Remote onboarding for new hires: rethinking the Onboarding Process for the New Normal

It’s safe to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has not only affected the global economy but also caused populations worldwide to adjust their day-to-day operations. 

In past global economic crises, including The Wall Street Crash of 1929 (and subsequent Great Depression) or the financial crisis of 2007-2008 (which sparked the Great Recession), afflicted industries had no choice but to make changes in order to adapt to new realities. Organizations had to learn how to mitigate hard times with flexible and easily implemented strategies. And while changes are never easy, they can also be seen as opportunities for companies to re-evaluate their internal processes in order to  do things better. This is what is often referred to as the silver lining of dark moments, and these trying times in 2020 are no different.  

Now nearing a year since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, many companies have been forced to adopt remote working structures to keep their businesses afloat. In fact, many experts believe that remote work will soon become the norm rather than remain as a temporary solution to the pandemic’s disruption of human activity. Although hiring has significantly decreased for some industries—some of  which have even seen unprecedented unemployment rates—other less affected sectors, like within the online grocery industry, are seeing activity rise with companies needing to hire new employees. And so, hiring managers are now having to rethink the standard onboarding process in order to create engaging, personal and effective onboarding experiences remotely.

Remote onboarding differs from the typical onboarding process most of us are accustomed to, as it requires a different approach and skillset—the lack of face-to-face interaction greatly affecting the dynamic, pace and scale of the whole experience. One of the challenges can be the disconnect with the company culture. Given that new employees do not have the opportunity to be in physical surroundings that embody a company’s values, integration within a company’s culture becomes less straightforward. Companies who are pivoting towards remote work and hiring systems have to take these factors into account and make sure to compensate for these gaps by building connections in different ways. Continuing to set new employees up for success, HR managers have to be creative and leverage new technologies to ensure a smooth and interactive remote onboarding experience.

In this article, we take a look at key stages of the onboarding process adapted to the remote work setting, and provide recommendations in order to help HR managers better design effective onboarding experiences to suit the “new normal”.

Why Effective Onboarding Remains Crucial During COVID-19

If we remember the basics: the employee onboarding process is the practice of welcoming and integrating new hires within an organization. In our previous article, 4 Essential Onboarding Checklists for New Employees, we highlight the positive impact that an effective onboarding process can have for both short and long-term employee dynamics—ultimately benefiting an organization’s continued financial and structural stability. 

In these times, the question of why effective onboarding remains important during COVID-19 should rather be why effective onboarding always remains important, especially during COVID-19.     

Bonusly notes that 87% of HR leaders believe that improving employee retention rates will be critical for business survivability, especially within the next five years. In the context in which a physical workplace—an environment that can provide office equipment and in-person connection—is not accessible (due to social distancing practices), providing a positive employee experience remotely is now more important than ever. 

Establishing a strong first impression when welcoming new employees to the team, which has been proven to help increase levels of employee engagement, is just as critical now as it was before—except that it may require more effort and finesse since now executed at a distance.

What Changes to Make to Your Current Onboarding Process

Remote onboarding can be considered a longer process as it requires a longer preparation period. Given that now, most new employees are not physically entering a company’s offices—and, by default, cannot be immersed into a cultural environment organically—HR managers need to put a little more elbow grease towards creating an engaging initiation, where remote employees can feel just as connected to their employer and peers as if they were there in person.
Below, you’ll find ways in which HR managers can adapt the key stages of onboarding within a more sensible approach to the remote onboarding experience:

HIRING AND RECRUITMENT PROCESS

Rethinking the Ideal Candidate: Each role to fill tends to come with a specific and required set of qualifications. In the era of COVID-19, it is critical to reconsider the typical profile of the ideal candidate to ensure they not only have the right cultural fit and skills, but also are naturally resourceful, adaptable, and have a propensity to thrive working from any space—given that remote work is now the new norm.

PRE-BOARDING

  • Equipment Support: Before the remote onboarding even begins, it is imperative for new employees to have all the tools required to set up a home office. This includes equipment (from laptop to headset) and software. To ensure a seamless work-from-home experience can occur, hiring managers have to anticipate these needs, arrange for all necessary materials to be shipped at least a week prior to the start date of employment, and provide clear and concise instructions regarding installations. The hiring manager should also bridge the connection between new hires and tech support members to help with this aspect (see next point).
  • IT Assistance: Now that a lot of business activity has been forced to transition online, it is worth it for companies to invest in tech support for their employees—whether as an internal department or outsourcing. To ensure seamless access to company resources needed on the first day of employment, hiring managers should make sure that new employees are provided with the right contacts for any help setting up equipment, softwares, logins, and so on. This added layer of employee care will help reassure new employees and reduce any first-day stress related to connectivity issues.
  • Employee Access: HR managers have to determine which company resources will need to be accessed by new employees and ensure all information pertaining to this is shared beforehand. Managers need to grant employee access prior to the start date of employment, to avoid any login issues and troubleshooting on the first day. 
  • Two-Week Schedule: Since remote employees don’t have the opportunity to connect with their peers as organically as before (casual bump-ins at the coffee machine now need to be scheduled through Zoom meetings), creating a pre-filled two-week schedule for new employees can help alleviate the feeling of distance during the early stages of onboarding. Managers should build a detailed agenda outlining meetings and one-on-one moments—including all activities new employees are to partake in, such as training sessions with videos and appropriate links, as well as ice-breaker meet-and-greets to balance out the days. Having a clear and concise formula to follow will not only reduce the stress levels new hires can face but also help avoid the feelings of confusion or unproductivity as they are still getting familiarized with company processes.
  • Mentor and Buddy: To enhance the integration process of new employees alongside their peers and within the company culture, matching them up with a work mentor as early as the pre-boarding stage is a good tactic. Ideal mentors should be senior within the company. To help make new hires feel more supported within the virtual onboarding process, mentors should touch base with the new employee monthly in order to discuss their growth, project opportunities and pain points—acting as a company guide and coach. When assigning a mentor, HR managers look for certain qualities, such as being an active listener and enthusiastic teacher.

ONBOARDING

  • E-Documents and Training: To help familiarize new employees with the company directory and network, the hiring manager can provide a digital list of all key members within the organization that the new employee might eventually need to get in touch with, along with their contact information. This list can include—but is not limited to—direct reports or supervisors, mentors, peers part of the same team or project, and representatives of key departments (such as the IT department). Because of the lack of in-person connection, it is helpful if the list also includes photos of each person and a brief description of their role within the organization. Regarding orientation, hiring managers can prepare an interactive presentation and include other team members’ participations in order to facilitate first introductions and build connections.  

Since communications are done electronically, hiring managers need to ensure that all important company documents are easily accessible (such as via a business portal). This includes the employee handbook, code of conduct, policies and procedures. 

As for the training, hiring managers can prepare virtual training sessions where employees can complete modules independently. Tracking a new employee’s progress is important and, once training is completed, hiring managers can check in with new hires to answer any questions they might have and make sure the proper information has been retained.

  • Health and Safety: With COVID-19 impacting physical and psychological health, it’s important for businesses to communicate the measures that are being put in place to foster a safe working environment for all. Even if the employees work remotely, transparency and consistent communication is important to retain employee trust. One way of doing so is to organize a company-wide e-seminar to discuss the ways in which the company is adapting to suit remote work, and the procedures that will be followed should offices open again. HR managers can also keep an eye out for online health seminars, so employees can feel more empowered and to which they can register for free.
  • Virtual Face-To-Face Introductions: As previously mentioned, the reality of working from home means that employees do not have the same opportunities to meet and connect face-to-face organically as they would have in an office setting, while grabbing lunch or bumping into each other at the coffee machine. One way to overcome this gap is by making an effort in scheduling introductory calls for every new hire to e-meet the colleagues they will be working with. This will help add a feeling of human connection behind screen names and email signatures.
  • E-Buddy System: Besides having a mentor, it is always beneficial to assign a buddy to a new employee—or, in this case, an e-buddy. This system pairs new employees with existing employees who have been with the company for under a year. Given that both have lived through similar experiences in a relatively close time frame, it tends to be easier to build employee rapport through such pairing. For example, GSoft has created an ambassador community of volunteer buddies, responsible for facilitating the integration of new hires. Positive relationships between peers within the workspace is proven to increase employee engagement.
  • Check Ins: HR and team managers should always be in close contact with new employees throughout the hiring and onboarding process, but especially so when remote. Short virtual meetings can be a great way to touch base and make new hires feel supported within a new setting. A good practice would be to organize weekly check-ins during the first month, bi-weekly check-ins for the second and third month, and monthly meetings thereafter. These meetings should be conducted separately from performance evaluations, and are solely done with the intention of establishing an available support system for the new hire.

Key Components of an Effective Remote Onboarding Process

Cultivating a sense of connection during a period of social distancing is extremely important for all humans. While employees are physically separated from their team and office environment, it can be easy to feel disengaged or bear the emotional tax of self-isolation—especially for new employees who have not had the chance to forge organic relationships with their colleagues and experience the company culture first-hand. 

Below are a few additional practices HR managers can adopt for a remote yet interactive onboarding experience:

  • Virtual Socials: Informal virtual gatherings are perfect occasions for new employees to meet their peers. Sharing a lunch break with colleagues is a cornerstone bonding activity within any work space—to make this happen in a remote setting, managers can host virtual team lunches using video chat apps to eat and chat together. Managers can also host a virtual cocktail hour with the team on a periodic basis, where new and current employees can get to know each other in a more relaxed setting. At GSoft, employees are invited to enjoy their morning brew together by remotely signing in to a virtual coffee server on Discord. To replace team building outings, managers can organize online group games, such as trivia competitions. For more ideas of virtual social activities, we invite you to read this article by Indeed.
  • Open-Screen Policy: Working in an office at close proximity, most managers adopt an open-door policy, especially for new hires who tend to need more guidance. Since this method does not work in a remote setting, managers can reserve several 15-minute time slots throughout their weekly schedules, inviting new employees to “pop up” on screen and connect within any of those allotted times. 
  • Tech Upgrades: Leveraging new tools and technology can help in a time where businesses are transitioning all activities online and becoming increasingly reliant on virtual communication. In a recent article by Espresso, the benefits of using augmented reality is highlighted. AR is an extremely interactive platform and can be used for training, interactive onboarding and tutorials. High Fidelity also lists a variety of communication tools for remote work, such as Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams and more. Another interesting tool is Miro—a collaborative online platform ideal for team brainstorms and project mapping. If your company has yet to adopt such tools—now is the time to upgrade. 
  • Making up for Lost Proximity: While video conferences and virtual hangouts are a partial solution to help establish more human interactions, they still come with limitations. By working from home, new employees won’t have the same opportunities for casual banter with colleagues, which is important for employee bonding—from suggesting a lunch spot  to complaining about the morning traffic. Managers can help humanize virtual meetings even further by allocating time to personal sharing. This doesn’t have to take up much  time—five  minutes before or at the end of each meeting to allow peers to share their weekend plans, for example, can really make a difference. These small yet impactful moments show consideration, help bridge the omnipresent digital divide, and allow new employees to gain a deeper understanding of their colleagues’ personalities. GSoft encourages connections with colleagues outside of their core teams in a similar fashion, with a simple questionnaire for new hires to fill out—detailing their personal passions, past experiences, and funny anecdotes—which is in turn shared internally on the day of their arrival.

Final Thoughts

In general, effective onboarding is an integral component of employee performance and retention. Now more than ever, a well-thought-out onboarding plan is especially important for remote employees, given the physical limitations and lack of opportunities to organically bond with peers and integrate within the company culture.

Adapting to new realities, no matter what they are, is never easy and team leaders have the responsibility to uphold a solid stream of communication in order to make new employees feel a part of the day-to-day, even remotely. At the end of the day, the key is to build engagement with new hires and help them establish positive relationships with the team by leveraging creativity and technology, and adopting the right digital communication tools to facilitate this.

While these times may feel uncertain, remote onboarding experiences don’t have to be. With proper planning and by establishing smart strategies, the challenges brought on by working from home can be overcome. A way to make the remote onboarding process easier and stress-free is with Softstart—an entire onboarding experience within one single tool. Make sure to sign up today!