Barb Neff has been writing about a variety of legal and other topics since 2001. She has a law degree and a master's degree in journalism.
The Employer’s Guide to Successfully Onboarding Remote Employees
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the workplace over the past two years. While the future of the pandemic remains uncertain, one thing is clear: remote work is here to stay. And that means remote onboarding will only become more common.
Here’s what employers need to know to set their new employees on a course for success. 😎
The shifting landscape
According to polling giant Gallup, of the 125 million full-time jobs in the United States, 60 million can be done remotely. Of those 60 million potential remote workers, 30% would prefer to never come into the office, and 60% would like a hybrid schedule of one to four days on-site every week.
Many employers have seen the writing on the wall and have recently converted to remote or hybrid models. These companies span industries and include Microsoft, Google, Citigroup, Ford Motor Company, Novartis, and Target. This new employment model creates onboarding changes and challenges. 😬
As many companies scramble to fill positions, retention is perhaps more important than ever, making effective onboarding all the more critical. But, when work and onboarding go remote, the latter needs to tackle more than the logistics of getting new hires a company laptop, phone, and employee handbook—it also must thoroughly integrate employees into the organization.
Remote onboarding suffers from some of the same vulnerabilities as remote work in general, including the following areas:
Communication and collaboration
Virtual interactions can be an obstacle when fostering strong communication and collaboration. Those who spearhead the onboarding processing must communicate clearly with new remote employees from the outset and demonstrate how the company facilitates collaboration among colleagues.
Many employers have found it difficult to introduce new employees to the company culture when onboarding remotely. It’s one thing for an employee to read a mission statement and values; it’s another for that employee to see them play out in real-time.
Moreover, employees may struggle to form meaningful connections with their co-workers when they’ve never met face-to-face. Employers must plan how they will cultivate bonds to nurture and maintain the culture they want.
In 2021, Gallup found that the percentage of engaged workers in the United States declined for the first time in more than a decade. Only 34% of employees were engaged and 16% were actively disengaged in their work and workplace, based on a random sample of 57,022 full and part-time employees throughout the year. If an employer can’t hook an employee during onboarding, it will likely face an uphill battle on the engagement front later. 😯
Five keys to great remote onboarding 🔑
Fortunately, employers can overcome these stumbling blocks by developing—and sticking to—a formal, structured protocol for remote onboarding. It should include the following:
1. Seamless prep work
Remote onboarding should begin before an employee’s official Day One. For example, the employer should send a new hire the essential technology and paperwork in advance.
This package should include instructions for all of the necessary platforms, such as the company intranet, messaging apps, and video conferencing software. Scheduling new employees for a video call with IT to work out any kinks can help reduce first-day stress and preempt interruptions due to technical snafus.
Employees should promptly complete the requisite paperwork, including their Forms W-4 and I-9, so they can review them with the appropriate team members on their first day. HR should also set aside time to provide an overview of key policies in the employee handbook—including remote work policies—and answer any related questions.
2. An emphasis on culture
Remote onboarding needs to provide more opportunities to build the kinds of relationships that generally form more easily when people are regularly working in the same space.
As in traditional onboarding, employers can use documents and videos to review the company’s mission, values, products and services, organizational chart, and the like. But they need to go farther with their remote hires, who are less likely to just pick up on the day-to-day norms than they would if working on-site. How formal is the company? What is the expected etiquette on video calls and in messages?
It may seem awkward, but employers would be wise to give new hires explicit guidance on these types of matters. One way is to assign every new employee a “culture buddy” who can answer their questions about such questions—the kinds of questions a new hire would informally ask of co-workers in the lunchroom or on the elevator. Note, though, that the culture buddy shouldn’t be the new person’s manager; new employees might be reluctant to approach their boss with some of these questions.
3. Employee engagement efforts
Employee engagement should start on an employee’s Day One, too. Employers can send a welcome box with company swag. A digital welcome with messages and videos from the employee’s new teammates should be waiting in the employee’s inbox when they log on their first day! A remote lunch, happy hour, or other icebreaker can go a long way toward making new employees feel like part of the team, as can regular check-ins from their manager. 💚
The employee’s manager should provide a list of the co-workers the employee should make a point of meeting within the first month. Explain why each of these stakeholders is important to the employee and the context within which the employee will work with them.
Be sure to add new employees to the company Slack or other chat and collaboration account on Day One. Employers also can create separate channels for new employees, where they can get to know each other and ask questions. Assigning new employees a case study or group project to work on together can serve engagement, team-building, and training purposes.
Want the down-low on engagement? Read our Essential Guide to Employee Engagement
4. Training and development
Training helps employees hit the ground running in their new roles, while simultaneously promoting engagement. Employers should provide training documents on or around Day One and schedule time for more in-depth training sessions early on.
When the initial training is complete, employees may still have some gaps—after all, people learn at different rates and in different ways. HR or managers should ask if there are areas where a new employee would like additional training. If so, that training should be scheduled as soon as possible so employees feel listened to and supported.
5. A 90-day plan
Onboarding should wrap up with the creation of a 90-day plan. Setting concrete expectations and milestones will help new employees prioritize their work. As they hit their goals and rack up wins, their confidence will soar, and they’ll generate positive momentum. 🌟 The 90-day plan also gives managers built-in check-ins, as they meet with the employee to review progress.
Some companies use Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), key performance indicators (KPIs), or similar metrics to set goals and track progress toward them. These generally can be used for individuals and teams alike. Whichever metrics chosen, the 90-day plan should gradually ramp them up over time. Continually challenging work is crucial to both increasing productivity and maintaining employee engagement.
The plan should be a living document with adjustments made as necessary. Conditions can change, making some milestones harder or easier to reach. Plus, some employees may need a little extra time the first time around on certain tasks. Be patient but consistent—granting exceptions for some new employees but not others can lead to friction and resentment, not to mention discrimination lawsuits.
Developing a remote onboarding process isn’t a one-time task. Employers should regularly review and revise the process to improve employees’ experience. Not surprisingly, employee feedback is probably the most valuable ingredient for improving onboarding. Informal feedback can prove helpful, but employers might obtain more targeted and actionable information by sending a feedback form or survey a month or so into the job.
Big thanks to our friends at Gusto who wrote this piece! Gusto provides payroll, benefits, hiring, and HR tools to more than 200,000 growing businesses.
For more on employee engagement, check out this resource 👇