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Welcome-from-home: HR’s guide to onboarding employees remotely

Demystify the remote onboarding process with these tips – and make your employee experience memorable from day one.

As many talent acquisition teams (and hiring managers) around the world have pivoted their strategies for recruiting and interviewing candidates, they’re also grappling with how to onboard new employees during a pandemic. For organizations still adjusting to remote work, remote onboarding poses a lot of questions – and not much time to determine the answers.

If you’re onboarding remote employees – either for the first time since the start of COVID-19 or in the wake of your company announcing indefinite remote work – here’s a look at how to get it right.

The rise of remote onboarding

When you think of the first day at a new job, you probably conjure images of sitting down with HR to complete new hire paperwork, joining a group of fellow new hires for New Employee Orientation, shaking hands with new team members, and chatting with your new manager over lunch.

[record scratch] And then COVID-19 happened.

Now, many people start a new job without meeting their colleagues or manager in-person, nor visiting the office – at least not on day one. Since a strong onboarding process can improve retention by as much as 25% it is mission-critical that HR teams reassess the onboarding experience in a COVID-19 world.

While a small number of distributed organizations had been onboarding remote employees pre-COVID, the vast majority of traditional, office-based organizations had to quickly pivot their onboarding strategies because of the pandemic. Onboarding remote employees presents new challenges for HR and hiring managers, but it also creates new opportunities to reshape your onboarding process – and welcome new hires in an inclusive and personalized way.

Challenges of onboarding remote employees

Pivoting your onboarding program overnight won’t happen without missteps and unexpected obstacles. The good news is you can overcome most growing pains by communicating early and often.

Here are some of the common challenges of onboarding remote employees:

  • Difficulty gauging and adjusting to company culture. Without the ability to experience the non-verbal cues of a new workplace, new employees will experience a longer adjustment period to your company culture. Acknowledge this learning curve with new employees – and remind managers to look out for opportunities to assist employees with adapting.
  • Missing out on office networking opportunities. Likewise, without a physical office, new employees won’t experience casual introductions or run-ins with new colleagues. Meeting teammates (and new work friends) will require intentional effort – and built-in support.
  • Zoom fatigue. Keep in mind that while new employees will benefit from the myriad of virtual meetings being set up for them, they also need breaks from their screens. If you’re the one setting up said introductory meetings, space them out to accommodate some downtime.
  • Feelings of isolation and loneliness. Remember that – despite the excitement of a new role – new employees are likely experiencing a variety of other pandemic-related feelings, including stress, isolation, and loneliness. Managers and HR should express their understanding and support during this challenging time.
  • Inclusivity. Not everyone thrives in a virtual workplace environment. New employees that are extroverts, for example, will be missing the opportunity to engage with (and gain energy from) new colleagues. On the other hand, introverts face unique challenges in group video calls. One way to get ahead of this challenge? Get to know new employees as quickly (yet naturally) as possible, so you can support their communication, learning, and socialization preferences as early as you can.

Tips for a great onboarding experience

Despite the challenges, remote onboarding allows for an inclusive and personalized approach to welcoming new hires to your organization. Use these eight tips to set you – and most importantly, your newly-onboarded remote employees – up for success starting from day one.

#1 Communicate company culture

Shared values, goals, ethics, expectations, and beliefs all add up to company culture – and drive how decisions are made, what actions are taken, and the business results that follow. Typically, culture originates with an organization’s founders or leaders and trickles down to employees; it also dictates the workplace environment – even when that workplace is remote.

Get new employees up to speed on your company culture by sending them the resources they need to not only understand the culture, but also identify how they can be a part of it and contribute. Plan to share resources like:

  • Your (digital) employee handbook.
  • Any representation of your company values, such as presentations, blog posts, or news articles.
  • Pictures, videos, and anecdotes from prior company meetings and events.

#2 Get clear on job expectations

In addition to company culture and values, new employees should start out with a clear idea of their duties, team objectives, and individual goals. Leaders should also establish timeframes for training, reviews, and milestones.

Tip: Provide your new hire with an agenda for their onboarding process so that they can reference it for answers and guidance.

#3 Make new employees feel welcome

Building relationships with new team members is not only important to job satisfaction and performance, but the overall employee experience, as well. To help remote employees feel welcome, set up meetings (either one-on-one or group calls) with their team members and other key employees.

“Relationships with colleagues are paramount – particularly when it comes to inclusion and belonging.”

Arianna Huffington, CEO at Thrive Global

Read more about helping employees thrive in the future of work.

#4 Translate the in-office experience

Getting acclimated to a new job is more than the day-to-day tasks and responsibilities. Here are a few key touchpoints of the employee experience to cover during onboarding:

  • Give a virtual tour of the office, leveraging on-site employees or branded videos.
  • Introduce company-wide communication tools, such as company email, group messaging platforms (such as Slack), video conference software (like Zoom), and other tools a new employee will need to be successful.
  • Orchestrate a virtual social hour so new employees can get to know their colleagues in a casual setting.

#5 Send IT hardware early

The employee technology experience is especially critical to remote workers. Having access to the right tools and technology from the start communicates to your new employee that he or she is a priority. If you’re not sure where to get started with IT-related needs, here are a few tips:

  • Order any hardware your remote employee will need well ahead of his or her start date, including a phone, laptop, mouse, keyboard, monitor(s), as well as any job-specific necessities.
  • Send said hardware (and manuals) to the new employee as soon as possible. Confirm he or she has received all necessary equipment before his or her start date.
  • Connect a new employee with a member of your IT team for training and support.
  • Ensure your new employee has access to systems, portals, and software.

#6 Connect new employees with mentors

More than ever, onboarding needs to extend beyond a new employee’s first week. Build onboarding programs that provide ongoing support for at least six months, or even the first year, to ensure new remote employees are set up for success. Mentors can play a key role in providing ongoing and sustained support. Be sure that a new employee is connected with one during his or her onboarding process.

“As part of onboarding, ensure that new employees – especially those that are from underrepresented groups – have a mentor,” said Rusty O’Kelley, Managing Director at Russell Reynolds Associates. “Then, check back in at regular intervals to reassess and ensure that the mentor-mentee relationship is a good fit.”

“As part of onboarding, ensure that new employees – especially those that are from underrepresented groups – have a mentor.”

Rusty O’Kelley, Managing Director at Russell Reynolds Associates

#7 Get them some swag

Sending new hires company swag can help them feel like a part of the team even when they’re physically distant. Many organizations send:

  • Branded merchandise, like a coffee mug, T-shirt, or face mask.
  • A signed welcome letter or card from their team.
  • A gift card to your rewards program, which gives new hires the freedom to choose something that’s personal and meaningful to them – like experiences, giving back, or continuous learning.

#8 Gather feedback throughout the remote onboarding process

It’s never too early to start listening to your employees. Two-way communication about the remote onboarding process ensures that your new hire has what he or she needs to be successful, as well as provides critical insight to what’s working – and what’s not – about your onboarding process. Gather feedback throughout the process to know how remote employees are feeling – and where you can iterate or improve.

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