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5 Best Practices for Onboarding Employees Remotely

published9 months ago
6 min read

Over the past few months, I’ve interviewed dozens of CEOs whose companies have adopted a hybrid or remote business model. One of the most pressing issues these leaders confront is the need for a more effective onboarding approach for their remote teams.

Many companies think of “onboarding” as a training process to help remote employees get up to speed on the tasks, procedures, and expectations for their new role. But onboarding is so much more than that. According to Gallup, onboarding fulfills the promises made during the hiring process. It also lays the groundwork for the rest of the employee experience, and it paints a clear picture of your workplace culture.

Onboarding is the first impression your company makes on new workers—as such, it’s vital to leave them with a snapshot that conforms to why they chose to join your organization in the first place. According to Glassdoor, employees who rate their onboarding experience as highly effective were 18 times more likely to feel highly committed to their organization. Other research find that companies with a robust onboarding process improve new hire retention by a whopping 82% and productivity by 70%.

With 65% of employees currently seeking a new job amidst the Great Resignation, it’s more important than ever to create an onboarding experience that works from day one. This is easier said than done, of course!

In fact, many employees find a disconnect between their company’s onboarding and what they expected or thought they were promised in their job interviews. And workers who experience a negative onboarding experience are twice as likely to seek new opportunities elsewhere. According to Harvard Business Review, 33% of new hires look for a new job within their first six months on the job—a percentage that scales even higher among Millennials.

But there are unique onboarding challenges that arise in today’s hybrid or remote workplace. Many of the leaders I’ve talked to find it harder to convey their workplace culture to new hires, some of whom may have come on board during the pandemic and have never set foot in the bricks-and-mortar office. It’s also difficult to pass on institutional knowledge in a formalized way, and newcomers may not know where to turn to for help.

In collaboration with Airspeed, I recently interviewed the CEOs of Suzy, Sketch, and Toptal to gather their insights around this issue. These CEOs are operating within fully remote companies, and they have a great deal of expertise when it comes to onboarding remote team members. Let’s review their suggestions and best practices.

1. Demystify the culture.

Pre-Covid, when many employees were working five days a week at a physical office, it was not as difficult for new hires to pick up information and cues about the workplace culture. But in a remote environment, some new workers may have no idea what the rules of communication are.

“One thing we found is that a lot of our employees didn’t really know what was expected of them in a remote environment,” said Matt Britton, the founder and CEO of Suzy, a real-time marketing research platform. He discussed some of the cultural downsides to being in a remote office; namely, that new employees need guidance on many of the protocols.

“How late should they be expected to answer e-mails? What are the response times that are expected? How should they treat different channels, for example text messaging versus Slack versus e-mail? To address these questions, we rolled out a completely new remote operating system so our employees understood how we use different tools and what’s expected. We did not assume that they would just figure it out.”

Onboarding Tip 1: In today’s remote environment, new employees need more guidance about workplace culture than ever before. Develop onboarding materials that clarify your company’s culture.

2. Create a central repository of information.

Workers who have been with your company for some time are likely to have amassed a great deal of institutional knowledge. But those who started more recently will have much less familiarity with your processes and procedures. And in the remote working environment, these new hires can’t run down the hallway and ask an old-timer. Some information that used to seep through the cubicle walls is just not accessible to remote newbies.

As a result, even months into the job, newcomers may not feel like they are fully acclimated team members. To address this issue, Pieter Omvlee, CEO of Sketch, a collaborative platform for designers, told me that his company created a central repository of information. “We store all the projects we're working on, but also all the guidelines and the way our employees are supposed to do certain things. So they can always look it up.”

Expectations are also clearly defined, Omvlee adds. “We try to prepare people’s onboarding in detail, so people can always read back what is expected of them on the first day, during the first week, or for their first task.”

Onboarding Tip 2: A central repository allows onboarding to occur continuously—not just when an employee first starts their job. Continuous onboarding leads to greater effectiveness and fewer mistakes.

3. Put a buddy system in place.

The word “mentor” conjures up visions of a wise elder who will always guide you correctly. But the truth is, a mentor can be older, younger, or even work in a different department. Some even say to think of a mentor as a professional “big brother or sister.”

When it comes to onboarding, Omvlee is a big believer in the buddy system. “When people start, they're always assigned a buddy. This is someone who works in the same area as they do, who’s been there before, so they can lead them through the various onboarding procedures and help them get familiar with the company culture.”

The buddy system is a social, informal way to share institutional knowledge and quickly get new employees acclimated to the culture. According to MIT, the buddy system also helps remote workers feel supported and ensures a high retention rate. And it can even boost productivity. At Microsoft, among new remote hires who frequently met with an onboarding buddy during their first few months, 97% said they were quickly able to become productive on the job.

Onboarding Tip 3: A buddy system is a proven, fun way to make new hires feel like they are part of the team. Many companies find the buddy system also motivates current staffers, who can practice their teamwork skills in a relaxed, informal way.

4. Develop a tailored onboarding experience.

A lot of onboarding programs fail because they are too generic. Each employee receives exactly the same onboarding experience and materials. But it’s important to remember that what’s right for a marketing employee may not be as effective for someone who works in research or legal.

As Taso Du Val, CEO of Toptal, an elite network of the world’s top talent in business and technology, shared, “If you’re a legal professional joining Toptal, you don't want to know what it's like to go out to lunch with your coworkers. You want to know what it's like to work with me, and specifically you want to know what it's like to work with me on legal challenges. Am I a person who overstates things with knowing about the law, or am I a person who has no idea what they're talking about, and I'll defer to you every single time? Or somewhere in between? You want to get a sense of that during your onboarding process.”

Du Val stresses that Toptal makes the onboarding experience very intentional relative to the role at hand. “You'll really get a good understanding as to who you're going to be working with, and what each one of those individuals is like in a specific context,” he says.

The results speak for themselves, Du Val adds. “I have feedback from executives and employees that Toptal is the best onboarding experience they've ever had in their professional career. And I know if we can do it, lots of companies can do it, and I'm sure there will be companies out there that even bring it to the next level.”

Onboarding Tip 4: Avoid cookie-cutter onboarding programs. Customize your company’s onboarding to be intentional to the roles your employees will fill.

5. Have regular one-on-ones with new hires.

Microsoft discovered that new hires rely more heavily on their managers if they’re remote. So to these great tips, I’ll add the importance of scheduling one-on-one meetings with each new team member—the earlier and more often, the better. This will personalize the onboarding process and help align your employees’ expectations and priorities with your company’s.

Building in some facetime also helps fight burnout. Employees have a basic human need to feel they are being listened to, and it falls on their manager to fulfill that role. And although it may sound obvious, one-on-one meetings also build loyalty and give managers a chance to coach workers to success.

In fact, the same Microsoft study found that when managers played an active role in onboarding, new employees were 3.5 times as likely to say they were satisfied with their onboarding experience and 1.2 times more likely to feel they were contributing to their teams’ success.

Even after onboarding term is officially complete, I would recommend keeping a schedule of regular one-on-one meetings with your employees. Doing so will lead to higher job satisfaction overall, and that’s a win for both your workers and your company.

Onboarding Tip 5: Schedule regular one-on-one meetings with newcomers. It will make them feel less isolated, more knowledgeable, and happier working for you.

How is your company onboarding remote workers? Do you have any tips for success? Let me know in the comments on LinkedIn!