Employee onboarding is always an interesting and often misunderstood art. It’s challenging to do well even when business is thriving and confidence is high.
But in our new normal of social distancing, it’s even trickier. And companies are struggling to find effective ways to welcome new staff. And worse, those new staff can feel isolated and unable to contribute.
So in this article, I want to share a few principles that hiring managers can bring to remote onboarding. It’s not a step-by-step “how-to” - our friends at 360Learning have you covered for that.
These are essential traits that will help you - the onboarder - get new hires up to speed and fitting in as quickly as possible.
I’m a Senior Engineer at Spendesk. I’ve welcomed and trained new members in my team as the company has grown from 50-200+ Spendeskers in my time here. And I’ve had the pleasure of onboarding three new team members since the lockdown began.
I was previously at Amazon for five years, where I was part of the training team that built the “Bootcamp” program - the onboarding process for Amazon’s tech staff.
5 principles for successful remote onboarding
1. Be prepared
Everything that is true during physical onboarding should also be true for remote teams. An employee’s first few weeks should feel welcoming, enlightening, and fun. And the easiest way to ensure this is to show new hires that you’ve thought it through in advance - that you were expecting them.
One Spendesk software engineer told me that the first time he arrived at a new job, nobody was expecting him. It was a large London bank, and he showed up in this grand building in the city - 50 stories high. He gave his name to the person on reception, and nobody had ever heard of him. He wasn’t on any list.
We all have versions of this. You arrive, and your computer isn’t waiting for you on your desk. Or you don’t even have a desk at all!
It’s perhaps tempting to think that we don’t have to take care of these issues anymore when onboarding remote. But actually it just means that we have to execute even better. People need to receive their computers and materials before onboarding now.
And we need to plan this further out than before. Delivery times are much longer today. Which means you may need to send onboarding materials a month before the start date.
So be ready!
Here’s a small tip to make this easier: don’t have every new employee start as soon as possible. Instead, have them join in groups.
At Spendesk, we ask new hires to wait until a set induction time - usually every two weeks. This way, people never join the company alone. They always have others in their class, going through workshops and progressing together.
And that’s true even if they’re all currently in their own apartments, not in the physical office.
2. Give structure
For the first few months in any new role, it’s almost impossible not to feel overwhelmed at some point. There’s too much subject matter and company history, and new hires won’t feel truly comfortable for awhile. But you can still make it easier.
It’s really important for newcomers to feel that they’re moving through a process, and not that they’re always staring up at this immense mountain of knowledge.
One simple tool we use is a checklist. There are specific steps throughout: meet this person; attend this workshop. And then as the weeks go by, it becomes a bit less prescriptive, to encourage new hires to ping people and ask for help.
This way, they can see exactly how much they’ve progressed and what they’ve learned along the way. And they get the sense that they’re moving forward.
One caveat with checklists. We build onboarding checklists for our new hires, but we don’t build them for the managers. As a manager, I have a tendency to want to control everything and to always know where new staff are in their onboarding program.
And as I’ll explain in the next section, that’s not always the best approach.
3. Offer support, but leave space
Your job is to get each new employee ramped up and ready to contribute. Which can make it tempting to stick closely to them, follow their every step, and flood them with information.
Especially during remote onboarding, I think it’s important to have more trust and less control over everything. The checklist isn’t there for managers to track every step along the way. It’s to make sure the new hire feels autonomous and comfortable with their tasks. If the list is good enough, they should be able to follow it without help.
And what the new hire finds could be different from their peers. We want them to have the same global experience during onboarding, but not to emerge as clones. It should be different from one person to the next. And the journey is often more important than the result.
It’s hard for everyone to differentiate between private and personal space at the moment. So do not ping them too often. Give them the time they need to think and focus. If they need you, I can guarantee that they will reach out.
It can be so easy to Slack people all the time to check in and see how they’re doing. Even if you think you’re doing a nice thing - showing that you care - it can actually be counterproductive. The best way to show someone you care is to give them time to digest information and prepare their thoughts.
4. Practice empathy
Remote onboarding is pretty annoying - at least to start with. You’re used to having all the materials and people you need around you, ready to go. So for managers, it just feels like an extra hassle.
But your troubles can’t compare to what the new employee is going through.
You need to remember that you’ve been in their shoes at some point. You’ve started a new job, and it’s always hard. They have a lot of new things to learn - the industry might be different, as well as the company culture, company size, and more.
When I joined Amazon in London, there were 200 employees. When I left, there were 6,000. And then I joined Spendesk and went back to a company with only 50 at the time. Remembering how these transitions feel helps to create empathy.
Of course, doing this remotely will create extra difficulties. We’ve onboarded around 30 people since the lockdown. The first feedback they gave me was that they had no idea what to expect. Frankly, they were scared.
When you’re onboarded physically, you only have to show up. You really just need to be on time. Usually, there’s someone waiting for you, showing you everything you need to know. The days just pass on their own.
When you don’t have this physical contact, all of this changes. Our people didn’t know what to expect. If it’s hard for you to onboard someone, just remember that it’s even harder for them. You have to be extra careful and show them that you care.
5. Involve your team
One particular cliché applies perfectly to onboarding: it takes a village to raise a child. A kid walking down the street is going to mimic what other people do - not just their parents. If they see people crossing the street when the light is red, they’ll eventually do the same, no matter how many times they’ve been told otherwise.
Equally, the whole company will impact your new team members. Yes, we expect a lot from managers during this process. And also HR teams, happiness managers, and office managers. We expect them to have everything ready and to always be on point.
But I reject the notion that these are the only important people during the onboarding process. Everyone in the company is responsible for the successful onboarding of new hires.
At Spendesk, we do our best to ensure that everyone has the same onboarding experience. Whether you’re an engineer, a salesperson, or a member of the finance team, you feel a part of the same process and flow as everyone else. And absolutely everyone knows what a new hire is going through in week one, two, and beyond.
We also encourage people to introduce themselves. It’s so much easier for established employees to talk to the new people, than to expect them to always come to us. We’re all just a name on their list or a photo in Slack.
Drive home to your team the fact that success during onboarding depends on every one of them.
We also have plenty of classic “virtual coffees.” But instead of asking the new hire to schedule meetings with different people, we require various team members and ask them to arrange a coffee meeting by the end of the week.
New employees always feel like they’re bothering people - asking questions and filling up people’s calendars. But this way, our experienced employees have to ask for a piece of the new person’s time. Now the new employee is actually giving something to them, not the other way around.
Successful remote onboarding is never an accident
Here’s one final, overarching piece of wisdom: to be a great hiring manager, you have to take hiring and onboarding seriously. I know it can feel sometimes like the last thing on a very long list of to-dos.
But you’re hiring these people for a reason. They'll eventually be a significant asset for the company. And the better you prepare them to contribute - both to the culture and to revenue - the quicker you’ll be able to focus on your other tasks.
In my experience, managers who care deeply about their team members build the best teams. And that means welcoming newcomers with structure, curiosity, and warmth.
The first few months in a new job create lasting habits. And if you take this period seriously, so will your wonderful new staff.