It certainly seems like a weird time for offices right now. Between developers backing out of office deals because of rising interest rates and office workers resistant to coming back to in-person work full-time, it can seem like trouble ahead for physical office space. But the opposite looks to be true as demand for office space recently leapt upward. Many companies across the U.S. are banking on a return to in-person work because they believe that showing up to the office is better for employee collaboration. One important and often overlooked aspect of this collaboration is onboarding new employees.
When the COVID-19 pandemic took over, so did remote work. Businesses changed overnight as people hunkered down in their homes in hopes of a quick return to normal. Of course, that didn’t happen. The COVID-19 virus roared on, and it was clear that remote work wasn’t a flash in the pan. People no longer had to be tethered to live within commuting distances of their respective offices, and that empowered many to realize that they could live anywhere they wanted. Since 2020, 4.9 million people in the U.S. moved elsewhere thanks to remote work, according to data from Upwork. That trend is showing no signs of slowing down as people are letting go of the idea of coming to the office altogether. As of last March, 18.9 million Americans are planning on moving too.
In spite of these migration patterns and a dramatic shift in the culture of work over the past two years, the pandemic did not kill the office. Many businesses maintain that there is still a place for offices when it comes to their company’s culture. Even though it might be tempting for companies to downsize their office real estate to match the lowered occupancy levels from hybrid schedules, or drop the office altogether if every employee can fully work from home, there’s a pervasive belief that face-to-face contact has value.
In fact, a number of major companies that have permanently integrated remote work into their business model have expanded their office holdings, including Meta (formerly Facebook), Microsoft, Airbnb, and Apple. A recent report from CBRE expressed that office occupancy levels will continue to increase this year, even though 70 percent of employers surveyed said that they intend to allow their workers the flexibility of working from both home and the office.
Though many have gotten comfortable with remote work, there are some pitfalls. The main issue regarding hybrid or remote work, according to more than a third of CEOs interviewed in Deloitte’s 2021 Return to Workplaces survey, is sustaining workplace culture. There’s an inherent disconnect within a company’s ecosystem when everyone is virtual, so maintaining productivity and collaboration can be a challenge. For some employees who were in the office before the pandemic struck, losing that sense of camaraderie hasn’t been easy. “I’ve experienced [my co-workers] as disembodied squares on my screen for so long,” lamented Sarah Lyall of The New York Times, “that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be with them in real life.”
One of the biggest disadvantages of remote work is the negative effects it has on mentorship. Employees who were in the office before the pandemic had the fortune of being brought into the company through personal interactions. Employees who started their jobs after March 2020 didn’t. It’s hard enough to maintain workplace culture virtually, but it’s an entirely different story for new hires who are trying to navigate their brand-new roles at a distance.
Onboarding is the first opportunity for companies to align new hires to their co-workers and the company’s values. During the onboarding process, not only do employees get acclimated to their role, they’re introduced to their company’s vision, core values, and what the company has to offer. Onboarding “offers an imprinting window when you can make an impression that stays with new employees for the duration of their careers,” said Amy Hirsh Robinson, principal of the consulting firm The Interchange Group. “Onboarding is a magic moment when new employees decide to stay engaged or become disengaged.” Incidentally, a survey from Careerbuilder and Silkroad Technology showed that employees who are onboarded properly feel engaged, and engaged employees are 87 percent less likely to leave the company.
Employee attrition and productivity loss increase when employees aren’t onboarded properly. On the surface, onboarding new employees is a process to clearly define their day-to-day operations, but it’s also to jumpstart personal connections by introducing new employees to their coworkers. Without personal connections, a role in a company is reduced to “a list of tasks,” said Chris Collins, associate professor and director of graduate studies at Cornell University’s ILR School. “There’s no loyalty to the company.”
But, the onboarding process for most companies definitely suffered when COVID-19 emptied office buildings everywhere. On an employee’s first day, after filling out their paperwork, they will usually head over to the company’s IT department to obtain any equipment they may need. It’s off to their work area to get started once they’ve suited up.
A remote new worker may be concerned about having the necessary tools on hand from the start, or worse, having to teach themselves their company programs because their onboarding process had been rushed now because it had gone fully virtual. It makes it easy to see why the study conducted by Paychex, an HR solutions provider, found that 67 percent of employees said that in-person onboarding was more successful than virtual onboarding.
Now that companies are beginning to nudge their workers back to the office, effective onboarding will be another argument in favor of returning to the office. When an employee understands the vision, mission, and processes that power the company’s ability to achieve its goals, they can become a more productive team member, faster. Much of the operational knowledge in an organization lies with the veteran employees, so the more distance that is put between them and new hires the less of that knowledge will be transferred. The world is relearning about the value of a shared workspace and onboarding new hires is starting to float to the top of that list.