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What it's like to onboard nearly 2,000 employees in a pandemic

Charles Schwab bought part of USAA this summer. That meant hundreds of new employees coming online at once, from home, across the country. Here's how it went.

A woman walking by a Charles Schwab building

They’re working from home, for now.

Photo: Rob Kim/Getty Images

March was a very strange time.

Over the course of a few days in the middle of the month, thousands of companies across the country sent employees home, many working at kitchen tables and living room sofas for the first time in their lives. It was a tough time for most companies, but especially for employees joining new companies completely remotely.

In the last five months, Charles Schwab has onboarded more than 1,800 employees, almost entirely over the internet. It's a challenge that Elizabeth King, senior vice president of enterprise learning and talent management, and the entire team at Schwabhave had to figure out how to overcome. And what the team has developed may end up changing the way it brings new employees into the fold well after the pandemic subsides. "It's been quite a ride," King said.

On Memorial Day, Schwab closed a deal to acquire USAA's investment arm, although the two companies had been linking up since March to figure out how to bring around 400 USAA employees into the Schwab family. Training at offices across the country started the week of March 16, King said. "Things quickly deteriorated that week, and we had to bring all of those folks home," she added. "We flipped from live training for over 400 people to virtual training, where all of the USAA employees were home and all of my trainers were home, in three days that week."

That was a logistical challenge in itself, with the two companies' HR and IT teams working around the clock for three days to get everyone home, King said. But then there was a heap of compliance issues to deal with: The two companies were not merged yet, so they had to figure out whose equipment they could use, as they didn't want to potentially expose anyone to information they shouldn't have access to. King said USAA employees ended up primarily working on their hardware (or personal machines, in some cases) with software from Schwab.

"Our technology teams worked quickly to create virtual machine environments that [employees] could log into where we could control exactly what they were able to access to make sure that we were able to meet the requirements," King said. That meant abiding by antitrust and FINRA regulations — the two companies work in financial services, after all — making sure that new employees could get the information they needed to understand working for their new employer, while ensuring they couldn't start rummaging around in client files before the deal actually closed.

Getting acquainted remotely

Once the merger had started, King and her team had to figure out how to make new employees feel welcome, even though they couldn't actually meet for something as simple as a coffee with their new colleagues. New employees were sent "Schwag," including a backpack and a note from team leaders. They were also buddied up with an existing employee to help them out with anything they didn't know — their "Schwepard" — and encouraged to check out the "Schweb" intranet to brush up on the ins and out of the company. If team members needed to do onboarding training in the evenings or on weekends (many still had active client accounts during all this, as well as child care to deal with), King's team would send Uber Eats discount codes to them.

King worked with IT to set up phone lines to support any questions new employees (as well as those working from home for the first time) might have about how to use their tech. Senior leaders held WebEx calls to welcome the new employees, and managers set up check-in calls with all employees to ensure they were settling in well.

"That becomes even more important when you can't be there, that somebody is looking out for you, that you get your technology connected or you get invited to the right meetings," King said. "But it's all doable; it takes a reimagining of how it works."

Teams within Schwab had to figure out how to do all of the standard onboarding processes remotely, for an entire division as quickly as possibly. "We had to think about how we could ship the equipment that everyone needed, the headset, computers properly imaged with everything they needed and get that all out to all of those 400-plus folks to wherever they were on time," King said. The transition to new Schwab tech took place over a single weekend after Memorial Day.

And on the HR side, things like filling out I-9 forms and traditional new-hire orientation, were all done over video. The experience with the USAA employees and others early on in the pandemic lockdown has led King to suspect that there's parts of the digital onboarding process that may well carry over once life goes back to normal.

"This stuff, like an I-9, that process is required by law. It is important, it must occur — it is not something that generates strategic advantage," King said of completing processes remotely before an employee shows up to work on day one, or completing training that doesn't really require employees to speak to managers or trainers to complete. "If you could make it efficient and consistent using technology, then that would be very wise."

"We all miss seeing each other and the chance to connect, but until that makes sense, there are other creative ways to keep that culture alive," King added. "There are great technology options to enable that."

More than just a tech problem

Employees are more than the sum of the tech and work-from-home headaches, and King wanted to ensure with everyone Schwab has onboarded during this time, as well as existing employees, that they are still treated like people. Everyone has struggled through this pandemic to some degree.

Managers and teammates reach out to new employees in their earliest days to make them feel welcome, and managers were also given training about the new employees and clients they would be taking on. USAA has a history of working with the military, and many employees have served, along with their clients. Schwab even recorded a video of Charles himself speaking with Admiral Thomas Fargo, USAA's board chairman, welcoming the new employees into the fold, King said.

During the early days of the pandemic, King's team also had to work on communicating about issues few had been prepared for before, especially when it came to bringing on new employees. "We had to make sure that they felt a sense from both sides that we were really committed to their health and well-being," King said. "We had to respond to their anxiety about that time."

King spent time working with the people facilitating the onboarding and training from Schwab's side to make sure that they understood they represented the company, but that it meant more than just understanding Schwab policies and procedures. "They really flipped and spent time being with people, checking with them about their health and safety, their family's health and safety, whether they had coverage for their kids," King said.

"One of the lessons of COVID is definitely grit and perseverance," she said.

Not everything went according to plan over the course of the pandemic, unsurprisingly. There were tech headaches and tough days, like everywhere else. And if King had known what was going to be ahead at the start of the year, she would've done even more to steel her leaders for what was to come.

"I would have loved to have had a chance to say, 'Hey managers, here's what's coming in 2020: I want you to give yourself a bit of space as a leader and think about yourself as a human being, and what your people are going to need from you,'" King said. "In terms of empathy, in terms of vulnerability, in terms of connection, it's going to be intense, and they are going to need you in ways that maybe you've never been needed before as a leader. You're going to have to fill yourself up, because it's a marathon."

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