply their new skills, with the added benefit of the learning experience being more directly integrated with the actual work. In terms of education and human development this is a great leap forward.
- Allow for feedback. It can be scary to ask, “How would you rate this learning experience?” particularly if you’re asking the question at the conclusion of a two-hour online page-turner. Many learning professionals don’t even dare. The generation entering today’s workforce, however, is adept at providing constructive feedback, and if you don’t provide opportunities for it they will find other avenues (something along the lines of a negative Yelp review). Formalizing the evaluation of your onboarding efforts can not only make you and your stakeholders more accountable, it will also ultimately serve the organization you represent.
- Include a simple feedback form after each learning deliverable or learning program.
- Simplify target audience feedback with a stars or thumbs up/down rating system, but make sure to provide a comment box for more detailed opinions. However it is collected, such feedback will only prove useful if the culture of your organization welcomes the provided input. Honest opinions are the most valuable form of information about your efforts; if your company is leery of receiving potentially negative reactions from new employees, consider integrating an anonymous means of providing feedback.
It’s essential for companies to be prepared to provide virtual onboarding programs for their new hires, at least for the foreseeable future. While it might initially seem a daunting task, designing and implementing a blended virtual onboarding program can have unexpected benefits. Taking every opportunity to integrate social elements is crucial to getting your employees off on the right foot, and to making them feel the sense of kinship that develops when working toward common objectives. A blended virtual learning program will go a long way towards achieving that goal.