Remote onboarding: Six things for HR to consider

Author: Graham Brown

The widespread introduction of homeworking in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has brought many challenges for employers - not least how to welcome new staff to the organisation when they are unable to actually bring them into the workplace itself. Graham Brown looks at six areas that HR should consider when planning a remote onboarding strategy.

An effective onboarding process will help new employees get to know the organisation and its culture, understand their role and responsibilities and integrate with their new colleagues and teammates. Prior to the pandemic, most organisations had well-established processes for helping their new starters to settle quickly and feel at home in their new job - but the advent of homeworking has forced the majority to have to rethink how these onboarding programmes can work when they are unable to meet new starters face-to-face or "show them the ropes" in person. Making this transition is not easy - but there are several ways that employers can increase their chances of making remote onboarding a success.

1. Get prepared early

New starters should receive any equipment they need, such as laptops, printers and monitors, well in advance of their first day, so that everything can be set up in plenty of time. If possible, machines should be shipped with all the programmes the new employee needs already installed - and it is also good practice to make sure new joiners have early access to IT support to help them resolve any issues they might have with software updates or security passwords.

Khairunnisa Mohamedali, director and chief innovation officer at talent consultancy The Smarty Train, says that getting these basic steps right can provide a platform for the rest of the onboarding process: "People might not notice or remember if their onboarding was smooth from a logistical or technological standpoint, but they will definitely notice - and likely never forget - if it wasn't. It's like being at the starting line of a race and tripping right out of the blocks."

It is crucial for HR to be prepared - especially if they have not carried out an onboarding process remotely before. Jenny Taylor, UK foundation leader at IBM, manages the induction process for more than 100 interns and apprentices every year, and a need to rehearse was a critical learning point when the company moved all of its onboarding processes online in early 2020. "Practice is everything," she says. "Never underestimate the amount of preparation that needs to go into getting everything set up so that it works on the day. We test out every bit of technology we want to use on other members of the induction team before we go live with our new joiners to make sure it all works smoothly."

2. Adapt the regular onboarding programme

It is highly unlikely that an onboarding process designed to be carried out in person can be transitioned seamlessly into an online setting without any changes, so employers must be prepared to adapt and amend their schedule to make it work. At IBM, Taylor and her team have adjusted both the length and format of their standard induction processes. "We've made our inductions shorter and sharper, and we run them with much smaller groups than before," she says. "We used to run induction events for 50 interns at a time in our Southbank office. But that just doesn't work online - there's no way to get everyone to interact with that many people on a single call. So we now split each intake into groups of about 12. It makes more work for us, of course - but it helps to make the sessions properly interactive and engaging so that our new joiners get more out of them. We also used to run a two-week residential induction course for our new apprentices - but we've scaled that back to a one-week course with lots of breakouts and informal activities mixed into the core sessions to break it up. There's no way you could sustain a two-week induction process online - everyone would just be exhausted."

3. Communicate, communicate, communicate

Employers must not underestimate the importance of communication during remote onboarding. In the workplace, new starters are usually surrounded by co-workers who are willing to answer questions and show them around - while their managers can easily drop by to check in with them regularly throughout their first few days on the job. But when new joiners will be working remotely, employees do not have this kind of easy access to support and they can feel isolated. It is therefore important to schedule frequent check-ins with new recruits throughout their first few days, weeks and months on the job. IBM has adapted its onboarding process to ensure line managers contact their new joiners much more often than they used to. "During our in-person onboarding process, new joiners might have had an hour-long face-to-face meeting with their line manager once a month or so," says Taylor. "But now we're doing everything online we've found it's much better to have shorter and more frequent catch-ups. We also hold regular team calls to bring groups of new joiners together so they can get to know each other and understand that they're not going through the process on their own."

Communications during an onboarding process also offer a great opportunity to demonstrate the company's culture to new recruits, which is a vital aspect of onboarding. "The challenge is that it's much easier to impart culture in person than virtually," says Mohamedali. "So, culture and values must be intentionally brought to life throughout the remote onboarding process. For every interaction or touchpoint you have with a new joiner, ask yourself: Does this show who we are? Does this reflect our values and the experience of working here? If the answer is yes, you're doing well."

4. Do not forget the social side

One of the hardest aspects of the onboarding process to recreate online is the social side of joining a new organisation and meeting new colleagues. Much of this happens informally during a typical, in-person induction, with little direct input from managers or HR. "In-person onboardings provide a lot of opportunities to get to know other people in the business - the colleagues you meet organically in common areas; the impromptu invitations to sit in on a meeting and observe; the ease of leaning over to the person next to you and asking a question," says Mohamedali. "Remote onboarding is stripped of many of these informal, unstructured touchpoints."

When onboarding people remotely, employers may need to formalise this kind of networking by setting aside time for new starters to "meet" their colleagues in specially arranged events and activities.

For Taylor, the lack of impromptu social interaction is a significant loss from IBM's typical in-person onboarding process, so she has made sure to create opportunities for new joiners to get to know each other and their colleagues in different ways. "When we ran our inductions in-person, all of our new joiners would have lunch together in the office restaurant all grouped around several tables, and it created a real buzz," she says. "It's hard to replace that, but we do try to get our new joiners to interact as much as possible by running fun activities online for them to join. We've had all sorts of things - escape rooms, scavenger hunts, quizzes, cooking classes - to try and help people get to know each other. We also encourage everyone to join one or more of our many employee-run communities so they can meet other people from right across the organisation."

5. Focus on mental wellbeing

In the current environment, it is more important than ever for employers to support the mental wellbeing of their new recruits. Starting a new role at a new organisation can be a stressful experience at the best of times, and having to go through it remotely can add even more pressure. Employers need to bear this in mind and ensure they build in adequate layers of support through the induction process. At IBM, this begins by understanding the living arrangements of their new joiners to see what support they have in place at home. "We try to make sure we know where our new interns and apprentices actually are," says Taylor. "Are they living at home with parents? Are they living on their own? Are they in a house share? We like to know if people have got someone they can talk to if they are feeling anxious or they need support. But we also make sure they know where to go if they need our help - we have lots of resources aimed to supporting mental wellbeing and we encourage all our new joiners to access these as and when needed."

Homeworking can also bring its own pressures and managers should be clear and transparent about what is expected of their new recruits in terms of working hours and deliverables and ensure they are comfortable with these requirements. "Wellbeing is fundamentally about give and take - individual wellbeing has to be balanced with the wellbeing of the team and the manager," says Mohamedali. "I would encourage managers to have a conversation with their new starters on different ways of working and co-create solutions that work for both of them. For some people, this might mean turning their camera off during team calls, while for others having 'meeting-free' blocks during certain hours of the day. Different people will require different solutions, which is why wellbeing works best when it's handled as a partnership rather than handed down through top-down decisions."

6. Ask for feedback and improve the process

Finally, it is crucial for employers to evaluate their remote onboarding process and make changes as and when needed. At IBM, for example, Taylor has gradually developed the onboarding process over the last 18 months. "We carried out around 13 separate induction processes last summer and every time we did one, we noticed something we could improve and put it straight into practice the following week," she says. "We also identified different software programmes that were better suited to the kinds of activities we were carrying out and we were able to gradually shift our processes over to these new programmes and integrate them into the process. It was a very significant piece of work, but we didn't want to just 'make do' with what we were using - we wanted to use the right technologies and create the best experience we could for our new joiners."

Employers should also be on the lookout for opportunities to create experiences that would not normally be possible during a traditional, in-person onboarding process. Taylor, for example, was also able to incorporate more guest speakers into the onboarding process when running it remotely - including IBM's CEO. "We found that streaming the videos we would typically use in our in-person onboarding process didn't work very well online, so have replaced them with more guest speakers," she says. "We've even had our CEO come to several remote induction sessions - before lockdown, he was often out of the office meeting clients or working with our global colleagues. But since he has been working from home, he's been able to join us online and it's been great for all of us - he's always delighted to speak to our new joiners and we've been thrilled to have him."