9 tips for hiring and training new employees during a pandemic

Our kids are finally all grown up and moved away, leaving us with an empty nest. The time was finally right…So my spouse and I decided to take the leap of faith and downsize our entire life and move into an 850 sq. ft. cabin on 20 acres of land in rural Idaho! *2 weeks later* COVID-19 hits the United States, and everybody is instructed to work from home and stay there...

It’s no secret that everybody’s life has changed drastically over the past year. Life went from days in the office, being comfortable in daily tasks, and confident in the work you’ve been doing to spending hours upon hours at home, navigating new platforms, figuring out video calls and how to do every aspect of work from the same place your kids are running wild.

How do we adapt hiring, training, and mentoring new employees during the pandemic that has left us all working from our kitchen tables? Here are nine tips from Avista Utilities’ Learning and Development Coordinator, Angie Ozminkowski.

1. Do your research - Even though training new employees remotely was a fairly new game for Avista, many companies had plenty of experience, and there is certainly research done on how to best communicate with people virtually while providing them with the training they need to be successful. It’s important to read, listen, and learn about methods and ideas for virtual training. Because part of our interview and screening process has always included testing for skills like basic math ability and typing speed, we looked for a remote training partner to help us meet this need. Avista chose Total Testing, and to say they were lifesaving is putting it lightly. There are several reputable companies to choose from in this area.

2. Be up for a challenge - Life can be uncomfortable and unpredictable, especially now. When training dozens of new employees, challenge yourself to be creative and adaptable. It can be hard, and it could get harder. That’s okay. There are still many ways to make this a good experience for new employees – and it’s your job to make it one. For example, when our 850 square foot home wasn’t going to work for training 17 new employees, we started looking at small sheds we could set up near to the house. While this was an unplanned financial investment for our family, with both of us working from home, it made sense for the long-term. Plus, it added overall value to our property and provides us with additional flexibility well into the future. And it’s super cute!

3. Try new things. Say goodbye to your comfort zone, say hello to trial and error. What works for one person might not work for everybody or for those on the team. Because of this, you might need to try something two or three times until you realize it isn’t the best method. For instance, if your company typically uses Microsoft Teams but it isn’t working for what you need, see if Zoom is a better option to switch to. I found that seeing all my trainees was an important part of connecting, as well as identifying who may be needing assistance, so I requested a 55” screen, which allowed me to see everyone at once during training.

4. Get creative. While none of us have been through a pandemic before, we’ve all had experiences with using different technology tools. This helps us develop solutions that meet everyone’s needs. For example, we used Facetime to trouble shoot issues, used Zoom to do breakout rooms and team pairings, then implemented a "hotline" with real-time feedback. This mentorship hotline is a designated call queue that was created through a Call Management System (CMS) that the new hires can call. It is only assigned to our dedicated New Hire Mentors. While working virtually, the mentors use a “soft phone” application called Avaya one-X Communicator. Here, they can receive calls and call us, just like using a physical phone. We also used Microsoft Teams to stay connected with the chat feature. This gives us the opportunity to chat with the new hires and be able to answer any questions that come up during the process. A trainee, Sarah, said “At first virtual training sounded daunting, however, the material is laid out so well and Angie is such an exceptional trainer that I do not feel like we’ve missed out on any content. I am confident that I am as prepared to take calls and help our customers having gone through this form of training, as I would have been in person.”

5. Be flexible. Along with saying goodbye to your comfort zone, you need to have a mindset of flexibility when training employees remotely. There are going to be connection issues, Wi-Fi issues--and issues you didn’t even know existed will come up. Because of this, it’s important to be flexible and adaptable. For example, because of unexpected connectivity issues for some of our trainees, we did more make-up training than we’ve done in the past. Looking back, I would have expanded the time for the training program to six weeks versus the five weeks we did. I also would incorporate a specialized group who could handle technology challenges with an individual person to avoid stopping the entire class.

6. Have strong internal partners. Be ready to kiss the ground that your IT department walks on. While their technical know-how was always of value, the pandemic took their street cred to whole new levels. From technology advice, set up instructions, and contributing to the success of the new team, our IT partners made it happen. Some of these tech gurus even made step by step videos on how to set up monitors, connect keyboards, and more. Additionally, our HR partners remained flexible and committed as we worked through the remote hiring process. Our HR Business Manager helped facilitate the partnership with Total Testing for the skills assessments. She also facilitated the hiring panel wrap up for the final decision making on who to hire. Make sure to clearly define your needs and let your partners help you design the solution.

7. Select the right candidates - It’s likely that there will be a lot of applicants for the position you’re hiring. At Avista, there are often hundreds. It’s important to spend time selecting those who will have the resources and ability to thrive in a remote position. They will need to be able to learn, be trained, and work remotely and still be attentive and effective. Be careful in who you select. Some key attributes we look for in potential candidates are a passion for putting the customer at the center, solid communication skills, compassion/empathy, being solution oriented, technical ability, a positive can-do attitude, and ability to adapt. Ultimately, you can do everything you can to make this a great experience, but it’s up to the new employees to take the work and information and run with it.

8. Build connections and relationships. In a remote environment, it’s even more important to get to know people. We all know the anxiety and fear that can come with starting a new job. For some, this anxiety may be reduced by working remotely (no awkward hallway conversations), but for others, some of the anxiety can be heightened. Because forming close working relationships has traditionally happened in the office, managers and trainers may have to work a little harder to make this happen. It can be hard to form a relationship with somebody when you barely even see their face—luckily social media has made this more of a norm than ever before. During our training, we utilized chatrooms and scheduled meetings from time to time that weren’t work related so we could get to know each other on a deeper level. We used Facebook, Teams, and Zoom (hello, virtual happy hours).

9. Celebrate with each other. The most important thing to remember is that everybody is doing the best they can. Encourage and celebrate any and every success. Whether it is a small win or a big win, employees are still succeeding during a global pandemic, and that is worth celebrating. In this class we celebrated all wins, both personal and professional. One trainee, Kallie, said “This virtual training has been awesome! Angie is a rock star, and it has been really cool how well we have all been able to bond, even though we aren’t face-to-face. We’ve tackled every technical difficulty that has come our way and been able to adapt and change with the learning curve of a new experience. Feeling all the love even over Zoom!”

We never would have predicted living life in a global pandemic. We have all had to adapt, and it is apparent how resilient we are as humans. We will continue to be resilient and strive for greatness in our communities and in our business. We hope this advice helps all who are going through training virtually and ease some stress that comes with it.

Take a virtual tour of my "remote office."

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