There’s a lot of talk about engaging and organizing remote teams. And, hey, we’ve written about it too! But as our energies and discussions shift more towards how to lead remote teams, onboarding remote employees is often overlooked.
Onboarding is crucial in the overall employee lifecycle. As a ‘phase’, it stretches out far longer than most of us would assume — anywhere between the first three to twelve months of a team member’s tenure.
And successful onboarding results in far more than a smooth transition into the company.
Amazingly, a great onboarding experience can improve retention by 82%. It gives a significant boost to productivity as well.
So are we living up to the promise of stellar onboarding? It appears not. According to Gallup, only 12% of employees had a “great” onboarding experience. And that number could be lower in the case of remote onboarding — a necessity we’ve sort of been blagging our way through, if we’re honest; with little time (or resources) to help us prepare.
What makes for successful onboarding — remote or not?
This may surprise you, but the ‘onboarding’ process actually begins as soon as your job offer is released. That’s your first opportunity to set the tone and give the candidate everything they need.
So before we dive in to the challenges of remote onboarding — and how to overcome them — let’s familiarize ourselves with the key stages of end-to-end onboarding and what’s required.
Pre-boarding (job offer and acceptance)
The first stage of onboarding is sending an offer and having your applicant accept it. Your aim is to make your new hire feel welcomed and valuable — it also doesn’t hurt to create a little excitement about the work you’ll do together!
A personalized welcome email is a must. But a separate document outlining the role and a roadmap for the weeks, or months, ahead is a great addition too.
Remember, they haven’t actually started working for you yet, so be mindful of how much time you’re asking them to spend reading documents and getting up to speed. Equally, don’t ghost them for weeks on end either! There’s a balance to be struck, in keeping their enthusiasm up and showing you’re the real deal, versus asking too much too soon.
The first few days in a new job can feel awkward and unsettling. Sometimes there’s a lot of opening and closing documents, trying to look busy. On the other end of the scale, the new hire can be inundated with meetings and events, failing to take much of anything in.
Cut it back to basics and make sure you: introduce them to their essential team, provide all the IT and other tools they need, and ideally link them up with a mentor or “buddy” (regardless of their seniority).
Dedicated training is also required for many new hires — whether to develop new skills, get into their role, or to learn how your company approaches certain workflows. You should organize this training promptly and pitch it at an appropriate level. That way you’ll immerse new hires and get them creating a meaningful contribution faster — to the benefit of your company and their engagement, too.
The first three months (and beyond)
As we mentioned before, some companies ‘conclude’ the onboarding process after three months, others spend an entire year. The duration has little consequence really, what’s important is that you continue providing support for new hires way beyond their first week.
Make sure you check in regularly with newer employees — with particular emphasis on timely, actionable feedback (in both directions). Seek to understand how well the role fits the employee’s expectations — is there anything you can do today to fill gaps or invest in their development?
That’s a critical question to ask as you continue to support an employee for the duration of their tenure.
The challenges of remote onboarding
If reading the above set off warning signs in the context of remote hiring, then you wouldn’t be alone. Remote onboarding can be tricky for a myriad of reasons.
Lack of in-person contact is the most immediate challenge of hiring and onboarding remote employees. And that lack of contact can be disruptive before the pre-boarding process even commences — especially if you’re a fully remote business without any office premises at all.
Because while pre-boarding appears to be remote by nature, that’s not strictly true. Think back to any new job you’ve started, and the look, feel and location of the office has probably been front of mind. You’ll likely have met some of the team during interviews; you may even have scoped out the local lunch spots too.
These details help you visualize yourself in the organization, creating a real sense of emotional connection and excitement about getting started. That’s significantly more difficult when we’re onboarding into a remote role — whether remote working is a fixed, or temporary, approach.
The difficulties of remote onboarding become more pronounced as the candidate starts their first day. In a ‘normal’ office scenario, new hires are sustained by the energy of the new workplace and the desire to form good relationships with colleagues — even when faced with pages of ‘Health and Safety’ documentation to sift through! But imagine having those same “settling in” tasks to perform when it’s just you and your sofa… it’s not so appealing, is it?
It can also be difficult for new hires to ask for help if they haven’t met their colleagues face-to-face. Seeking support can be a vulnerable feeling, especially when you’re not sure who or where to go to. In person, we’re able to assess how comfortable we feel with others, and we can make informed decisions as to who we trust to help us out.
For remote onboarding to be successful, we need to replicate as much of the in-person experience as possible. But when all our contact is digital, there’s an opportunity to do onboarding even better than when it’s office-bound.
5 ways to exceed expectations with remote onboarding
This last year and a half has taught us that nothing remote is ever easy.
But in the same way that working from home has inspired us to re-approach our ways of supporting and leading a team, it challenges us to redesign the onboarding process to everyone’s advantage.
Here are just five ways to do so:
Get your company > employee tech supply chain in place
Your remote workers will likely need a range of hardware and software to do their job well. Traditionally, a lot of a new hire’s early days were spent logging in to systems, creating their email signature, and so on. But now we have the chance to get those chores done early, saving everyone’s time.
Organize to deliver laptops, phones, and any other kit before Day 1. With these tools already in their hands, remote employees can start their onboarding process as and when they want. They have some of that essential excitement and buzz — who doesn’t like receiving new tech in the post, after all?
Embrace digital immersion
No one wins when a new hire spends their first week twiddling their thumbs. There’s also nothing motivating about a stack of paperwork waiting for you on your desk.
So why not take advantage of digital content and provide visually-appealing information packs, “meet the team” videos, and even quizzes and computer-based challenges? These might require some initial time investment to create, but it’s a great opportunity to redesign your onboarding processes from the ground up.
Book welcome meetings… but not too many
Getting to know your new team requires a slightly more structured process when you’re working remotely. There’s no shared kitchen to bump into people in; Friday night drinks won’t happen spontaneously. As such, it’s essential that you arrange video calls to help all members of the team to match names to faces.
Although these meetings serve a vital function, it’s also important that you don’t overwhelm a new hire with too many Zoom meetings all at once. Zoom meetings can be exhausting — and that must go double when a new hire is trying to impress. One or two meetings a day should probably be the limit, with plenty of down time in-between.
And ask yourself: why are we having this meeting? That’s a good reminder for any remote team! Prep meeting goers with talking points and an agenda — even if that agenda is just “getting to know each other”. And try to avoid overwhelming team-wide calls, too. Often, 1-on-1s offer a more comfortable environment for more social conversations.
Invest in digital documentation
2020 saw existing work practices thrown out the window, so chances are your procedures and policies have changed as well. How well documented are these new ‘ways of working’? And how easily can they be circulated across the organization?
GitLab was a pioneer in remote working, way before the pandemic forced the rest of us to adapt — so they are certainly the ones to learn from. Documentation is key to their onboarding success; with well-written digital guides that hires can dip in and out of asynchronously, as and when they need it.
GitLab also briefs new hires with a menu of Slack channels to go to for help: #payroll and #it_help, for example. That’s a super easy, but incredibly effective, way of connecting employees with the people who can help them — no matter how many miles between them!
Touch base regularly in the weeks that follow
Onboarding is not a once-and-done process, whether performed remotely or in-person. Regular check-ins and feedback sharing is fundamental to an employee’s long-term success and engagement — you cannot forget about them!
Decide between the leadership team whose responsibility it will be to monitor or mentor new recruits during their first few months/year. Not all struggling employees will ask for help, so be proactive making sure they have what they need.
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