Onboarding encompasses more than merely orienting the new hire to their job; a great onboarding program seamlessly integrates new employees into organizational culture and the workforce experience.
However, building that type of program isn’t easy. According to a Kronos survey, 60 percent of HR professionals intend onboarding to be a culture integration tool, but that’s barely reflected in the content of most onboarding programs.
Remote onboarding amplifies these difficulties. When everyone is distributed, it’s even more imperative to drive home a sense of connection between new hires and their teammates, leaders and the organizational culture. “It’s an opportunity to instill in every new employee the important part they play, give them a sense of purpose, and empower them to make a difference from day one,” says Cheryl Fields Tyler, founder and CEO of Blue Beyond Consulting. “This can help create a sense of belonging and accelerate productivity in new hires.”
Here’s how to set the stage for connectivity and engagement during your organization’s remote onboarding process.
Prioritize Consistency and Accessibility
Develop a specific timeline for onboarding. Since everything takes place in front of a laptop, remote onboarding should last longer than face-to-face onboarding. Try to minimize “Zoom fatigue” so that new hires remain fresh and excited. The orientation process should last two to four weeks, but the overall onboarding process should stretch well into the employee’s first few weeks (around 30 to 90 days). Don’t overwhelm new hires with paperwork on their first day: Send digital tax and compliance forms to new hires before their start date, and give them opportunities to ask questions during their early days of onboarding.
Make sure new hires get a lot of face time with their direct managers. “With remote onboarding, it’s crucial to prioritize face-to-face connection with regular video chat the first few weeks,” says Fields Tyler. Encourage managers to set a cadence of daily video check-ins during the onboarding process. Make sure key players are accessible: “Be clear about the best way for new employees to reach you — phone, text, email — and encourage regular, two-way feedback throughout the onboarding process.” Have the new hire, their teammates and their manager share their individual communication preferences.
Encourage a full range of team members to reach out to new hires over their first couple of weeks. “It’s so important to sustain the engagement of new employees at this time,” says Sally Stetson, co-founder and principal of the Salveson Stetson Group. "Overcommunicate and don’t make assumptions. It’s easier to recognize nuance in face-to-face communication than in a virtual space, and there are fewer opportunities for new hires to catch someone on a break to ask a clarifying question. Explicitly ask new employees how they’re doing and whether they need anything."
Weave in Threads of Workplace Culture
During face-to-face onboarding, organizational culture comes through organically. They can observe employees collaborating or casually talking, and they pick up threads of what the company’s cultural norms are. “So much of that is lost when working from home,” Stetson says. In a remote onboarding process, new hires can only see what the camera shows them, so it’s up to you to weave threads of culture into the process.
Include breakout sessions detailing the organization’s culture, mission and values. Don’t just tell new hires, though; make it tangible by developing specific examples of how culture affects daily functioning, or ask employees to share how they bring the organizational values to life in their actions.
Give new hires a chance to experience the culture for themselves, Stetson suggests. Make time for casual “water cooler” sessions with teammates, or appoint long-term employees as cultural ambassadors to answer questions during a virtual coffee or lunch session. Allow new hires to observe work to experience what they’ve read about in the handbook or heard from new co-workers.
Spur Engagement Through Inclusion
A sense of connectivity and purpose within the organization helps a new hire feel included and sets the stage for long-term engagement. “Employees want to be welcomed warmly and feel like they’re part of the team,” Stetson says. In face-to-face onboarding, there’s often downtime for milling around when co-workers reach out to make new hires feel welcome.
Onboarding in a remote environment requires more thoughtful ways to engage and include new team members, such as intentional, designated sessions for team members to get to know each other. “You need to be intentional about being inclusive with the new hire and the broader team,” Fields Tyler says. “It’s important to bring together all of the key players to build working relationships with the new hire.”
Train direct managers to check in daily to take the new hire’s “temperature” on inclusion. If new hires don’t feel like they’re a valued part of the team early in their tenure, they’re less likely to be engaged and productive long term.