How to Create an Amazing Remote Onboarding Experience

In 1999, Tony Hsieh was beginning a new role as CEO of Zappos, the online shoe and clothing retailer. 

And, at Zappos, each and every new hire goes through the same four-week onboarding process – even the new CEO.

During the process, Hsieh overheard some of the new recruits – unaware who he was – vocalising doubts about whether the company was going to be right for them. 

Some said they would stick with it, purely because they needed the money.

And so, Hsieh made them an offer: leave the company now, and get $100, no strings attached. He wanted people who weren’t right for the company to feel empowered and able to leave – for their own good and that of the business.

Over time, that offer evolved into offering a month’s salary for new hires who got cold feet.

And this underlines a key point: hiring someone isn’t the end. In fact, it’s just the beginning.

New hires still have doubts, challenges and difficulties. It’s not a given that they slot effortlessly into your organisation.

They need to be supported, trained, educated and welcomed into your culture.

And nowadays, with at least SOME remote working established as the ‘new normal’ in the working world, onboarding isn’t as simple as a tour of your office, pointing out where the coffee machine is, a little form-filling and relying on the hire to ask any further questions. 

It’s much more complex and difficult than that. In this article, we’ll talk about the rise of remote onboarding – and share 7 simple steps to help you onboard remote employees like a pro.

What is remote onboarding?

Remote onboarding, simply, is an onboarding process that’s applied to new hires who work remotely. 

And it’s increasingly necessary.

Make no mistake, remote work was already on the rise before the pandemic, with more than 5.7 million Americans working from home at least half the time, according to a GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics poll conducted and published in late 2018.

But the pandemic has accelerated the trend, with significant numbers of employees across the country (and, indeed, the world) now working from home full-time.

The good news is that many of the same best practices that apply to ‘traditional’ onboarding, translate well to remote onboarding.

And taking time to understand this process will help new hires feel welcome, comfortable, and prepared to do their best work – wherever in the world they plan to do it.

The goals of remote onboarding

So, what are we actually looking to achieve when we set out with a remote onboarding program?

Essentially the goals are to:

  • help new employees feel welcome and comfortable in their new roles
  • help them learn about the company and its culture
  • develop the skills they need to be successful in their jobs. 

More cynically, as a business, creating a smooth transition can massively reduce turnover and increase productivity. 

Remote onboarding can also benefit employees by reducing stress and increasing job satisfaction.

When done right, remote onboarding can be an extremely beneficial process for both businesses and employees. 

By taking the time to properly welcome and orient new hires, companies can set them up for success from day one. 

Meanwhile, employees can avoid feeling overwhelmed or lost during their first few weeks on the job – which is particularly problematic when they have no physical presence in your business and are left to fend for themselves at home.

Ultimately, everyone wins when remote onboarding is done well!

7 steps to an amazing remote onboarding experience

So here are our simple seven steps to build a remote onboarding process that works – inspired by some of the world’s biggest and best companies when it comes to HR mastery.

1. Start before the start

Think of the beginning of the onboarding process and the thoughts of many will go straight to ‘Day 1.’ 

But, actually, starting onboarding on your new employee’s first day could be a missed opportunity.

Plenty of big companies are in regular contact with their employees before they start, and this can be a big help in remote onboarding.

Take Buffer, for example. They share 5 timed emails in the lead-up to a new hire’s first day, walking through:

  • an ecstatic welcome!
  • collecting basic info
  • intro to managers and buddies
  • an overview of remote tools they use
  • what to expect on day one

They ask new hires to fill out an onboarding form, where they gather essential info like address, contact info, payroll info, laptop needs, T-shirt sizes, etc.

And they share a central onboarding document with all important links and a day-by-day checklist of tasks and resources for each new hire to establish themselves in the team. 

Following this lead can help make a great first impression: your employees will feel engaged and welcomed before they even start working with you…

AND it helps mitigate much of the anxiety and tension that goes hand-in-hand with that build-up to starting in a new role

2. Empower new hires to be proactive

When it comes to onboarding, like most areas of business, the question ‘What would Google do?’ is a great starting point.

Recognising the importance of the way an employee begins a new role, Google’s HR team invests huge amounts of time and energy into employee onboarding.

Google actually have a specific word for new hires – ‘Nooglers’ – a hybrid word which truncates ‘New Googler.’ 

And one approach that seemed to drive great results for Google was to really put new hires in the driving seat.

They ran an experiment in which they added a 15 minute segment to their standard Noogler induction, which delved into the benefits of being proactive in the onboarding process, for example, seeking feedback independently.

Then, 2 weeks later, they sent some of the group (remotely) a checklist challenging them to:

  1. Ask questions, lots of questions
  2. Schedule regular 1:1s with your manager
  3. Get to know your team
  4. Actively solicit feedback – don’t wait for it
  5. Accept the challenge (i.e., take risks and don’t be afraid to fail… other Googlers will support you).

The results were startling. Those who were encouraged to be proactive were “far more likely to ask for feedback, became productive faster, and tended to have a more accurate sense of their own performance” than those who weren’t.

And, more importantly, those who were originally less proactive in taking steps to “onboard themselves” scored 15 points higher “on measures of engaging in proactive behaviours in their first month” than others.

This just demonstrates that even those not naturally inclined to be proactive can become more productive if they’re given the right technique, support and encouragement.

As an employer, or manager, you have a role to play. But don’t forget that encouraging people to get out of their shell and start to contribute to the business is one of your key objectives. 

And these are behaviours that can be inspired and driven in your new hire rather than spoon-feeding them.

3. Get the basics right

When onboarding remotely, it’s perhaps even more important to make sure ahead of time that new hires have the tools they need to do their job and that everything works. 

The first day is incredibly crucial in forming first impressions of your company, and making things smooth and enjoyable. 

You don’t want to shatter that first impression with something basic like a laptop that arrives late, doesn’t work, logins not to be created in time, or new hires arriving to find their whole team is away on holiday. 

Buffer have shared their workflow for avoiding this kind of debacle, and their checklist is a good starting point to try and emulate:

  • Login emails sent no more than two days before start
  • A “what to expect on day one” email to prepare new hires
  • Laptops sent well in advance
  • Welcome swag packets sent well in advance
  • A welcome announcement so the team can meet the new teammate
  • Full document with 30-, 60-, and 90-day expectations and links
  • A designated person to start a welcome party in Slack!

4. Make introductions 

Speaking of welcomes, it’s really important to help your new hire feel connected by introducing them to other members of the team. 

The people we work with are an integral part of our lives – and it’s important to form these bonds early to foster the best possible work relationships.

Like Buffer, you could do this virtually using tools like Slack…

Buffer on Slack

Or create a ‘Team Chat’ project using Project.co…

Project.co team chat

5. Communicate culture 

‘Culture’ is one of the key words in the modern world of work. 

But it’s something that’s become more difficult to cultivate and communicate in a world where people work in their own environments. 

In a physical work environment like an open-plan office, culture can be observed and absorbed almost by osmosis. Remotely? Not so much!

So it’s really important to be crystal clear about what’s expected of your new hires – not just in terms of their task and deliverables, but in how you expect them to interface with your existing team members, and the types of behaviour you expect them to demonstrate.

A good example of this in action is Amazon. Their onboarding process takes steps to demystify the intense Amazon culture and explain the behaviours expected of new hires.

In a must-read Linkedin Pulse article, George Anders explains in detail some of these steps. 

Specifically, he references how the company started sharing video tips during the pandemic, from leaders such as incoming CEO Andy Jassy. “We expect you to disagree,” Jassy explains in a 109-second clip. “We want that debate.” 

For example, he says, imagine two people looking at a ceiling. One says it’s 14 feet tall; the other insists it’s 10 feet. “It’s not 12 feet!” Jassy declares, raising his eyebrows in mock horror. “If we debate enough, there is a better answer than compromising.”

This example demonstrates that new hires should stand up for what they believe, a key Amazon behaviour: seniority alone does not determine the quality of ideas. However, once a decision is taken, employees must get behind it and do their best to make it a reality.

6. Assign a point person

How many questions go unasked – let alone unanswered – simply because a new hire is stuck, and doesn’t know who to ask?

An important way to help avoid this scenario is to assign a point person, a specific team member who’s responsible for assisting your new hire as they get up to speed. 

Assigning a ‘Role buddy’ is a key part of Buffer’s onboarding process, for example.

This person will talk to their new hire once or twice a week on video software like Zoom, and also act as a permanent go-to person for questions by Slack and email in the early weeks.

As part of this they also create documentation to support role buddies and underline what’s expected of them.

Role buddies

In a smaller business this might always be you, but ideally you want it to be someone who does a similar role to your new employee.

Working in this way helps build team relationships, and empowers your existing staff to take extra responsibility. 

7. Make feedback a two-way street

One of the benefits of remote work is that you can check in with your team members more frequently than you would if everyone was in an office. 

Take advantage of this by checking in often, whether it’s through a chat tool, video call, or just a quick email.

To return to the example we started the article with, let’s briefly touch on Zappos. A key component of their onboarding process is to create a feedback survey to make sure new hires have a chance to provide their thoughts on the onboarding process. Do they feel included and welcomed? Do they know what is expected of them? Are they having any difficulties?

Again, working remotely, you aren’t able to observe your new hires. It therefore becomes more difficult to visibly identify and isolate issues.

So creating lines of regular communication is absolutely critical. 

Thanks for reading

So, that’s our whistle-stop tour of remote onboarding. 

Remote work creates plenty of challenges and difficulties for bringing in and training new people – but with a little planning and effort, you can make sure your new remote hire has a great onboarding experience, and a smooth transition into their new role.

Of course, it’ll be even more amazing if you use Project.co. We’ve built our tool to support teams just like yours in making work easier and more productive. 

You can schedule tasks for people involved in the onboarding process, and regular check-ins…

Project.co tasks

Share and embed files…

Project.co embed files

And use it as a tool to communicate remotely, on the record, keeping chats and conversations in one simple place…

Project.co chats

Take it for a test-drive: an individual account is free to sign up, and – if you feel it’s right for you – you can then invite your teammates, freelancers and clients.

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