A Black man waves to his colleague on a video call from his office

For hybrid workforces, employers typically administer two onboarding systems: one for in-office workers and one for remote workers. In-office workers typically get the better experience, while “the remote employee experience [doesn’t] get as many calories dedicated to thinking through it and debugging it,” said Michael Plante, chief marketing officer at eFileCabinet, a tech company that builds software for document management.

This isn’t good enough. According to Plante, engagement across the workforce depends on equally thoughtful experiences that begin when an employee joins the company. “The onboarding experience, the talent-development experience, the promotion experience, and the evaluation experience need to be identical, whether the employee is in the office or remote,” he said.

Plante has spent decades managing remote and hybrid teams and has seen work style evolve from the management-by-walking-around school to the more recent philosophy of management-by-outcomes. The best of both approaches need to be applied to the new, distributed-work environment.

Plante said that early in his career, the tech “simply was not up to the task” of linking hybrid teams. Hours of conference calls have since been replaced with Zoom, Slack, and email, while FedEx and fax machines have been surpassed by secure document-management systems. “Today, we have much better technology. It’s much more affordable, much more readily available. That’s been a big catalyst for improving our ability to productively and effectively manage and support remote and hybrid work.” Since the ability is there to provide equal experiences,  employers need to deliver.

I interviewed Plante for a From Day One webinar titled “Boosting Engagement With a Hybrid Workforce, From Onboarding to Advancement,” in which we talked about ways to make the hybrid work experience worthwhile to workers who don’t report to the office every day–or ever.

Replicating the In-Office Experience for Remote Teams

Replicating the in-office experience is not a matter of holding staff meetings via Zoom. One-on-one meetings between a manager and a direct report, for example, are easy enough to replicate via video call, but other parts of onboarding require more planning. The trouble is worth it, he said.

Plante described the way he welcomes new hires: “When I’m onboarding a new hire in Turkey or onboarding a new hire in India, I shift to their time zone so I can spend a decent chunk of my day like I would with them if they were in the office, right down Door Dashing both of us lunch at 2 a.m. my time so that we can have that same quality of experience.”

A conversation on employee engagement with Michael Plante of eFileCabinet and moderator Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza (Image by From Day One)

To help new hires transition to life with their distributed colleagues, Plante recommended assigning non-management coaches or mentors to new hires. “It’s a great way to build connections,” he said, and it can replicate casual office chat that new employees use to pick up the office culture. Plante recalled one program intended to help new hires acclimate. “For the first 60 days or 90 days, this other person in accounting or in manufacturing would be assigned to be your peer, just to help you get through culture questions that you didn’t feel comfortable asking your manager or you didn’t feel as comfortable asking teammates, you could ask this person that was assigned just to be your buddy.”

As employees get comfortable, it’s worth revisiting the onboarding process, Plante said, and recommended “re-onboarding” employees at regular intervals, even after they’ve been with the company for a while.

HR departments already have regular cadences with performance-review sessions and open enrollment for benefits. The same can be done for other pieces of the onboarding process, like introducing company policies and values, digital tools, avenues for raising concerns, how to access learning opportunities, what it takes to get a promotion, and how to join employee networks.

Engagement also calls for good relationships with team members, and this requires making an effort to replicate the social experience of working in an office. “I rolled my eyes at a lot of the things that we did to compensate for the lack of in-person social [interaction],” he said of the first few months of Covid, “but I’ll be darned if they didn’t actually work.”

His team tried virtual happy hours and starting meetings off with a 10-minute game. They made groups for people who share similar interests outside of work. “We spend a lot of time doing social things at those critical moments in the employee journey,” he said.

Making Promotable Work Available to Everyone

Providing equitable access to career-advancement opportunities for all workers in a hybrid environment requires two things, Plante said. The first is “evaluating performance and affording promotions based on measurable output,” and the second is making a point to compensate for the fact that some workers aren’t in the office benefitting from water-cooler talk or aren’t around to hear casual chat about new projects and the like.

The latter can be done by adding regular mileposts to check in on what the employee has worked on, what they’d like to work on, and the skills they want to add. “We can extend career progression opportunities to anybody in the world today,” he said.

Employers have an obligation to invest in employee growth, and those opportunities can now be had no matter where an employee lives. “I don’t care where you sit. If you’re meeting performance expectations, I’m going to invest in your professional development, and you’re going to be front of the line to get promotion opportunities, particularly the ones that line up with your career objectives.”

Hybrid setups now afford promotable opportunities to workers who wouldn’t have had them before. For example, those who have roles that aren’t directly promotable. “If you were an employee in Tokyo, and you wanted to transition from field marketing to product marketing, even if you were the best field marketer in the world and you knew our products cold, unless I had the budget, and you had the willingness and readiness to relocate to headquarters, I couldn’t do a whole lot for you. Now I can.”

Plante believes HR should push management to afford these chances to their teams, that getting the opportunities to the workers who need them requires everyone to pitch in. “I would encourage HR teams to help their their functional leadership teams appreciate the fact that hybrid work means I can now extend professional opportunities and career development opportunities to employees anywhere in the world, not just to hire them, but to develop them and to mature them in ways I never could before.”

Editor’s note: From Day One thanks our partner who sponsored this webinar, eFileCabinet.

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance writer based in Richmond, Va. She writes about the workplace, DEI, hiring, and issues faced by women. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Fast Company, and Food Technology, among others.