How to Make the Most of a Remote Onboarding Process

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David Rice
05/14/2020

Remote onboarding of new hires

You’ve gone through an extensive recruitment process, identified the right candidate and made an offer that has been accepted. It’s now the employee’s first day and it’s time to start the onboarding process, with one small deviation from your normal routine. There will be no handshake introductions, facility tours or stopping by their desk to see how things are going.

In a post COVID-19 world, the company has moved the filled position to being entirely remote and now, HR must bring them into the fold through online interactions only. This, however does not have to be seen as a detrimental or limiting to the employee experience.

As the crisis has unfolded, numerous industries that once found remote work problematic have shifted to remote environments and found ways to make it work, be it in healthcare or government. As remote onboarding becomes a more standardized process within every organization, there are some principles for HR to keep in mind.

Documentation

Yes, believe it or not, in this highly technological work landscape, documentation and writing things down has some important benefits. GitLab’s Head of Remote, Darren Murph, explains it this way.

“Traditional in-person companies usually rely on trainers or more hands-on approaches to help new hires navigate their surroundings. All-remote companies have to be more efficient and make information easily accessible, so documentation will be essential for a smooth onboarding process. At GitLab, we provide a detailed handbook that is always evolving.”

The handbook, Murph says, is the “central repository for how we run the company. Printed, it consists of over 5,000 pages of text, all searchable of course. It serves as a single source of truth that all employees can reference and depend on for answers about GitLab.”

For onboarding, GitLab is able to direct new hires to a repository of information and in doing so teaches them to be self-sufficient and proactive when looking for answers. Because of the handbook first approach, the resource itself is always changing and growing as the company learns new things.

“Onboarding through documentation is more efficient because it's scalable, repeatable, and instills the basics of asynchronous work,” Murph says.

Tackle the Logistics

A key piece of successful onboarding is getting the new employee the equipment they need. Mailing a laptop is no big deal, but it should first pass through your IT department for configuration, something that may involve sending it to a remote IT team first.

Once the computer is configured, the IT team should make sure all of the components are disinfected and all necessary accessories packaged so that the employee can easily assemble a workstation upon receiving it.

If the employee is set to be remote on a permanent basis, you’ll want to consider helping them establish a workstation that is reflective of the culture you try to provide non-remote employees and one which will aide their productivity. A comfortable chair, a mouse, full keyboard and second screen are things commonly available to employees in an office. It’s worth considering how those things can help in a home environment as well.

“Ensuring that productivity remains high requires leadership to equip remote team members with the hardware and software necessary to do their jobs well. This includes an ergonomic workspace,” Murph says.

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The next piece of the logistics puzzle comes in the form of providing access. The IT team should have been able to mitigate any problems around access if the configuration was completed without issue. But to be sure that the employee can get what they need to complete their work, assign an IT member to check in on them periodically during the first week. It’s a good resource for the new employee and another point of contact who can make them feel welcome, while at the same time addressing any technical issues.

The first week will be heavy on orientation and training. Be sure that you have access to a platform that can distribute any documents or policies that need to be reviewed and signed as well as provide interactive learning opportunities.

Create a Sense of Team

The new hire should still be able to feel a sense of connection with their new team members. The hiring manager should start by connecting with the new hire often in the process. The first week or two should be reasonably well scheduled, with video meetings and introductory calls interspersed throughout their schedule so that they can meet everyone and get a sense of the team’s character and structure.

Leadership has a role to play in creating that sense of connectivity to the organization as well. If possible, schedule a call that allows the new employee to meet executive staff and regularly hold calls that put leadership in front of remote teams so that they feel a part of the organization.

Be sure to provide communication around what is offered from a company culture perspective, be it virtual happy hours, luncheons or exercise classes that are part of wellness initiatives. The more engaged the person is and feeling a part of the team, the more likely they are to be successful.

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“In a remote setting, culture = values,” Murph says. “Building a culture across a company where there are no offices requires intentionality. While technology and tools are enabling companies to operate efficiently in a remote setting, it's important to focus on documenting culture first, then using tools to support.”

Lastly, feeling that they’re part of a team is to feel comfort. Remote work is sometimes imperfect in that there may be a barking dog, a crying child or a repairman working in the background on a video call. These things can be a great source of stress for new hires as they worry about how they are perceived. Be sure to promote a culture of empathy and acceptance of each other’s lives from the get go. It will make remote employees feel embraced and they will be more likely to embrace their new situation rather than get hung up on sources of discomfort.

In the end, how companies approach remote employees has to be different, because way the employee works and experiences the company is different. Therefore, many of the things we've traditionally considered normal will have to be rethought and geared toward the remote experience.

“The principles of remote work are different,” Murph says. “The approach to conducting work is different. Just as multi-level office buildings required elevators and phones to be functional as workplaces, teams working remotely should embrace tools that enable asynchronous communication and should reconsider traditional ideas around meetings and informal communication. Leaders must implement remote-first practices in order to create an efficient work atmosphere.”

Clearly Define Success

Understanding how the organization defines success for a particular role and creating a roadmap for them to follow in attaining it will help the new hire hit the ground running no matter where they are. For many positions, the benchmarks for success won’t be much different for remote employees than they would be for on-site staff, but how HR communicates it will be.

By the end of the onboarding process, it should be clear what the employee should know about their role and the organization. They should know what is expected of them going forward, who to reach out to for assistance and how to have any technical issues addressed.

If the HR team drives the organization’s approach to these areas in the right way, it won’t be long before managers are sitting down for an annual review and creating new goals for the remote employee just like any other hire.

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