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9 Steps to Onboard Remote Employees

White plus signs turn into yellow x's as they are onboarded.

Let’s start this post off with a question: How do you onboard your remote workers?

If you’re looking toward a stack of papers you printed out back in the mid-2000s and starting to feel a slight sense of guilt...that’s okay. We are actually not hiding a shame bell behind our backs. We promise.

You already know how important onboarding is to traditional, office-based employees. How else are you going to introduce new hires to the company and start getting them situated? But so many businesses present their onboarding program in a bunch of dusty three-ring binders, or just don’t have one at all. This way lies ruin, friend, particularly if you’re working with a remote team.

Especially if you’re working with a remote team.

A good onboarding program isn’t just a great way to acclimate new colleagues to a department. It’s also a critical component to building a strong remote culture.

Need more convincing? On average, it costs $400 to onboard someone, yet 50% of employees leave by the time their first four months are up—and often, the reasons they’re leaving are tied directly to a subpar or nonexistent onboarding process. They just weren’t set up for success.

How much does it cost to replace departing employees? Oh, one study says $15,000.

Wow. That’s expensive.

Save your company the effort—and the money—by creating a truly awesome onboarding plan for your remote employees.

Here’s where you probably expect us to unveil some wild, gamified onboarding process (shameless plug in 3...2...1...which you can get by working with Mindspace, of course!). And while we’d absolutely love to work with you to create an interactive adventure your new employees will love, that’s actually not where we’re headed with this advice.

The key to onboarding a remote team—and really, any team—is to make things personal. Get back to the basics. You’re all people, working together. You’ll be spending 40+ hours a week together, so get to know each other and the company you work for.

Interactive bells and whistles are great, but onboarding is always going to come down to the people.

With that in mind, we’ve put together the steps we encourage you to follow below, though some of them can and do overlap.

Ready to turn your new hires into enthusiastic teammates? Let’s go!

1. Start early.

So many companies make the classic mistake of starting their onboarding on the very first day a newbie arrives in the office. Friends, do not go down that dark path. You can start assimilating—er, we mean introducing—your new folks to the company and their role before they turn up in your lobby.

Here are a few things you can wipe out before they even arrive:

  • HR Paperwork They may be able to sign stuff like withholding forms, NDAs, insurance, and the like. At the very least they can start looking at these things, which will make signing them later on go much faster.

  • Review the company materials Send them digitized versions of your handbook and anything about your company culture—start acquainting them with all the things that make your business an awesome place to work.

  • Introduction to their equipment There may be some legal red tape preventing you from adding them to certain systems or platforms until their official first day, but let them start exploring what they’ll be working on.

  • Company swag Want to build some instant goodwill? Send some care packages and show your new employees that you appreciate them already! Put whatever you like in there; company-branded mugs, mousepads, and folders are always nice. We’re big fans of sending snacks (want to be extra cool? Find out any food allergies they have ahead of you can avoid sending allergens in their mail).

  • “Welcome to the team” emails These can take several forms; we’ve seen individual members of a team send emails to the newbie, or department heads compile welcoming messages into one missive. Making this very basic introduction means your employee isn’t coming in totally blind. They already know a little bit about their new coworkers, and will be eager to learn more.

2. Get them the right equipment.

What happens when your remote people can’t keep in touch with the rest of the company?

Hint: They feel neglected and irrelevant.

You don’t want this for anyone. Indifferent employees tend to produce indifferent work.

We’ve repeated this in a few previous blogs because honestly, it bears repeating. As soon as your employee accepts the offer and signs the initial employment paperwork, find out what sort of equipment they’ll need. Does the work they’ll be doing require software like Photoshop or spreadsheets like Excel?

How about office furniture like a desk and a chair? Do you need to set them up with high-speed internet? They’d have this automatically if they were coming to the office. Give your remote workers the same courtesy. If they’ve already worked remotely they may have a desk/chair/Wi-Fi setup they like, but be prepared to step in and provide something if they don’t.

Pro Tip: Have a tech support person standing by the first couple of days so they can troubleshoot with your new teammate.

3. Give them a company overview

Here’s a fact hiring managers often don’t think about: The people you hire are ultimately representations of your company’s brand. We don’t mean in the sense that they need to go out into the supermarket and rep you; we mean the work they do is going to contribute to your product or service and how it is perceived.

So once you have a new employee, how will you teach them about your product? How do you get them to stay?

In an ideal world, your employees are your biggest fans and your best customers. They know exactly what your company produces, and better yet, they approve of it. They’re eager to help you create better products and get them into the world.

All of your onboarding materials should reflect your company’s spirit and culture. This isn’t just about aesthetic branding (although that’s nice, too). Does your company culture embrace light-hearted enthusiasm? Then your onboarding materials can probably include some humor. Are you big on giving back to the community? Talk about some of your charity initiatives.

4. Understand that onboarding is a process.

Onboarding has many prongs and takes time to execute properly. You aren’t going to get people fully ramped up in one day, one week, or honestly, even one month.

Repeat that until it sticks.

The key to any huge task is breaking it down into manageable chunks. This is as true for onboarding as it is for playing a video game where your quest is to defeat the zombie T-Rex plaguing your realms (gamification is our thing, okay?).

One of the ways we approach creating effective onboarding (and most types of training) is to utilize the Cascading Information Theory. This is a gamification principle that makes a lot of sense in the real world.

When you’re new—to a game or a company—you don’t know what is important and what isn’t. You don’t know what questions to ask. By providing only the information a newbie needs to move forward on a specific task, you can cut down on the overwhelm they might feel. You are also indirectly showing them the processes they’ll follow when they complete tasks and, say, overarching campaigns in the future.

You can see Cascading Information Theory at work in video games where you learn how to walk before picking up your bow or firing up the hyperdrive. For example, if you’re starting a new game in Undead Saurians, you’ll probably interact with Bartender Bill, who will assign you some easy missions involving eating and drinking to help you figure out the controls and learn what not to do.

Yes, Bartender Bill will eventually ask you to take care of that pesky reanimated T-Rex, but you’ll learn how to use your crossbow and magic first, and probably work through a few smaller, less deadly undead lizards.

When creating your onboarding materials and plans, ask yourself: “What does this employee need to know to complete this task?” Build your learning materials around the answer to that question, cut anything not totally necessary and you’ll be off to a good start.

5. Set clear expectations and goals.

Let’s take Cascading Information Theory a bit further. You wouldn’t dive into the deep end of a pool without learning to swim, right?

(Please say “No.”)

So why would you expect a newbie to do the same? They need to start in the shallows and slowly move toward the deep end.

Give them the swimming lessons they need by creating an itinerary. What should the new employee expect to do and learn on Day 1, Day 2, and so on? What do you hope they’ll master by the end of the first week or the first month?

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to planning an itinerary, by the way. There are plenty of onboarding templates floating around on the internet; the 30/60/90-day plan is a favorite. “The Ninety,” breaks down the first three months of a new employee’s time.

Each day features smaller goals an employee will meet (such as mastering any platforms or software your company uses), while weekly and monthly goals might be loftier, including “contributing research to a campaign” or “meeting with the sales team to understand what they do.”

Like Cascading Information, the 30/60/60-day plan lets your newbie consume information at a reasonable pace, gradually building on their knowledge until they’re ready to fight the mythical beast (or tackle a client call) on their own.

6. Introduce them to their team.

People are the heart of any company, and no one is an island. Your newbie is a member of a team. Whether they’re joining a five-person startup or a thirty-person department (or something even larger), they need to get to know the folks they’ll be interacting with daily.

But onboarding is a process, so start small. Who will your employee interact with on a daily or near-daily basis? Get these folks introduced right away. Building good relationships with those individuals will be key to helping them settle in.

You’ll want to set up meetings with the following:

  • A group video call with their department. If you were in an office, you’d probably gather your department in a room to introduce them to a newbie. It’s the same story on a remote team; pull everyone into a video chat and make the introductions. You can also go over the newbie’s itinerary.

  • One-on-one chats with other departments. Once you’ve determined who your new teammate will be working with closely, get those folks introduced. Think SEOs, project managers, salespeople, and so on.

  • Individual people from their team. We’re a fan of assigning newbies an official buddy and/or mentor (more on that below), but you can also connect them with people who can just give them a hand when necessary. This can range from senior members of the team (who have seen it all) to the most junior members (who were probably recently newbies themselves and may be able to offer reassurance).

7. Help them settle in.

It’s hard enough to be a newbie in an office setting. Everyone knows you’re new, especially when you’re stumbling around looking for the restroom. But once you get past the awkwardness, an office does make it easy to meet people. Colleagues inevitably run into each other at the water cooler or coffee pot. Someone notices a Game of Thrones T-shirt. Maybe small talk leads to discussion; maybe a fight breaks out over the quality of the final season.

How is the remote newbie supposed to get to know their colleagues? Clicking on a cool-sounding name and messaging a stranger seems ill-advised. What if they haven’t seen the final season of GOT yet?

That’s where managerial guidance comes in. As your onboarding proceeds, set aside time perhaps twice a week for your newbie to meet others in the company. Preferably you do this via video chat, as putting names to faces is the quickest way to humanize someone who is otherwise hidden behind a computer screen.

These chats shouldn’t be all about work. Yes, working remotely is a vast change from the office, but even working remotely, your department is spending 40+ hours a week with each other. People are going to talk about stuff besides work, and that’s a good thing; it builds camaraderie and strengthens relationships.

Give your new employee a hand with this during onboard. Here are some tricks we’ve seen:

  • Assign them an experienced mentor or buddy who will basically be their BFF through onboarding. This individual will check in often to see how they’re doing with work, but will also be able to just act like a pal to a nervous newbie.

  • Schedule quick, non-work-related “Get to Know You” chats with teammates. “Lisa, Brian, take five and go chat.” Even if all they end up talking about is how weird these five-minute chats are, they’re still interacting.

  • Try some interesting icebreakers: Pictionary is online and will get the brains working; Mad Libs can be hilarious (just make sure they’re office-safe). We’ve used Jackbox Games, too.

  • Set up a separate channel or chat room for newbies, if you have more than one. These guys already have a bond—they’re all new together. They can compare notes, advise each other, and develop relationships from the get-go.

  • Schedule a celebratory Happy Hour and/or Coffee Break at the end of the first week - get everyone in your department together via video chat at a set time to see how the first week went. Alternatively, your organization may have some sort of company-wide adventure that everyone attends. If you have the right technology, the sky’s the limit!

8. Start role-specific training.

You’ll notice we put this down fairly low in the overall list. Not because it isn’t important—it’s very important—but with a remote team in particular, it’s critical to establish a sense of camaraderie and belonging in the early days. Once your employee starts feeling left out, it’s only a matter of time before they become indifferent.

Indifferent work isn’t going to help anyone in the long run.

When your employee has a grasp of their team and the company, then start getting them trained up in their role. Maybe that’s on Day 3. Maybe it’s Day 5. Determine what has worked out for past employees and design the training from there.

Remember the Cascading Information Theory. Help your new employees complete one task at a time rather than bombarding them with all the stuff they’ll eventually learn how to do. At the same time, keep training interesting and engaging; we happen to be pretty darn good at creating training programs, so hit us up if you’re interested.

9. Solicit feedback.

What is the one constant in life? Besides taxes.

Oh, right: Change.

Just as the modern workplace is evolving to accept and even embrace remote work, the way you onboard remote workers will evolve based on how well you do (or don’t do) with the remote team you already have.

You might make mistakes in your onboarding. You know what? That’s okay. We give you permission to screw up. To err is human and all that. But make sure you learn from it. Stay in touch with those who are currently progressing through it. Set up times to meet with them to find out what’s working and what isn’t working.

Consider meeting with a new employee at the end of each day for the first week. Then set up weekly meetings with them to monitor their onboarding. Get their honest feedback on your process. What can you improve for the next folks?

Remote onboarding and COVID-19

If your company is suddenly trying to figure out this remote work stuff because the coronavirus drove you out of your office, you’re not alone.

Step one: Don’t panic.

Everyone is in the same boat. Thousands of businesses, in fact.

Step two: Feedback is even more important now than it was before!

If you’re onboarding in a rush, take extra care to learn from those who are experiencing it. You have every capability of improving your onboarding as you go and making each iteration better than the last.

Step three: Practice compassion.

Maybe we should preface this advice with the fact that you should always practice compassion. Trust that your colleagues are doing their best and have the best intentions. But right now, with things as they are, be extra compassionate. If you’ve all been shoved into remote work rather abruptly, understand that you’re building something together. Screw-ups will happen. Laugh about it and move on.


Remote onboarding can be awesome

You don’t need to be crammed into an office to help your new employees fit in or get to know their colleagues. Actually, it’s quite the opposite—the shift toward remote work has broken down barriers, allowing people from all over the country and even the world to work together. That’s an incredible amount of diverse talent companies suddenly have access to.

Celebrate that talent—and the fact that you can work together—with a strong onboarding program. By introducing new team members to their colleagues and the company in a steady, measured way, and remembering the people are still the heart of any remote workplace, you’re setting them (and everyone else!) up for success.

Looking for some additional onboarding tips? Hit us up.


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