When face-to-face communication is impractical—or impossible—a 100% remote recruiting process may be necessary. (Here’s a blueprint for making remote interviewing work for your small business.)
You also may not be able to bring new employees on board face-to-face, making virtual onboarding necessary as well. Welcoming new employees, getting them started, and making them a productive part of your team is difficult enough under normal circumstances. It’s even more challenging in a remote setting.
To add to my knowledge of the onboarding remote employees I got additional input from an expert: Jeff Frey, the VP of Innovation for Talent Path. Talent Path hires STEM grads who are struggling to land their first gig, identifies the gaps on their resumes, and connects them with technology and IT organizations so they can gain work experience. In the past weeks, Talent Path has hired and placed a number of employees with partner companies and organizations.
The following combines my and Frey’s tips for making the remote onboarding process a lot less awkward for new and existing employees—and a lot more effective.
Communicate early and often.
Even if only weeks will pass between hiring and the first day of work, the more you communicate, the better. Explain the timeline. Explain what the employee can expect over the next two weeks, what forms must be completed, when tools—like computers, phones, or whatever you will provide—will reach them.
It’s also more important now than ever to specify how you’ll be communicating, and how your new employee can best reach you. Set up preliminary calls or teleconferences. Make sure they have their email and Slack accounts set up, plus access to any other digital tools. Add them to important mailing lists or channels to ensure they’re getting the most important team updates.
Getting a new job is exciting, but it’s also stressful. As always, the better your employees understand what to expect and when, the less anxiety they will naturally feel.
Conduct as much “orientation” ahead of time as you can.
If you provide enough lead time, few new employees will be upset about completing forms, reviewing and making benefits choices, and so on ahead of time. The more general orientation tasks you can complete before the employee’s first day of work, the better.
Ensure the employee can hit the ground running.
Great businesses execute. By extension, great employees execute. They accomplish tasks, achieve goals—they make things happen.
Hours, much less days, spent in orientation instead of performing job-related tasks are not only unfulfilling for new employees, they can make the eventual transition to “real” work even harder.
As Frey says:
“Right away, give new employees something they can contribute to, preferably with other people. Employees who feel disconnected, especially introverted employees, can easily fade into the background. They need an immediate project and goal, one they can work on with other employees—that way they can instantly start to build genuine connections with other employees.”
Make sure every new employee can complete at least one concrete, job-related task on their first day. They’ll immediately start to feel like an important part of the team. And you’ll immediately set the expectation that performance, productivity, and getting important things done matters.
Train in small chunks.
While it can be tempting to fully train a new employee before turning them loose, there’s plenty of evidence that shows people more successfully master complex skills when the tasks that make up those skills are taught in smaller, more manageable chunks.
Plus, teaching in chunks creates natural opportunities for more frequent communication, collaboration, and feedback—all of which help a new employee feel more connected to individual employees and the overall team.
For example, you may decide to break a task down into bite-sized “pieces” in the order they will be performed, so you can train and ensure mastery before moving on to the next “piece.” Think about prerequisites or building blocks for skills, and assign projects accordingly. If troubleshooting or decision-making is required (think customer service), train the employee to handle one or two specific situations before moving on to others.
The key is to break information down into smaller chunks that can be more easily processed by the employee’s working memory—which then makes it much easier for them to process, encode, and retrieve that information or skill when needed.
Find ways to provide immediate feedback.
A new employee is often tentative, nervous, and prone to making mistakes. But in a remote setting, it can be harder to identify those missteps.
Which means it can be hard to set the right tone.
Still: Unless a role is largely creativity-based, most roles have best practices. Monitor performance and give immediate feedback, both constructive and positive. In a remote setting, that may require metrics and dashboards, sitting in on calls or teleconferences, etc.
While remote work makes assessing performance more difficult, it’s worth the effort required. After all, bad habits are easy to form. But so are good habits, especially when you reward those habits with recognition and praise.
Use virtual happy hours to complement productive interactions.
The best bonds are built through actions, not words. What people do, how they collaborate, how they support and encourage each other—that’s how professional relationships are built.
But personal relationships matter, too.
“People make jokes about virtual happy hours,” Frey says, “but they work. This Friday we have a virtual happy hour to welcome the new employee: He’ll talk a little about his background, then we’ll do some trivia contests where we try to guess things about him… Playing games or having silly little contests is a great way for existing employees to get to know new employees.”
According to Frey, helping new hires engage with existing employees is one of the most important ways to make onboarding successful. The key, though, is to keep these interactions activity-oriented where team- and relationship-building are concerned. Otherwise you run the risk of adding to the “Zoom fatigue” your employees might be experiencing. So if you hold a virtual happy hour, make sure the session truly is fun.
If you can’t, you’re better off not having a virtual happy hour at all.
Assign a work “buddy.”
Mentors are great, but in this case the official “buddy” should be someone at the employee’s level, whether inside or outside their department. (If I’m a new employee and my buddy is someone higher on the organizational chart, I’m a lot less likely to ask questions that could possibly make me look bad.)
The buddy can provide unofficial guidance, explain the culture, help a new employee make sense of conflicting agendas or awkward interpersonal relationships, etc. And, of course, they help create a sense of safety and can serve as a bridge to connect a new employee with the rest of the team.
Prove that out of sight is never out of mind.
Micromanaging is a terrible way to manage.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t check in, especially early on. Send a Slack message asking how the employee is doing. Send a text. Dash off a quick email.
Ask how a project is going. Ask if there’s anything you can do to remove roadblocks or barriers. Ask if the employee needs more information, more tools, more anything.
Ask, listen, and respond.
To paraphrase Teddy Roosevelt, “New employees won’t care about your business… until they know you care about them.”
Do everything you can to show you value your new employees and their contributions from day one—no matter where they work from.