Onboarding a remote employee is more challenging than doing it in-person. The goals, however, remain the same: To help the employee get off to a fast start, build relationships, understand the culture, and recognize expectations.
Most managers know that onboarding new employees virtually is just plain hard, and many recognize the long-term impact a poor onboarding experience could have on their employees. Onboarding is more than logistics, such as making sure your new employee has a computer. The more critical, make-or-break parts of onboarding include:
- Getting off to a fast start to give your new colleague early comfort and confidence — making him or her feel welcome.
- Establishing a foundation for strong relationships across the organization.
- Building an understanding of the culture and how work gets done.
- Setting clear expectations and connecting the individual’s work to the broader organizational mission, vision, and goals.
It turns out that the biggest barrier to creating an intentional, differentiated onboarding experience is often mindset. In the same way it took television time to find the best ways to exploit the new medium (and grow beyond the earliest TV shows, which were really just radio shows filmed with cameras), so too will companies need to develop onboarding programs that are tailored to the times and the technology.
Whether a company is small and onboards new employees one at a time, or is a larger firm that brings in bigger cohorts of new hires that go through onboarding together, the following four recommendations can help onboarding programs succeed:
1. Get off to a fast start.
Think about your first day at your current job. You probably didn’t sleep well the night before. Your mind was spinning with anticipation, doubt, and uncertainty. This may be especially true if you were starting a new job in the ambiguity of a virtual environment. The few moments of comfort that would typically present themselves in the early day — the quick bonding with a colleague in the hallway, or your new boss or teammates taking you out to lunch — aren’t available in a remote context.
It is also unlikely that a new employee joining your organization today has ever experienced a fully virtual onboarding process, since even companies with remote workforces frequently opted to do their onboarding in-person before the pandemic. With this sensitivity in mind, create a plan to leverage a variety of strategies that can mitigate first-day nerves and allow your employees to feel welcome and gain confidence from the start.
Identify, appoint, and communicate a dedicated onboarding liaison. Even in the office, it’s a good idea to have someone fill the role of informal mentor to support a new hire, but it’s even more critical remotely because the new leader won’t have colleagues around to spontaneously ask questions as they come up. It’s important that this informal mentor be a different person from the person’s manager, so that the new employee feels comfortable asking any question, large or small. Any new employee will and should have endless questions, and the last thing you want is having them feel uncertain about who to ask. Ideally, the onboarding liaison will proactively reach out to the new employee prior to the first day and establish themselves as the new individual’s go-to person.
Create a connection to the company before the first day. As soon as a candidate accepts the job offer, find an opportunity to make them feel a part of the family. Reckitt, the global consumer products company, sends a care package to new employees’ homes before their start date. It’s filled with the company’s products, and a warm note linking the products to the company’s mission.
Set up technology before the start date. Offering each new employee a session with IT to show him or her how the videoconferencing platform, communication channels, and other company systems work can alleviate first-day anxiety. Doing this before the start date minimizes technical issues and allows new employees to be fully present and more comfortable on day one. Some organizations send new employees a new laptop and or phone before the start date, fully set up with the right company configurations and security protocols. This creates a connection to the organization and reduces new employee anxiety.
2. Establish strong relationships across the organization.
In a virtual setting, you can’t rely as much on the organic and spontaneous relationship-building that happens in hallways, over lunches, and at office events. That’s why it’s best to be proactive and intentional about setting up a mix of formal and informal one-on-one interactions between the new hire and other individuals. Additionally, it’s important to organize a mix of different group discussions so that the new hire can develop contextual understanding of team dynamics. Lastly, one risk of virtual work is that it can make it easy for an individual or leader to operate in silos or with the same network of people on a regular basis. Creating both a strong core network and a broader network across the organization will allow the executive to be more successful long-term. To do this, create a blended series of informal and formal experiences that aim to create community and build in touchpoints.
Build strong 1:1 relationships. To combat the lack of spontaneous opportunities for small talk and other relationship building that would typically happen in an office, encourage your new hire and their teammates to set up a mix of formal conversations, to cover rules, responsibilities, and business objectives, and shorter, informal interactions over coffee, lunch, or debriefing on a recent meeting. Just as in virtual interviewing, one advantage of virtual onboarding is the general availability of colleagues over video, so these meetings should be readily easy to schedule.
Recognize team dynamics and build a broader network. Research shows that it’s more powerful to have a broad network than a deep network, especially as one becomes increasingly senior in an organization. Particularly when a new leader onboards, the organization should help him or her intentionally build a broad network, starting internally. While one-on-one meetings are powerful for establishing foundational relationships, trust and rapport, having your new hire begin sitting in on group discussions from day one can help this person put individuals into the context of how work gets done. Some companies set up a “shadow week” in which the new hire attends a wide variety of team and stakeholder group meetings, even those that may feel less directly relevant to that new hire’s core responsibilities.
3. Explain the company culture and how work gets done.
New employees must learn about the company’s culture from the outset. Spend more time than you generally would in a face-to-face environment talking about what is typical and atypical across various cultural dimensions. Create the space for your new colleagues to ask about the way things are done as well.
Make unspoken assumptions explicit. Many organizations rely on organic ways of communicating shared history and norms. Whether virtually or not, memorializing a company’s history in videos, in the “about us” section of your website, and in documents can help accelerate a process that might otherwise take longer to capture over a series of many interactions with longstanding members of the organization. Even if it feels awkward, explicit guidance around norms that are often taken for granted — the company’s tone and level of formality, dress code, virtual etiquette on videoconferences, messaging norms, and working hours — can be helpful. Don’t leave new employees to guess at these issues; doing so can create ambiguity and stress.
Designate a culture buddy. Assigning an individual whom the new employee can go to with questions about the culture can be especially effective. The buddy might debrief after an important group discussion, flagging to the new employee on actions that aren’t in line with the culture or how his or her style may be perceived by others.
4. Set clear expectations and connect the individual’s work to the broader organizational mission, vision, and goals.
A new hire should have a clear picture of what success looks like for the first 100 days and beyond. New hires should recognize how their responsibilities fit into the overall success of the company. When an individual joins the team, the hiring manager should share key communications and presentations that have been done by the leadership of the organization on the direction and goals of the company so the new hire can put his or her work into the context of the whole.
Having a clear set of responsibilities and outcomes can be critical to helping a new employee prioritize and sequence work and accomplish some quick wins that create a strong foundation and momentum for the individual’s future success. Over the long term, while a role can evolve, adapt, and become more complex and ambiguous, having clarity from the start will create a foundation from which the individual can more readily adapt.
Onboarding is one of the most important drivers of employee success. Getting off to a strong start creates momentum. Getting off to a poor start breaks a new employee’s confidence and leads the organization to question the wisdom of the hire. What separates firms that do onboarding best — whether in-person or virtual — is that the work is intentional, and it does not end after the first week, the first 30 days, or even the first 100 days. Your onboarding program should just be the beginning of an ongoing developmental foundation that continues to strengthen your employees’ cultural alignment, relationships across your organization, and performance in their role.