How to Onboard Remote Team Members

🙋‍♀️ This is a cross-post from my newsletter, Leading by Design. If you liked the post below, consider subscribing! I post one issue per month.

Onboarding employees, the process of helping them navigate their stressful first few weeks, can be a make-or-break process for your organization. According to a Glassdoor survey, great employee onboarding can improve employee retention by 82%. A surprisingly high amount of staff turnover (as high as 20 percent) can happen within their first 45 days. Traditional, co-located onboarding is challenging enough, and it has become much more demanding now that almost every employed knowledge worker works from home for the foreseeable future.

In most surveys, remote onboarding ranks very highly as one of the most challenging activities a manager has to organize and coordinate. There are large amounts of stress and uncertainty around the best ways to onboard an employee so that they can be happy and productive from day one.

Let’s take it one step at a time, starting with the basics: now is the best time to standardize and structure your onboarding process.

📐 Begin with a structured onboarding process

Your primary objective during the first few weeks of a new hire should be to give them a high-level view of their position and how it relates to your team and the organization in general. Give them context: what is the impact of their role on the business?

Aim so that their first week is the right mix of training (preferably in multiple formats, e.g. written employee handbooks, recordings of essential presentations or online courses), meeting the team and planning their first project. Avoid overloading new employees with information, which is the remote equivalent of dropping a substantial archaic volume of documentation on their desks and walking away. Create a standardized process that’s paced and fun, aiming to make the employee feel productive as soon as possible. Try to document the process by writing it down Trello-style and creating an onboarding calendar with all necessary meetings already set up.

🌊 Pre-boarding can get you ahead of the curve

Your new hire’s experience as your employee doesn’t start on their first day at work - it begins when they sign their offer. Make sure you:

  • Send them their hardware at home before their starting date.
  • Inform them about any security manuals and guides they should study beforehand.
  • Give them access to your systems, like email, chat, project management and training resources as soon as possible.
  • Arrange so that they can sign any contracts or legal documents using a service like HelloSign or DocuSign. No one likes printing documents, signing them and sending them back, not to mention that having a printer available is not a given.
  • Set up their first few meetings on their calendar (including a short agenda) so that they can prepare before the first day.
  • Add a personal touch by emailing your new hire personally to welcome them to the team. Remind them the reason why you hired them (nice serotonin burst!) and give them links to any relevant onboarding resources.
  • Work with your People Ops team to send them a personalized welcome package. It can contain company swag, an influential (and appropriate) book, or even a small customized surprise. How about a cat toy for their 9-year old Persian, if they're a cat lover, or a 30-min recipes cookbook if they enjoy cooking at home? Do your research and adapt the gift to their habits.

📡 Define your communication channels

An advantage of being a knowledge worker is the option to replace face to face meetings with virtual appointments relatively easily, using technologies like Google Hangouts or Zoom. To better manage your new hire’s expectations, I’d suggest including a communication charter to your pre-boarding deliverables. You can use this document to answer essential questions about the communication channels you and your team prefer and to set down some ground rules about their usage.

Onboarding someone remotely means that you have to be more hands-on than usual. Make sure that you arrange recurring one-to-one meetings with the newest member of your team. I’d suggest having a more in-depth discussion during their first days, where you can clarify everything and present them with their first project. You can then set up short, daily check-ins to ensure they’re on the right track and they come to you with any questions that they might have. After their first week, you can fall back to your usual cadence of meeting weekly or bi-weekly, depending on your schedule.

🎯 Set down clear short- and long-term objectives

There’s a popular onboarding method called the 30/60/90 plan, in which you set down objectives for the first 30, 60 and 90 days of a new team member. Even if you don’t (or can’t) plan that far into the future, it makes sense to have at least a 30-day plan prepared before their arrival. Make sure that your new hire has a concrete action plan for their first few days, eliminating the need to constantly ask you what their next step is every time they finish with the task at hand.

I’d suggest starting with a small, well-defined project, preferably in their comfort zone that will cause them to work with different people cross-team. Make sure you explain the context and give a crystal clear definition of success. What’s the bare minimum outcome you expect? What would push the project forward a little more?

🏰 Introduce them to the team’s culture

Remote onboarding can feel awkward and forced at times. You have to embrace that, as it’s part of the remote reality. However, how can you ensure that your newest team members quickly adapt and start contributing to the team’s culture?

A surefire way to make them feel accepted and empowered right from the start is assigning them a work buddy. It doesn’t have to be you, their manager. Choose a person in your team that will have in-depth knowledge of the challenges your new hire will likely face. An onboarding buddy system has many benefits:

  • Buddies provide much-needed context, helping new hires orient themselves to the business.
  • Buddies can help boost productivity, as they assist with navigating processes and systems and provide insight into "how things get done here."
  • Buddies improve new employee satisfaction, as they facilitate connections between new hires and stakeholders and freely offer important work advice.

The benefits of a buddy system are two-fold, as it’s an excellent stretch goal for your senior team members, who can test their people management skills by providing guidance and support.

COVID-19 aside, another way you can help your new hire familiarise themselves with the way your organization operates would be a team dinner, if everyone lives relatively close to each other. You could also try company retreats, which help employees build rapport, have fun together and align themselves with the direction the company follows. Face-to-face communication is essential, even if you pride yourself at being a remote-first company.

Intentional communication, not necessarily about work, should be a high priority as well. You can try devoting the first 5 minutes of every meeting to getting to know better your team members or hold recurring virtual watercooler meetings for informal chit chat. Don’t afraid to act silly: online quizzes and daily challenges can work wonders for bringing people together, interacting on non-work related matters. If you find yourself at a loss about how to initiate a conversation without it seeming too forced, try to get the ball rolling with a handful of well-picked icebreaker questions. It usually takes two to three of those to get a heated conversation started (try asking people about their favourite series!).

♻️ Ask for feedback & iterate

Your remote onboarding process shouldn’t be a set-it-and-forget-it process. Make it a habit to ask for feedback by your newest hires on your approach, so that you can iterate and improve it every time.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are tons of resources and onboarding-related tools out there that can help you get started. When in doubt, ask yourselves: how would you want to experience your first few months as the newest hire in a strange company?

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