Remote onboarding: providing a warm welcome using online tools

COVID-19 has turned a lot of the UK workforce into remote workers in a very short space of time. For some businesses, recruitment is unthinkable in the current situation, but for others, the recruitment and onboarding of staff is still essential and being undertaken in less than ideal circumstances.

remot e onboarding boat

To tackle onboarding in a remote-working world, businesses need to really understand the goals behind their onboarding activities, and to think about fulfilling those goals online rather than face to face.

Luckily for a lot of businesses, tools are readily available to help with overcoming the administrative and psychological challenges of remote onboarding. HR systems can manage onboarding paperwork to avoid full HR inboxes, and a combination of online tools can fulfil onboarding psychological needs, building meaningful and positive connections without face-to-face meetings.

Making a job offer

Onboarding starts at the point you make the job offer – perhaps even before. It’s the first time your future employee sees themselves as just that – a future employee of your organisation – and starts to engage with your organisation at an emotional level.

Everyone is dealing with a lot of uncertainty right now, so when you make a job offer to a new employee, give them as much information and clarity as you can about their role and the organisation. Vague offers, and being disorganised with contracts and new-starter admin is poor form at the best of times, but unforgivable when people are already under the stress of COVID-19.

Be personable when you make a job offer. Call the prospective employee, and be prepared to answer their questions about the role and offer, and any queries they might have about the organisation. With concerning economic forecasts already in the media, remember that this offer of employment probably means a great deal to your new employee – give them airtime on the phone to be excited and to start building a relationship with you.

Leading up to day one

As you approach your new employee’s first day, it might be useful to consider induction activities as three distinct areas: paperwork (contracts, evidence of right to work, P45s etc), the tools needed to work remotely (IT, broadband, home office), and employee engagement.

From a purely practical standpoint, now more than ever, it’s essential your new starter has all their equipment, technology and logins ready on their first day. Otherwise, your new hire simply won’t be able to work – and they shouldn’t be asked to use personal equipment (security being one important reason why this is a no no).

New starters aren’t likely to be a top priority for IT, given the host of other challenges IT is probably facing while supporting a remote workforce. So, it’s down to HR and line managers to ensure requests for equipment, software access etc. are made as soon as a job offer is accepted, and that these requests are followed up until completion. Ideally, a call should be scheduled with the new employee before day one to check they’ve received everything they need and that it’s all in working order.

Make sure your new employee’s start time is clear, and replace the initial meet and greet with a video call. The person designated to host this call needs to be committed to it (last-minute substitutions or rescheduling won’t make a good impression), to show the new hire they’ve joined a reliable and welcoming team. As is good practice in normal circumstances, make sure the new employee’s team knows when they are starting so they can be prepared to welcome them via team or individual introduction calls.

Give your new employee access to HR portals or other sources of information about the business’ culture and their team. With the COVID-19 UK lockdown in place, some new-starters might appreciate the homework to pass the time (but make it clear it’s optional so people don’t feel overloaded). If your new employee is starting as part of a bigger group of new starters, be sure to arrange group calls and portals/forums for them to connect with each other and ask questions.

Managing the first day

If you don’t already have a solid plan for a new-starter’s first day, now is the time to create one. In a digital environment, HR and/or line managers can’t meet the new hire on their first morning and ‘wing it’ for the day; they need to follow a schedule of pre-planned introduction calls and essential training. HR and line managers (and other departments as appropriate) should work in partnership to induct a new employee, covering any outstanding HR admin and IT set-up, compliance training and team introductions.

There are bound to be technology hiccups, and this should be openly acknowledged ahead of time so no one feels embarrassed if something goes awry. Don’t assume that everyone is video-native – even for proficient users, things can go wrong. Patience, empathy and persistence are key. If the video link doesn’t work, don’t put the call off to another day – and leave your new joiner anxious they did something wrong or are missing important information – pick up the phone instead!

Important things to remember, that might otherwise go unnoticed when your new starter isn’t physically sitting beside you:

  • first impressions can be lasting, and
  • first days can be exhausting!

One of the hardest things about onboarding a new employee is ‘reading’ how they’re responding to new colleagues. It’s tricky to know what impression is being made when your new starter is behind a digital wall. Video calling can help overcome this. Remind line managers not to be shy in using the technology available to them to connect with and gauge how their new starter is going – HR can support both the manager and employee by joining these calls.

It’s also prudent to remember how tiring starting a job can be. When your employee is in front of you, you can see if they’re flagging after a day of meeting people and absorbing lots of new information. HR and line managers need to remember what their first days were like so they can empathise with new hires and act accordingly – don’t leave your new hire sitting at their remote-working desk until midnight waiting for someone to tell them it’s ‘home time’!

What next?

Communicate, communicate, communicate… It’s important to remember just how much communication happens between a new starter and their manager and team, and to provide channels for this in a remote working environment. In an employee’s first days and weeks, they often ask lots of questions, clarify expectations and form social bonds. All those conversations ‘across the desk’ still need to happen – albeit across a virtual desk.

HR can help by making sure new starters are on all the appropriate email distribution lists from day one. They can also schedule check-in calls to ensure the new starter is getting the support they need and that their induction has gone smoothly. The casual catch-ups HR might typically have with a new starter to keep an eye on their progress will need a remote working equivalent.

The bulk of the communication with new starters will inevitably fall to line managers. They are the new employee’s primary point of contact, and it’s likely the new hire will rely on their manager more than they would in an office environment where they might spot other colleagues to ask for help.

Managers need to be very patient with new employees, dedicating time to their training and queries. Having an ‘open door’ policy that translates into an ‘open call’ approach will help new starters feel comfortable reaching out for help when needed. A long-term view is essential so managers remember that the time they invest now will hopefully be rewarded down the track.

Start by delivering the technology and information your new employee requires to perform their role, but always remember that onboarding is about more than this. When it’s done well, onboarding is the foundation of a deeper engagement plan, ensuring a business’ recruitment and training efforts are rewarded with a productive and loyal employee.

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