ONBOARDING IS HARD. ONBOARDING A REMOTE EMPLOYEE IS HARDER. EXPERT ADVICE TO THE RESCUE.
It’s important for employers to do a good job folding new hires into the organization. A strong onboarding process helps new employees understand how they fit into the company, making them more secure in their role. It also brings them up to speed on key initiatives, helping them contribute sooner. Finally, it makes them feel like they’re part of the team, which improves job satisfaction. But onboarding is hard, especially when you’re short on time. Trying to do it remotely is even harder. So, we turned to Debra Dinnocenzo, a nationally recognized expert on telecommuting and remote leadership, for guidance. The author of numerous books on telework, Debra is president of VirtualWorks, a training and consulting firm that helps people and organizations learn new ways to work productively in the virtual workplace.
Connecticut Innovations: Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Debra. Remote onboarding is on a lot of employers’ minds right now, and we’re hoping to learn how to do it well.
Debra Dinnocenzo: Sure. First, employers need to recognize that there’s a wide range of experience between new-hire orientation and a more robust onboarding process. To be effective, particularly in a remote scenario, it’s important to approach onboarding as a process rather than an event that is limited to the completion of HR forms, initial meetings with key staff and a cursory introduction to organizational information. The onboarding process should take into consideration the need to introduce new team members to the organization, its people, its history, its culture and its practices, as well as policies, procedures, communication protocols and performance expectations. The process should allow the time necessary to ensure that new hires can observe and absorb the information that will facilitate their success.
CI: That makes a lot of sense. So, can virtual onboarding be as effective as in-person onboarding?
DD: I doubt we are ready to experience remote onboarding as the same as, or as effective as, in-person onboarding. That’s because there hasn’t been time in most organizations to develop an effective remote onboarding process. However, given a commitment to do so, there is the possibility that remote onboarding can be successful and have some advantages [over onboarding in person]. One example is the opportunity to use distance communication tools to enable new hires to interact with many more members of the organization and to participate in organizational events, such as team gatherings and information sessions, that time and travel restrictions might normally preclude.
CI: What are the biggest challenges with remote onboarding?
DD: Lack of preparation and a failure to adapt the process to the remote reality. Also, a lack of commitment by leaders, who must be involved. Reinforcing the remote onboarding process can also be a challenge.
On the human side of onboarding, while our natural tendency is to connect face-to-face, particularly while forming new work relationships, investing the time and creativity to adapt to the remote environment is essential. Not recognizing the need for a formalized remote onboarding strategy and failing to ensure all the touchpoints that now must happen via distance technology will compromise the onboarding experience for new employees and result in frustration for leaders and colleagues who may feel less rapport with new team members than they expected.
On the technical/equipment side, organizations must address issues around when to provide equipment relative to any training or probationary periods, how company property will be returned should the new hire’s tenure be a short one, and other such matters. These are typically covered in remote work agreements, which might necessitate another new policy and process the organization must address in cases where remote onboarding is followed by remote or home-based work arrangements.
CI: How far in advance should companies send equipment and resources to a new hire?
DD: This varies depending on contractual requirements, the independent learning time expected of new hires, the complexity of installation and start-up details, and, particularly now, shipping delays. Common sense should prevail. Expedited shipping is expensive, and delayed deliveries are frustrating for new hires, who may feel even more disconnected without the tools they need to begin working.
CI: How do you impart the company’s culture when everyone is working remotely?
DD: This seems to be one of the biggest concerns for those involved in remote onboarding. And it’s an evolving challenge since our current “extreme remote” experience is outlasting our expectations. However, there is more capability for success than you might expect. Imparting culture will surely be harder, take more time, involve more virtual meetings and perhaps involve fewer “see what I do” experiences. Leaders must consciously consider how to replicate and simulate the in-person experiences that help communicate the culture, and develop creative ways to deliver those experiences. Of course, in some organizations, this process may need to begin with establishing a clear articulation of the culture and cultural values.
CI: How can employers help new remote employees feel connected?
DD: Develop a clear remote onboarding process and timeline; include critical action steps the new hire must take and the responsibilities of the hiring manager, the upline executives, team members and other collaborators; incorporate the social touchpoints that might normally happen in the in-person environment; and, once again, “replicate and simulate” those in the remote environment. This might include Zoom lunch events, telephone check-ins, virtual team events that are focused on “get to know you” efforts, multiple ways the new hire can easily meet people remotely, ask questions, share their sense of how their onboarding experience is going, etc. Of course, if there are ways to incorporate face-to-face encounters throughout the remote onboarding process, particularly with the team the new hire is integrating into, that will help new hires feel connected. If that’s not possible, replace those experiences with virtual opportunities to make the same connections.
CI: Who should control the pacing?
DD: This is best accomplished as a mutual effort. Ultimately, the organization bears the responsibility (and financial incentive) to successfully onboard a new hire and avoid the cost of an early loss of a new team member. But empowering new employees with some responsibility for managing their onboarding process can contribute to their sense of connectedness. Recognize, though, not all new hires will have the self-confidence and initiative to participate assertively.
CI: How often should you check in?
DD: It depends on the nature of the work, the competence and experience of the new hire, and other factors. In general, however—and this is true of the overall remote workplace—these are not times to undercommunicate. It’s not likely that checking in often, especially in the early stages of the process, will be met with resistance. Rather, it’s another way to create connection.
CI: How can employers make their new employee’s first day memorable?
DD: The goal for most first-day experiences is for the new hire to feel they made the right decision to join the organization, that they feel welcomed and valued, and that they have a strong sense that there’s a clear plan to ensure their ultimate (and immediate) success. Therefore, a well-planned onboarding process, clearly communicated, along with a formal plan for- getting all the required information, tools, resources, training and introductions, will help the new hire end the first day with a sense of WOW! It’s easy to imagine how the opposite of this approach could also make for a memorable first day, but a discouraging one.
CI: Thanks for the guidance, Debra. We appreciate your sharing your expertise with our readers.
DD: My pleasure.