Virtual Onboarding 101: 5 Tips to Engage Remote Recruits

By Candace Coleman, CultureWise Content Manager

The pandemic thrust most of the business world into uncharted virtual territory. But as the months unfolded, people’s resilience and adaptability to working from home became the silver lining of the work upheaval. Companies adjusted so well to the remote structure that many employers expect to make the “emergency” model permanent.

A Gartner survey of company leaders found that 80 percent plan to allow employees to work remotely at least part of the time after the health crisis subsides and 47 percent will let employees work off-site full time.

Part of the reason behind the shift is that most employees prefer the flexibility afforded by remote work. In addition to convenience, the best virtual job arrangements also facilitate a more favorable work/life balance.

People’s evolving attitude about employment is another factor driving the change. Months of lockdown prompted many to reassess their lives and what they wanted to derive from their jobs. As a result, they began to shop around—and in the remote work world, that meant that they could look for opportunities anywhere.

Consequently, the competition for talent heated up to historic proportions this year. To vie for the best applicants, hiring managers found that they had to put remote or hybrid work arrangements at the top of their job descriptions.

Amid this turbulence, companies that successfully signed top recruits discovered they needed to devise new ways to bring them into the fold. Along with many other aspects of work, they had to reimagine onboarding for the virtual world. In 2020, lots of companies worked this process out on the fly. But over time, it became increasingly apparent that remote onboarding must become a permanent option.

What’s more, companies can’t perform this critical process halfway—the stakes are too high. To be competitive, companies need to become pros at virtual onboarding.

The Means are Different—The Goal Remains the Same

The biggest hurdle that many employers face when onboarding remotely is their own mindset. They’re used to performing this process a certain way, and many aren’t sure that doing it virtually will be as effective.

But technology offers excellent tools to conduct highly effective onboarding sessions that potentially can have a more substantial impact than old-school methods. The key for leaders to remember is that even though techniques need to evolve, the reasons why successful onboarding is important haven’t changed.

The onboarding process sets the tone for an employee’s relationship with their new organization. When done well, onboarding establishes a strong bond between all parties and a runway for the employee to succeed. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true.

In his book, Culture by Design, CultureWise CEO David Friedman points out that the period in which new hires are introduced to the organization is when they get their first impression of how the company functions. He asks leaders to consider whether they’re using the opportunity to orchestrate the impression they want to make or allowing the experience to happen haphazardly.

“The first week a new employee spends in your company is actually the most important week in their entire career,” Friedman emphasizes. “It’s that impactful.”

The Top 5 Points of Onboarding

There are five primary aims of an onboarding process—whether conducted in-person or virtually.

  1. Making new employees feel comfortable, confident, and welcome
  2. Establishing relationships within the organization
  3. Building an understanding of the company’s culture
  4. Setting clear expectations
  5. Connecting the employee’s role to organizational goals and standards
1. Extending a Warm Welcome

Newly hired staff are bound to feel various levels of anticipation, doubt, and uncertainty as they assume their new roles. The ambiguity of a remote environment has the potential to emphasize first-week nerves even more. That’s because some of the best aspects of an on-site orientation—informal bonding in the hallway, being made comfortable in the workspace, a first-day lunch invitation—are absent in a virtual process.

To counter the lack of in-person interaction, leaders conducting virtual onboarding can leverage multiple strategies to engage and gain the confidence of new staff. They should start by making recruits feel part of the team and demonstrating that they are valued before “Day 1.” Supportive measures can include:

  • Sending a “welcome basket” with a warm note from the CEO or highest level possible, company swag, and helpful items for work
  • Creating a personalized welcome video that introduces key coworkers
  • Setting up an IT session to familiarize them with the platforms, channels, and systems before they need to use them
  • Sharing a clear, written agenda of what to expect the first week, including introductions, video call schedule, training, and HR paperwork requirements

This level of pre-employment welcome will provide the new remote employee with the information and assurance they need to get off to a great start.

Leaders can implement additional measures to make people working from home feel welcome during their first weeks on the job. For instance, they might:

  • Appoint a liaison or informal mentor (someone who is not the recruit’s manager) to answer questions and “show them the ropes”
  • Set up a series of video calls to take the place of in-house introductions with coworkers and management
  • Send out a team-wide announcement about the new employee, including a photo, role, and short bio
  • Allow time for the new hire to absorb information by conducting the onboarding program, formerly done in person, in multiple video sessions with ample breaks
  • Provide access to a digital library with helpful resources, such as employee manuals, style guides, contact lists, an organizational chart with names, and a glossary of company terms
2. Establishing Relationships

One of the biggest challenges of operating with a remote team, especially with people new to the company, is forging strong relationships. The onboarding process can help initiate these personal bonds, which are critical for people to feel supported and encouraged in their work roles.

Technology offers a host of tools to replace the coffee-break gatherings, “water-cooler” chats, or even after-hours get-togethers that establish ties. The onboarding manager can utilize IT to help recruits begin to build relationships in various ways, including:

  • Creating a digital “new member” lounge to provide a comfortable environment for recent hires to connect—even if they don’t work directly with one another
  • Setting up a series of one-on-one video calls with people the new employee will interact with regularly to help them assimilate into a strong core network
  • Providing access and introductions into chat rooms where teams communicate about work
  • Offering a video-conferencing platform for people to connect and discuss common interests
  • Inviting them to participate in online after-work activities for fun and camaraderie

One of the biggest drawbacks of remote working is a feeling of isolation and even loneliness. Helping new team members establish relationships at the onset of their employment is crucial to prevent them from feeling marooned in their virtual outposts.

3. Communicating Company Culture

An organization’s culture is one of its top attributes. When it’s strong and supportive, it will generate high performance and employee engagement. What’s more, competitors can’t clone another organization’s dynamic culture. As a result, it’s one of the few things that can differentiate a company from the crowd.

Consequently, making recruits aware of and assimilating them into the corporate culture may be the most far-reaching element of onboarding. Yet surprisingly, many organizations don’t factor culture into employee orientation and simply leave newly hired team members to pick it up as they go along.

David Friedman recommends framing the importance of culture early in the onboarding process.

“New employees have to be taught the culture of a company. And the best person to do this is the CEO. No one else can speak about it with as much passion and conviction as the leader. If that’s not feasible, then it should be the highest-ranking person who is available. Beyond the passion, there’s also the symbolic significance when the culture is prioritized and explained by the company’s leader.”

Friedman suggests a simple 30-minute virtual meeting between the leader and recruit to lay out the specifics of the company’s culture and what it means to the organization. Subsequent in-depth discussions involving other staff members can reinforce this introduction, followed by eLearning and video training components.

4. Setting Expectations

After their orientation, new employees are eager to get to work—but only if they clearly understand what they’re supposed to do. The virtual onboarding process should include conversations that spell out specific responsibilities to set recruits up for success. Leaders should discuss metrics, timetables, and reporting processes in these sessions so that new hires have the framework to hold themselves accountable.

Setting expectations and communicating responsibilities during onboarding have a long-lasting effect. Yet, according to a recent Gallup study, almost half of U.S. workers don’t know what’s expected of them. The report notes that this lack of understanding and resorting to guesswork about goals leads to poor employee engagement.

Given the significant expenses associated with recruiting and hiring, the onboarding experience should include as many ways to deepen engagement as possible.  Frontloading expectations into a new team member’s orientation, along with establishing a regular check-in schedule, will provide sure footing for their success.

While it may seem premature to spell out specific expectations in the first week of employment, new hires will appreciate this clarity. And it’s incredibly constructive for people working in a remote environment who don’t have the advantage of asking quick questions in a shared location.

5. Connecting to the Big Picture

A top criterion for job seekers in today’s business climate is the ability to identify with a company’s core values and mission. This alignment is particularly important to younger workers who seriously reassessed their careers during the pandemic. Their viewpoint is particularly pertinent because Millennials will account for 75 percent of the American workforce by 2025.

Emphasizing these foundational elements during onboarding is deeply reassuring to recruits, many of whom choose their employers based on their corporate philosophy. Of course, a virtual orientation won’t include a facility tour where framed value statements decorate the halls. But that doesn’t matter because displaying company tenets doesn’t prove they’re in effect—values should transcend walls.

Recruits would benefit far more from a sincere dialogue about core principles and mission during their first week on board. This could take the form of a virtual round-table discussion with selected team members or a one-on-one with a leader.

Another dominant element that drives an employee’s engagement with the organization is a vivid understanding of their role in achieving overarching goals.  People don’t merely want to perform their jobs well; they also want to know how their work impacts the company.

As David Friedman points out:

“If you simply put a new employee in a ‘corner’ and tell them to do their job, but they don’t understand how it connects to the big picture, not only will it be less satisfying for them, but you’ll also be limiting the extent to which they can make a meaningful contribution.”

An onboarding session about how a recruit’s job contributes to achieving organizational goals will help tether them to the team.

Time for an Onboarding Makeover

Most companies understand that onboarding is important, but many haven’t assessed their process in years. The sudden need to develop a virtual orientation process made people take a second look at how they’ve conducted this essential component of their businesses. As they began to rethink and redesign their onboarding methods to accommodate remote recruits, they developed:

  • Consistent, high-quality experiences that are available to all new hires, in-house or remote
  • Extended informational sessions that allow employees to practice and develop new skills and adapt to the culture
  • Accessible learning modules that employees can revisit
  • Multi-layered support from multiple connections made easier via technology.

Company leaders learned that the extra focus on onboarding paid off for people wherever they worked. The extra care to build ties, open communication channels, and provide resources and support translated into people settling in faster and staying longer. The ultimate lesson learned in developing remote onboarding was that this vital area needs far more attention.

Onboarding, or integrating new hires, is one of David Friedman’s core steps in his approach to strengthening company culture. Like every other part of his method, assimilating new employees into an organization must be done with intentionality to be successful. Working with remote team members requires an even higher degree of purposefulness.

To learn more about Friedman’s eight-step framework to develop and sustain a strong company culture, visit the CultureWise website or read a free, two-chapter download of Culture by Design. And stay abreast of current news about culture and business with a complimentary subscription to Culture Matters, the CultureWise newsletter.