Does digital onboarding have a future after the pandemic?

The story behind digital onboarding

Digital onboarding was embraced by companies and HR leaders during the Covid pandemic. And why wouldn’t it be? It is essentially when a typical onboarding or induction process for new employees or customers is carried out online.

As the pandemic accelerated the digital transformation of many companies, it’s logical that onboarding would also become part of this transformation. In 2021, companies offering remote onboarding services pulled in more than $3 billion from investors. It belongs to the same cultural change that saw a huge shift towards hybrid or remote working during Covid.

As the dust settles and we examine the increasing digitalisation in the workplace, and adoption of hybrid/remote working styles, it’s worth asking if digital onboarding is here to stay too.

Adapting to digital onboarding

The significant issue with digital onboarding is that, despite it being an essential function of recruitment, many companies entered the pandemic with outdated processes. Security measures involving identity verification had to be completely overhauled, with the implementation of e-sign options as one solution.

One of the key intangible assets of in-person onboarding – making a new employee feel settled and part of company culture – is more difficult to achieve remotely. Many companies tried to address this by sending welcome packages to an employee’s home or conducting virtual tours of the office.

Another aspect of company culture that changed was the existence of impromptu meetings. Gone were the days of idle talk with a colleague by the watercooler or a quick five-minute catchup needed to push a project along. In working remotely, there are only several channels of communication and each one often requires booking that conversation ahead of time. This could be particularly challenging for new employees arriving to this environment. Regular established meetings or webinars about specific technical topics were common solutions to this problem. Managers have also been forced to become more actively communicative than before, which again is especially important when interacting with new employees.

The benefits of digital onboarding after Covid

The general push for digital onboarding has had a positive long-term effect. A Department of Industrial Economics survey of tech, manufacturing and construction sectors in Sweden found that many companies have been forced to revisit their onboarding strategies and take a long-overdue assessment of their efficacy. Even in companies that don’t intend to continue digital onboarding after the pandemic, this has been a net benefit.

The same survey suggested that digital-led sectors such as tech are able to adapt far more effectively to digital onboarding, and gain more of a benefit from doing so.

However, while tech companies were able to better adapt to digital onboarding in a practical sense, socialisation and bonding between colleagues still suffered, even in well-resourced tech corporations. A May 2021 survey of over 250 new hires at Microsoft reported specific communication issues and difficulties building connections with their colleagues. The new employees were also concerned with disturbing team dynamics, even while they believed that their managers and HR leaders tried their best to make them feel welcome.

An industry leader’s perspective

Silvia Braghieri, a member of Continental Search Alliance with over twenty years of experience in executive search, offers her perspective on the future of digital onboarding.

 For a successful digital onboarding, the key words are adaptability, flexibility and to always consider customization. Never risk standardizing the process when dealing with human resources! It is not easy to create tailor-made onboarding that takes into account the individual characteristics of each new starter, especially in the big organizations, but it is a winning strategy.

Our experience, especially in the innovation/tech startups, teaches us that there are two other initiatives that are much appreciated among the new employees: the pre-onboarding and the assignment of a buddy. The onboarding process must start long before the first day ‘in the office’ and it is an important card to play in terms of care and attention, but also good organization of the company.

The buddy also brings a lot in terms of humanizing the digital onboarding process: his role is to make sure that the new employee feels comfortable and he acts as a point of contact for any personal issues that the new entry may not feel comfortable talking to the manager about.

Final Thoughts

There are distinct advantages to digital onboarding that align well with remote working in particular. It seems clear that companies can save time and resources by continuing digital onboarding practices for these types of employees.

However, for on-site or hybrid-working employees, the advantages of digital onboarding are less clear. It is clear that many aspects of digital onboarding are not permanent, long-term solutions but rather resourceful quick fixes in the face of a pandemic. The shift brought many positives for companies sorely needing to refocus their onboarding practices in general. However, it seems unlikely that all digital onboarding techniques implemented in 2020 and 2021 will remain in place for the significant future if the confidence of new employees and their ability to engage with company culture is threatened.


Silvia Braghieri / Tom Boughen for Continental Search Alliance.

Continental Search Alliance recruits for mid-level to C-suite executive positions from scalable startups to the world’s largest tech firms, combining tech and digital expertise with extensive reach across EMEA and APAC.