Lessons from onboarding over 100,000 employees during the pandemic

October 12, 2021, 9:43 PM UTC
Accenture CEO Julie Sweet.
Karen Sayre—Fortune MPW

As the CEO of Accenture, Julie Sweet has seen her company add 118,000 people in the past year. This pushed the consulting company’s headcount to 624,000 after adding 54,000 this past quarter, she shared at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington, D.C. 

The boost in Accenture’s workforce during the pandemic has prompted Sweet and her leadership team to take a whole new approach to onboarding and engagement. She explained that they often discuss “phy-gital,” a portmanteau for physical and digital. 

“Before COVID, when you started a job, one of the exciting things was showing up someplace,” Sweet said on the panel. “What we realized pretty quickly is that people we were hiring were literally shutting their laptop, and then getting the new laptop from Accenture, and there was no sense of excitement or connection.”

Accenture started sending welcome boxes which included more than just a new computer. They also contained desk trinkets and posters on company values to “help people feel like they made a change,” Sweet said. Accenture also bought tens of thousands of virtual reality headsets to give new employees a virtual shared experience as they started their new job.

For Revathi Advaithi, CEO of electronics manufacturer Flex, the approach to ensuring people were taken care of during the pandemic had to be different. Her company has 160,000 employees distributed around the world, most of them at manufacturing sites.

“For manufacturing, the pandemic didn’t come with flexible work and flexible hours and Zoom calls and all of that, because our people have to show up to manufacture things,” Advaithi said. “All the stuff you’re ordering is still getting made, but there’s a lot of gymnastics behind the scenes that’s happening to get people to do that.”

On top of that, 44% of the Flex workforce is female, so Flex leadership also needed to keep in mind the needs of their working mothers. All of this had to be done while taking measures to keep manufacturing operations running, such as reorganizing workshop floors and rethinking shift changes and other logistics.

“That has been the most challenging, and that’s not gone away today, because there are still hotspots across the world. There are still shutdowns across the world. Trying to do that in a way that is right for our colleagues and our employees has been the most difficult part, and I’d say now it’s become almost something we’re very good at…We’ve learned how to do all those things.”

Advaithi shared that her supply-chain team, over 10,000 strong, was working around the clock, chasing down items owing to global shortages. She and Flex leadership needed to encourage them to take time off.

“What we thought was a sprint is a longer sprint, it’s a marathon, whether it was trade issues, whether it’s the pandemic, or now it is a new supply-chain crisis. And it is okay. Everything is going to be fine if you just take time off and come back. And that’s what we’re constantly trying to emulate and then pass on a lot of messaging around it,” she said.

Clarification 10/13: While Sweet said the company’s headcount is 629,00 during the interview, Accenture has clarified that their current headcount is 624,000. Flex’s workforce number has been revised from 125,000 to 160,000, with the former number representing just their direct labor headcount.

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