“It only took us two weeks to adjust our recruiting, hiring and onboarding to begin virtual operations,” says Merrick Krause, Acting Chief Human Capital Officer at the General Services Administration. 

Feb 19 2021

Virtual Tools Allow Agencies to Onboard New Workers from a Distance

Some of the practices are so efficient that they may become a permanent part of the hiring process.

Interviewing, vetting, hiring and onboarding employees have long been viewed as tasks that require face-to-face interaction, numerous meet-and-greets with potential supervisors and colleagues, and a guided tour of the physical workplace.

When the pandemic shut down ­federal offices in March 2020, federal human resources teams had good reason to worry about how they would ­continue doing this aspect of their job effectively.

For the General Services Administration, those concerns turned out to be short-lived, according to Merrick Krause, the agency’s acting chief human capital officer.

“On March 16, we went on mandatory telework, and we knew that we were going to have to make a rapid change to doing everything virtually,” he recalls. “But I was really surprised that it only took us two weeks to adjust our ­recruiting, hiring and onboarding to begin virtual operations.”

The abrupt COVID lockdown was a shock to the federal system, but most HR departments adapted surprisingly fast, according to Michelle Amante, vice president of federal workforce programs at the Partnership for Public Service.

“Once people got settled in, and got used to working from home and to the new way of doing business, HR pretty much continued the way it did before,” she says. “So they continued to hire, they ­continued to process transactions and onboard people. And they didn’t really slow down after that initial blitz.”

Virtual Hiring and Onboarding Help GSA

To adapt quickly to the new demands, GSA repurposed digital tools the agency was already using internally within Google Suite, including the face-to-face platform Google Meet, to serve as ­external HR tools. As a result, between March and late September, the agency was able to interview more than 4,500 job candidates and hire 572 employees.

GSA also virtualized and synchronized its national standardized onboarding program so its HR team could onboard new employees simultaneously, making the effort much more efficient.

“We took our existing onboarding program and added more organizational information to it, and turned it into what we’re calling an immersion program,” Krause says. 

“Some of it is normal onboarding, like filling out forms and listening to briefings about the organization, but it’s also very interactive in that people can ask questions of GSA staff in real time and get answers right then and there.”

211,000

The number of employees brought into the federal government between March and July via OPM’s USA Staffing system

Source: Nextgov.com, “How the Government Shifted Its Onboarding Strategy During the Pandemic,” Sept. 24, 2020

GSA’s HR team has also used virtual tools to help new employees set up accounts, configure devices and take their oaths of office. More recently, they’ve started using real-time video to help new hires get to know their colleagues and the organizational mission through virtual Q&A events, information sessions, coffees and lunches, and a chat with the executive team.

“It’s been an intensive period, but we are actually on pace, if not doing a little bit better than during a normal year,” Krause says. “Some of the processes we leveraged were already in place, but the pandemic and the ­virtual work actually helped us to accelerate innovation and employment.

“Now, we’ve been able to leap ahead with our virtual ­processes and our technology to improve recruiting and hiring.”

DISCOVER: Which IT skills are most sought after in the federal government? 

Agencies Move to Hire New Workers Amid the Pandemic 

A major challenge for agencies was that the COVID-19 shutdowns not only forced agencies to hire online, but they also “needed to hire and onboard people in response to the pandemic,” according to Tim Rice, spokesperson for the Office of Personnel Management, which sets the federal government’s HR policies and standards.

“Fortunately,” he adds, “in accordance with the President’s Management Agenda, OPM had already instituted a variety of virtual hiring and onboarding processes that other federal agencies were able to leverage.”

USA Staffing, the government’s talent acquisition platform, had already set up an online onboarding capability for agencies’ immediate use; OPM granted permission to use virtual platforms to conduct legal tasks, such as administering oaths of office over video.

The Department of Homeland Security also provided a temporary exemption that allowed HR staff to remotely review identity and authorization documents for its Employee Eligibility Verification (Form I-9) requirements, necessary to prove that a potential employee can legally work in the U.S.

The Veterans Health Administration took advantage of some these newly established tools and policies. VHA hires tens of thousands of employees in a normal year, but had to surge a ­massive number of healthcare workers nationwide to combat the pandemic.

“We got the charge from our ­leadership that we needed to find a way to onboard people in three days once we selected them, and that really forced us to change our thinking and expand what we were willing to entertain,” says Jessica Bonjorni, the VHA’s chief of human capital management, who supervises more than 1,000 HR professionals.

EXPLORE: What can agencies do to appeal to prospective workers more than the corporate sector? 

Collaboration Tools Accelerate the Hiring Process at VHA

VHA’s HR department began by modifying its VA Careers website to enable candidates to start the hiring process directly with VHA rather than go through the USAJobs site, the usual starting point for a federal job applicant.

Bonjorni’s team worked with the VHA IT department to set up a text-to-recruit application that allowed applicants to quickly start a chat session with a recruiter. Candidates could also upload their resumes to the website.

To cast a wide net for potential employees, the VHA used an events management platform called Brazen to conduct virtual recruiting fairs on a national level. The team also relied on a variety of interactive video tools, including Zoom, Adobe Connect and Cisco Webex, to conduct virtual interviews and virtual onboarding activities.

Merrick Krause, Acting Chief Human Capital Officer, General Services Administration
It only took us two weeks to adjust our recruiting, hiring and onboarding to begin virtual operations.”

Merrick Krause

Onboarding in such a short time frame was tricky. Many mandatory ­pre-employment activities, such as ­physicals, drug testing, reference checks and credentialing, usually take about 30 days to complete.

However, given the three-day ­mandate, the team had to figure out a way “to balance the risk and the speed to make sure that we were still doing the appropriate vetting for providers and eliminating any potential red flags,” Bonjorni says.

To do this, the team frontloaded as many activities as possible by leveraging both the USA Staffing onboarding ­process and their own virtual tools. Candidates, for example, could show credentialing documents via video and live chat; references could be obtained through email, live chat or video.

Between March and September, the VHA onboarded nearly 60,000 workers and decreased time-to-hire from 94 days to just a few weeks.

“We’re going to do everything that we can to maintain the flexibility and the temporary changes that we have put in place,” Bonjorni says. “It’s likely going to take changes in legislation and ­regulations, but we are definitely ­committed to making that happen.”

General Services Administration