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12 Rules for Virtual Onboarding

It can be difficult being the new kid in town. Working remotely makes it more of a challenge.

There was a time when the most difficult thing about bringing on a new employee was figuring out who would be tapped to walk them through their first few days at work.

Today, that kind of onboarding doesn’t just sound pre-pandemic—it sounds prehistoric.

The world of onboarding has been turned on its head as the employees of fully remote and hybrid companies can no longer expect a personal welcome on their first day. For many of these organizations, remote supervisors cannot greet their new hires by taking them out to lunch. There are no face-to-face opportunities for new employees to get to know their colleagues through casual meetups in the hallway, by the copy machine or at the coffeemaker. For many remote hires, this is still unfamiliar territory.


It can be especially difficult for new hires who are joining a remote team whose veteran members had worked side by side before the pandemic. Without that mutual foundation on which to build their own relationships, it’s difficult for new employees to decode the specific unwritten rules that shape the culture of individual companies.

It’s crucial that employers get those first few days and weeks of a new employee’s tenure right. Recent research indicates that almost one-third of new employees decide to leave their jobs within the first 90 days of being hired. So, it’s essential that new recruits are not out of mind—even if they are out of sight.


Unfortunately, employees report that onboarding is often overlooked once they’ve accepted an offer. Only 12 percent of U.S. employees say their company does a good job of onboarding. About 1 in 5 employees report that their most recent onboarding was poor—or that they received no onboarding at all.


Implementing effective remote onboarding practices like the ones below can help new hires feel welcome at their organizations and better become part of cohesive teams.

Choose in-person first. 

Even if an employee will be working remotely, if a company has a physical location, try to onboard them in person, advises Peter Cappelli, professor of management and human resources at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Remote onboarding should always be the second option. 


“If you have any people in your office, get your new hires to meet them as soon and as often as possible,” Cappelli says.

Reach out.

To help new employees feel welcome in a company with a remote workforce, give them a nonvirtual welcome, says Jalie Cohen, group vice president and head of global talent at Adecco Group, an HR staffing firm based in Zurich, Switzerland.

Only 12 percent of U.S. employees say their company does a good job of onboarding.

A few days before they start, the new employee’s manager should mail them a personalized welcome kit including a handwritten note and some company swag, such as a coffee mug or T-shirt, Cohen says. “It’s about bringing personal connection with a manager to people who can’t be in physical contact.”

Make introductions.

On an employee’s first day, their manager should distribute a welcome email to their department or, if appropriate, the entire company. In addition to introducing the new hire, this announcement should detail why this person will be an asset to their team. Detail their specific skills and experience that their team can tap into, says Mark Frein, chief workplace strategy officer at Oyster, a global employment firm based in Wilmington, Del.


The same email should spell out the day-to-day tasks and specific responsibilities of the new hire so the rest of the team is clear on how they can help them integrate quickly.

Have a buddy system.

For new remote workers, few things are more effective than creating a buddy system that pairs new employees with seasoned team members who they can turn to for friendly advice on just about anything. Remote workers, in particular, face a difficult time learning the ropes and establishing relationships, says Vikas Kaushik, CEO at TechAhead, a digital transformation specialist headquartered in Uttar Pradesh, India. 


The system should work both ways, he adds. Make sure the veteran employee also does regular virtual check-ins with the new hire to make sure they are adjusting well.

Involve the team.

Successful remote onboarding requires that new virtual workers get to know their new co-workers and feel like a real part of the team.

‘You don’t want a new employee sitting alone their first day staring at a computer screen for eight hours.’—Jalie Cohen

Because employees aren’t at the office to exchange typical small talk, Cohen says that Adecco uses a virtual bulletin board that gives employees special insight into their new co-workers. This board gives personal information that employees choose to share about themselves—such as who is a dog lover and who is a five-star cook. 


“It gives you a good flavor of who you’ll be working with,” Cohen says.

Keep the first day short.

The first day at work really matters. For remote employees, it can be particularly difficult. One way to make it positive is to keep it short and simple, Cohen says. Whatever you do, don’t have the new employee spend the entire day in a never-ending virtual onboarding session.


Instead, Cohen suggests breaking up onboarding tasks into a series of days or even weeks. That’s what Adecco did, she says, when it revamped its onboarding model and spread it over new employees’ first 30 days rather than just their first day or week. 


“You don’t want a new employee sitting alone their first day staring at a computer screen for eight hours,” Cohen says.

Teach culture first.

At Remote, an HR specialty company headquartered in San Francisco that helps global companies hire talent, the first week of virtual onboarding is never about the new employee’s actual job. Instead, it’s laser-focused on teaching the company’s culture. Employees are given access to online documents that teach about the company and link to items like the employee handbook and information about the systems and tools the employee will use. 


“We ask them not to start onboarding about their role on their team until the second week,” says Amanda Day, director of people engagement.

Don’t overload. 

Managers anxious to plug holes in their teams might overload new employees with too much information from too many people during their first few days at work. That’s a losing strategy, says Shayna Royal, director of recruiting at Paycor, a Cincinnati-based HR software provider that onboarded more than 1,000 new workers over the past year.


Royal says Paycor recently centralized its onboarding process so new hires now typically only hear from two people during their first days: their direct manager and someone assigned from the operations team. That’s a big change from the four, five or even six people that new hires would previously hear from during their first week, Royal says.

Allow employees to pace themselves. 

It’s one thing to onboard a group of new employees all together in person, but it’s something else entirely to have new hires onboard by themselves—remotely. For this reason, it’s particularly crucial that new team members who work virtually are able to pace themselves when it comes to required on-demand learning. 


“Onboard training can get overwhelming, even if your company devised the best possible strategy,” says Mohana Radhakrishnan, co-founder and COO of ExpertusONE, a learning management system provider headquartered in Santa Clara, Calif.

‘Onboard training can get overwhelming, even if your company has devised the best possible strategy.’ —Mohana Radhakrishnan

To enable new remote employees to learn at their own pace, give them digital learning management software they can access within an adequate given time frame. “This will ensure you hit your training goals without putting too much pressure on employees who work slower,” says Radhakrishnan.

Be tech-ready.

Technology matters. Spending the time to get it right ahead of time will be repaid many times over in terms of time saved calling on IT for help. That’s why Paycor recently rolled out “Tech Wallet,” a program that allows new remote employees to figure out their own tech needs and be reimbursed for them. Previously, the company automatically shipped new employees everything from monitors to laptops to keyboards. 


“We were sending items they didn’t need, and this was cluttering up their homes,” says Royal. Now, the only thing IT sends automatically is a laptop—and funds for employees to cover the remainder of their tech needs.

Don’t onboard and disappear. 

Many companies onboard new remote employees for the first week and then stop, potentially leaving them with more questions than answers.


At Remote, virtual onboarding continues with regularity through a new employee’s first month and incorporates touch points for the first six months, Day says. Some savvy companies offer various forms of onboarding for the first year, she adds.

Ask for feedback.

The best way to improve remote onboarding is to determine what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong. Roughly six months after an onboarding, ask employees what worked and what didn’t.


“Ask them what they missed in the process, what they think they needed to learn in onboarding and didn’t,” says Cappelli. It’s also smart to ask them what they wished they had more of—and what wasn’t helpful, he adds. 

Bruce Horovitz is a freelance writer based in Falls Church, Va.


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