Digital Employee Onboarding from Top to Bottom: A Complete Guide

What is digital employee onboarding, how is it different from standard employee onboarding, and why do these questions matter?

In this complete guide to digital employee onboarding, we’ll learn everything there is to know about digital employee onboarding, including:

  • The definition of digital employee onboarding – and how it differs from standard employee onboarding
  • How to design digital employee onboarding programs
  • Useful software and technology
  • How great onboarding can improve training efforts, the employee experience, and employee productivity
  • Why digital adoption platforms are essential tools in digital onboarding efforts

And much more…

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Let’s start by looking at some basic definitions and key concepts.

Digital Employee Onboarding: What It Is and Why Businesses Should Care

Digital employee onboarding is an important concept to understand for HR professionals, executives, and any other stakeholders concerned with the employee experience.

Before making improvements to this process, it is necessary to understand what it is and why it matters.

Key Definitions and Concepts

“Digital employee onboarding” is just one of several important concepts that modern HR managers should understand if they want to improve the digital work environment.

Let’s look at a few of these definitions:

  • Digital Employee Onboarding – Digital employee onboarding refers to the digital side of the employee onboarding process. Today, since online and offline experiences are intertwined in most businesses, virtually all employee experiences include a digital component. 
  • Employee Onboarding – Employee onboarding is a stage in the employee life cycle … that is, the employee experience. Onboarding is the stage when an employee is introduced to and becomes familiar with an organization, their work, the organization’s culture, and so on.
  • The Employee Experience – This experience is the journey that an employee makes within a company, referring to all of the interactions an employee has with a company. That journey begins with the first time an employer and employee make contact, then continues after the employee departs a company.
  • The Digital Workplace – The digital workplace is the digital component of the modern work environment. Today, this component represents a significant portion of the modern work world. In fact, as we will discover later, onboarding specialists should view the digital and non-digital sides of the workplace as one whole, rather than as two separate concepts.
  • Digital Transformation – Technology is transforming today’s economy from the ground up. These transformations can involved changes to business processes, revenue models, organizational cultures, the employee life cycle, and much more. Changes such as these are referred to under the umbrella term, “digital transformation,” which provides the impetus for many of today’s organizational changes.
  • Digital Adoption – Digital adoption is a critical stage within digital transformation, since it affects employee skills, productivity, and performance. Software adoption and digital adoption processes also directly influence the effectiveness of digital employee onboarding processes.

Now that we have a basic understanding of digital employee onboarding and a few related concepts, let’s examine the digital onboarding process in a bit more detail.

The Components of the Digital Employee Onboarding Process

Digital employee onboarding shares the same essential components as non-digital onboarding.

These include:

  • Offer and acceptance
  • Documentation and paperwork
  • The orientation process
  • Early software training
  • Digital product tours
  • Technical support

To be effective, these stages should blend seamlessly with subsequent points along the employee journey – continued training and development.

Why Digital Employee Onboarding Matters

Digital onboarding matters for many of the same reasons that “non-digital” onboarding matters.

Onboarding affects:

  • Employees’ perception of the workplace
  • Satisfaction, motivation, engagement, and sentiment
  • How quickly and efficiently employees become productive
  • How quickly employees learn new software, tools, and workflows
  • Employee retention

The quality of digital onboarding efforts, therefore, can have a significant impact on organizational effectiveness and performance.

Given the costs of recruitment – not to mention the increasing competition for top talent – onboarding efforts should be treated as an investment.

Later, we will look at a few ways to increase the output of onboarding efforts.

But before we do, let’s explore the concept of digital employee onboarding in a bit more detail by answering some of the most frequently asked questions about the topic.

Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) About Digital Employee Onboarding

Here are some commonly asked questions – and answers – that can help explain digital onboarding in more depth.

Employee onboarding vs. digital employee onboarding: what’s the difference?

Employee onboarding is a process that integrates new hires into their work environment.

This procedure includes dimensions such as:

  • Social 
  • Organizational
  • Work processes

“Digital employee onboarding” is an important part of onboarding, since the modern work environment is largely digital.

Who is in charge of digital employee onboarding?

In most organizations, HR is in charge of employee onboarding, so they will also be in charge of the digital onboarding process.

However, depending on the size and structure of the organization, they will likely receive assistance from other roles, such as:

  • Employee experience managers
  • Digital adoption managers
  • Training managers
  • The IT department

In some cases, an organization may choose to separate the digital onboarding function from the overall onboarding process. 

What are the elements of a good digital onboarding program?

To be effective, a digital onboarding program should:

  • Orient new users to the digital work environment
  • Provide users with access to all relevant digital tools and platforms
  • Offer initial product tours, walkthroughs, and training
  • Provide easy access to technical support

Later, we will explore a process for designing onboarding programs in greater depth.

How do you measure digital onboarding efforts?

Typically, an organization will establish goals, derive metrics and KPIs from those goals, then track the onboarding program’s performance with those metrics.

Digital onboarding efforts should follow performance attributes such as:

  • Time to competency
  • Time to full productivity
  • Engagement
  • Frustration
  • Satisfaction
  • Retention rates

With the right data collection mechanisms, this information can be used to improve insights into the onboarding program and increase its performance.

What are the best employee onboarding software programs?

Certain software programs are specifically designed to improve digital onboarding.

Digital adoption platforms (DAPs), for instance, are built to improve onboarding and training efforts.

Certain HR platforms also include onboarding task flows and project management functions, making them ideal for creating and following onboarding processes.

Other software, such as workplace chat applications or project management tools, can be used to augment and streamline the onboarding process.

Help desk applications, for instance, can ensure that employees have easy access to technical support or employee support.

For best results, onboarding specialists should create a “technology stack” that can optimize different parts of the digital onboarding program.

For instance, digital adoption platforms can be used to streamline digital training, while help desk software can improve technical support efficiency.

What are some pitfalls to avoid in the onboarding process?

Failing to onboard new employees effectively can have a negative impact on the overall employee experience, as we saw above.

Those failures, in turn, can have affect engagement, satisfaction, performance, and even long-term retention.

A few of the pitfalls to avoid during digital onboarding include:

  • Not being fully prepared with digital access information, such as software accounts, logins, and passwords
  • Not offering product tours or digital orientations
  • Not providing technology support
  • Not simplifying the initial digital onboarding experience
  • Not providing adequate guidance from mentors and managers

Avoiding errors such as these can go a long way towards improving engagement and productivity, while reducing costs related to turnover and recruitment.

7 Reasons to Invest in Digital Employee Onboarding

So far we have covered many of the basic concepts of employee onboarding and digital employee onboarding.

But before any business invests time and resources into a structured digital onboarding program, it pays to understand the potential returns of that investment.

Here are 7 reasons why an organization should invest in structured digital onboarding:

1. Increased engagement

An informal or unstructured onboarding program can quickly decrease employee engagement.

However, effective digital onboarding and training:

  • Simplifies software complexity
  • Delivers more information in less time
  • Stays relevant and personalized

The result is an onboarding program that keeps employees engaged.

And engaged employees are, in turn, more productive and effective.

2. Increased productivity and performance

Effective onboarding delivers training from the very first moment, which dramatically increases employees’ time-to-productivity.

Boosted productivity and performance are of course a major concern for organizations, which are investing significant time and money into the development of their new hires.

However, early productivity gains also create a feedback loop – increasing employee confidence, motivation, and performance.

3. Cultivating a digital workplace culture

The better the digital onboarding program, the more digitally mature the organization will become.

In part, digital maturity refers to the organization’s IT capabilities. 

But it also refers to how digitally savvy and capable the workforce is … after all, a software’s ROI depends almost entirely on its users’ productivity levels.

Cultivating a digital culture is important in the modern business world because:

  • The entire global economy is undergoing digital transformation and evolution
  • To adapt, organizations must adopt new technology continuously 
  • Employees must become perpetual learners, while simultaneously remaining productive and adding value to their organization’s bottom line

With a digital onboarding program designed to deliberately cultivate a digital culture, it is possible to improve many of the critical metrics covered so far. 

And just as importantly, improvements to these metrics can help increase organizational effectiveness and performance.

4. Improved training effectiveness

Thanks to the digital revolution, organizations need a digitally skilled workforce in order to remain competitive in the modern marketplace.

Training effectiveness is therefore vital for any business that wants to thrive in the digital economy.

An emphasis on digital onboarding and training can do several things, including:

  • Shorten onboarding timelines
  • Provide employees with the skills they need to become contributing members of the workforce
  • Become more productive in less time
  • Increase the overall proficiency of employees
  • Decrease confusion, frustration, and negative sentiments

Later, we will explore how a digital adoption strategy – implemented with the help of digital adoption platforms – can increase training effectiveness and help businesses achieve some of the benefits covered here.

5. A more efficient HR workflow

Digital onboarding efforts can significantly streamline HR processes.

Digital adoption platforms, for instance, can decrease the burden on HR staff, trainers, and onboarding specialists.

They can automate:

  • In-app walkthroughs
  • Product tours
  • Repetitive software tasks

The result: a decreased administrative and training workload.

6. Increased employee longevity and retention

Many HR professionals agree that better onboarding experiences increase employee retention rates.

And there are good reasons for this:

  • Poor onboarding experiences can increase frustration, anxiety, and other negative emotions – good experiences, however, have the opposite effect
  • Employees learn software skills more quickly, which improves engagement and confidence – but poor training will cause skill levels to stagnate, along with confidence and enthusiasm
  • Good digital onboarding programs go hand-in-hand with effective training programs – which in turn open up more possibilities for in-house career development, a good way to retain top talent

In short, good digital employee onboarding programs do more than increase productivity. 

They also act as an incentive to increase employee loyalty.

7. Lower recruitment costs, training costs, and workplace frustration

We have just seen how better onboarding can increase employee longevity. 

And increased longevity, in turn, has a number of other positive benefits.

For instance:

  • Greater employee retention decreases the need for – and the costs of – recruitment
  • Lower turnover also helps create a smoother work environment and a better atmosphere
  • Indirectly, these attributes can help boost a company’s reputation and its ability to attract qualified talent

Ultimately, a good digital onboarding program can positively influence the workforce’s performance, while helping to save on training and recruitment costs.

Naturally, a structured onboarding process is not a cure-all. By itself an onboarding program cannot transform an organization’s workforce or its performance.

However, when developed as part of a comprehensive digital onboarding process, the results can be quite staggering.

In the next section we will look at a one example of a project roadmap that can be used to design and execute a digital employee onboarding process.

Designing and Implementing 5-Step Digital Employee Onboarding Process

If an organization wants to transform – or create from scratch – a digital employee onboarding program, then it can follow a procedure such as the one outlined below:

1. Assess potential benefits and the organization’s needs

The first step towards building an effective digital onboarding effort is to understand the potential gains.

Reading this guide is a good first step.

It is also useful to research:

  • Digital onboarding, training, and adoption
  • Digital transformation
  • Digital trends in one’s own industry
  • Digital employee onboarding software, such as digital adoption platforms

This can help professionals determine the “why” of a digital onboarding program.

With that information to act as a beacon, it is possible to steer the onboarding program in a more modern, digital direction.

Project coordinators should then collect data to assess the current state of the organization, which will help with the development of a digital onboarding strategy.

Among other things, program organizers should assess:

  • The digital maturity of the workforce and the organization
  • The current state of the employee onboarding effort
  • The organization’s culture

Once collected, this data should be compiled and reviewed by the project managers, who can then develop a strategy and a change plan.

2. Strategize

The digital employee onboarding strategy should aim to:

  • Integrate the employee onboarding process with the other stages of the employee life cycle
  • Provide employees with the digital skills they need to succeed
  • Synchronize the online and offline onboarding experiences
  • Facilitate digital adoption and transformation efforts

For example, one strategy may aim at accelerating digital training during the first week of employee training, in order to accelerate time-to-productivity.

Another may revolve around the use of digital adoption platforms to simplify the onboarding experience and help improve employee sentiments.

3. Plan and propose changes

An action plan will take the strategy and transform it into action steps and measurable activities.

This roadmap will inevitably revolve around some sort of change to the existing onboarding process.

This change plan should include items such as:

  • An outline of the new onboarding process
  • A proposed timeline of the change program
  • The rationale behind the change
  • Requested budgets and resources
  • Roles and responsibilities

The new digital employee onboarding program should also include the key elements covered earlier in this guide. 

Namely, it should include elements such as:

  • Correspondence with the new hire, such as the job offer, email correspondence, and online guidance
  • Digital tours of products, intranets, the website, and other online tools
  • Online guidance for required documentation and paperwork
  • Automated product training, such as in-app walkthroughs
  • Online feedback collection mechanisms, such as employee surveys
  • Analytics to track how employees interact with software and the onboarding program

Once a detailed plan is proposed and accepted, it should then be implemented and optimized carefully.

4. Implement and manage

Implementation can occur all at once or in phases.

The best way to mitigate risk is to implement the change program in stages – making one small change at a time or testing new onboarding efforts on only a certain percentage of new hires.

Each time a new change or phase is implemented, that data can be used to inform subsequent stages of the rollout.

Though a phased rollout is ideal for minimizing risk, it does take more time, effort, and planning.

Businesses that want to see bigger gains in less time may consider rolling out the program all at once to new hires.

Though this approach takes less planning and less time to execute, it can be riskier.

Miscalculations can result in bigger losses, or even a total failure of the new program.

5. Analyze and optimize

It is finally important to measure, analyze, and optimize the program over the long term.

Continual optimization is necessary to ensure that the program stays relevant, useful, and productive.

A straightforward process for optimization would follow steps such as:

  • Data collection.
  • Learn from that data.
  • Make adjustments.

With continued use, this process can help ensure that digital onboarding programs continue to add value to the organization.

Must-Have Digital Employee Onboarding Software

There are a number of useful software applications that can improve onboarding efforts.

These include:

  • Digital adoption platforms
  • HR platforms
  • Project management tools
  • Help desk software
  • Automation tools
  • Analytics

Digital tools such as these are actually necessary in order to implement certain types of activities.

Creating in-app walkthroughs, for instance, requires digital adoption platforms.

Disseminating surveys requires software with survey functionality, such as HR platforms.

It is useful to research software in depth in order to better understand their functionality and design onboarding programs.

Tips, Tactics, and Best Practices to Improve Digital Employee Onboarding Efforts

Now, let’s examine a few tactics and strategies that onboarding specialists can follow to further enhance their digital onboarding efforts:

Use digital adoption platforms (DAPs)

Digital adoption programs (DAPs) are ideal ways to improve the employee onboarding experience.

They offer important features that can help businesses enhance their digital adoption efforts, such as:

  • In-app walkthroughs
  • Interactive product tours
  • Contextualized guidance
  • Task automation

When used properly, these tools can transform digital onboarding efforts.

Among other things, onboarding specialists can use them to:

  • Offer product tours that familiarize users with apps, helping to simplify training and reduce cognitive load
  • Provide on-demand guidance, which accelerates training time, reduces technical support costs, increases engagement, and more
  • Analyze software usage, offering insight into user behavior and training needs

Many of the world’s largest organizations, such as Adobe and Amazon, use digital adoption platforms to accelerate training efforts and maintain a properly skilled workforce.

For more information on these platforms, visit industry leaders, such as WalkMe.

Integrate digital onboarding efforts within a holistic strategy – cultural, organizational, digital

All digital training and onboarding efforts are designed to improve workforce performance and, ultimately, organizational performance.

Unfortunately, however, it is easy to lose sight of that aim.

All too often, employee onboarding efforts become focused on immediate goals or action steps, such as:

  • Orientation
  • Having employees complete a training program, without testing proficiency levels
  • Achieving proficiency with a certain tool, but not gaining proficiency with multiple tools and platforms

It is important, in other words, not to become lost in the details.

Onboarding efforts that just “go through the motions” and have employees tick off a series of action items will not generate substantial ROI.

Likewise, onboarding efforts that ignore the bigger picture risks producing employees that have inappropriate skills.

To avoid this, onboarding specialists should create programs that:

  • Train employees on multiple platforms, rather than just individual tools
  • Introduce employees to the digital workplace as a whole, not just the platforms within their department
  • Are linked directly to employee performance goals, which can then be tied to departmental and organizational performance goals
  • Create cross-departmental teams that can offer insight into how new hires perform

By continually monitoring the performance of new hires – and ensuring that they have an appropriate, cross-platform skill set – onboarding specialists can make sure that new hires have the key competencies they need to become successful, contributing members of the workforce.

Cultivate a digital culture

In today’s digital economy, in order to remain competitive, organizations must be digitally mature.

That is, they must maintain:

  • A digitally skilled workforce
  • Modern IT infrastructure and tools
  • A digital culture

Deliberately cultivating a digital culture is one of the best ways to ensure that employees are open to digital technology, change, and new ideas.

And one of the best ways to foster that culture is by creating an onboarding process that cultivates that culture.

To help foster a digital culture:

  • Create a structured digital employee onboarding program, as discussed in this guide
  • Implement a digital adoption function within the organization, which can help new hires become more digitally fluent from the moment they enter the organization
  • Use onboarding as a catalyst for gradual cultural change, helping to select the right talent and inculcate digital-friendly mindsets early on in their life cycle

There are many definitions of what “digital culture” means, and it can mean different things to different organizations.

One of the most important aspects of a digital culture, however, is using data to inform decisions and drive business processes.

Be data-driven

Data can be used to improve virtually every aspect of a business, including HR functions such as employee onboarding.

Though many HR professionals have yet to implement the most modern data practices within their organizations, effective use of data can yield dramatic results.

And digital employee onboarding is no exception.

Data can:

  • Offer insight into the performance of onboarding efforts
  • Shed light on which employees and which types of employees are most successful within the company
  • Be used to analyze and improve digital onboarding efforts
  • Correlate training efforts with employee performance

In almost all organizations, there is plenty of room for improvement in this area.

Building data into business processes such as employee onboarding, however, often requires changes to existing business practices.

Make organizational changes when necessary

Implementing a new business process often requires some form of change – and, as a consequence, those changes will require management.

As discussed earlier, an organizational change process should follow steps typical to any business project, such as:

  • Assessing needs
  • Developing a strategy
  • Creating and implementing a plan
  • Monitoring, managing, and optimizing that plan over time

However, it is important to manage employees during any organizational changes.

Change management is the discipline specifically devoted to this task.

In addition to the project management steps just listed, change managers will also follow steps centered around managing employees.

These steps can include:

  • Building awareness of the need for change
  • Creating a desire for change
  • Rewarding short-term wins
  • Training employees will the proper skills
  • Providing workers with the tools needed to enact change
  • Reinforcing change to ensure that it sticks

Change managers will also take steps to overcome common obstacles to change, such as employee resistance.

Stay agile and adaptable

Agility is a very desirable trait in the modern organization.

That is, business units that can adapt and stay responsive to change will:

  • Provide services that are more relevant to users – or, in this case, employees and the organization
  • Be able to respond quickly to changes, since the focus is on adaptation and immediate circumstances, rather than on static plans and programs
  • Minimize resistance and frustration on the part of stakeholders, since continual collaboration and communication are essential tenets of the agile methodology

Though agile began with software development, its ideas have spread into many other disciplines.

Agile change management, for instance, applies agile thinking to the discipline of change management.

And business agility applies the concept to the entire organization.

The same concept of agility, of course, can be applied to HR processes, such as digital employee onboarding.

To make the onboarding process more agile, professionals should start by changing the way they think about business processes.

According to McKinsey, until recently, the “business as a machine” paradigm dominated the world of work.

In order to become more agile, however, professionals should rethink their models and begin thinking of organizations as organisms.

McKinsey also says that agile organizations share five key trademarks:

  • Embodying the strategy across the organization – or, in the case of employee onboarding, across HR and onboarding team members
  • A network of empowered teams
  • Rapid decisions and learning cycles
  • Dynamic people model that ignites passions – that is, a cohesive community and shared drives
  • Next-generation enabling technology

In other words, staying agile requires a change not only in business processes, but also in mindsets and technology.

The right culture, combined with the right processes and tools, can become the foundation of a digital employee onboarding program that helps to shape a successful, digitally mature workplace.

Chris is the Lead Author & Editor of Change Blog. Chris established the Change blog to create a source for news and discussion about some of the issues, challenges, news, and ideas relating to Change Management.