All Aboard: Onboarding Employees in the New Normal of Remote Work

remote onboarding

There’s a lot going on during the onboarding process for a new employee. You need to make sure they feel comfortable and welcome, are learning continuously, and have access to the right tools and technologies. It requires a lot of communication and face to face interaction. 

But now that entire companies have transitioned to working from home literally overnight, having to achieve this in a remote setting is a sudden, and mostly unexpected, reality.

We experienced it first hand when, a week after we had transitioned our entire team to remote work, we welcomed a new employee. The onboarding process wasn’t perfect by any stretch, so we’re sharing what did and didn’t work in the hopes of helping others in the same boat and so we can pick up some tips from companies who are currently tackling the same challenge.

When onboarding new employees, our objectives are to:

  1. Ensure our new team member feels comfortable and welcome
  2. Provide learning activities so they have an understanding of what we do and who we do it for
  3. Ensure they understand where they fit within the company and what is expected of them
  4. Give them access to the tools and technologies they need to do their job

Like many companies, we made the decision to work remotely in response to the COVID 19 threat. Since we were expecting our new Release Manager, Jacqui Nosal, we had to prepare a remote onboarding plan that would have the same effectiveness as welcoming Jacqui in person. Our Director of Customer Success, Rebecca McDougall designed the onboarding plan, and what follows is what she did to help achieve our onboarding objectives.  

Assign coordination to one person

Depending on the size of your company, you may not have a designated HR rep in place to coordinate remote onboarding plans. In our case, Rebecca took the reins and collaborated with Jacqui’s  manager, Lumi, to create Jacqui’s onboarding plan and arrange a schedule for her first couple of weeks on the job.

Taking the lead gave Rebecca full oversight into Jacqui’s calendar so meetings and intros could be spaced out logically and without overwhelming our new start on her first day. 

Create a detailed first week calendar

Once Jacqui’s start date was confirmed, Rebecca set about creating a detailed calendar to provide some structure for Jacqui’s first week.

In the office, it’s easy to glance over and see when a new starter might need some guidance or support. We’ve all had that moment of feeling a little lost when sitting at our desk on the first day. Rebecca noted that this is more difficult in a remote onboarding situation: 

“In the office, when someone’s not in a meeting, you have that visibility into those moments where a new hire might be sitting there with nothing to do. And you can onboard and assist as required. I don’t think any of the other engineers have had a formal calendar with pre-scheduled meetings like this.”

Having a calendar of pre-scheduled meetings and onboarding training can help alleviate your new employee’s anxiety about stalling on what to do.

“My concern was taking what I’d seen in the office and putting us in a virtual situation. That structure was more important than it ever would be now that we were in a remote situation.”

However, Rebecca and Lumi felt they could have coordinated more closely on scheduling some of those meetings. There were some conflicts between team meetings that Lumi  would have liked Jacqui to attend to familiarize herself with team processes, but unfortunately they clashed once or twice with other meetings in the onboarding calendar. It was a good lesson for closer collaboration over remote onboarding schedules going forward.

Formalize introductions

Part of the calendar involved introducing Jacqui formally to heads of departments, her fellow team members, and other colleagues. The importance of this was two-fold:

  1. It allowed Jacqui to get to know the business, how the company is structured, and insight into all the moving parts and different functions involved.
  2. It was also a great opportunity for an informal chat and to get to know everyone now that the casual office chat is not available in the same way

Rather than leaving it up to Jacqui and individuals to set these meetings up, Rebecca made sure it was built into her onboarding calendar:

“The goal was to look at the essential meetings that need to happen to first introduce Jacqui to the team and the people that are leading different functions within the organization. It  also helped establish some of the recurring meetings that will exist in her calendar as she gets started. So, I think that the calendar at least helped internally set expectations so the meetings that needed to happen got in the calendar.”

Connecting on a personal level

When onboarding a new employee remotely, don’t forget to allow them some social introductions as well as training calls or work-specific meetings. One of the meetings Rebecca set up was a virtual “coffee morning” with Jacqui and the whole team. Both Rebecca and Jacqui agree that this was one of the best things that was done during the remote onboarding process. 

Using a Zoom video call, the entire team was invited to welcome Jacqui on her first morning as part of the company. Rebecca also asked that people have a couple of questions ready for Jacqui so we could all get to know her better. A more informal setting also allowed Jacqui to have her first experience of Cognota culture and how we like to have fun as a team, too. When there can’t be the typical Team Lunch at your favourite local restaurant, a virtual coffee morning can help fill that gap during remote onboarding.

“It was actually interesting, in my opinion, to see how well the virtual coffee worked. I don’t think we’ve had anyone join and get as thoroughly introduced to the company as Jacqui did. I think we all came out of that meeting knowing a little bit more about her.”

As the new starter, Jacqui really appreciated the opportunity to be welcomed so warmly by the whole team:

“I loved the welcome intro at the very beginning and was surprised to find out that wasn’t something that was done for every new starter. I loved that experience.”

Take experience into account

Structure is vital, but it’s also important to create some breathing space for your new employee, too. And that’s where taking their previous experience into account can be helpful. They may have their own targets in terms of who they want to meet or what they want to accomplish in their first weeks on the job.

Jacqui has a wealth of experience behind her. So, while the structure of her first week’s calendar was helpful, she also appreciated having some gaps where she could put her own plans in place for bringing her experience to the table:

“I appreciated having slots that I could fill with things I felt were appropriate for my role. So there were some people I wanted to chat to about specific aspects of current processes, and there was openness in my schedule  for me to arrange those meetings and implement the things I thought would be helpful for me coming into my new role.”

Use tools and software

Whether you already use collaborative tools such as internal messaging apps or conferencing software, it’s essential during remote onboarding to make sure your new starters can connect effectively with their colleagues seamlessly.

We already used Slack and Zoom for internal communications, but there’s a lot more you can do than simply making it available. Check out some of the integrations or add-on features available for your messaging tools or collaboration software. 

For example, we set up a Slack add-on called “Donut.” It arranges coffee dates between employees at random, presenting the perfect opportunity to get to know others on separate teams. As a remote team, it’s easy to become disconnected from people who you don’t necessarily work with on an ongoing basis. Tools like these help us all to stay connected and help new employees to connect on a more personal level with others while working remotely.

remote onboarding new employees

Encourage  participation in available social activities

A lot goes into a company culture. Social activities are at the forefront of bringing a team together and creating a great work atmosphere. With that in mind, Rebecca made sure Jacqui was aware of all the existing social activities and planned events coming up so she could dive in from the start.

For example, we’re still running our weekly book club remotely, and our Culture Committee is always finding ways to keep everyone connected in a fun, social way while we’re away from the office. Jacqui actually took the opportunity to join the Culture Committee on her first week on the job! 

Introduce company culture and traditions

Rebecca also made sure to formalize the culture assimilation process for Jacqui too. It helped to set expectations and get her familiar with communication methods in the company:

“We actually did a session that I haven’t done with anyone else that has joined. It was a 30 minute call on Cognota culture and traditions. So walking through Slack channels and what we use them for, talking about our weekly “Woot-Woots” sessions, the Culture Committee, book club, and just making sure that Jacqui was aware of the different meetings that are either in her calendar and what the purpose of those were, or different ways that she could get involved. And I think that is something that I will probably continue when we get back to the office.”

Start onboarding before Day 1

Another great way to set expectations is to give access to company communications in advance of an employee’s formal start date. Jacqui had access to her Cognota email and Slack for over a week before she was due to start. It gave her the opportunity to get a sense of the company culture and know what to expect once she officially started.

“I got access to my Slack and email almost immediately after everything was finalized. So it was cool to see emails that were coming in from the CEO, especially with all the concerns about COVID 19  right now. I felt reassurance more than anything else that the team’s health was such a priority to the company. From what I saw in Slack, it was also really clear that the company culture is pretty built up and established, even for an early stage start-up like Cognota.” 

remote onboarding call

What was different?

Transitioning to fully remote onboarding might mean having to temporarily ditch some of the ways you have traditionally welcomed newcomers to the team.

For us, creating virtual ways for Jacqui to connect with everyone was fun and challenging, but there were some ways we usually welcome new team members that, unfortunately, were not possible in a remote working environment. For example:

  • We usually provide “swag boxes” to new employees with some welcome gifts and Cognota paraphernalia which is waiting for them at their new desk
  • A lightbox sign in the office entryway is usually customized to welcome new employees by name on their first day
  • We usually take a photo in the office for our Instagram page to publicly welcome new team members on social media

While these are elements that we’re keen to get back to once everyone is back in the office, we’ll certainly carry forward some of the initiatives that were developed for our remote onboarding experience, too.

Product training

Part of the onboarding process at Cognota includes creating a training project on our software. This product training helps new employees get familiar with our software and learn a bit more about how it helps our clients solve their training challenges. The topic can be anything the new starter feels they know a lot about and that they can create training on.

Here are a few snapshots from Jacqui’s training project on Mastering the Egg:

The project is created by the new employee on Cognota and then presented to other team members. Usually, these presentations take place in person in the office, but in Jacqui’s case it meant a simple transition to remote presenting over Zoom. 

Overall takeaways

After reflecting on the whole onboarding experience, here are some of our key takeaways:

  • Some remote onboarding practices will be taken back to the office to help formalize the in-person process, too.
  • A “buddy system” might have been a good idea so Jacqui had a first point of contact on the colleague level, one of her peers who could be there with any questions or guidance needed.
  • Over communicating in a remote situation is not a bad thing – it’s a good idea to quickly hop on calls or Slack to check in and see how new starters are doing.
  • It’s important to provide clarity on communication channels and what channel is generally used for different types of communication.

And, as Rebecca noted, each of your new starts in a remote onboarding process will be unique, and that’s something you should take into consideration:

“Each person you’re onboarding is going to be very unique. So, while you can have a plan, you should watch and listen even more than you would when in the office to understand the needs. Is it better to do more Slack communication? Or just get on a call to  make sure they’re okay? It’s hard to read some of those cues that you might have at the office about what someone’s retaining and how comfortable they are when adapting to the company culture.”

As for new employees on the other side of the remote onboarding process, Jacqui recommends just diving straight in:

“Take advantage of what’s there –  jump into whatever initiatives the company has and get involved!”

See what works for your company when remotely onboarding new employees. Simply scheduling the same training and meetings they would have had in the office is not enough. It’s vital to proactively create opportunities to socialize with colleagues and get involved in the company culture. Maybe, like us, you’ll end up discovering onboarding tools that you’ll want to bring back to the office!

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All Aboard: Onboarding Employees in the New Normal of Remote Work