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Onboarding During a Pandemic

By Les Shaver

One company relies on technology, peer pressure to acclimate new employees.

As the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the nation, many companies laid off and furloughed employees. Edgewood and Vantage Management, which operates 200 affordable and market-rate multi-family residential communities in 10 states plus the District of Columbia, weren’t among that group.

Instead, the firm was adding to its 900-person workforce nationwide. Approximately 90 percent of these associates work onsite.

“Our hiring has not slowed down,” says Jason Salamon, Senior Vice President of Human Resources for Edgewood and Vantage. “We are one of those essential businesses with thousands of residents needing us to take care of the property that they call home. So, we continue to recruit and run the onboarding and new hire orientation welcome that comes along with that.”

Onboarding presents a greater challenge in this era of closed offices and social distancing. Salamon says Edgewood and Vantage’s community managers are great at training new associates when they arrive onsite. Still, the company has a centralized onboarding program to teach new hires the fundamentals about the organization, service culture and systems.

Tools like GoToMeeting, Zoom, Skype and FaceTime allow the company’s teams to “put a face with the name and be able to substitute ‘in-person’ with a different form of ‘face-to-face’.” Virtual training requires coordination, but the company already had a learning management system and virtual contingencies in place. While that was an asset, Salamon and their learning and development facilitators lost the opportunity to shake hands and work the room.

“Going to 100 percent virtual learning has changed things because there is something to be said about the in-person engagement that you can get from individuals who are sitting in a classroom with you,” Salamon says. “When it comes to training, I’ve facilitated hundreds of hours of programs in my career. It’s worth admitting that you do lose something not being in the same room as your audience.”

Part of the challenge is not knowing when people are engaged, especially if they have an aversion to being on camera.

“It’s like attending any other conference call,” Salamon says. “There’s a good chance that at some point during the session, they’re not fully listening to everything that you’re saying, or they may be multitasking.”

Edgewood and Vantage found that peer nudging to go on camera has worked, as well as working towards making those appearances mandatory.

“If you can make eye contact with folks, you can tell that they’re engaged and listening and participating,” Salamon says. “Online polls or breakout rooms are becoming more and more frequent in platforms like Zoom. They make it a little bit easier to tell whether or not someone is fully engaged.”

Once the new hire gets onsite, mentoring and shadowing also create new challenges. For instance, maintenance hires can no longer perform in-unit inspections, and they are performing virtual tours for prospective residents because coming onsite creates risk in this environment. “We’re trying to limit our exposure to our residents by only going in for emergencies and preparing vacant units to become rentable,” Salamon says. “The number of opportunities that staff members may have to learn on the job is somewhat limited.”

Even in normal times, managing a dispersed workforce is challenging. Edgewood and Vantage is relying on its regional property managers and our operations leadership to be the glue that keeps its field staff connected with the corporate philosophy.

“Training and development is certainly a prime target for out-of-the-box thinking as is our way for continuing to keep our people engaged, whether we are affected by a pandemic or not,” Salamon says.  “As much as we are adapting to this ‘new normal’, it is our ability to prepare for the ‘next normal’ that will set us apart.”