Remote Onboarding: Set Up the Relationship for Success

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Based on my conversations with individuals who have joined companies in the last few months – remotely due to the pandemic – here are a few key onboarding values to uphold, to set up the new hires for success within their new role, team, and culture.

Priorities
Start by reviewing the standard first-day/first-week checklist, with a new lens for employees who will be offsite for the foreseeable future.

Some HR activities need to be timely, like filling out the I-9 or getting the new employee into the payroll and benefits systems. Topics like network and data security practices may be more urgent than pre-COVID.

Aside from urgent nuts-and-bolts topics, prioritize scheduling new hires to spend plenty of time with those they’ll be working with directly: supervisor, peers, direct reports, and partner departments. If those individuals or teams have a full calendar, and it looks like a meeting can’t happen until weeks later, reach out to them directly to ask for meeting options within an earlier timeframe. When leaders and teams make it a priority to meet their new colleague, they lay the foundation for the relationship moving forward.

New hires need to know about KPIs, goals, and incentives from the beginning. In absolute best practice, an organization specifies these during the hiring process. An employee should immediately know what success looks like when they join, along with their expected contribution to that success.

Reassess legacy training and onboarding activities. New hires who will not be on-site for months do not need to learn how to use the building alarm, exit safely during a fire, wear a hard hat on the manufacturing floor, or access the first aid kit. Save the safety training for when they’ll be on-site.

Relationships and Culture
A long-standing onboarding best practice is to assign a new hire buddy. One way to improve on this concept for a remote workforce is to design a constellation of mentors for each new hire. Every organization has a few employees known as the people to go to for X or Y.

In addition to a buddy, let the employee know who to ask questions like, “How do I get on the CEO’s calendar?” or “Who can explain finance and accounting processes to me?” Even a one-pager listing the informal internal “experts” can give employees a jump-start on cultural and practical knowledge: things like navigating the online HR setup or what types of supplies it’s okay to ask for.

When there are multiple new hires, it is still possible to make onboarding meetings interactive and social. You can schedule the “welcome to our company” video with a handful of new hires and encourage them to use the chat box to interact with each other while watching.

The most challenging thing for remote employees is learning the informal culture while being immersed in the official culture. Each organization needs to figure out how to replicate the informal relationship-building that happens at the water cooler or via pull-asides and desk drop-ins. Be more expansive with pre-scheduled get-to-know-you meetings between new hires and a variety of colleagues. Once new hires establish those relationships, they will feel more comfortable using more informal modes of communication, such as chat or picking up the phone, to check in with colleagues about observations or questions they have. In parallel, proactively and frequently encourage new hires to take advantage of the organization’s communications norms by saying, “We use Slack all the time” or “Don’t hesitate to call me anytime – really.”

Finally, the more self-aware an organization is about its culture, the more it can proactively share both the upsides and downsides with new hires. For instance, if your organization does an annual employee survey that is typically shared with staff, provide these survey results and spend time discussing the findings and outcomes with the new hire.

Employee Needs
In my initial blog post about onboarding I highlighted “empathy” as a value when onboarding new hires. In the current circumstances, please take empathy to the next level. Don’t assume that employees are one-size-fits-all. Proactively interact with employees to understand their needs, their learning styles, their work styles, and their home-office constraints.

Many employees these days are working from suboptimal spaces. Many are balancing caregiver responsibilities while still committed to their professional goals. Instead of assuming or judging, explore the new hire’s needs, and adjust expectations as appropriate. For example, be clear about which meetings require “video on” and why – and which meetings do not.

Understand the new hire’s work style and learning style to inform the approach to onboarding and to the remote work relationship. For highly relational employees, it’s vital to create time and space for conversations about all sorts of topics, and to be very responsive to questions. For employees who prefer to seek out information independently, it’s important to give them up-front access to files and resources they need to explore the content they need.

In Summary
I have been a proponent of good onboarding for my entire career It’s one of the most cost-effective ways to keep good talent and minimize turnover. Now more than ever, it’s important to get it right.