Remote work has been one of the most significant workforce changes in our time. Over the last 15 years, the number of remote employees has grown by a whopping 173%.
Largely, organizations have enjoyed the benefits that remote work provides. Perks such as greater employee engagement, enhanced productivity, and access to a bigger talent pool have brought a smile on many hiring managers’ faces.
But we’re quickly learning that remote work also presents a unique set of challenges, especially when it comes to employee onboarding.
Because while many organizations have effective employee onboarding programs for their office-based hires, such processes don’t always translate well to the digital environment.
And that matters because we know that a positive onboarding experience can affect your bottom line - boosting new hire retention by up to 82% and productivity by over 70%. On the flip side, employees who have a negative onboarding experience are twice as likely to look for new opportunities in the near future.
So how do you get the virtual employee onboarding experience right?
In this post, we’ll cover the necessary steps that’ll transform your remote onboarding process into a memorable journey that sets your new hires up for success.
Get Logistics Done Early
Unlike office-based staff, remote workers can’t just walk down the corridor and ask for help. That’s why it’s essential to give them everything they’ll need to work productively ahead of time.
Trust us, the last thing you want is for technical difficulties to cast a shadow over your new hires' first few days at work.
So, as soon as you’ve officially hired your candidate:
- Send all necessary hardware (laptop, charger, phone, etc.) as well as ensure that all essential software is installed on their devices
- Create their company email as well as access to any tools they’ll be using like Slack or Trello
Then, once you’ve got them set up, it’s important to go through and ensure that they’re confident using the tools required for their role. Because new hires will often avoid raising issues they’re having in an attempt to avoid conflict or not come across as incompetent.
So, introduce them to the various departments they might need for assistance. Encourage them to reach out for help if they need it. Remember, nothing will make your new employees feel more unimportant than leaving them to fumble in the dark and figure out things on their own.
Create a Standardized Onboarding Flow
Every new hire will have some training and admin they’ll need to complete to bring them up to speed. And because remote onboarding has so many moving parts, it’s easy to let things slip through the cracks.
By creating a standardized onboarding flow, you can ensure delivery of a consistent and comprehensive onboarding experience across the board.
What’s more, you can save a ton of time and admin by leveraging software to automate inductions, expedite paperwork, deliver training sessions, and introduce cultural initiatives.
There’s lots of great employee onboarding software to help with this, and choosing the best one will depend on the size and structure of your organization.
Some to consider are:
- Project management tools like Trello or Monday
- HR focused software like BambooHR or JazzHR
- Knowledge base software like Helpjuice
- Meeting software like HyperContext
Whatever platform you pick, you’ll to want to include a few key elements such as:
- Administration: Legal contracts & documents that need to be read & signed
- Company Intro: Your history, mission & future goals
- Company Structure: Outline the main departments, key people & workflows.
- Role Overview: Employee responsibilities, managers & team members
Having a structured flow of items to complete, gives new hires a sense of accomplishment and clarity in what otherwise might be a fairly hectic affair. It'll help build confidence and momentum to carry them through their first few nervy days on the job.
Introduce New Hires to Your Team
Your team might already know there’s a new hire on the way, but chances are they won’t know anything about them. So give them a quick brief about who your new employee is and what they’ll be doing.
Ask new hires to share a couple of details about themselves like their:
- Work History
- Future Goals
- Favorite TV show
This is helpful because in remote teams we often miss the small chit-chat that helps us relate to each other. Introducing your new hire like this gives their team a sense of who their new coworker is, even though they’ve never met (or may never meet) them in person.
Organize a Memorable First Day
The first day for remote workers can be a little weird. Instead of getting revved-up for an exciting day at a new office, they’ll usually just be logging into a communication tool from home.
That means you need a plan to make their first day as special as possible. Here’s a few ideas to inspire you:
- Send a welcome package. Fill a box with goodies and send it before your new hire’s first day. You could include company swag, a note from the CEO, an Audible subscription, a nice pair of headphones or a gift card for a cafe near their home.
- Throw a GIF party. Create a welcome Slack channel and Introduce your new hire. Encourage folks to introduce themselves with a short bio and GIF that’ll make your new hire chuckle.
- Schedule a meeting. A face-to-face video call is a great way for a manager or HR department to welcome a new hire to your company. Keep it informal, make sure they feel welcome and outline what they’ll be doing for the coming days and weeks.
- Encourage 1-to-1 interaction. Breaking the ice is hard enough in a normal office environment. But for remote workers, it’s nearly impossible. So, encourage immediate team members to reach out and make the first move.
Clarify Roles and Increase Responsibility
As an HR professional or hiring manager, it’s up to you to ensure new hires know exactly what they’re supposed to be doing. So, once the initial formalities are over, it’s time to get your new hire working productively as fast as possible.
Here’s three ways to make it happen:
- Provide ample context. Your onboarding flow should give new hires background info about how their work fits into your organisation's wider vision. But for individual projects, you'll need to provide a little more context. It’s useful to point to previous examples of similar projects to give them the best starting point.
- Set clear expectations. New remote hires often feel under-informed and disconnected. So, don’t be vague about what you expect from them. Share specifics about what a successful project looks like, set concrete goals to work towards, and develop a framework by which you can gauge performance. When remote workers know exactly what you expect, they’re much more likely to deliver great results.
- Establish contact points. It’s unusual for a project to go from start to finish and only require input from a single team member. And for new hires, it can be confusing (and intimidating) to know who to ask for help. So, make sure they know who on their team to contact when input or collaboration is needed.
By extending responsibility and expectations early in the remote onboarding process, you’ll be laying the bedrock of confidence that your new hires will need to take on more complex projects during their first year.
Arrange (Virtual) Socializing
According to a recent survey by Know Your Team, “fostering a sense of connection” was seen as the number one challenge facing remote managers. What’s more, Buffer’s State of Remote Work 2020 report found that loneliness was the biggest drawback for remote employees - and also one of the most common reasons why they might quit.
It makes sense too. When you’re working from the same office, a smile as you pass somebody’s desk, a chat about your weekend over lunch or a cup of coffee with a co-worker adds a little joy to your day.
But when working remotely, such social interactions happen much less often which makes it harder to maintain a sense of togetherness or belonging on a day to day basis.
Researchers have found that these seemingly small moments are actually essential to forming what’s known as ‘affective trust’ - a type of trust based on emotional interconnectedness and one that’s essential for high performing teams.
What’s interesting is that affective trust seems to be heavily influenced by social interaction in the early stages of a relationship. This means that if your onboarding is lacking sufficient socializing time, your new hire may never fully integrate into your existing team.
So here’s four ideas for you to think about:
- Create a dedicated non-work chat channel. Install a virtual 'watercooler' - a separate channel where employees can shoot the breeze about anything and everything. From Netflix recommendations to dinner recipes and cat memes, anything goes!
- Schedule virtual hangouts. Block off time once a week for virtual get-togethers where there’s no agenda or business to discuss. It could be a 1-to-1 coworker coffee break or a remote happy hour with the whole team. The format isn’t as important as making the effort to get to know each other.
- Establish a ‘buddy’ system. Link up your new hires with more seasoned employees to help them quickly find their feet. Buddy systems have been shown to boost employee engagement, communicate company culture, and guide new recruits safely through their first few weeks. For best results, pair up new remote hires with other, more experienced remote employees who’ve been there and done that.
- Invest in a company retreat. Okay, this one isn’t so virtual (admittedly it’s also not pandemic-proof either) but when it comes to fostering relationships, it's hard to beat face-to-face interaction. Check out how companies like Buffer and Airbnb use all-company retreats to nurture a sense of belonging and togetherness for their remote staff.
As alluded to earlier, new hires can be hesitant to ask for help; working remotely only compounds this problem. This can lead to issues going unaddressed for long enough that they become more serious than they otherwise would be.
Touching base often with new employees lets you nip emerging problems in the bud, and also helps attenuate any feelings of loneliness new hires may be experiencing. It also functions to keep your remote teams aligned and reminds them of the value they bring to your organization.
It’s especially important to keep regular contact after the initial buzz of the first few weeks has faded because this is the time when the most intense feelings of isolation can rear their head.
And when making contact, you don't have to always talk about work either. If they mentioned any hobbies they’re crazy about, it’s good to call them up to ask about them too. The key thing is to add that much needed human element that can be so scarce in the world of remote work.
Commit to Continual Improvements
Once you’ve got your key remote employee onboarding components up and running, you’ll likely start seeing drastic improvements in the way your new hires integrate into and perform within your organization.
But pretty much nobody gets it perfect the first time around. As a manager or HR professional, you’ll need to develop a system for continuously quantifying and improving the outcomes of your onboarding processes.
Besides your own external evaluation, use feedback mechanisms, such as interviews and surveys, to gather data from employees who’ve been through the onboarding flow.
Also keep your eyes peeled for indicators that give a view into your onboarding efficiency such as:
- Evident gaps in product knowledge
- Recurring mistakes made within the first 3 months
- Level of adherence to company values
- Proficiency in fundamental systems and processes
Combining all the available information will allow you to quickly decipher which elements of your onboarding program are, and aren’t working effectively.
Then, over time, make appropriate adjustments by doubling down on what’s helpful and altering what's not to refine your remote onboarding program until it’s giving new hires the confidence, know-how, and inspiration they need to be successful within your organization.
Begin With Remote Suitable Talent
It goes without saying that the best employee onboarding system in the world is of little use if you’re onboarding the wrong talent. So, fill your shortlist with candidates who display these key characteristics:
- Excellent communication. Great communication is the backbone of remote work. Candidates must be proficient with communication tools and be able to convey their ideas in writing and over video calls.
- Self-motivation. Without an office setting or colleagues looking over their shoulder, remote workers need high levels of motivation and self-discipline to keep their work moving forward.
- Adaptability & flexibility. Things change rapidly in the remote environment. Great remote workers have a level of flexibility that allows them to adopt new technologies, systems and processes quickly and efficiently.
- Results-focused mindset. Remote workers are judged on the results they deliver, not on how ‘busy’ they look or the charms of their personality. Great remote workers will want to know the KPIs that’ll define their success.
If you’ve got a remote vacancy and need to find awesome talent, consider using a resume database or post an advertisement to find your next ideal hire in record time.
Right now the world of work is in a state of radical change. As remote work increasingly becomes the norm, the need to design playbooks that guide employees towards more engagement, productivity, and fulfillment at work has never been greater.
For remote workers especially, the employee onboarding experience needs to be humanized. That means finding ways to communicate with empathy, figuring out how to build genuine trust, and working to form authentic relationships, even if you’re thousands of miles apart.
Building a global remote team ultimately requires you to foster a virtual environment that’s focused on the development of and an appreciation for individual workers. When you do that, you’ll see your new hires bloom into highly effective, productive, happy employees.
In the words of Richard Branson, “Train people well enough so they can leave. Treat them well enough so they don’t have to.”