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Training & Learning

How WhatsApp Onboards New Hires Remotely

Given the many challenges and distractions of 2020 so far, companies around the world are looking for the best ways to bring new starters up to speed with remote onboarding.

In these situations, starters have a limited chance to engage with their colleagues face to face. On top of that, they might not get to see their physical working environment for months. While these circumstances can be tricky, they don’t have to be a barrier to new starters getting a deep and comprehensive sense of company culture. 

Recently, I had the chance to chat with Paul Cabrera, Global Onboarding Manager at WhatsApp, about how the hugely popular communications platform is keeping its new hires connected and engaged with company culture. 

"[Remote onboarding] It's different for sure. We're doing the best we possibly can."

How WhatsApp is rising to the challenge of remote onboarding

The shift to remote onboarding has created unforeseen challenges for so many companies. As Paul explains, this requires a mixture of flexibility and determination.

“It’s different, for sure,” says Paul. “We’re trying to nail down our messaging around WhatsApp culture and what it means for our new starters. We’re also managing a lot of environmental circumstances we’ve never had to contend with before, such as family, pets, caring for loved ones, dealing with IT issues.”

This isn’t just about offering short-term support, either. “As soon as people leave orientation, they start to get into the functional training of their roles,” says Paul. “We’re looking at how we support them two, three, or six months down the line. Industry-wide, no one’s done this in a remote environment before. There’s no playbook.”

A key part of this ongoing support? Knowing how to make culture real for new starters.

Related: 6 Steps to a Great Remote Onboarding Process - and What to Avoid

Putting culture down on paper

So much of workplace culture comes down to the physical things. How do people greet each other in the mornings? How do they respond to new ideas in group discussion? And how do they make newcomers feel welcome?

As Paul explains, remote onboarding requires companies to be clear and explicit about their culture. “Now, we’re quantifying exactly what the WhatsApp culture is on paper. This is a shared process, which is why we offer touchpoints with leadership, hiring managers, and support teams.”

And as part of the Facebook family, new starters at WhatsApp have a wider set of orientation to complete, too. “Our learners go through Facebook orientation, but each of our teams has its own flavor and culture in terms of the overall Facebook mission, which is connecting the world. We link the values and missions of the WhatsApp product to the Facebook product, and show how we’re catering for different types of users.”

The key thing, according to Paul? Make culture clear and concrete.

“We want to be crisp and clear about what it means to think globally,” says Paul. “That’s an important value for WhatsApp. We focus on clear examples, so it isn’t just hyperbole. We want to make our culture concrete, with clear ideas and stories.”

“User 101” - Giving new starters user perspective

One of the hardest things in a remote learning environment is giving new starters a clear perspective on user needs. Paul’s team has developed a great solution to this problem.

“The coolest change we’ve made is the partnership with our field research team. Now, after a new hire completes orientation, they’re enrolled in what we’re calling User 101. We’ve developed this with our research team, which is facilitated by research subject matter experts.”

"We focus on clear examples, so it isn’t just hyperbole. We want to make our culture concrete, with clear ideas and stories.”

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“This curriculum gives our new hires more perspective on who the user is, and what they need from us,” says Paul. “These insights then feed back into our product and engineering teams, and help our new hires understand the output of their work.”

Even better, this process involves actual engagement between learners and users. “After the training, our learners will do a remote user interview alongside a research team,” says Paul. “They’ll be upskilled on how to interview users, and how to hear and interpret the answers. Bringing this experience into the organization is going to be really helpful.”

As with any new initiative, WhatsApp is measuring the ROI of this new onboarding tool. “It’s a nascent program right now, so we want to make sure we’re measuring and demonstrating value, and that it’s worth peoples’ time,” says Paul. 

“It’s a couple of hours out of their month, and we want to make sure it has an impact. That’s why we’re setting up learning pathways for people entering the organization and tying those to specific desired outcomes, and the behaviors behind achieving those outcomes.”

Related: 3 Data-Based Ways to Measure Training ROI

"We want to make sure we’re measuring and demonstrating value, and that it’s worth peoples’ time."

Helping new starters get past imposter syndrome

Another great advantage of WhatsApp’s User 101 training program? Helping people feel settled in their roles as early as possible.

“We’re really stoked on it,” says Paul. “We’re hoping it’ll help our new people circumnavigate some of the usual things with imposter syndrome. Systems, processes, tools - all of these are super important with onboarding, and everybody expects these. But they can inundate a lot of people with tasks, meaning they aren’t contributing as quickly as they want to.”

Instead, getting exposure to user needs and profiles can enable a new starter to make meaningful contributions to shared work.

“If a new hire can bring in user perspective or ask questions with regard to the user, they’re able to feel like they’re ramping up and contributing to a conversation a lot earlier."

"They know who’s sitting around the table, and how to contribute.”

As Paul explains, the shift to remote onboarding is likely to have some fascinating long-term effects on new hire performance, and companies need to pay attention to these impacts.

“It’s going to be interesting to see what happens with overall learning plus performance and organizational health over time when you aren’t able to have a captive audience in a classroom or conference room. For example, what is this like when we’re dealing with so many different factors and distractions with people working from home?”

Like so many businesses around the world, we’ll be paying close attention to these trends, and will stay on the lookout for tips and suggestions on how we can all do better. 

Thanks again to Paul for taking the time to chat and share his thoughts and expertise! 

While you’re here, check out my expert interviews with Emma Schain of about her onboarding process for growing from 350 to 3,000 employees, and with Felicia White of Church's Chicken about how she achieved 93% training completion during a pandemic.

Want more peer insights on transforming workplace learning? Check out #CLOConnect, our interview series with top L&D leaders on driving growth and scaling culture through Collaborative Learning. Or you can subscribe (below 👇) to our weekly newsletter to receive our latest posts directly in your inbox.