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Five Rules for Successful Remote Employee Onboarding

Faustine Rohr-Lacoste
Faustine Rohr-Lacoste Spendesk

As a result of the current unfolding crisis, companies worldwide have been forced to go fully remote. That’s a large enough adjustment for longtime employees with a deep understanding of the company culture and strong relationships with colleagues.

But what happens to new employees who’ve never met their teammates face to face?

The lockdown came in the middle of hiring cycles for lots of businesses. And those new hires still need to learn the ropes, meet their teams, and contribute to the success of the company. But not every business has a robust onboarding process in place.

So to help, we asked two experts to explain their approaches to onboarding, and deliver the playbook for others to use. This article is a brief recap of some of the best practices they shared. You can watch the full conversation any time.

About our speakers

Jonah Goldstein is Head of Learning at 360Learning. He oversees the personal and professional development of the company’s staff, including building and managing its onboarding process.

Raphaël Moutard is a Senior Engineer at Spendesk. He was previously at Amazon for five years, where he was part of the training team that built the “Bootcamp” program - the onboarding process for Amazon staff.

Now, let’s look at five principles our experts emphasized during their conversation.

1. Onboarding is intimidating for new staff

Onboarding puts extra pressure on managers. You might have several new staff to onboard at once, and be conscious of managing your own workload while giving them as much time as possible.

The most important quality you can give during this time, argues Raphaël, is empathy. “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.”

And feelings of uncertainty and confusion are likely heightened right now. “When you’re onboarded in person, you only have to show up. Usually, there’s someone waiting for you, showing you everything you need to know, and making sure that you don’t have to think too much. The days just pass on their own.”

“When you don’t have this physical contact, all of this changes. People don’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.”

Empathy is important, and so is planning. As Jonah explains, “that anxiety that someone can feel when they begin a new job becomes even greater when they do so remotely.”

“At 360Learning we break the process down into different stages, starting with pre-boarding. For this, we work together as a cohesive HR team to make sure that the logistics and communication touch points are well planned, long before the employee actually arrives in person.”

“All the extra fear and anxiety that comes with remote onboarding only requires more planning on our part. We need to get the materials and computer to our new people on time, so they feel in control.”

2. Smaller chunks are easier to digest

It’s almost impossible to escape the feeling that, as a new hire, you know nothing. Which can be overwhelming to some, especially if all they want to do is contribute.

So to avoid information overload, says Raphaël, your onboarding process needs to be broken down into logical steps. “It’s really important for newcomers to feel that they’re moving through the process, and not like they’re always staring up at this immense mountain of knowledge.

“At Spendesk, we break things down simple checklists. There are specific steps throughout: meet this person; attend this workshop. And they can tick off achievements as they go.

“Then as the weeks go by, it becomes a bit less prescriptive, to encourage new hires to ping people and make their own discoveries.”

For Jonah, the whole event of onboarding should be dissected. “We break it down into three stages: pre-boarding, induction, and onboarding:

Pre-boarding is everything that happens before day one. That’s where communication is critical, and making sure the logistics work. Induction is the common experience for all new joiners, regardless of their role. We try to give them a vision of how the company works, and introduce them to key tools and processes. This is really the first few days on the job. And then we move into Onboarding, which is really getting people ready and ramped up to do the job they’ve been hired for.

“By breaking it down like this, we can look for the perfect tools and processes for each distinct step.

“Of course, for the new joiner it’s continuous. We do this all this behind the scenes.”

3. Great onboarding involves everyone

While there’s a special pressure on managers, the whole company needs to be part of the onboarding process. Every team member needs to feel strongly about its importance, and understand their role.

“At 360Learning, we have a strong cultural framework called Convexity,” says Jonah. “It’s part of who we are - the foundation of our company and the playbook for growth. We communicate this heavily during the recruitment process, so new hires are very well aware of it.

“It’s incredibly important that, starting on day one, new employees feel Convexity and live it. It’s not enough that they hear about it a lot, but that they actually experience it.

“Our onboarding was developed collaboratively, and the experience itself is collaborative learning. When the new employee joins, they have the opportunity to give and receive feedback with all other 360Learners.

“It’s not just one-directional or two-directional between the learner and their manager. The moment the new person sets foot in the door - in this case remotely - they need to understand what sets the company apart culturally and have those touch points to interact and learn from one another from day one. They’re actually part of the continuous improvement of the onboarding itself.”

“You need good training for the entire company about what is expected of them,” adds Raphaël. “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.

Drive home to your team the fact that success during onboarding depends on every one of them.

4. Feedback is vital

Corporate culture has long embraced the value of direct and honest feedback. But that doesn’t mean that every manager knows how to give and receive it - nor does every new hire.

So how can you make feedback a key component of onboarding?

“Regular and structured check-ins are very important,” says Jonah. “These are opportunities to give and receive feedback, to gauge the person’s happiness, and to have human contact.

“During the first week, we do this pretty much every day. The new hire will check in with their coach (usually their line manager). And then they’ll become more spaced out as time goes by.”

“We also have a structured meeting between the hire and human resources at the two-month point. It’s important to include these touch points and to give everyone visibility over them. And to make clear why they happen. This also helps to fill up their calendars and makes them feel busy and valued right from the beginning.

“Plus, we send out a standard survey when new hires hit the two-month mark. This is about their experience of the onboarding, and gives us a chance to see how they feel. It only takes a few minutes to complete, and then I use this information during a longer discussion with them - around 40 minutes.

“We want to know whether they feel that they’re ramped up and ready - whether we can close the onboarding chapter. Of course, there are plenty of other professional development opportunities to come beyond that point, but do they feel that the onboarding prepared them for their job?

But Raphaël wanted to add one small note of caution - there is such a thing as too many check-ins. “During remote onboarding, 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.

“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.”

5. Success should be measurable

There’s a simple question that many companies forget when crafting their onboarding playbook: how will we actually know that our onboarding process works?

As Jonah explains, “the purpose of onboarding is to ramp someone up for their job, to acclimate them to the company culture, and to set them up for success. It’s especially important when people are remote to have an objective framework to measure success. Because you’re going to miss out on some of the informal opportunities you would otherwise have. So you need a measurable framework.

“For pre-boarding, the main KPI is really just understanding that the person is satisfied with the support they received to that point. It’s mostly about logistics and communication.

“For induction, we’re looking at satisfaction with the process as of day three. When we see that the result is good but not great, I can then look deeper into the surveys we’ve sent out and make adjustments to our process on the fly.

“For onboarding, we have a framework to measure the ramp-up of our specialists, based on their position. So we have milestones along the way and evaluation metrics. Based on what they’ve learned and seen and done during onboarding, we can assess whether or not they’ve integrated everything they learned during onboarding.

“One of the reasons we’re successful in remote onboarding is that we have this framework and can measure these metrics. And we can explain to people before they even begin what their onboarding is designed to achieve, and what they’ll be evaluated on. And we stick to the same metrics even in these new circumstances.” Remote onboarding may be different, but only just Throughout their conversation, our experts showed how consistent onboarding has long been part of their company cultures. And the reasons that these processes worked well in the past are the same reasons they work now, while remote.

Great onboarding processes are:

  • Personalized, yet consistent from person to person

  • Structured, without being overwhelming

  • Inclusive of other teams and team members

  • Flexible, and able to be completed in the user’s own work style

  • Adaptable, and updated based on successes and failures

And perhaps most importantly, remember that new staff always feel behind everyone else. Help them to realize that this feeling is normal, and that if they’re not keeping up it’s a failure in the process, and not in themselves.

The full conversation - including questions Q&A and plenty of other topics, is available to watch here.