Working virtually shouldn’t mean your process for onboarding a remote employee is compromised. Here’s how to make virtual onboarding a success.
We can probably all remember our first week in a new workplace. There’s often an immense amount of new information to process, it’s next to impossible to remember the names of every employee, and there’s a host of unfamiliar processes to wrap your head around.
Throw all of that into a virtual setting, and a new employee’s first few weeks on the job is likely to be an overwhelming experience.
It’s harder for a new hires to simply turn to their deskmate to ask for help, or to observe how someone else performs their job.
Conducting a remote onboarding process is familiar territory for Ilona Charles, who co-founded HR consultancy Shilo People in March last year.
She has since onboarded 60 consultants remotely, and while she says you can’t entirely replicate the face-to-face elements of onboarding, there are many things you can do to welcome new employees and bring them up to speed. It just takes a little more preparation.
HRM asks Charles and Rebecca Houghton, CEO of BoldHR, for their best tips on how employers can make the remote onboarding experience a smooth and effective one.
1. Plan ahead
In a physical working environment, introductions to employees tend to happen in a natural way by simply walking around the workspace, whereas in a digital environment, Houghton says employers need to “make a plan and map out those stakeholders a lot more thoughtfully”.
“Think about who is connected to whom, and walk the new employee through those connections,” she says. “Make introductions via email because you can’t wait for them to happen organically”.
Introductions for new employees can start getting underway before their first day on the job.
Charles suggests sending out an organisational chart with photos of each person, so that the newstarter can identify each employee and know how they fit into the company’s structure, before they hop onto their first video call.
“You can’t replicate face-to-face onboarding 100 per cent, but it’s about being much more conscious and getting the right face time for the new people as soon as possible,” says Charles.
At the same time, however, organisations can slip into ‘video call overload’, and in an attempt to ensure their new employees feel connected and included, schedule video meetings from 9-5 for their entire first week.
“That’s going to be a shocker,” says Charles. “You need to also give your new employees some breathing space.”
One midpoint between formal video meetings and offline working could be to establish regular group co-working time.
This means there’s no formal meeting agenda, or stated purpose for meeting, it’s simply time when everyone can choose to be together while working on their own tasks.
“It’s like having a buddy there to have a chat with. That’s when you know you can ask questions or seek clarification,” says Houghton. “People are often hesitant to speak up for fear that they’re bothering someone else, but this could be a good way for them to feel comfortable doing so, if everyone is on the call anyway.”
2. Connect with culture
Becoming familiar with an organisation isn’t just about learning the ropes of a new role. There’s a vast array of other information that a new employee needs to absorb – such as the company’s strategic goals and underlying values, and how different teams intersect and work together – all of which coalesce to build a detailed picture of their new workplace.
The various pieces that make up the bigger picture are often observed in a physical workspace – there might be flowcharts on the wall, a list of company values, or the new employee might pick up information from simply observing how people interact.
It’s an employer’s responsibility to make sure they are still building that rich and colourful picture for their new recruits in a remote setting.
“Be really planned in how you’re introducing them to the company’s culture,” says Houghton. “Some team exercises should still be happening, even in complete lockdown, to keep people together.”
To build a sense of comfort before an employee attends more formal meetings in their initial weeks, organisations such as Inno Games, a browser and mobile games developer which has successfully onboarded more than 60 new employees over the last year, invited new employees to join quiz nights, brainstorming sessions or team updates, as reported in Games Industry Biz.
Houghton also proposes building a session into your onboarding that involves sitting down and talking through the culture and strategy piece with new employees.
It’s important to bring out the non-work related interests of your team members, Houghton adds, so a new employee feels part of the team culture.
“Have we got parents, gamers, sporty types? This information helps the new employee get to know people on different levels as quickly as possible. As their onboarding leader, think about what your new employee needs to know that they can’t read or pick up via email.”
3. Empower the employee
Creating a smooth transition into the workplace isn’t solely the employer’s responsibility.
Employees also need to take control of their onboarding experience, says Houghton, and employers shouldn’t hold back in asking new recruits to be more proactive than they otherwise might be in a face-to-face setting.
“New employees often wait for meetings to be laid out, to receive logins, or to find out what they need to read. It can be a very passive affair. When we are at home, employees might find they are twiddling their thumbs a lot of the time if they take that approach,” says Houghton.
“Employees should arrive with a list of things they want to know and who they want to meet.”
To facilitate this, employers can ask their new employees to create a 90-day plan that will be adjustable outlining some of their goals, questions and milestones.
“If the boss and employee are both proactive and planned, then the employee will have a great onboarding experience. Otherwise the employee will be lost and waste time… It can arrest the employee’s development and reputation.”
4. Onboarding revisited
When everyone returns to the workplace, it can be easy to assume that an employee who was onboarded remotely already understands the ins and outs of the organisation.
But that’s unlikely to be the case.
Chances are, the new employee probably doesn’t know the answers to simple questions, such as where the stationary cupboard is, or how to use the printer, so it’s important that employers dedicate time towards onboarding them into the physical workspace too.
“Most organisations are focused on rebuilding social connections, but just knowing the tools, tricks and nuances of an organisation is so important too,” says Charles.
“If an employee doesn’t know how to do those things, it can take up large chunks of time and make them very unproductive. There is a huge piece in enabling productivity when people come back into the office.”
Onboarding a remote employee can present some speed bumps. If you’re eager to hear how other HR professionals are managing a remote workforce, connect with them on the AHRI Lounge, exclusive to AHRI Members.