Do you remember the day you started your first job? Whether a part-time gig after school, a co-op placement or your first serious full-time job after graduation, it’s likely your first weeks at work were spent absorbing a lot of information.
Though your employer may have provided you with some guidance, you probably learned a lot about what your job entailed and how to do it from colleagues. And let’s not forget the “water cooler” talk where office gossip mixed with work-related news.
Now, imagine none of that was possible, that you were beginning a new job at home, alone, and without knowing when you might be able to meet your boss or your colleagues in person.
Sounds challenging? Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, this is exactly the situation facing thousands of young people who are starting out in the workplace for the first time.
Federal government jobs
I became aware of this issue through my students. I teach public administration, and for most of my students, a job with the federal government is both an integral part of their curriculum and where most are hoping to find full-time employment after graduation.
When federal government employees moved en masse in March to remote work, thousands of students and new recruits had received job offers. Bringing them into the workplace turned into a major administrative headache.
The scope of this problem shouldn’t be underestimated. Every year the federal government hires more than 12,000 students across its recruitment programs, a figure that represents about three per cent of the total federal workforce, but excludes students hired through other means such as contracts or term positions.
Negatives and positives for new hires
It’s too early to determine whether the pandemic will have an immediate impact on federal student hiring patterns and programs. Early research into how co-op students have adapted to working from home highlights both positive and negative aspects.
Notably, the research has found that fewer opportunities for socialization is having an impact on their perceived productivity and causing them to question the value of their work.
This underscores the critical importance of structured onboarding — the process of orienting and setting up new employees in the workplace — as a means of offsetting some of the challenges posed by remote work arrangements.
This is made more important by the likelihood that many employers may continue with remote work into the near future, or at least until the pandemic is behind us.
There is nothing inherently new with onboarding as a human resources strategy. Research shows it contributes to higher employee commitment, better job performance and lesser stress, all of which combine to increase job satisfaction and employee retention rates.
Guidance from federal government
Faced with the exceptional circumstances and difficulties of having to welcome students into its ranks during a pandemic, the federal government issued a guide to team leaders in May 2020 with “tips and tricks to help managers with the onboarding of students working remotely.”
The guide builds on understood notions and practices to onboarding, but adapts these to remote work. But by leaving the process in the hands of individual managers, the guide illustrates the lack of a broad federal government approach to bringing on new employees that encompasses all departments, with consequences on how much attention may be applied to this vital task.
It will be some months before we can truly assess how well the federal government has managed to onboard students and new recruits. Anecdotally, the situation appears to show that practices vary greatly from institution to institution.
For example, in the early autumn, I surveyed my students about their experiences in their new federal government co-op placements. My admittedly unscientific findings determined that fewer than a third had received any form of onboarding.
There are multiple implications to this finding and should raise alarms for both federal managers and university administrators.
Onboarding is critical
For federal managers responsible for student recruitment, onboarding should be top of mind. But responsibility for student recruits is spread across federal institutions and currently leaves much to the discretion of individual managers.
This is problematic in normal times, but more so with the federal student workforce working from home.
Poorly conceived and executed onboarding programs may dissuade a large cohort of new recruits from choosing careers in the federal government. In a competitive labour market for talent, federal managers should heed as warning the words of the late American humourist Will Rogers: “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
At present, the federal government is running the risk of leaving many talented future recruits with a negative impression.
For universities, remote work and deficient onboarding poses problems of their own.
In normal times, federal employment programs provide students with practical experience that supports their university education. But students normally receive the necessary support and guidance from their employers to get the most out of their experience. The pandemic therefore has implications for teaching and learning as instructors adjust their curricula to reflect lesser practical experiences among their students.
For example, reflecting on my own teaching, it’s unlikely that I can depend on certain skills, such as the ability to write good briefing notes, that could normally be acquired through workplace practice.
How to tackle the problem
What’s to be done?
The question of how best to onboard employees when they’re working remotely is likely to be with us for some considerable time. Even after the pandemic, it’s probable that remote work will endure as an option for the federal government in the foreseeable future. As a result, it’s unlikely that the current federal approach will suffice in the long term.
Two measures are most important.
First and foremost, the institutional silos that exist among student recruitment programs need to be replaced with an enterprise-wide approach bringing recruitment programs, policies and practices related to student employment under a single roof.
Second, while this consolidation process is underway, the federal government should engage urgently with universities and sector representatives, like the Co-operative Education and Work-Integrated Learning Canada, to survey the student experience and develop the tools to ease their integration into work.
If I was a student recruit in government today, I would expect my employer to have in place supports to enable me to learn and be productive as quickly as possible.
No one can be faulted for not having in place a contingency plan for onboarding thousands working from home in a pandemic. But with COVID-19 with us for some time yet, and the shift to remote work possibly permanent in some workplaces, it is now time to act.