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Rethinking Onboarding for the Remote-Work Era

Even in a virtual process, the four C's—clarification, compliance, connection and culture—remain crucial.

The remote-work revolution dramatically altered many aspects of the employment experience, but onboarding is not one of them. The fundamentals and objectives of onboarding remain crucial to successfully integrating new employees into the organization.

New hires onboarded remotely still need to feel valued, engaged and connected. They need to know what’s expected of them and what they can expect from the organization. New employees must be equipped with the right resources, introduced to the right people and ushered into the company culture as seamlessly as possible.

“The human need to be oriented and build confidence is the underlying objective of onboarding, and that’s the same no matter how you are onboarded,” says Niki Ramirez, SHRM-CP, founder of Phoenix-based HR Answers, an HR consultancy for small businesses. “What’s very different for a remote workforce is the delivery of how those needs are met.”

The four C’s of traditional onboarding—clarification, compliance, connection and culture—were first presented in 2010 by Talya Bauer and the SHRM Foundation. They still apply to virtual onboarding. Human resource professionals need to pay particular attention to connection and culture, which are most at risk in a virtual environment. 

“Employees today are experiencing a crisis of connection, and HR leaders report that the biggest challenge with expanding remote work is maintaining the organization’s culture,” says Jamie Kohn, research director for the HR practice at consulting firm Gartner. “Traditionally, new hires connected to organizational culture organically by living it in their day-to-day, in-person interactions. For many people working remotely, changing companies can feel like swapping out one laptop for another.”

Experts agree that virtual onboarding requires a more dedicated focus and more deliberate execution. That’s because there are many challenges to remote onboarding. Employees who onboarded prior to the pandemic reported significantly higher levels of favorability than those who have onboarded since, according to surveys of nearly 500,000 employees by Perceptyx, an employee sentiment analysis firm. 

“Virtual onboarding is absolutely more challenging,” says Cassie Whitlock, director of HR at Lindon, Utah-based BambooHR, an HR management system software provider for small and midsize businesses. “The organizations that have had the most success with virtual onboarding have taken the time to step back and redefine their process. They’ve asked themselves, ‘How do you foster authentic connection in a virtual environment? How do you re-create culture virtually? How do you ensure that knowledge transfer is happening?’ ” 

Subjecting new hires to “days of Zoom meetings and a fire hose of information” will not cut it, says Laura Lee Gentry, chief people officer at global onboarding technology firm Enboarder, whose headquarters are in Sydney. Employers should instead try curating a distinct virtual experience that’s aligned with the organization’s culture.

“There’s been a push toward just-in-time learning, where information is spaced out and delivered in smaller bites, as opposed to information dumps,” Kohn says.

Remote working is becoming the new norm, so employers can’t ignore virtual onboarding. Here are four key facets to consider when re-creating the onboarding experience for a remote workforce.

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Preparation Is Key

Onboarding begins before employees’ first day on the job. The practice of preboarding—preparing new hires from when they sign an offer letter to when they start work—was a trend before the pandemic. But it’s more critical and complex for remote workers whose first day occurs at home.

Remote hires shouldn’t spend the weeks before starting their job in a black hole, disconnected from and seemingly forgotten by the company. Preboarding should stoke new employees’ excitement, introduce them to necessary contacts, and provide the tools and resources they need to hit the ground running. 

Companies that use preboarding are much more likely to retain the majority of their first-year hires than companies that don’t, says Kate Pavlina, an HR business partner at Amazon in San Jose, Calif. In addition to setting expectations for new hires’ first day, she notes, the most successful organizations provide educational content while working through new-hire compliance checklists.

This is the time to send welcome messages and care packages, make team introductions, distribute the employee handbook and other important information, and offer instructions on accessing company resources like the benefits portal. 

Preboarding has always been an integral component of the hiring process at KIPP Nashville, a group of public charter schools in Tennessee’s capital, says HR manager Scheherazarde Bolden. The group starts preboarding new teachers two months before they enter the classroom. 

Initial communications and a checklist of preboarding items with deadlines for completion are sent out, Bolden says. A series of training modules welcomes new employees to campus and explains policies.

“The training is spaced out so they don’t feel overwhelmed, and offered asynchronously so new hires can consume the information on their own time,” she says.

Technology preparedness is just as important as attending to the emotional aspects of welcoming a new hire, and the lack of it is often a big disappointment for new employees.

“It should go without saying, but unfortunately it doesn’t—be sure employees have the tools and technology they need immediately when they join,” says Tracy Brower, vice president of workplace insight at office furniture manufacturer Steelcase in Grand Rapids, Mich. “Laptops, software and access to the right platforms are critical to an employee’s effectiveness and to their belief that you’re prepared for them and committed to their success.”

Experts advise employers to use the preboarding period to ship laptops configured with the necessary software and schedule meetings for new employees with IT to minimize technological issues.

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Managers Are Invaluable

Manager engagement matters even more for remote hires, who see their supervisors as their lifeline to the company. New employees’ experiences with their managers can make or break virtual onboarding. Bad interactions have an outsized negative impact on new employees’ willingness to remain in the job.

“One of the biggest challenges to virtual onboarding and remote working is the large number of managers who have never led remote teams prior to the pandemic,” Ramirez says. “It requires a unique skill set. Managers first must focus on connecting. Then new hires are in a better position to engage actively in learning.”

Managers at KIPP Nashville first went through their own virtual training for facilitating the onboarding process, Bolden says. “There was a learning curve to make onboarding user-friendly and informative but not overwhelming, and we trained the managers on the evolving practices. That included meeting with them to see what onboarding tasks they were still having new hires do in person and trying to incorporate those things in the virtual experience.” 

Managers must be more diligent about milestones and checkpoints when onboarding virtually, Ramirez says. “Holding multiple short, weekly check-ins with new employees is a tried-and-true method for sustaining interest and engagement.” Each check-in can have a specific theme, such as reviewing work progress.

Ashley Priebe Brown, the onboarding program manager at Zapier, a workflow automation technology provider with a fully remote workforce, helps managers devise ramp-up plans for new employees. “These plans plot out what is expected of new hires through the first 90 days,” she says. Managers and new hires schedule check-ins to review progress. 

“The best leaders are present, accessible and super responsive,” Brower says. “These managers create personalized onboarding journeys, have one-on-ones early and more often, and prioritize replying to their remote team members, especially those who are new.”

Pavlina says managers can build trust by sharing personal experiences and communicating openly and honestly, especially when difficulties occur. She also recommends personalizing the feedback loop “so you can speed up or slow down the pace of onboarding as needed.”

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Culture Is Fundamental

Extra time and more-thoughtful attention are required for remote hires to be assimilated into the workplace culture and to begin to understand how the organization operates. The company’s mission, vision, values and history, as well as its communication preferences and working styles, should be made explicit. Remote workers will not have the luxury of picking up on physical cues in face-to-face meetings or running into colleagues in the breakroom.

“For remote onboarding, I’d say connecting to community and culture is the most important to be intentional about,” Brown says. “It’s a unique challenge to create a personal experience for a new hire when they can’t get a vibe for the company culture just by watching what’s going on around them.”

New hires want context and clear expectations, Pavlina says. She adds that it’s important to capitalize on new employees’ heightened engagement during onboarding to integrate them into the company culture before they’re bogged down with work. 

“Every organization is full of unwritten rules, and those who succeed are able to quickly discern the nuances and assumptions behind the behaviors found within an organization’s culture,” Brower says. “Does the culture value tons of data or more gut-level analyses? To what extent is it acceptable to speak up or question authority? What kinds of behaviors are rewarded? What are the pitfalls to avoid? While these may seem obvious to existing employees, they’ll be a mystery to newbies.”

Experts recommend creating more opportunities for peer-to-peer communication where current employees can share their work experiences with new hires and provide context for colleagues’ working styles.

In order for employees to meaningfully engage with an organization’s values, Kohn says, workers must demonstrate them through lived experience. 

Sharing examples through video is one of the best ways to do this. “Tap into natural storytelling to help people understand the impact their work has,” Ramirez says.

Whitlock says interactive experiences produce the most positive responses during onboarding. “New employees love the Q&A sessions with company leaders,” she says, “because it’s rare to get that kind of access from executives and it gives the new team members a chance to see that the company culture is important at every level of the organization.”

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Social Capital Matters

Starting a new job has traditionally meant meeting lots of new people. Onboarding at home, alone, can make what has typically been a highly charged social experience an isolating one. 

“Creating forums for connection—both on a formal, work-related level and on a social level—is very important for new employees,” Pavlina says.

Brower adds that a chief goal of onboarding is helping new employees build social capital—networks of people and information that can help them learn and grow while also increasing retention and engagement. The benefits of feeling connected include being more comfortable asking for help, experiencing a sense of belonging, and feeling positive about the role and the organization. 

Establishing connection is one of the biggest challenges of virtual onboarding, says Jody Longo, senior vice president of HR at Cohen Veterans Network, a national not-for-profit provider of mental health services for military veterans, service members and their families. Staff at the 60-person central office in Stamford, Conn., have been working remotely since the pandemic began.

“We ask all departments to include new hires in introductory meetings so new employees can meet everyone at the organization on a smaller scale,” she says. “HR also routinely checks in on them to make sure they’re getting acclimated, and new hires are set up with an introductory call with the CEO and COO. Because of the lack of face-to-face interaction, they really appreciate these conversations.” 

Experts recommend setting up a mix of formal and informal one-on-one and group interactions between new hires and their colleagues early on. 

Virtual icebreakers and “get-to-know-you” games are ways to make onboarding more enjoyable. “Remember to instill some fun and camaraderie in the process,” Ramirez says. “There’s a little more time investment required, but it’s worth it.”

Zapier’s virtual onboarding includes a mix of live Zoom sessions and asynchronous video modules. “We design our onboarding prompts and questions to draw out stories about people’s strengths and what it means to them to bring their authentic self to our organization,” Brown says. “The personal side of things helps folks feel more comfortable in a situation where it would be harder to really get to know each other.”

The value of buddy programs—a traditional onboarding concept—also applies to the virtual experience.

“The buddy program is a simple investment that can have a big impact,” Gentry says. “The virtual version isn’t that different from how they are conducted in person, but you have to be explicit about what’s expected or people will self-define what that is.”

Buddies should be champions of the organization who understand the company’s mission and want to help new hires get excited about working there, Ramirez says. 

Zapier’s buddy program pairs people from different parts of the organization to instill cross-functional exposure and companywide connections, Brown says.

Kohn advises that it’s initially a good idea to schedule weekly buddy meetings, though every pair will develop their own process. “There’s so much that can be gotten from even holding space for a routinely scheduled call,” she says. “The conversation may resolve an uncertainty that the new employee wasn’t even aware they wanted to ask about.”

Onboarding cohorts are another way to build connections among new hires. If your company is big enough, having new hires start in a group can create a sense of belonging and inclusivity, according to Brown. “At Zapier, virtual cohorts start every two weeks,” she says. “They become their own support group.” 

Creating space to experience the newness together is important, Ramirez says, even if it’s in a simulated remote environment. Of course, it’s great to meet in person, too.

“If it’s at all possible to bring people in for an in-person event during onboarding, to get the energy going and build camaraderie,” she says, “there’s great value in doing that.”   

Roy Maurer is an online -writer/-editor for SHRM who focuses on talent acquisition and labor markets.

Illustration by James O’Brien.

Planning a Return to the Office? Consider the Benefits of Reboarding

Experts expect that a variation of onboarding—reboarding—will rise in prominence this year as more organizations begin implementing return-to-office plans after more than two years of working remotely.

Reboarding, used in the past mostly to facilitate the re-entry of furloughed workers or those who had been on lengthy leaves, will be a critical component of reacclimating employees moving from a remote-work environment to a hybrid or fully in-person experience, with extra emphasis on those hired remotely during the pandemic who have never set foot in the office. 

“While going back to the office will be an adjustment for everyone, it will be an entirely new experience for remote hires,” says Rebecca Zucker, an executive coach and founding partner at Next Step Partners, a leadership development firm in San Francisco. “Reboarding employees who started remotely will help create a positive employee experience and help further socialize them into the organization’s culture.” 

Jamie Kohn, research director for the HR practice at consulting firm Gartner, cautioned that simply putting people through the company’s new-hire onboarding process for a second time is not useful. The goals and outcomes are similar—arranging logistics, setting expectations, building relationships and assimilating employees into the workplace culture—but reboarding plans should be tailored to the specific needs of the returning employees.

Zucker outlined the following six components of an effective reboarding program:

Facilities orientation. “Being new to an office can feel awkward and intimidating when you don’t know your way around,” she says.

Recognition. An extra effort should be made to help newly hired remote employees feel particularly welcome. “Consider leaving something special at their desks, be it a personal note, company swag or other small gift,” she says. “This is a nice touch that will go a long way in making members of this group feel valued, cared for and recognized for having started a new job during a uniquely challenging time.” 

Cohort bonding. “This group shares a common, distinctive experience,” says Zucker, who recommends setting them up in person as an affinity group with structured opportunities to interact and get to know each other.

Manager check-ins. “Remind managers that it’s their job to help reboard remote hires to make sure they are adjusting well to the new environment and have everything they need,” she says.

Buddy programs. HR should consider assigning two buddies—someone on the new hire’s team and someone to help broaden their cross-functional network.

Team building. “This will help all employees to reconnect after being remote for so long,” Zucker says, “but will also help remote hires, in particular, to socialize and get to know both new and tenured employees in a more relaxed and less intimidating environment.” —R.M.