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Onboarding is the first impression a remote teammate gets for your team, culture, and processes. Set new employees up for success with these tips.
Out of the 500+ remote managers we interviewed, over half mentioned hiring new teammates during the pandemic. A quarter described a period of hyper-growth, with their company doubling or tripling in size over the past year.
If your team has grown while remote, you know that new employee onboarding can be tricky. It’s different getting a new person up to speed when there's no office to tour, fun conversation over lunch, or shoulder to tap for questions. Instead, managers have to rely on Zoom meetings, thorough documentation, and messages over Slack. So how do you roll out the welcome mat in a virtual setting?
The main difference between remote onboarding and on-site onboarding is the intentionality of communication. In an office setting, learning and relationship building happen naturally. New teammates can get to know coworkers in the break room, feel the energy of the floor, and observe a colleague to learn about their role. In a remote team, however, teammates have to carve out time for coffee chats and message a stranger to ask a question. This creates an uphill battle for new remote hires.
It’s important to get remote onboarding right. Not only do the first few weeks set the initial impression for a new hire, but they also create the foundation for team culture and coworker relationships. Onboarding is a manager’s first chance to prove why an employee made the right choice joining the company and why they should stick around. If done correctly, strong onboarding processes can improve new hire retention by 82% and productivity by 70%.
Unfortunately, the majority of companies struggle to get remote onboarding right. A report by Gallup found that only 12% of employees strongly agree that their organization does a great job at onboarding new hires. This report was done in 2017, and we can imagine that the numbers are worse for employees that never get to meet in person. With over 49% of HR leaders sharing that they plan to hire more fully remote workers after the pandemic, it’s more important than ever to improve how we welcome new employees, according to Software Advice.
For the majority of companies, onboarding focuses on learning the ins and outs of a job. However, this overlooks the human element of joining a team. Just as teammates have to onboard onto the team’s Slack or code stack, they have to onboard onto the team’s relationships and values.
We’ve gathered five fantastic tips for creating a holistic onboarding plan that sets the tone for remote team culture:
At least 58% of organizations said their onboarding program focused on processes and paperwork. While this may work for an in-person office, this leads to huge problems for remote teams. Remote work is naturally isolating and many remote teammates will not reach out with questions or ideas on Slack without building a relationship first. As a result, the first few weeks of onboarding are crucial for setting up team relationships.
There are a few ways to be deliberate when it comes to building team relationships:
According to HCI, 47% of organizations assign new hires an ambassador or buddy during the onboarding process. Why? Because new teammates struggle to know who to ask when questions pop up. Having a designated point person speeds up new hire onboarding and helps teammates get proficient in their roles faster.
A buddy system works like this:
The buddy system is great for adding another resource of knowledge to your new teammate’s toolkit. However, it also expands their network and creates a low-risk option for questions. New hires often fear that they may appear incompetent or under qualified if they ask their manager too many questions. The kind of psychological safety necessary to remove this fear takes time, making a peer-level mentor an easy second-choice.
We’ve talked extensively on this blog about the importance of psychological safety. It’s a buzzword that describes an environment where teammates can make mistakes without punishment. Psychologically safe teams aren’t afraid to iterate on feedback, share ideas, or raise their hand when they feel stuck. According to Google, psychological safety is one of the most important aspects of an effective team.
The end goal is to not only onboard a teammate into their role, but also set an expectation of vulnerability and transparency with the rest of the team. It starts with the impression set during an employee’s first few weeks, the little moments where the team shows up for a new teammate.
As Brené Brown describes in Dare to Lead, trust building can be as small as:
Creating a habit out of these little moments may come naturally for your team, maybe you have a really kind culture that focuses on supporting one another. If this sounds like it may take some effort, however, know that there’s a few exercises in our psychological safety blog post that can help.
Setting clear expectations can offer the biggest amount of relief for your new teammates and your communication as a team. When teammates know exactly what’s expected of them, they can set a scale for performance and have a clear picture of their day-to-day jobs. For the manager, clear expectations reduce micromanagement and put the onus on trust to get important tasks done.
Of course, it’s difficult to achieve clarity without alignment. In order to set expectations for tasks, you also need expectations for company values, communication channels, team objectives, and individual goals. Every aspect of the team should be outlined, making it easy for new teammates to contribute.
According to the Human Capital Institute, a staggering number of organizations stopped their onboarding process after the first week. This left new teammates feeling confused, discouraged, and without the resources they needed to succeed. Of course, this was probably not the intention. Remote onboarding is time consuming, taking attention and time from busy managers and busier teams.
Before bringing on a new teammate, it’s crucial to be realistic about how long the onboarding process will take. Different roles have different learning curves. A new teammate in an unfamiliar or complex function may take months to master processes and become a top performer. In addition, different people may learn at different rates. Two employees may take completely different times to onboard into their role and team due to social and learning styles.
The rule of thumb is to onboard and set expectations according to the person. Consistent check-ins can give managers and mentors a snapshot of how well a teammate is taking up new information and building relationships. Managers can also ask for feedback, co-creating solutions with the new hire to make onboarding flow easier.
Onboarding is the first impression a new teammate gets for your team, culture, and processes. It’s crucial to get these initial weeks right, although this is much easier said than done while remote. Managers need to focus on the human side of onboarding to succeed. From seeding the first relationships with coworkers to setting clear expectations for communication, onboarding touches every aspect of your team culture. Either way, the care that managers show for their teammates shouldn’t end with onboarding. If anything, it’s the start to an ongoing process of building trust with teammates.
Corine is Co-Founder of Kona. She writes regularly on emotional intelligence and empathetic remote leadership. Her work has been featured by Yahoo, TechCrunch, Entrepreneur, Harvard Business School, Forbes, and more. She’s a speaker at remote work conferences like GitLab Commit 2021 and she’s advised Fortune 10 companies on remote strategy.