It’s generally thought that onboarding remote workers is harder than doing the same with your in-house workforce. The distance and lack of physical presence can make it hard to encourage and facilitate communication, which can quickly lead to misunderstandings and low employee morale if left unchecked.
The most crucial part of a remote employee’s onboarding program is the ability to connect to their team and, more importantly, their manager as soon as possible. To do that well takes some preparation.
We’ll show you our best onboarding tips for building a strategy that succeeds before, during, and after the initial training.
Phases of Onboarding Explained
Transactional Onboarding Phase
Relational Onboarding Phase
Transactional onboarding is the initial phase and aims to get the new team member up and running as quickly as possible. This usually involves providing new employees with lots of information, guides, employee handbooks, resources, and technical knowledge.
This period emphasizes learning hard-facts about the business. It helps a new employee get their bearings and become oriented to their everyday job duties and processes.
However, the transactional phase does not address the full scope of requirements. It’s important to start to evolve towards a more relationship-based orientation in order to keep that momentum going.
Progressing mindfully from the initial transactional phase to a more social model is even more essential when onboarding remote employees. The relational model leverages a more time intensive, but comprehensive learning process that includes peer learning, coaching, and support to take your team member from newbie to pro.
“Having a structured onboarding schedule makes an employee 58% more likely to be there 3 years later. “
Taking the time to stretch out the onboarding process over a longer period of time will result in an overall more effective start while building the trust and confidence your new hire needs to venture out and learn on their own.
Onboarding Best Practices: What to Do Before Day 1
Get Ahead of The Game
Onboarding is not a one-person job, it’s a team effort. Which is why if you plan on bringing in a new hire, all your team members will need to be on board.
One challenging part of the process of onboarding is the paperwork involved. You never want to be in a position where your HR team is telling you an employee start date must be pushed back because of skipped steps or missing documents.
Your virtual employees might be working in a completely different city, time zone, or even country than you. These geographical barriers can impose some complicated logistical challenges ranging from simple scheduling issues to complex labor laws. Getting ahead of this means you won’t have to stress out helping hunt down last minute paperwork.
While you’re working on paperwork, also check with your IT department to make sure that they know you have a remote employee on the way. Making sure your new employee is situated on the technical end with logins and credentials is vital for making Day 1 a success.
Are there any other things they need to get started (laptop, headsets, phone, training manuals, etc.)? Having all that handy not only keeps you organized, but it also makes the entire process less stressful.
Assemble Their Toolbox
Every team has a different preference for the tools they use to get their daily tasks done. Be clear about the tools your team is using. Which ones are collaborative and require consensus, and which can employees adopt at their own discretion?
You’ll also want to map tasks to tools effectively.
Time and project management tools that drive productivity, for example, shouldn’t turn into tools for social collaboration. While chit chat is healthy and encourages team bonding, it can drastically decrease productivity when it seeps into spaces that are meant for work. (Save the new puppy pics for one channel, and new dashboard sketches for another.)
Lastly, consider refreshing your team’s habits. Adding a new team member is a great time to review and re-train veterans to make sure that you’re all on the same page. Taking the time to do that will minimize the risk of passing on confusion and questionable practices.
Define Your Processes
Since no two companies use their tools in the exact same ways, access is only half of the equation. Onboarding programs need to educate employees on preferred workflows and processes as well.
Make sure your processes are formal enough to teach by making sure your processes are repeatable. For instance, you may have a deliverable that goes out every week. However, nobody owns any of the processes and each week is a scramble to get the product out. While a patchwork method of putting things together may have worked in the past, it’s not scalable- especially when your employees are remote.
“36% of employers don’t have a structured onboarding strategy for new employees at all. “
Take the extra time to set up systems and organize things so that other people can find a way around easily. It may feel like a lot of work initially but will save everyone time and headaches in the future.
Onboarding Best Practices: The First 90 Days
Set Clear Expectations
When working with in-office employees, their physical presence is enough to let you know when work is being done. The ability to see our colleagues is comforting to us — almost like you can feel the productivity seep through their fingers as they fire up their computer for the day.
Remote employees don’t offer this luxury. When an in-office employee doesn’t respond to your email, you can walk to their desk. When a remote employee goes silent, suddenly you might find yourself wondering if they’re slacking off for the day.
And while that’s rarely true, clearer accountability will keep everyone’s one at ease. If everyone agrees on working hours (and how flexible they are), availability, success metrics, deliverables, daily tasks, goals, response times, and deadlines, you’ll avoid the frustrating miscommunications that can offset the advantages of remote work.
Focus on Building Connections
It’s easy for managers to get overwhelmed with simultaneously hiring, onboarding, training, and just…doing their own work. So much so, nurturing a genuine relationship with a new employee can fall by the wayside.
Managers who make time to get to know their new employees on a personal and professional basis rarely won’t regret it. If possible, invite your newcomers to come into the office for some time during the onboarding process to see the space, meet people, and ask questions.
If they’re too far away or can’t make it to the office, find a digital alternative instead. Give them a tour of the space over video and arrange introductions so they can start putting faces to names. Better yet, see if you can set them up with a buddy or mentor to really help them learn the ropes.
Lastly, consider hosting a Q&A session after a few days (and later, on a recurring schedule) to clarify confusion and solidify early learnings. Making sure that you’re adding a personal touch to these interactions goes a long way towards building that much-needed trust between managers and remote staff.
“53% of companies with onboarding programs plan for them to last 30 to 90 days.”
Agree on a Communication Cadence
Communication will make or break the relationship between a manager and an employee. While in-office colleagues can often touch base whenever they want, remote employees do better with formal arrangements.
You’ll avoid a lot of awkward conversations down the line if you agree on the best schedule early on in the process. Set boundaries on what feedback is needed and when. And don’t forget what tools you want to use for communication.
Video chat can be great for delivering nuanced messages that can’t be relayed via chat or email. However, apps like Slack encourage quick back and forth with easy access to shared documents.
Instill Company Culture
An often overlooked part of remote employee onboarding programs is helping newcomers get acclimated with the culture of the company. Placing a company handbook with the mission, vision, and values on top of a branded T-shirt is nice…but not quite enough.
Remote workers are sometimes (albeit accidentally) excluded from meaningful team activities or left uninvited to impromptu meetings and important conversations. (And no amount of T-shirts can replace that camaraderie.)
Regarding your remote employees like any other in-house staff member will help bridge that gap and keep everyone engaged. Refrain from socially distancing teammates by referring to them as “remotes” and treating them like an optional accessory. Take an active role in including them in meetings, updates, and changes as they happen — so everyone can feel they have a stake shared success.
And this spirit shouldn’t suddenly stop at the borders between business departments. Making cross-team introductions can help the remote workforce stay engaged with the greater workplace community.
Lastly, don’t underestimate the value of a good-old-fashioned greeting. A nice hand-written welcome letter from the team or CEO can go a long way in making a remote team member feel accepted and energized to contribute.
Onboarding Best Practices: Day 91 and Beyond
Review Goals Regularly
Every new job comes with unique challenges and milestones to overcome. And the first few weeks often carry oversize loads of stress and confusion that can eat away at everyday productivity. (Not to mention that being the “new kid” is an unpleasant feeling for most people.)
Clear checkpoints, milestones, and long-term ambitions can bring welcome structure and serenity to this challenging time. So here are some key ingredients for goals that actually work for remote employees:
Make SMART goals
Use Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound as your core criteria.
Break it into steps
Breaking down big goals into smaller steps lets you have more digestible pieces of information. This allows you clearer and more focused insight that lets you recognize key problem areas in your processes and eliminate things that don’t work.
Personalize the goals
Make sure the goal is the right fit for the person. You can do this by simply having a conversation with your remote employee on which things you both agree are ambitious but attainable.
Check in periodically
Don’t wait until the end of the month or quarter to assess progress. Making sure you set aside time to monitor progress can help you avoid missed deadlines and broken promises.
If you feel like something could improve or that something is going well: Tell them! Constructive criticism goes hand in hand with praise. Especially for remote employees who might not have the chance to hear feedback or compliments on a regular basis from coworkers.
Don’t Stop Training
Ninety percent of what people learn at work is the product of personal and shared experiences with their coworkers (aka social learning). This is obviously harder for staff who don’t share a physical office environment.
As a manager, it’s important to create spaces that remote employees can engage with others. An easy way to do this is through digital “water cooler” conversations that encourage camaraderie.
If you’re using tools like Slack, invite them to channels that they can converse with other people and see what the office is up to. Keep them in the loop, and soon they’ll be casually and consistently learning from others. You might have to push for it at first, but once the tools are there and the habits are set in motion, the process will occur naturally without needing anyone to play catalyst.
“87% of remote workers get regular training, with 70% receiving it directly from their company.”
Another good way to keep remote employees engaged is encouraging learning and development for the role they’re in. If your business has some sort of educational stipend, encourage people to use it and keep growing in their role. A bit of outside knowledge is not only great for learning purposes, but can also provide a much-needed burst of creativity.
Stay in touch
Good communication, predictable processes, functional tools, and continuous learning are all part of the package when it comes to successfully onboarding any employee.
And while that’s important, don’t let it all fall apart just because you feel like the person is now fully onboarded. Waving goodbye and wishing them well is not just ineffective, it’s actively harmful.
Keep the lines of communication open and continue building a healthy relationship as you would with any in-office employee. If possible, keep the option of visiting the office on the table. If they happen to live close by, extend invitations to networking events and company parties. When there’s a conference, consider adding them to the list. Helping them feel included in regular outside of work-hours things helps decrease isolation and increase cooperation.
In the long run, all the efforts made to create a thoughtful onboarding program will be rewarded with higher employee engagement and productivity across your team.
Published on January 2, 2024.