When COVID-19 forced Alibaba.com to pivot to remote working arrangements, it redesigned parts of its talent onboarding program to suit the new circumstances.

Onboarding is a critical HR function. It sets the tone for the employee experience and can have a significant impact on turnover. Organizations with a strong onboarding process improve new hire retention by 82%. Yet only 12% of employees strongly agree that their companies did a great job onboarding them.

The sudden shift to remote work amid the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many companies, even those with well-established onboarding plans, to rethink their approach. Alibaba.com, which connects businesses to wholesale manufacturers around the globe, was one of those companies. When the Hangzhou, China headquartered e-retailer pivoted to remote work, it recognized that it needed to redesign parts of its talent onboarding program to suit the new circumstances.

At its New York office, Alibaba.com typically kicks off the onboarding process by having new hires all start on the same day of the month as a way to create a cohort of peers, according to Erica Chan, Alibaba’s head of brand, experience and insights. But being remote requires even more organization, she says. “We still follow the same process of bringing new hires on one day each month, but now everyone is virtual.”

A Warm Welcome

The company gets a head start by shipping new employees their equipment, such as a laptop, in advance of their start date. “We use that first day to welcome all of the new hires, help them connect with each other and start to network with the stakeholders they will be working with. We give them the tools, information and contacts needed for their success,” she says. “The purpose is to get them up to speed on what they don’t know in the organization. While we don’t expect them to know everything, we do want to get them familiar with the organization and resources and to meet our leaders and put names with faces.”

To create a support system, the company pairs new hires with another employee—a step that had to be adjusted due to remote working.

“Because we’re a global company, we assign each new hire a local buddy as well as a global buddy from our international offices,” says Chan. “The global buddy was always virtual, but now both local and global are virtual and help our new hires learn and understand the Alibaba culture.” Each buddy spends at least two hours a month with the new hire, and together they determine the best option for using that time.

Top leadership participates in the company’s onboarding efforts, too. For example, Alibaba.com North America leader John Caplan hosts a virtual check-in with each new hire at the end of their first month. Each subsequent month, the new hires who onboarded together have virtual check-ins with each other to share their experiences, including what they’ve learned.

Each new hire also has a chance to meet with and hear from leaders across the company’s departments, such as U.S. buyers and sellers, and brand and customer experience. In addition, new team members are invited to introduce themselves during the New York office’s monthly town hall meeting.

“Officially we say onboarding takes six months,” says Chan, “but truly the process never really ends at Alibaba, because one value we have is that change is the only constant. We’re constantly learning and constantly onboarding.”

Bringing Freelancers Into the Company Culture

For many enterprise companies, the shift to remote working has led to an increased use of freelancers. It’s easy to overlook the onboarding experience for those who aren’t part of the permanent staff, but taking time to onboard them properly can have a big impact on a project’s success.

Similar to permanent staff, freelancers should receive an overview of company business goals, values, and culture. They need context around projects, roles, scopes, and performance expectations. And, like permanent staff, freelancers require introductions to team members and appropriate contacts, which can be done with a kick-off meeting. Although they don’t need an overview of benefit packages, freelance talent does need to understand compliance issues, such as non-disclosure agreements, worker classifications, and general rules and policies.

Alibaba.com has a comprehensive onboarding program for its freelancers. In fact, Chan says the process for contractors and employees is fairly similar. “The main difference is they are not assigned a global buddy, but they do have a more informal local buddy,” she says.

Freelancers may need to interact with only certain members of a team or may need introductions to a cross-functional group of people and understand the context of their roles within the company. But because many of Alibaba’s freelancers are in customer-facing roles, they also need to consider themselves as brand ambassadors.

“We need them to be aware of our business goals, our customer pain points, and our customer-first culture,” says Chan. “We expect them to be part of the team that places our customers first, which is why we need to make sure they are properly onboarded and understand our mission and value.”

Regardless of their role, every team member at Alibaba spends time every month speaking with customers.

“We view all employees as brand ambassadors,” says Chan. “Everyone has to be aware of our business goals, our customers’ pain points, and our mission to make it easy for businesses to do business anywhere.”

Breaking Down Geographic Barriers

While it has required more planning, Chan says the company’s updated onboarding process has enhanced the employee experience.

“In person, geography was a major barrier between our local New York team and our global teams in China and other markets,” she says. “But now—whether you’re next door or halfway around the world—we’re in an equal-sized box on Zoom, which has made it even easier to be a global company.”

“Even in this virtual environment, our onboarding process gives new hires a chance to meet each other and our leadership, to network and develop a cohort of close contacts, to get necessary information and contacts, and to start to immerse themselves in our Alibaba.com culture. We want them to feel welcomed and included, especially in this unexpected remote situation.”