A solid onboarding program conveys to new hires that the employer values them and the contributions they will make. It provides the tools and knowledge to begin performing their new role. It fosters connection to colleagues and company culture. It lays out what the organization expects of them and what they can expect from the organization.
Now, answer the following question about the basic description of onboarding that you just read. Does it still hold true if the people involved are remote employees?
Yes. The objectives and fundamentals of an onboarding experience remain the same regardless of location. The employer still wants to make new employees feel welcome and get them up to speed. The company still wants to complete paperwork and other administrative tasks quickly but thoroughly. And it certainly wants to set the stage for long-term retention by leaving a great first impression.
What does differ, though, is delivery. The simple fact is that the remote worker is not there in-person. The remote onboarding process must take this absence into consideration, as setting the stage may be even more important for employees working remotely.
Challenges of onboarding remote employees
Physically not being in the same place raises various concerns. Human interaction thrives on many subtleties. Facial expressions and other body language help us determine feelings. We can tell if someone else is happy, sad, confused, bored, or overwhelmed. Remote circumstances make it harder to read the emotions, interest, and comprehension level of new team members.
Conveying the company’s mission, core values, and overall vibe also faces obstacles. In-person staff members absorb the workplace atmosphere organically through what they witness occurring. New remote employees experience more difficulty picking up on nuances and grasping unspoken rules.
The remote onboarding process requires thinking about logistics, too. Necessary equipment isn’t just sitting in an office cubicle or available down the hall. Likewise, new remote employees cannot just poke their head into someone’s office to ask a question. And further complicating the matter: remote workers sometimes live in different time zones.
For many companies, their first experience with remote onboarding began during the pandemic. They had to adjust on the fly out of necessity. But remote work has developed into a steady operational component for a large number of organizations. A distinct, comprehensive onboarding plan for remote hires has become a must.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), the organizations that have had the most success with virtual onboarding have taken the time to step back and redefine their process.
They have asked themselves these critical questions:
How do you foster authentic connection in a virtual environment?
How do you re-create culture virtually?
How do you ensure that knowledge transfer is happening?
Elements of effective onboarding of remote team members
No new remote workers want to feel like all they did was swap one laptop for another by changing companies. They crave a sense of belonging and “proof” that they made a wise choice in accepting this new job. The employee experience from before the start date to day one through the first week and even through the first 90 days sets a tone. When your business gets off on the wrong foot, your new hire may already have one foot out the door.
Thoughtful, organized remote onboarding sends positive messages. It says we have clear expectations for you. It says you will not be forgotten just because your work is not performed on-site. It says we are here to answer questions and help you deliver your best. It says you are part of the team.
Let’s look at areas to consider:
The time between a candidate accepting a job offer and the first day of work is known as the preboarding stage. Make good use of it! Capitalize on the new remote hire’s enthusiasm, and get things done so that the employee can hit the ground running when employment starts.
Companies frequently use onboarding software to electronically send along important documents and information. (More and more places also are doing this for employees who will work on-site.) This setup allows new workers to fill out tax forms, benefit enrollments, payroll paperwork, emergency contacts, and the like at their convenience. Both new hires and HR reps enjoy everything being in one central location. Onboarding checklists keep track of the status of each form, and automated confirmations prevent the uploader from worrying if what he sent truly went through.
Beyond forms, companies can send a plethora of other things during this time. Pass along the employee handbook to get remote workers familiar with its content. Send welcome messages from upper management and an interesting video of the company founder talking about the organization’s history. Include biographies and pictures of co-workers. Highlight special events. Provide self-paced training sessions of things you’d like them to learn before day one.
Preboarding is the time to bring their home office up to par. If your company provides a stipend for telecommuters, provide details on supplies and equipment it covers. If issuing company tech, set up the delivery and help with installation. Get their access to Slack and other platforms ready. Provide log-in instructions. Issue a company email address (and test that it works). Compose a list of helpful contacts. Check in to ensure everything is up and running.
Now is also an opportune time to send some company swag. (Actually, all times are good. Who doesn’t love free stuff?) Someone who brews her morning coffee in her own kitchen welcomes a logo mug as much as a colleague who grabs a drink in the breakroom.
The initial days of employment at an office are typically a time for meeting a range of people. These introductions stir a sense of belonging and make it easier for the new person to ask for help when needed. Successful remote onboarding finds ways for new at-home team members to build relationships.
Perhaps start with welcome emails from colleagues. Besides being a nice gesture, the contents give insight into personalities and information that can be used as an icebreaker in future conversations. (“You mentioned in your email that you have a beagle. I love dogs. My labradoodle sleeps by my feet while I work.”)
Consider a staff lunch or happy hour over Zoom on the new hire’s first day. (Have the same food and beverages delivered to both places.) Another effective idea is to schedule one-on-one virtual lunches over the course of the first week or two. This setup allows the new staffer to converse with each colleague individually.
Team-building activities also encourage camaraderie. Virtual experiences ranging from games to fun classes provide opportunities to bond. If possible, invite the remote employee to an office event or group outing. Meeting in-person supports connection, even if most future contact will occur virtually.
Assigning a buddy is a staple of most traditional onboarding programs, and there is no reason it can’t be done remotely. Having a go-to person who can show the ropes or answer “silly” questions is an important outlet. Choose employees who you feel would thrive in the role and would make a concerted effort to check in regularly with the new telecommuter.
If your company hires new people regularly, consider starting multiple new employees at the same time. This action creates onboarding cohorts. Bring them together via video conferencing to present company information they all need to know or to teach a certain skill. Seeing others at the same stage makes the process less lonely, and the social network they form provides another outlet for support. You may even want to create a Slack channel for them to stay in touch.
New remote workers may hesitate to reach out about a concern or problem. They fear “bothering” others or appearing incompetent. Check-ins from appropriate people help with this situation. An HR rep periodically can send an email simply asking how things are going. An IT staff member can occasionally place a video call to inquire how tech is working. Company initiative during the onboarding months reduces new hire isolation and frustration.
Of all connections, the one with a direct manager reigns supreme. For remote workers, this leader is their lifeline to the company. Get together over Zoom on the first day for an in-depth conversation. Provide clear expectations, and go over day-to-day workflow. Discuss goals for the first 30, 60, and 90 days. Learn more about the person as a worker and as an individual, from motivations to hobbies. Schedule more video calls throughout the onboarding period to keep building the relationship.
Remote or on-site, employees need to understand how to go about performing their new job. Getting people up to speed without overwhelming them proves challenging.
Evaluate L&D elements on your remote onboarding checklist for variety and pace. Is information spaced out and delivered in digestible bites rather than in intimidating dumps? Do you employ both asynchronous and real-time methods? Is your learning material interactive or only passive? What tasks would benefit from being taught one-on-one over Zoom to allow for questions? Are there ways to gamify to promote engagement and bust boredom?
A critical component of learning and well-being for new remote employees is feedback. Managers must regularly inform new hires about what they are doing right and what needs improvement. Silence is not golden, it’s confusing. New remote employees who do not hear feedback often assume nobody cares what they do. Their confidence takes a hit as they wonder whether or not their performance is up to par. Engagement levels can suffer.
Communicate regularly with remote employees during the onboarding period and beyond. It helps them develop into what you both want – outstanding team members. It also reinforces the central message necessary for remote arrangements to work: Out of sight is never out of mind.