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Successful Remote Onboarding Is More than Paperwork

A woman working on her laptop in front of a potted plant.

​Dom Merritt, chief people officer at Buildout Inc., will tell you that an onboarding plan for remote workers can only be effective if you have a vision, a strategy and the supporting technology to reimagine the onboarding experience.

Headquartered in Chicago with an office in Austin, Texas, Buildout provides marketing software for commercial real estate brokers to promote their properties to prospective clients.

Like many companies, Buildout closed its doors in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and switched to remote work. At the same time, the company's customers used the pandemic to invest in their technology, and Buildout's services were part of that investment. 

As interest grew for Buildout's software, the company needed to hire more workers.

Last year, while many companies were shedding workers, Buildout added 10 employees to its sales, engineering, product and customer success teams. But there was a problem.

"Prior to the pandemic, our entire onboarding experience was in person," Merritt said.

New hires would come into the office, meet staff members, and discuss what the company does and what is expected from them.

"The only online communication they'd get between their offer letter and their start date were occasional communications with a manager and an e-mail that went out the week before telling them where to show up and what to bring," he said.

In a new, distributed work environment, Merritt had to create a process, with supporting software, that would ease new hires into their jobs while making them feel a part of the company's culture.

"What is most important is getting new employees really excited about their first day, which would be in their living room or their home office," Merritt said.

So Buildout participated in a pilot program for Greenhouse Welcome, a virtual onboarding suite of tools developed to support the needs of a growing remote workforce.

[Want to learn more about onboarding? Join us at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021, taking place Sept. 9-12 in Las Vegas and virtually.]

According to Greenhouse Software's president Jon Stross, many customers said they have systems to manage documentation and payroll processes but were lacking a system that could help them support their culture and values.

"We heard from a lot of company executives who said remote work made them very nervous about how they bring a new employee into the community of the company," Stross said. "We saw this as an opportunity to offer the Greenhouse Welcome product, which is solely focused on the new-hire experience and less focused on the logistics and paperwork."   

Buildout had its own vision of how it wanted new employees to experience onboarding and what it wanted to create for them.

"We knew we wouldn't be able to have that palpable in-person energy for new employees, and that's where Greenhouse Welcome came in, because it allowed us to re-create some of those moments," Merritt said.

Here are some of the results. By using the Welcome onboarding tool, Buildout created a resource hub populated with company information about the company brand, its values and its mission. 

New employees receive information about and pictures of leaders for the particular team they are joining. The information includes who each leader is, what they do and what their interests are. 

"New employees get to learn some interesting fun facts about our leadership team and their manager," Merritt said. "Additionally, we've created a buddy program so they get to meet their buddy—that's the person who will help guide them through the first weeks, months and beyond."

He added that typically, new hires sign their offer letters and then don't hear anything from their new employer until they start a few weeks later. Buildout takes a different approach.

"We send links to the Welcome tool to the new employees before their first day at work. This helps keep that person engaged with the company, excited about the job, and makes them continue to feel like they made the right decision," Merritt said.

The tool also comes with automated tasks and reminders to help new hires understand their role and responsibilities. For example, the system reminds every new employee several weeks into their jobs to give feedback about their first few weeks in the new position.

"This helps us take the guesswork out of remembering to ask, because the system will trigger the person who is responsible for completing that task to actually do that task," Merritt said.

Greenhouse Software is not the only vendor to introduce new tools that address the shifts in onboarding brought on by COVID-19. 

Palo Alto, Calif.-based Stoke Talent recently launched an onboarding and offboarding tool that manages workflows for nonpayroll workers such as freelancers, contractors, consultants and agencies.

With the number of gig workers and remote employees growing since the pandemic, Matthew Merker, research manager, talent acquisition and strategy, at Needham, Mass.-based International Data Corp., said companies are focusing on what kind of experience they want a remote worker to have during the transition period between when a worker is hired and when they actually start working for a company.

"There is a growing interest in having a great first impression for the new hires during the transition from the candidate experience to the employee experience," Merker said. "During that in-between period, companies want to make sure they create a good first impression for their new employees, which can help companies with their retention rates."

Nicole Lewis is a freelance journalist based in Miami.


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