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There’s no doubt that remote work is here to stay. Latest research has found that 58% of US workers work from home at least once a week and 35% five days a week.

For managers and team members used to working face-to-face, this brings a host of new challenges, not least of which how to onboard remote employees. It's something I've had to adapt to since joining People Managing People.

Let’s say it's day one for a new employee. They’re excited about their first day and ready to go. They have some experience working remotely and seem friendly enough but are, understandably, a bit nervous.  

How do you make sure they feel 100% at home when they—and the rest of your staff—won’t run into each other in the halls or break up the workday with watercooler chats?

How can you make omboarding personal and meaningful for new remote workers, especially when hiring international workers?

How you measure onboarding success may vary, but this guide should help you establish and achieve what you define as success with the virtual onboarding process.

Before You Onboard: Rework Your Existing Onboarding Process

A report from the Boston Consulting Group found that companies with effective onboarding strategies have 2.5 times the revenue growth as their counterparts. 

If you’ve recently converted to a remote work environment, it’s time to review job descriptions, preboarding process, welcome emails, and handbooks to incorporate more remote work policies, including incorporating more flexible schedules where possible.

A remote onboarding plan will have an entirely different set of priorities than your original one, which was most likely designed for a traditional office environment. 

If you haven’t done so already, it’s time to streamline your employee handbook into something digitally friendly by: 

  • Keeping the most important policies in one PDF package, along with important forms or links for taxes and benefits. 
  • Using links to refer to regulations and resources. 
  • Using multimedia to share all information. 
  • Using dedicated employee handbook software.

Onboarding a new remote team member presents a great opportunity to examine current onboarding processes and make adjustments. You’ll want to consider:  

  • What is included in your current employee onboarding plan?
  • How well does your current onboarding process work? 
  • What have other employees (not) considered useful? 
  • What’s missing from the old ways of people getting comfortable? 
  • Has a switch to remote work changed your workplace culture?
  • What makes all employees feel deeply valued?  

Related Read: The Case For A New Employee Handbook (And What To Include)

Understand the New Employee’s Remote Work Style During the Onboarding Process  

The type and extent of challenges that remote workers and managers face depend, to a certain extent, on how accustomed team members are to working online.  

Address Common Challenges of Remote Work

Common struggles that everyone may face with remote work include:  

  • A lack of productivity or over-working
  • Lack of camaraderie
  • Communicating company policy and procedures clearly
  • Managing HR paperwork 
  • Video conferencing challenges, including fatigue 
  • A new employee may not feel motivated to talk to other employees 
  • Poor training tools and/or structure
  • Unavailability of management 
  • Lack of immediate, face-to-face connection 
  • Lack of nonverbal cues in conversations
  • Lack of scheduling flexibility. 

New employees with experience in the workforce, be it virtual or in-house, will probably have some established work styles and habits. Managers should have a conversation about this, getting clear about work style and schedule preferences during the onboarding phase.  

Clarify Expectations About Remote Work During Onboarding

Virtual environments tend to come with a lack of boundaries between home and work, and employees may find it hard to maintain a healthy work-life balance, either not working enough or finding it difficult to “unplug”.

Implementing recruiting software can aid in this aspect by automating and streamlining the hiring process, ensuring that new remote hires are well-suited to the remote work environment and understand the importance of maintaining this balance.

Expectations around scheduling, communication, and productivity could become a problem later on if not addressed right away. 

This is why managers need to be as specific as possible about structure and boundaries at the onboarding phase. 

This could be as simple as: 

  • Scheduling a standing daily or weekly check-in meeting  
  • Clarifying specific hours employees are expected to be online
  • Sharing standard deadlines for projects and tasks
  • Confirming the most appropriate and reliable communication channels for specific situations    

Here are some further tips to help improve your employee’s work-life balance.

Download our 2024 Workplace Trends Report to stay ahead in a transforming HR landscape. Get insights from leaders on trends that will define your strategies in AI, talent dynamics, and DEI.

Download our 2024 Workplace Trends Report to stay ahead in a transforming HR landscape. Get insights from leaders on trends that will define your strategies in AI, talent dynamics, and DEI.

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Managers and Team Members Should Reach Out to New Employees Often 

While many might enjoy working from the comfort of their home, the isolation that comes with remote work can be a huge barrier to both social engagement and productivity. 

New employees are bound to feel awkward and make mistakes during the first few weeks and months of a job, and some may shrink back if they are not comfortable in a remote work environment. 

Leaders and other team members should make an extra effort to reach out to newer employees as often as possible during the onboarding phase, but this doesn’t need to be a formal exercise! We’ve listed some creative suggestions below. 

Tips for Making New Remote Employees Feel Engaged and Connected 

Offering a truly supportive environment to new employees, especially under conditions like a global pandemic, is more essential than ever before.

Here are some more considerations for how to onboard remote employees so that they feel comfortable, engaged, and inspired. 

In these suggestions, being sure to offer ample opportunity for employees to reflect on their own virtual experience as they go. Ask for feedback regularly, and encourage them to keep a personal log or diary to keep track of their progress.

Here’s a checklist of onboarding best practices to help you stay on track when it comes to welcoming remote employees. 

1. Ask What Works

If you want to understand how to onboard remote employees effectively, just ask! 

Ask your team, a partner organization, or anyone who you’ve onboarded previously. 

If you’ve been working in a remote team setting for a while, you likely have some established communication preferences. Early on, get clear about: 

  • Preferred communication channels 
  • Time zone considerations
  • The virtual workplace culture and organizational structure 
  • Getting the new person set up with the right technology 
  • Preferred project management tools 
  • Expectations around scheduling and productivity
  • Time and wellness management  
  • Learning curves regarding technology, software, and other tools 

Make sure the new employee has enough resources and information without overwhelming them. 

Related Read: 10 Best Remote Working Software for Distributed Teams

2. Plan for the Long Haul

You may have an existing onboarding plan which covers a week to a month to three months (if you don’t, here’s how to write one). But bear in mind that when you're learning how to onboard remote employees, people will probably need more nurturing moving forward.

You may build this into a regular schedule, but make sure you are reaching out and checking in regularly beyond any formal plan.  

3. Establish Some Key Onboarding Goals

In a remote environment, inclusivity, empowerment, and wellness are topics that may be more at play. You may need to formalize things that typically used to be informal, like incorporating virtual coffee chats, to establish sound routines and foster engagement. 

Make sure that virtual team members understand their role and contributions to the company vision and mission as part of the new employee orientation.

Related Read: How To Build A True Employee-First Company

4. Keep Up With Regular Check-ins 

If you’re still doing the traditional type of employee performance reviews, it might be time to change that into more frequent and less formal meetings.  

Ask how your new employee is doing, and ensure that they are confident in both their role socially as well as with expectations and activities. 

This will probably involve a series of video chats, including other relevant team members. 

The idea here is to make sure they feel genuinely happy and motivated (of course this goes for everyone, not just new team members!) 

5. Formalize “Informal” Activities 

Belonging and collaboration should be key goals here. 

Whether or not you have in-house onboarding processes set up and aligned with an onboarding software platform, understanding how to onboard remote employees requires a real focus on intentionally designing social and learning structures, essentially “placing” people in specific settings so that they automatically connect and collaborate.

Establish structures (think of them as literal rooms) that are essentially gathering places with a purpose. 

Make sure they have the right resources in place so that they can: 

  • Learn on their own and with others 
  • Establish a sense of empowerment in their role 
  • Feel like they belong 
  • Collaborate easily with others.  

People used to be able to chat in the breakroom or other organic contexts but this won’t happen naturally in remote settings. 

So have organized games and the like to ensure that people are interacting and comfortable (this goes for all staff). 

Engagement activities should be something your new employee feels comfortable with and not overly cumbersome. They should also be “high touch” -- personal and fun.  

6. Establish Conversation Spaces Focused on Wellbeing 

Some companies have instigated documents that include fields to report back on overall work-life balance, including topics like nutrition and sleep goals, as well as professional work goals. 

Another suggestion is using a health or productivity app with a social elemental and getting team members to connect through the app. 

You could think of this as a substitute for a lunchtime yoga class or wellness seminar, but with more emphasis on connecting organically.

The idea here is not to push people to divulge personal health information but to encourage and support work-life balance as people adjust to working from home.  

7. Create and Facilitate Virtual Spaces for Training & Support 

The main way you’ll be training and onboarding remote employees is through video chats and instructional videos. You should also include topics like wellness, productivity and scheduling.

For instance, if you use a collaborative tool like Slack, you could create one or more channels dedicated specifically to training and productivity topics. You may want to designate someone to run each of these channels and keep them active. 

Even having a “coach” check in on the channel can help to keep the whole team stays on track. For instance, they could use a channel to send check-in questions like: 

  • What’s your favorite 5-minute break activity?  
  • What’s your best productivity tip? 
  • Share your favorite funny video!

The point here is to foster a virtual office environment where resources and support are consistently offered from both managers and team members. This will help new employees to establish regular routines and get more comfortable as they settle in.

8. Create a Shared Document for Questions 

A single Google document can be set up for people to jot down questions, notes, and answers. Share it with anyone who you trust to offer the new hire sound questions, and make sure that the new employee understands how to notify others if they have something urgent. 

Be sure to keep this matter-of-fact and light—serious conversations should be kept for in-person video chats. 

9. Give New Hires an Onboarding Buddy

An onboarding buddy is a person who has the bandwidth to be both a friendly “go-to” contact for the new employee, as well as the knowledge to offer job-related guidance. 

This Harvard Business Review article highlights the effectiveness of having an “onboarding buddy.” The authors, who implemented a buddy program at Microsoft, found that new hires with buddies were 23% more satisfied with the onboarding than people who had been hired without one after the first week. What’s more, higher productivity was correlated with more frequent meetings with their buddy.  

This can be mutually beneficial as the buddy has the opportunity to act as a leader and teacher. 

Make sure the buddy has time and is clear with the new team member about boundaries. Ideally, they should also be someone who has clear knowledge about the new hire’s role. 

10. Create a Welcome Channel for New Employees to Feel Like Part of the Team

If you use a project management tool like Slack, a welcome channel is a great way to establish a connection between the new employee and the rest of the team. 

Include a bio as an introduction, and establish a messaging routine of welcoming new employees with a “gif” barrage. You might be surprised how easy it is to get people chatting with a few animated images! 

Use this channel as a jumping-off point to coordinate introductions between people with similar roles or interests. Encourage a few team members to start 1:1 chats with the new hire. 

The only real “rule” is to keep this space entirely informal and fun!

Know Your Team How To Onboard Remote Employees Screenshot
Know Your Team is a great tool for welcoming team members and building team rapport.

11. Make it Fun with Multimedia 

When onboarding new remote employees, they’ll probably get tired of Zoom meetings and training videos, so it’s important to offer other opportunities to connect with others. 

Consider organizing coffee meetings, a happy hour, or other informal video calls, incorporating icebreaker activities and simple games where you can.  

Here are some suggestions: 

  • Share Spotify playlists 
  • Discuss a favorite photo or piece of art 
  • Send surprise gifts via snail mail and have everyone open them in a meeting  
  • Establish an employee movie night or book club 
  • Consider games based on Pictionary or Words with Friends 
  • Consider a gamification program that fits your company culture and employee goals.

Onboarding Defines Employee Experience

Your virtual onboarding program should be considered as a part of the long-term employee experience beyond Coronavirus.

Establishing a successful remote onboarding experience isn't complicated—it just takes a little consistency and creativity.

Followup is important; a simple check-in or 5-minute chat is sometimes all a person needs if they are working from home and at risk of feeling isolated. 

These are great habits to get into, and tasks to delegate, to engage existing team members, and encourage them to extend support, too. 

Nurturing your best talent from the very start will make them feel important and valued, setting the stage for high satisfaction and a feeling of belonging.

You can also use a professional employer organization or employer of record to take care of a lot of the admin side of things and ensure you remain compliant.

By David Rice

David Rice is a long time journalist and editor who specializes in covering human resources and leadership topics. His career has seen him focus on a variety of industries for both print and digital publications in the United States and UK.