Streamlining remote onboarding with AI to provide the right information at the right time

This article was originally published as a guest post written by Chris Buttenham in TechCrunch on March 2, 2021.

Well before the COVID-19 pandemic forced organizations across the globe to shutter the office environment that most of us are familiar with, there was a paradigm shift happening within the modern workplace. We evolved from somewhat of an analog business environment; phones, faxes and in person meetings, to software eating the world. Yet, for most organizations that have adopted the digital workplace, they have done so with point solutions (singular tools with limited purposes). It is the norm for companies to have a system for payroll, another tool for CRM, video conferencing, issue tracking—the list goes on. This worked for us until, one day, we woke up and realized that we had a separate SaaS solution for every node of our business and they all existed disparately across the organization. Data is siloed and employees, on average, are wasting 28 hours a week looking for information they need to be productive.

Within the last 5 years, tools like Slack have helped us bridge the gap between our business systems and are quickly becoming the “operating system” (OS) for modern work. Meanwhile, there is no shortage of attempts from software companies trying to create their own competitive moat with integration partners. Zoom just recently launched their own app marketplace that claims to be the central hub for collaboration at work. Can you sense the skepticism? Whether your organization has been all-remote, partially remote or no-remote, I’d be surprised if you haven’t seen an increased reliance on solutions like Slack to communicate and collaborate internally at work. These tools allow for water-cooler conversation, asynchronous meetings and org-wide announcements—all in one. More importantly, these platforms centralize our work and our data, enabling endless new possibilities for the future of work.

Onboarding Employees in the Modern Workplace

When you’re looking to onboard new employees in the digital age, no longer do you have the luxury of first-day meet and greets, in-person hardware setup and a team lunch. From interview to offer-letter and beyond, your new hire’s journey is critical for productively ramping up within the organization and sets the tone for how well an employee syncs with your culture going forward. Organizations have to be more thoughtful than ever when it comes to induction of new employees remotely and it starts with the work OS.

There are plenty of good new hire checklists out there that will put you ahead of the average organization that throws newbies into the deep end on day one. Though, in order to really set your new hire onboarding process apart from the rest, you’ll need to start thinking more proactively about this challenge. For newcomers joining your organization, it’s just as important that they have the right information at the right time, as getting that beautiful box of company swag in the mail. Below I will outline some of the processes, tools and technology that can be used to streamline onboarding in the digital era and suggestions for how the future of work unfolds.

It starts with culture

This is arguably the most important piece of the puzzle when it comes to ensuring newcomers are able to access the right information at the right time. It’s also the most difficult to get right. Whether or not you’re able to influence the organization as a whole, you need to start thinking about building a culture of knowledge sharing within your team. At its core, ensuring that knowledge is accessible is a systemic challenge that is overcome from the top down. Gitlab, an all-remote company, famously coined the term “handbook-first” and acts as a great role model for a company that lives and breathes through documenting and codifying internal knowledge. Everyone within the organization needs to have bought into the mantra that documenting what you know and keeping company documentation up to date is paramount to the company’s livelihood, otherwise it becomes a task that is very much “skippable”. In order for newcomers to be able to access the right information at the right time, there must be a living source of truth for the organization or team that they can trust to be accurate.

When employees are new to an organization, it’s likely the moment in time where they are most susceptible to new ideas and changes in behavior. By instilling a strong culture of knowledge sharing and collaboration, you are setting good habits for years to come that are able to be translated and echoed from employee to employee.

Next, it’s workflow

There are two types of information that one needs to have in order to thrive in a new workplace: explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge.

Explicit knowledge can be recorded and structured into an organizational knowledge asset. Others can find it, reuse it, and collaborate on the knowledge. Explicit knowledge includes documents, code, manuals, websites, videos, presentations, procedures, etc. McKinsey suggests a searchable record of knowledge can reduce, by as much as 35%, the time employees spend searching for company info. Centralizing your explicit knowledge assets will reduce some of these organizational inefficiencies, and administrative overhead. Ensure your knowledge base tools, wikis and documentation are easily accessible where people work. Take advantage of out-of-the-box integrations that can push updates and changes to everyone in real-time through the work OS.

Tacit knowledge is the information and knowledge you keep in your head, and you can spew at will. It’s what we know that we don’t know. In other words, you don’t know what you know, until someone asks. For example: “What are the 3 sales strategies you would tell people to follow?”. Pairing new comers with buddies through social Slack channels and even bots, can begin to have tacit knowledge flow organically.

Then comes technology

Many organizations look at the onboarding process (or any process, for that matter) and tackle the steps backwards. Far too many tools and technologies promise to pick up the slack for a foundational culture of knowledge sharing and solid process—this simply won’t work. Assuming these boxes have been checked, the low hanging fruit is to ensure to-do’s, signings and enrollments are all automated through the various project management and HRIS systems available at our disposal—that’s table stakes. We must assume, at this point, you’re considering a tool like Slack to power communication and collaboration. Perhaps more interestingly, we now can use technology like natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning to aggregate common questions and roadblocks faced by newcomers and automatically recommend solutions to them as they occur throughout their employee journey.

As soon as organizations begin to collect data on the tenure of a given employee in various roles across their company, an AI model can start to learn from the challenges past and present employees face. Now, with paths well travelled, the AI can cater the onboarding experience to the specific individual and their unique role and responsibilities. With this technology available, we can now begin to not only ensure new hires have the right information at the right time, but anticipate what they will need in the future to be successful within the organization.

Hard to imagine? Let’s walk through a possible scenario. Before the new hire even begins, they have already received a box of company swag in the mail and forms have been automatically sent and signed from information gathered in the applicant tracking system. On the first day, the employee is presented with benefits enrollment information and automatically gets paired with a buddy in the organization to Zoom over lunch. Through the coming weeks, historical roadblocks disappear as answers and relevant information is proactively sent to the newcomer via Slack. Trying to further the momentum already gained, the employee turns to the intelligent centralized search engine instead of bothering a colleague when questioning the current priorities for the quarter. 

When software and systems are properly communicating and integrated with the work OS, employee’s have a better chance of gaining access to the right information at the right time, and for the first time, there is a sufficient amount of data that can be used to influence AI that ensures everyone is up to speed in record time.