Remote Onboarding: A how-to guide

Throughout my career I’ve mostly worked for smaller organisations and the onboarding process has been adhoc; the times when I’ve worked for a larger company the onboarding process has still been somewhat customised for each person and each role. When onboarding a remote employee the feedback loop can have significant delays and for some people the feedback loop is unreliable or non-existent. With this in mind we need to be conscious of how we onboard new remote workers.

I’ve heard of organisations that fly new remote staff to their head office for onboarding, but as I write this, much of the world is locked down to some degree due to COVID-19. This means that organisations need to undertake the entire onboarding process through online methods.

This article is directed toward the manager of a new remote employee. It will still be useful for others, but I’ve written it with the assumption that the manager will be reading and implementing this.

Things To Remember Before Someone Starts

In many cases new employees will be hired well before they start. Some people need to serve out a notice period, others have personal items that need to be sorted, and some just want a holiday before they start a new role. I’ve often experienced complete silence from new employers during this time; although there’s a feeling of safety in having a signed contract, nothing beats regular communications during the lead up to starting the role.

Arrange with the new employee the delivery of any equipment they will require. If they’re available prior to the start date, ensure their laptop, headset, peripherals and anything else they need will be delivered on the business day before they start. If the employee is not available, then arrange for delivery on their first work day, and assume they will not undertake any onboarding activities for the day (the delivery may not occur until late in the day).

Make sure that all systems they will need access to have been configured and details sent to their company email account. Software licenses should be included in this list of items, as should any 3rd party services they will require.

Prior to the first day it is also good to get the new starter to write a short introduction to themselves to be distributed to the company; provide a picture for the organisation chart (remember to tell them how formal or fun it should be); get their bank account details and superannuation details; and let them know when their first pay day is and how that is processed.

The First Day

Remember that you will not be able to interact with the new employee for the first few hours of the first day. They will need to set-up their laptop, configure email accounts, check what emails they have and start actioning them. Arrange to have a video call with them half way through the first day, welcome them onboard and let them know that the first day is for them to get comfortable with the new arrangement and the workstation.

Invite the new employee to a team meeting for the following day and ask them to prepare a short introduction to present in the meeting. Make them aware of how the meeting will be run. Will you be prompting them with the questions or do they just give a short speech? How long should it be? I’d recommend using a set of questions similar to the following:

  • A short summary of your career and how you got here. (max 5 minutes)
  • What is your proudest achievement outside of work? (optional)
  • What is your proudest achievement in your career?
  • What motivates you to work?
  • What do you most look forward to in the new role?

The last bit I would do when catching up with them is to let them know the structure of the first few days of onboarding. This will help to manage expectations and reduce any stress they may be feeling.

Some time during the first day, ensure the new starter has access to an organisation chart, or at least photos of all team members with names and job titles clearly documented. They’ll be using this for the first few days to identify everyone on video calls and to identify who should be asked which questions.

Day Two

By now the new employee has a workstation that is mostly configured, all required software is installed and they’ve had a gentle introduction to the role.

Start the new employee’s day with the team meeting (if the team meeting is late in the day then let them have most of the day to do whatever they want; seriously, the cost of down time is minimal compared to employee mental wellbeing and the cost of recruitment). In the team meeting get the new starter to answer the questions you advised them about, and then get all the team members to introduce themselves, their job title and to give an interesting fact about themselves. Remember that the new team member is unlikely to remember many of the names. This introductory team meeting should be done in a video environment with once face per camera; don’t have multiple people in a meeting room as this can seem exclusionary for a remote worker.

After the team meeting (and a 10 or 15 minute break if the meeting took more than half an hour), spend some time one-on-one with the new starter in a video call. During this time work together to define some goals and check-points for the first week or two weeks. This will help to provide clarity on the role and will also enable them to feel like they’re providing value from the start. Also use this time to schedule twice daily catch-ups for the next week and provide context for any regular meetings they will be involved with and send the invitations to them. The final bit of this conversation will be helping them to arrange one-on-one calls with every team member; slowly work through each team member, giving the new starter time to take notes and schedule a catch-up at a rate that suits them (remember that a more social person may want to do these more frequently than someone who is highly introverted).

The First Week

For the remainder of the first week the new starter will now have some goals to work toward, regular catch-ups with you (their manager) and will be getting involved in regular meetings such as the daily stand-up/status update. During this week they should also be starting to meet with their fellow team members.

During the regular catch-ups explain any upcoming meetings that the new starter hasn’t encountered before. Get feedback on how they’re settling in, any impediments they’ve encountered and anything they want to raise. These catch-ups are for the new starter to gain information and answers.

As the first week draws to a close, the last catch-up call should be a bit longer than usual and the goals and checkpoints that were defined early in the week should be revisited. Is progress being made on the goals? Were checkpoints met? Then, once the current status has been assessed and agreed upon, the goals should be adjusted to be longer term.

Weeks Two and Three

The next couple of weeks should still contain regular catch-ups with the new starter. The frequency should drop to once per day, and possibly once every two days if the new starter has shown they can get answers to their questions easily. At least once per week the goals should be discussed, adjusted (if required) and feedback about the onboarding process should be requested.

During this period there are a number of employee growth tasks that should be achieved. If your organisation uses OKRs (or similar), these should be defined. The new starter’s learning and development plan should be created. If you offer career planning to employees then this process should begin. Any KPIs should start being implemented (remembering to allow time for the new starter to get completely up to speed).

By the end of the third week the new starter should feel as though they are a part of the organisation and no longer require support beyond the level of other employees.

Week Four and Beyond

By week four the new employee should feel comfortable progressing to a business as usual situation. The daily (which by this point are likely every second day) catch-ups can become a weekly one-on-one. They should have a grasp of their role and be a productive team member. They should also have had some one-on-one time with each team member.

Depending on the complexity of the organisation and role, it may take another couple of months for the new starter to achieve a normal, sustainable throughput. As their skills and understanding of the business increases the level of responsibility will also increase.

Feedback, Structure and Rapport

I mentioned earlier in this article that feedback loops can be delayed, unreliable or non-existent when remotely onboarding a new employee. It is important to maintain a structured process to help alleviate this issue, but the timeframes need to be adjustable to allow for differences in communication preferences, experience with remote working, seniority and other factors. The timeframes I’ve provided in this document are a guide and are based on what works for me; every new starter is different, so be prepared to make adjustments.

By ensuring the onboarding process is structured, as a manager, you can have confidence that no steps are missed, and that you have the ability to gain rapid feedback on the process and make tweaks and adjustments where required. Every new onboarding experience will influence your future onboarding process, you may start with the process I have outlined here and through a serious of adjustments based on feedback end up with a completely different process that works best for your organisation.

The onboarding process I have defined here is extremely heavy on communication. This will help to build trust and rapport between the new starter, you as their manager, and the rest of the team. For those who are more introverted in nature, this will be an exhausting and strenuous process; make allowances for this in the expected level of work they can perform.

Meeting In Person

Although not directly part of onboarding, the first gathering of staff from a team is important to ensure remote workers feel included in the team and can translate their online life to offline. Because of the importance of these events I have decided to cover some important aspects of it here.

Most workplaces that have a significant number of remote employees will organise an in-person event at least once per year; organisations with a smaller number of remote employees may organise for individuals to visit a head-office or central location. Unless there are significant reasons not to do this (a complete inability for the remote worker to travel, or a global pandemic that is preventing travel), ensure that remote workers attend these events.

If an entire team consists of remote workers, then team activities will be relatively easy to schedule during these events; if only a small number of remote workers are in a team, remind the rest of the team that these remote workers have taken time away from their personal life for the benefit of the team and that you would like everyone to make some effort to get involved in activities. Organise some events (such as a team dinner) that are not work related and not exclusionary (not everyone drinks alcohol, so going to a bar is not a good idea). Also ensure those who have travelled between timezones have ample opportunity to contact people back home.

During colocation of staff, ensure some time is devoted to BAU activities, this will help everyone to gain an understanding of how others prefer to work.

General Thoughts from Other People

Prior to writing this article I asked others about their experience with remote onboarding. Some interesting feedback was given, and some of it is worth mentioning here.

One person talked about an intern who converted to a remote worker after 6 months away from the business. Due to the company policies the start-date and onboarding process was delayed for a month so the new starter could be flown to head office to verify their identity, complete documentation, and be given a security briefing and a security badge. If your organisation intends to enable remote working, this sort of delay cannot be justified. With current technology, all of these tasks could be completed online, possibly with video based supervision if required.

Another person talked about how much easier onboarding is if the new starter asks a lot of relevant questions. They also mentioned that the department with this new starter had a very structured onboarding process (relating it to a tutorial mode in a computer game) and assigned a mentor for new starters (in this case an always-on video connection). This person also commented on the effectiveness of checklists and documentation for the onboarding process and how much that helped to ensure the process was both effective and efficient.

The most common item mentioned to me was to ensure the new starter has been provided with a high-quality headset before they start. This helps with video communications and can also help them to block external distractions or to introduce background noise as appropriate. Personally I use a headset to block other sounds in my house, listen to music and to improve the quality of audio in video calls.

This article was originally published on my personal blog, AlphaGeek, as Remote Onboarding.

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Michael Lambert

Human-centric SaaS Professional | People Leadership & Mentoring | Technical, Product & Delivery Management