Opening illustration by Elisabeth Schettle

By LaToya Lester

In March 2020, while many around the world were hurriedly bracing for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, human resource (HR) specialists across the Department of State were bracing for their own unprecedented challenge—immediate development and implementation of a virtual onboarding process. Faced with legacy HR applications, limited video conferencing capabilities, and an ocean of unknowns, HR service providers began feeling the pressure as they carefully contemplated a path forward. With much coordination and assistance from technology experts, including the Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s (DS) Security Support Division and Office of Security Infrastructure, and Department leadership, the first virtual onboarding session was conducted, March 30, 2020, for an audience of 14 new Civil Service employees. Now, a year later, the Bureau of Global Talent Management’s Office of Talent Services (GTM/TS) has virtually onboarded more than 485 new hires and is ready to share successes, lessons learned, and best practices. 

GTM/TS observed growth in three key areas during this period of virtual onboarding new Civil Service employees—volume, audience, and employee engagement.  

During the first quarter of the calendar year 2021, GTM/TS virtually welcomed 163 new faces into the Department. This was a 35 percent increase from the same period in 2020. While the uptick can undoubtedly be attributed to ongoing bureau-wide efforts to bolster Civil Service recruiting, it could also suggest that virtual onboarding and eliminating geographic barriers offer a level of flexibility that employees and their managers are eager to explore. 

Using a virtual onboarding process has allowed GTM/TS to expand its reach. When the New Hire Orientation was previously held in-person, the audience was limited to new hires that could physically attend orientation in Washington. Establishing a virtual onboarding process has allowed GTM/TS to expand the office’s capabilities and incorporate new hires at remote and field offices to include Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Hawaii. This process offers a consistent onboarding experience to each new hire regardless of their proximity to the capital region.
This period of teleworking gave GTM/TS the space and flexibility to re-imagine its onboarding process. Before the pandemic, the in-person onboarding process focused primarily on satisfying policy and regulatory requirements. After spending several hours reviewing and signing forms, new employees received an hour-long security briefing before being escorted several blocks to the badging office. During virtual onboarding, GTM/TS has shifted towards a customer-centered orientation experience. New hire documentation is now collected in advance so new employees can spend their first-day learning and engaging with peers. The orientation experience is modern, interactive, and designed to add value to their day-one experience.    

As with any type of large-scale change, the transition to virtual onboarding was not without its growing pains. GTM/TS learned some valuable lessons as it adjusted to the new normal. Among these lessons, offering a secure alternative to emailing forms was key. Once the novelty of this new process began to wear off, and customers became acclimated to the new normal, another challenge was identified—new hires wanted a secure way to transmit their completed onboarding paperwork. Onboarding paperwork contains loads of personally identifiable information, including social security numbers, dates of birth, banking information, and much more. A growing number of new hires expressed concern about sending this information via email. After discovering this problem, GTM/TS leadership was able to work with GTM’s Executive Office (EX) Systems Oversight Division to identify a solution—the Foreign Affairs Network (FAN). The FAN team quickly developed a secure solution for sending and receiving onboarding forms.  

Throughout the challenges that the team encountered, this process reinforced the need for inter-Department collaboration. Working with other offices in the GTM family, including the Office of Civil Service Talent Management, GTM/EX, as well as various other bureaus like DS and the Bureau of  Information Resource Management, made this project possible. It took a village to get where the office is today, and collaboration was key. 

Continuous improvement is a primary pillar of the GTM/TS philosophy. While the virtual onboarding process has made huge strides this year, there is always room for improvement. Starting a new job can be overwhelming, even more so when the job is with the federal government. Navigating the many layers of guidance, approvals, and Department/bureau requirements can be daunting. Initiating the onboarding process as early as possible allows new hires to ease into this transition gradually. 

  During the onboarding process, new hires are often in touch with several people at once: their supervisor, bureau HR, office manager, recruitment HR specialist, and others. GTM/TS learned that having a single communication stream allowed their team to offer faster response times and keep everyone abreast of new developments. 

Last March, large-scale virtual onboarding was an unchartered territory at the Department. The policy guidance that regulates this process has constantly evolved. Keeping sight of the intention of the onboarding process, vice the process itself, has allowed GTM/TS the flexibility to modify the process as needed to ensure compliance with all guidelines. 

Virtual onboarding has been an asset throughout the COVID-19 teleworking initiative. The potential of a streamlined virtual onboarding process is unlimited. As the Department begins its migration to the “new normal,” only time will tell what the Department’s Civil Service Orientation looks like in the future. 

LaToya Lester is a supervisory human resources specialist in the Bureau of Global Talent Management’s Office of Talent Services.

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