Tips for COVID-19 and Beyond: Remote Onboarding

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by Allie Gauthier | July 31, 2020 5:02 pm

Though the human and economic cost of COVID-19 takes up most of the headlines (and rightfully so), many people are using the pandemic as an opportunity to reevaluate long-running and unchallenged assumptions about how we structure our businesses and society. For many people in tech, the necessity of the office has been challenged so often that the Economist openly wonders if it’s dead.

We’ll save a full opining on that topic for another time, but given that one of our big initiatives last year involved opening an office space of our own, we’re not quite ready to go that far.

That said, we’ve been active participants in the shift towards remote work. Even pre-pandemic, most Avatria employees tended to work from home at least 25 – 50% of the time in a given month. Add in a number of employees that live in different states and only visit the office a handful of times a year, and we’ve become experts at building a “remote-forward” business that manages to maintain a tight-knit culture.

Many companies have been fortunate enough to be able to continue hiring over the last few months (us included), so we wanted to share some lessons we’ve learned about how to successfully manage one of the most difficult parts of a remote work environment: onboarding. Onboarding is the beginning of an employee’s journey with your company; a positive onboarding experience is integral to ensuring that you both start your journey together with your best feet forward.

There are three crucial time periods to pay attention to in order to smoothly and effectively ramp up a new remote employee: before they start, their first day, and their first week. Let’s talk about what you can do during each of those times to help them get settled and integrated.

Before They Start

Turning a new hire into a full team member should start the day they accept their offer. The more comfortable they feel, the more excited they’ll be to start, and the quicker they’ll hit the ground running. Good communication is your ally. Here are some ideas for things you can do:

  • Create a welcome team: Have a group of team members send welcome emails, texts, or phone calls to the new hire. This will show the type of interpersonal culture you’re building, and help them feel valued from the get-go.
  • Check in during the interim: In the period between accepting their offer and their first day, there is a good chance that your new hire is leaving their previous job or moving to a new city. This can be a stressful time for anyone, but especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Communication during this time will help reduce any concern they may feel about taking the position.
  • Send a welcome card: It’s a small gesture, but sending a card from leadership or human resources will reiterate your company’s commitment to appreciating their employees.
  • Include a gift basket: Along with the welcome card, consider including a small welcoming gift. This could include branded swag, sweet treats, or anything that has significance to your company. At a former employer, the gift would include a miniature of our unofficial mascot, which allowed us to explain the inside joke around it, and start to build a feeling of inclusion.
  • Invite them to remote events: Is your company hosting remote happy hours, game nights, or other team building activities? If so, make sure you notify the new hire, and make them feel welcome. This will give them an opportunity to meet the team, and start to build rapport with their colleagues.

In addition to the above, make sure to clearly communicate your equipment policy. Are you shipping them the computer they’ll need, or expecting them to expense it? Some companies with full-time remote employees purchase items like extra monitors, office chairs, or even desks to help ensure comfort and productivity.

Their First Day

Functionally, a remote first day involves the same steps as any other first day on the job. However, while the objectives may be the same, the experience for the new employee is likely to be very different. With fewer natural opportunities to interact with coworkers, the new hire may be more reluctant to reach to to new colleagues. With this in mind, it’s important to get the new hire as much face time as possible. Here are some tips:

  • Use video: I can’t stress this enough. Face to face time is important, and makes it much easier for a new employee to pick up on personality, emotion, and communication styles. Even if you don’t use video all the time, use it until the new hire gets acclimated.
  • Spread the effort around: If possible, consider having different team members cover different content. This will give the new hire a chance to get one-on-one time with more members of the team. 
  • Solicit welcome messages: Some companies give company-wide shoutouts to new hires on their internal messaging platform. If you do this, I’ve found that a public welcoming message is better suited to the team’s private messaging channel. This is likely to be less overwhelming than having dozens or hundreds of people posting “Welcome @[name]!”
  • Solicit feedback at the end of the day: Ask the new employee about any questions they may have, how they’re feeling, what they’re excited about, and what the company can do differently to help them in the weeks ahead. And remember, this shouldn’t be just a gesture—when you receive feedback, act on it.

The First Week

Rather than throwing the new employee straight into the fire, consider structuring the first week so that the new hire gets as much interaction with the team as possible. This will help the develop critical relationships early, and prevent them from feeling isolated. Here are some ideas you can follow, regardless of a team member’s role:

  • Daily manager meetings: Even if it’s just a recap at the end of the day, scheduled meetings with their manager will help ensure that the new hire has the opportunity to ask questions and confirm that they’re spending their time appropriately. It can be helpful if the manager outlines both near-term and long-term goals for the team as well as the new hire.
  • Team lunch: Back when offices were a thing, it was common for companies to take new hires out to lunch with a group of co-workers. It was a good chance to get to know people on a personal level, and start to build rapport. With food delivery services, this is still possible. Order lunch for the team, hop on a video call, and enjoy a break from the workday together.
  • Assign a buddy: New hires often have a lot of small questions, so assign them someone they can reach out to for help with the little stuff. If they have a resource they can go to aside from their manager, they’re more likely to take advantage of it, especially if their manager is often occupied with meetings or other important tasks.
  • Remote happy hour: Plan a team or company happy hour for sometime during the first week. This will give the new hire a chance to meet members of the team they may not have had a chance to work with, and will help them start to understand the company’s culture. Incorporating ice breakers or games are a good way to make sure that everyone gets a chance to talk, and to keep the mood light.
  • Communication real talk: It’s normal for it to take a few weeks for a new hire to figure out a company’s communication style—who to CC on emails, where to go for help, the hours it’s acceptable to send messages, etc. Give them a jump start by sharing the nitty gritty details that have become second nature.
  • Feedback, feedback, feedback: Most likely, your next new hire will not be the last to undergo remote onboarding. Ask them what worked, what didn’t, and ways they think the process can be improved in the future.

These are just a few ideas you can leverage to help make remote onboarding smooth and positive for new employees. Be creative! There is likely a way to replicate every in-person activity you would normally do in the remote environment. Be flexible, and be willing to try things. Also, as I said above, USE VIDEO! It may not seem like a big difference, but that face-to-face time can really help.

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