Virtual Onboarding with Manulife's Jodi Spall

TFI Talent Talks Interview Series: Part 1

Financial Services workplaces have changed many of their basic operating practices in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the requirement for the majority of employees to continue their work remotely. Pivoting quickly and creating new ways for existing employees and teams to work together effectively has been an area of focus for many employers. 

Jodi_S_Headshot circle

Jodi Spall
AVP, Marketing & Operational Excellence
Global Talent Acquisition


Bringing new employees into our “not-business-as-usual” environments is a particularly difficult challenge. How can we on-board new hires into virtual workplaces in a way that not only provides them with the information they need to be productive, but connects them to their team and the broader organization, and imparts corporate norms? 

Today we are speaking with Jodi Spall, AVP, Marketing & Operational Excellence - Global Talent Acquisition with Manulife. Jodi and her team took up the challenge of creating a virtual on-boarding program for Manulife and she is here to share her experience and lessons learned with TFI.

Julie Bryski (Senior Director, Talent Initiatives, TFI): Jodi, the research shows us the value of effective employee on-boarding.  It is critical to employee engagement, productivity and ultimately retention. Effective virtual onboarding takes on a whole new level of challenge.  How did you approach the development of a virtual solution?

Jodi Spall: Thank you for having me. First impressions are so important when you are onboarding new hires, and you want to make them feel welcome on Day One. Joining a new organization at the best of times can be challenging, let alone during a pandemic.  At Manulife, our goal was to focus on that high human touch, welcoming experience for new hires.  We also wanted to ensure that our hiring managers felt supported to create that welcoming experience. Fortunately, we had a great foundation to build from - we already have remote and work-from-home guidelines in place that we could build off of, and evolve from to help create that experience.

Julie Bryski: Tell us a bit about your solution. What were your program goals and what were some of the key components that you developed?

Jodi Spall: Our key guiding principle was to ensure that our hiring managers stay connected with their new hires. We wanted to reinforce that high-touch plans were important for the new hire to feel welcomed and to connect with them, not just one-on-one, but to ensure that there was also a connection with the broader team. Often when you're in an office environment, you take for granted the ability to go grab a coffee or pop by for a quick chat. And so, our intent was to reinforce and help to create those virtual moments and touch points. One of the things that we did do, as we are a global- based organization, was to reach out to our Asia colleagues, who were further ahead than us on the pandemic, to understand from them some of the lessons learned, and things that we could lift and shift to North America and Europe.

We developed a cross-functional team of technology, an HR employee experience team, and communications, to look at how we tackled the virtual onboarding experience. Some of the components of the program included creating materials that address common and emerging FAQs [Frequently Asked Questions] from the pandemic, for both our hiring managers and new leaders in the organization. It included tips and tricks on how to stay connected, how to engage candidates and new hires, how to get buddies, and so on. We also realized that with the way that things were ever evolving and pivoting, it was important for us to have a weekly “Ask Us Anything” live session with hiring managers who were onboarding new hires within the next couple of weeks.  We partnered with our technology organization so that the managers could get their questions answered live.  The sessions were fantastic to help inform us of where we needed to pivot and evolve some of our communications on our microsite.

"Another key component was our partnership with the technology team" 

Another key component was our partnership with the technology team. The partnership enabled us to get equipment into the hands of our new hires on Day One, with a technician available to set them up on their respective technology, and enrolled in our new hire technology orientation.  This allowed new hires to be productive with the technology quickly.

Finally, we ensured that the warm welcome hasn't just come from the hiring manager or the team itself, but has come from all levels. Our CEO, Roy Gori, has a very tailored welcome letter that he sends to all new hires during this time.  Our senior leadership team is made aware of the new hires that are joining their team, so that they too can reach out and create that personal welcome touch. It's been neat to see that evolve in different business areas, where they're doing their own “Ask Us Anything” sessions or new hire networking sessions—virtually—to get to know each other.

Julie Bryski: I love the way that you describe getting constant feedback on what's working and what's not working. It sounds like the expression, “building the plane while you're flying it”.

Jodi Spall: It has felt that way sometimes!  That’s been a fantastic learning because we've been able to pivot and iterate from that learning and ensure that whatever materials we are creating we have really focused on that end user—our hiring manager and our new hires—to make sure that we were creating simple, meaningful, and timely materials that are relevant for what they need right now.

Julie Bryski: What were the biggest challenges that you faced? What creative solutions did you employ to meet the challenges? 

Jodi Spall: With this pandemic, there's no rule book, there's no playbook. The biggest challenge that we encountered is the pace of change and having to adapt almost live.  We have also had to comply with government guidance both within North America and in our Asia region locations. One example was the delivery of our equipment. Our technology team flagged that new hires were having initial connectivity issues. The issue was caused by a process gap - there is a special step-by-step process that needs to occur when setting up the company laptop, which requires the support of a technician. 

"With this pandemic, there's no rule book, there's no playbook. The biggest challenge that we encountered is the pace of change and having to adapt almost live." 

We had some new hires who were trying to be proactive and figure this out independently, inadvertently causing the issue.  We worked with our technology team to create STOP stickers that go right on the top of the laptop that say, “Please do not access the laptop until your technician appointment”. We didn’t know if offices would be open or closed or for how long. This has required us to pull a cross-functional—using an agile term— “squad” together to help us figure out what was happening.  We wanted to address what we need to be sharing up, sharing out, and ensuring that we had daily stand-ups to review those pain points and determine how to address them. Out of those stand-ups and conversations, a few challenges started to percolate up.

This example demonstrates where we took the feedback and were able to proactively address the challenge.

Julie Bryski: What early feedback has been shared by new employees, managers, and teams who have participated in the virtual onboarding program?

Jodi Spall: The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. The consistent thread that is weaved through the feedback is the appreciation of the personal touch – and how employees have felt welcome, and the hiring managers have felt supported in providing that welcome. The new hires have appreciated the high-touch moments from senior leadership and the ability to be productive quickly. We've gotten feedback from VPs right down to front-line employees that this has been the best onboarding experience of their career, and that Manulife has done a great job to make them feel welcomed and connected with all of the resources and tools available.

The other consistent theme that we have heard from new hires is, as I referenced, starting a new job at the best of times can be challenging, let alone during the pandemic. Many of us have personal commitments outside of our day jobs - some of us have elder care, are parents, and so on. We need to balance all of those requirements with working. It's one thing when you are doing that in an organization that you may be familiar with, and it is another to do it in a brand-new organization. Some new hires have been a little anxious about the support available to continue to balance their personal needs. They have felt overwhelming support from all levels of Manulife to both help to start in the new job and get them settled and recognizing that there are personal commitments that they need to fulfill outside of that role.

Julie Bryski: How do you balance between making new employees feel welcome versus feeling overwhelmed?

Jodi Spall: It's a great question because it can feel overwhelming, particularly when you have this whole new terminology and all these new acronyms and systems and more coming your way. As part of our support for hiring managers we have a set for success portal that really guides hiring managers through the steps of what they need to do to help a new hire onboard successfully.

We strongly encourage the hiring managers to establish an onboarding plan, and to review it with the new hire to set expectations for the first day, first week, and so on.  We also strongly recommend identifying and introducing a buddy. An onboarding buddy can really help soften the landing and balance the learning around what's being shared, doing some of the translation of corporate lingo and providing a chance to ask some of the questions that they may not want to ask directly of their leader.

Julie Bryski: What are some critical success factors that others should consider when designing their own virtual onboarding program?

Jodi Spall: I would recommend that others take a human-centered design approach, or what I refer to as an employee-centered design approach to whatever solution you're developing. I might have a perspective on what I think it should look like, but it needs to be informed by those users themselves. It's important to ask questions like:

  • “Who's impacted by this?”  
  • “What problem do we need to solve for these different users?”  
  • “Who do we need to engage in solving these problems?”  
  • “What do we need to prioritize to start?”
“We found there were no shortage of ideas around what we could tackle. Grounding ourselves on the hiring manager and new hire experience…helped us stay focused and prioritized."

We found there were no shortage of ideas around what we could tackle. Grounding ourselves on the hiring manager and new hire experience, and what we needed immediately, helped us stay focused and prioritized.

My second piece of advice is that you can't do it alone. Engage your cross-functional partners early to develop solutions.

And my final recommendation is: just start. You don't have to have it all figured out. It's okay to learn as you go. But it's important to have those regular check-ins or daily standups with your cross- functional team to confirm what needs to change, and what you need to pivot and/or evolve to meet the user needs. This pandemic has taught us that we don’t always have the luxury of time - we've had to update and move through things quickly and live.

Julie Bryski: We've talked about developing virtual onboarding during a pandemic, and some of the ways you have pivoted to meet the challenge.  Some of these innovations may endure after we return to our physical workplaces.  Are there program elements or new ways of thinking about on-boarding that you will keep when physical workplaces open up again?

Jodi Spall: Indeed, there are three. Moving forward we will:

  1. Continue the human touch and high-touch approach. I can't say enough around the hiring managers staying connected with new hires, and with the team.  We've learned that the welcome to the new hires from all levels of the organization and thanking them for joining is not only appreciated, but it's helped them feel more connected to the organization.
  2. Continue to build on the employee- or human-centered design approach to evolve our program where we need to. 
  3. Continue our partnership with the technology team. We know that it is so important for new hires to feel productive quickly, and having the technology available and ready at their fingertips, is a critical component to making that happen. 

Julie Bryski: Where are you going next with the Virtual Onboarding program?

Jodi Spall: I am excited that we have kicked off our reimagining onboarding experience program.  We are taking a very employee-centered design approach and looking at some different proof of concepts, that we can test to enhance our global onboarding experience.

As challenging as the COVID-19 events have been, it has been a catalyst for us to build off of and will help inform where we continue to evolve our onboarding program. We don't yet know what it's all going to look like, but we are looking forward to the evolution!

About Jodi Spall, AVP, Global Talent Acquisition Marketing & Operational Excellence

Jodi considers herself a passionate and results-oriented ‘threader’ – stitching together abilities and ideas, while driving collaboration to create practical solutions to business problems. She’s worked across many industries from public to private sector and held varying roles in the HR space in HR Strategy, HR Partnering, Agile People Practices, and Leadership and Organizational Development. She’s worked at BlackBerry, Rockwell Automation, and her own HR consulting practice. Since joining Manulife in 2014, Jodi has held a variety of senior positions in HR. Today, she leads the Global TA Marketing & Ops Excellence Team whose focus is to help simplify and enhance Manulife’s ‘end to end’ recruitment experience, designed to attract, onboard & retain diverse talent.


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