The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown have presented everyone with challenges at home and in the workplace. The University of Cape Town (UCT) has had to rapidly adapt to working remotely, including the hiring, onboarding and training of new staff.
Megan Abrahams, the senior helpdesk manager at UCT’s Information and Communication Technology Services (ICTS), shares how the department has managed the virtual onboarding of new staff, with new staff members Leigh Breda and Severo Pastor weighing in on their experiences.
Interviews and hiring
Breda was interviewed in person shortly before lockdown, but all subsequent interviews were conducted virtually. Video interviews were conducted via Teams, with strict rules in place: the candidate’s camera always had to be on, while each interviewer would turn theirs on while speaking.
“With careful questioning and our years of interview experience, we feel we were still able to choose the right candidates.”
Abrahams found that, while the interviewing team were all familiar with one another, using video conferencing made it much more difficult to get a sense of the candidate.
“We are used to visual cues and watching body language. However, with careful questioning and our years of interview experience, we feel we were still able to choose the right candidates.”
Another key factor, which has never been included in interviews before, was whether successful applicants had the capacity to work from home.
“This will likely become a more important requirement in future as we navigate these uncertain times in which remote working will become more important,” said Abrahams.
Preparing for the unknown
With successful applicants chosen to begin their new roles, next came the unfamiliar prospect of onboarding staff during a global pandemic.
“The helpdesk looked at how tech giants like Amazon and Google handle virtual onboarding. We found that even though a lot of their staff work remotely (even before lockdown), each staff member worked onsite for the first month or two of their employment in order to get acquainted with colleagues and learn about processes and procedures,” said Abrahams.
“We did things on the fly at first. We were completely honest with our new employees – letting them know that this was new to us too. In the end, we just made the best of it, and that has worked very well.”
Getting to know each other
The onboarding process starts with an orientation phase, which was handled via Teams for Breda and Pastor. The ICTS trainers set up an ICTS Helpdesk team meeting, complete with interactive online games, to help introduce the new staff members to their colleagues in a fun way.
Breda, as a manager, got to know each staff member he’d be overseeing via one-on-one meetings. Because this was done virtually, it took much longer than it would have under normal circumstances. However, he believes that without these meetings, he would probably have felt a lot more isolated and lost.
“Talking to people and putting faces to names helped give me a better sense of belonging to the organisation.”
“Talking to people and putting faces to names helped give me a better sense of belonging to the organisation,” said Breda.
“Getting to know people is much slower remotely, and I’m still getting to know them. It feels a lot less personal than it would be normally. Relationships are harder to build because there aren’t those times to have coffee or just quick chats.”
However, despite the challenges, he’s enjoyed getting to know his new colleagues.
“Not for one minute did anyone make me feel out of place. Within a few weeks, I felt like I’ve been here for years!”
Pastor shared these sentiments: “The ICTS daily challenges (a daily ICTS-wide engagement game played on Teams) definitely made me feel like I am part of the team.”
Learning the ropes
Breda’s line manager worked closely with him, holding frequent one-on-one meetings in his first few weeks to help acquaint him with ICTS processes and procedures, as well as dealing with incidents and issues on a case-by-case basis.
Pastor was taught the basics of ICTS under the guidance of a mentor. He was also shown live practical examples of working with a customer via ServiceNow.
As the IT Helpdesk’s first consultant to be trained virtually, Pastor found the process challenging: “I definitely think it would have gone a lot quicker in real life because this is not only a new experience for me, but also for the people who have been training me.”
He found abundant support though, with “nearly every helpdesk team member offering to help me with anything I did not understand”.
The way forward
With COVID-19 still looming, we are living in a ‘new normal’ where we have to adapt our methods to accommodate virtual onboarding as the standard for now.
“Having done this a few times now, we have the feel for it and have a smooth and efficient process which works well,” said Abrahams.
As hybrid working may become the norm in future, she hopes that – once the pandemic is over – new employees will spend the first few months in the office before being allowed to transition to partial or full-time remote work.
Her department is documenting official procedures and processes for further virtual onboarding.
“We’re hoping for a swift end to the pandemic, after which we can put these plans into action.”
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