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People Management

How to Onboard Remote Employees [2022 Checklist]

April 27, 2021
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5 min

Onboarding is the first impression a remote teammate gets for your team, culture, and processes. Set new employees up for success with these tips.

Corine Tan
Onboarding is the first impression a remote teammate gets for your team, culture, and processes. Set new employees up for success with these tips.

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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?

How is onboarding a remote employee different than on-site?

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.

Employees benefit from a good remote onboarding experience

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.

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What is the best way to organize a remote onboarding plan in 2021?

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:

1. Prioritize coworker relationships

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:

  • Set up 1:1s with teammates. The best way to build sincere relationships with new teammates is to get to know them on a personal level. That means setting up time to talk with each teammate about life outside of work. We recommend the Slack app Donut for making these pairing sessions easy.
  • Create more frequent bonding sessions. Many remote teams do bonding sessions once a month or once a quarter. However, this reduces the opportunity for new teammates to learn about team dynamics. In the first few weeks of welcoming a new teammate, try to organize a team-wide event to welcome new faces as a group.
  • Focus on learning work styles. Miscommunication is common for remote teams. They’re often the result of misplaced expectations or misread context. To avoid them, many teams rely on learning each other’s communication and learning styles. Remote teams often create work-with-me guides for documenting and writing these styles out. 

2. Nominate a learning buddy

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: 

  1. Match a seasoned employee with a new hire. 
  2. Have the mentor and mentee get to know one another over a 1:1. You can assign bonding exercises to help the pair to build trust.
  3. Request that the mentor check-in once a week for the first month and respond quickly to questions that may pop up.
  4. After the first month, have the mentor check-in once or twice per month to ensure the new teammate is adapting well.

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.

3. Build trust with meaningful moments

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:

  • Actively listening to a teammate’s idea
  • Checking in on how a teammate’s doing
  • Remembering and paying attention to details about their life
  • Showing genuine care in interactions
  • Offering help or emotional support
  • Honoring boundaries and secrets

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.

4. Set clear expectations

A green infographic on setting expectations while onboarding a remote employee.
Created by Annie Yan

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.

  • For values. We’ve talked extensively about the importance of company values. Values mean nothing if they’re not acted upon. That’s why teams should take time to go over company values and reward teammates when they put that value into action. Setting an expectation for values allows you to set an expectation for supporting company culture.
  • For communication. Every remote teammate should know what channels are available for them and each channel’s function. Perhaps you use Zoom for team meetings, Slack for casual conversations, and GitLab for documented requests. This makes it easy for a new teammate to get a response and attend necessary meetings. When a new teammate messes up, a gentle reminder is all it takes to help them learn.
  • For team OKRs. Remote teammates need to understand team OKRs and how larger sprint goals affect their daily work. If a new teammate is put on a larger project, they should be updated on the project’s progress and milestones before they’re expected to contribute. By sharing documented resources and key information, teams can find alignment faster.
  • For individual goals. Managers and new teammates should discuss expectations of one another, and how they can support the new hire’s growth. Understand a new hire’s goals in the role and their career trajectory. This will motivate teammates to perform at their best and get the support necessary for success.

5. Remember onboarding takes time

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.

Meet the Author

Corine Tan

Corine is co-founder of Kona. They write regularly on emotional intelligence and people-first leadership. Their work has been featured by Fortune, Yahoo, TechCrunch, Entrepreneur, Harvard Business School, Forbes, and more. They've spoken at remote work conferences like GitLab Commit 2021 and advised Fortune 10 companies on remote strategy.

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