How to Create a Successful Remote Onboarding Plan
A virtual onboarding sequence can be intimidating for employers who are new to remote work. Plus, it can be a lot harder for new employees to acclimate to company culture if they only know their teammates through a screen. However, developing the process isn’t as difficult as it might seem.
Even though remote onboarding can be tricky, especially in a hybrid workplace, it’s important to have a strong plan as part of your recruitment strategy. In order to be competitive, it’s crucial to make sure all your new hires feel welcome, whether they’re in the office or not.
“When you’re starting a new job, you’re nervous and onboarding sets the tone for the rest of your time at your company,” said Meredith Sny, people operations manager at Chicago-based parking software company SpotHero. “Whether you’re onboarding someone in person or remotely, you need to make sure you provide the same experience for everyone.”
Here you’ll get the eight steps necessary to adjust your existing onboarding strategy into a remote sequence, as well as the tools you need to make a successful transition.
Create a Remote Onboarding Plan
- Analyze your current process
- Find virtual tools that work for your team
- Optimize for different learning styles
- Implement regular skills assessments
- Create an inclusive culture
- Outline a communication strategy
- Train and empower managers
- Collect feedback from new hires
Evaluate Your Current Plan
Your current in-person onboarding plan is in place for a reason; don’t toss it to the side when welcoming a remote employee. Start by carefully evaluating your existing onboarding sequence and identifying the value of each component. Focus on the objective, whether that’s providing an overview of the industry, product training, or practicing objection handling.
For years, Alexander Wayman trained teams and onboarded new hire classes of more than 100 employees. Now, he works as the director of sales enablement at G2, a Chicago based software marketplace. (At the time of this interview, he worked as Built In’s sales training and onboarding manager.)
“Ask yourself, ‘What are the skills, the knowledge and the processes that the employee has to have locked down to succeed?’” said Wayman. “Onboarding should provide new hires with a pre-flight checklist — all the things they need to accomplish before they can enter their job and take off into their role.”
Be specific with how you define the purpose of each stage in the program. Doing so will help you more effectively transition your plan into a remote onboarding sequence and determine which steps are truly essential — the average onboarding process includes 54 tasks, so aim to consolidate and cut where you can.
“Our remote onboarding strategy is built with intentionality,” said Debbie Gunning, VP of People at San Francisco-based fintech company Human Interest. Before beginning the onboarding process, new hires at Human Interest receive documents and items to prepare them for the training days ahead. This new hire care package ensures that all new hires start on the same page, whether they’ll be working in-office or not.
“We have a set schedule that allows teams to build their own training agendas around the pre-established sessions,” she said. “Each session tells a story and is presented in a specific order to build upon one another to help complete the Human Interest history.”
Find Tools to Make It Virtual
Once you’ve determined the purpose of each onboarding exercise, carefully rework your plan with those values in mind and identify the tools you need to support them. There are a variety of software options available including video conferencing platforms, learning management systems (LMS) and employee engagement tools.
“I challenge talent teams not to think of remote onboarding as a disadvantage, but as simply a different medium,” said Wayman. “That means you need to be savvy. With remote onboarding, you don’t have a classroom where people can learn from each other, so how can you generate cross-communication between peers? Schedule small-group conversations and flipped learning sessions based on compelling questions or homework that you provide.”
Thoroughly test the software prior to implementation and ensure your team members know how to troubleshoot common issues. Being an expert in the software will eliminate additional friction points during an already stressful time for new employees. Also, have a fail-safe in place in case technical issues arise during the onboarding process. It can be as simple as sharing phone numbers amongst team members as an alternate line of communication.
Here are a few of the most essential technologies to help your remote onboarding process go smoothly:
Video Conferencing Software
This is the single most important software to have. In addition to conducting video interviews, you need a video conferencing platform to connect with new hires face-to-face during training sessions and introduce them to the rest of the team.
“It’s super important when you’re remote onboarding someone to create as much of a physical connection as you can,” said Sny. “When we’re onboarding anybody remotely, we always have our cameras on during video chats, so they’re able to connect a face to a name.”
Video Conferencing Tools: Google Hangouts, Skype, Cisco, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, GoToMeeting
Document Sharing Software
Provide your new hires with all the information they’ll need ahead of time and in a neatly organized system. If your management software doesn’t offer document sharing capabilities, consider utilizing cloud-storage tools to house all your onboarding materials.
“We use Google Sheets, so if a new hire doesn’t understand something, we can both pop into a file and work on it together,” said Sny. “I think shared docs are super helpful for collaboration, especially if an employee just wants to talk through something.”
Document Sharing Software: Google Drive, Dropbox, Microsoft OneDrive, Box, OneHub
Project Management Software
A project management platform helps managers track their direct reports’ progress through the onboarding program. For your talent team, it provides a high-level overview of where new hires are getting stuck so you can optimize the process and smooth out wrinkles.
Project management tools: ProofHub, Monday.com, Trello, Weekdone, Teamwork Projects
Employee Engagement Survey Software
The more you encourage employees to give feedback about their onboarding experience, the more you’ll be able to even out kinks in your process.
You can also use an employee engagement survey to regularly poll your people on how they’re feeling. Some folks may be struggling to connect to their work and team members while working remotely — if your employees are feeling disconnected or alienated, you want to catch it before it becomes too big of a problem.
“Candid and frequent feedback is a really important part of our culture,” said Ginger Dhaliwal, co-founder and chief product officer of New York-based coworking technology company Upflex. “On-boarding is an interactive process; we learn something from each new hire. And especially as we start to scale our hiring, this feedback ensures that our process is relevant, useful, and effective.”
Employee Engagement Software: Culture Amp, 15Five, Hyphen, Officevibe, TINYPulse
Learning and Culture Management Software
One of the biggest advantages to remote onboarding is automation. You can seamlessly implement learning management systems to automate training sessions and foster culture initiatives. Check out the following software options as additional tools to enhance your onboarding process and remote work environment, in general.
Culture Management Tools: Lessonly, Limeade Well-Being, Qualtrics, EmployeeXM Energage, Reward Gateway
Optimize Your Plan for Multiple Learning Strategies
Every new hire you train will have a slightly different learning style. There are visual learners, auditory learners and even kinesthetic learners. You can’t customize the process for every new hire that joins your team, but a successful onboarding program caters to each type of person.
“It’s about maximum impact, minimum footprint,” said Wayman. In the same way you evaluated and identified the importance of each onboarding component, approach training sessions from the perspective of different learning styles. “Ask yourself, ‘How am I engaging somebody visually in this session? How am I engaging somebody auditorily? How am I getting somebody to be active?’”
Take advantage of your remote platforms and use a variety of training exercises to accommodate different learning styles. The more engaged each new hire is, the more successful they’ll be as a group.
Implement Regular Skill Assessments
When onboarding new hires remotely, measuring and tracking their performance is crucial. Because peer-to-peer interactions are limited in a remote work environment, hiring managers can’t always pick up on how their direct reports are settling into their roles.
“Measure skill, not output,” said Wayman. “We know how crazy outside factors can impact somebody’s role right now, so measuring output has almost nothing to do with the real learning impact of onboarding.”
Regular skills assessments can be conducted through an LMS, Google Form or over video conference by asking pertinent questions or reviewing a first attempt at a new project. Use performance indicators to keep track of how the individuals are progressing through the onboarding sequence, not in their role. Explain the intent behind each assessment and checkpoint to mitigate any unnecessary stress.
“It’s vital that new hires know the value of these assessments and they are not mistaken for exams or reasons to let someone go,” said Wayman. “Your ultimate goal should be to have the individual engage with the material — share their ideas about it, explore it, discuss it and debate it with others. Challenge new hires to engage with the material — if they can, that means they’ve put in the work.”
Create an Inclusive Company Culture
The biggest obstacle to a remote onboarding process is introducing a new hire to your company culture. In addition to preparing them to be successful in their role, you must make them feel like a part of the team. “The human connection element is lost, there's no pretending otherwise,” said Wayman. “The key is to focus on what you do to fill that gap.”
Proactively schedule meetings not only with the people the new hire will be working closely with, but also people who they wouldn’t get to interact with in their day-to-day. Introduce them to department heads through lunch-and-learns or informal Q&A sessions. Additionally, instruct new hires in your company core values. Doing so frames your type of organizational culture in the context of your mission, and sets a precedent for how you expect team members to treat customers and each other.
Take the time to highlight your unique committees and initiatives, and encourage new hires to join any they may be interested in. Friendship helps people feel safe and happy at work, so carve out space on your new hire’s schedule to socialize with their new peers. At Human Interest, Gunning said her teams host a #SEAL (Stop Everything and Laugh) session. Around 15 minutes, the sessions are an opportunity to play trivia games, do Mad Libs, and cut loose.
“Invest heavily in your company’s social groups and things based around related interests,” said Wayman. “Remind yourself that a lot of these connections happen naturally in an office environment, and think about how you can intentionally create moments that bond people.”
Outline an Onboarding Communication Plan
An onboarding process is intended to help a new employee acclimate both to their role and to the company. For your team, that includes enrolling new hires in benefits, setting up accounts, granting access to company services and adding a new head to payroll. While that’s a lot on your plate to coordinate remotely, new hires are going to be just as concerned with getting everything completed.
Give new employees peace of mind by outlining a communication plan for their onboarding process, even if your human capital management (HCM) software can automatically trigger events. Include key tasks to be completed — such as filling out forms or participating in an informational session with the head of HR — and provide points of contact for each item. Additionally, designate a liaison to the finance and tech teams in case new hires have specific questions regarding their onboarding in each department.
“We mail our new hires a Bingo card, where each square is a ‘task’ or suggested item of interest to explore,” said Gunning. “The starters can work at their own pace in the first 30 days to complete the Bingo card and get a ‘bingo!’ for which the prize is more company swag.”
Go a step further by implementing a new hire ambassador program. A buddy system ensures new employees have someone to turn to for advice on intangible aspects of onboarding such as insight on committees, upcoming events and Slack channel etiquette. Ambassadors can set up virtual coffee meetings and facilitate introductions with other members of the team.
“By pairing new remote hires with seasoned staff, you can more effectively imbue your company culture while also giving new hires someone to ask even the smallest questions,” said Dhaliwal. “[The buddy system] is a fantastic way not only for the new hires but also helps existing employees to feel included in the success in the team cohesion.”
Train and Empower Managers
Once you’ve put your remote onboarding plan in place, it’s on the managers to see it through. It’s the responsibility of the manager to ensure their direct report is comfortable and cared for throughout the entire process.
In addition to learning styles, every person comes to the table with a unique personality. The onboarding process you implement should have a basic template. Encourage direct managers to personalize the experience to the individual, start by having more of a presence in the process.
“I believe passionately that every manager needs to be the right manager for each of their direct reports,” said Wayman. “They should ask new hires how they prefer to be communicated with, what they’re looking for in their manager and how they learn best prior to the start of the onboarding process.”
This can be done through a simple online survey or form. Direct managers should then use the results to better tailor the remote onboarding experience to the individual’s needs. Are they someone who expects frequent check-ins with their manager? Schedule brief, daily one-on-ones. Are they more social or do they learn better discussing ideas with others? Set up 30-minute virtual coffee chats with other new hires and subject matter experts.
Collect Feedback From New Hires
Bumps in the road are inevitable. Collect feedback from your new hires and use their insight to improve your remote onboarding program as you go. Doing so will help you spot issues before they derail the process and enhance the experience for future new hires.
Ask for anonymous feedback via Google Forms or another survey tool, and focus on impact rather than simply likes and dislikes. “Ask, ‘After your onboarding experience, what are you the most confident in? The most excited for? What helped you to feel that way?’” said Wayman. “Similarly, ask them what they’re nervous about or what they wish they had a better understanding of.” These types of questions will highlight your successes and shortcomings, as well as help direct managers identify areas to increase their training efforts.
Transitioning to a remote onboarding process is an opportunity to carefully evaluate your efforts and identify areas for improvement. While certainly a challenge, it doesn’t have to hold you back; use this as a chance to push boundaries and rethink your existing strategy. Develop innovative ways to foster connections between team members, emphasize your culture and support your people. Who knows, your onboarding sequence may evolve so much that you’re able to hire remote employees on a broader scale.
An earlier version of this story was published by Kate Heinz in 2020.