By Megan O’Brien, Brainyard Finance & Business Editor
- As they increasingly shift to hybrid or remote work, companies must proactively address the onboarding of far-flung new hires.
- An effective onboarding program is linked to increased engagement, productivity and employee retention, so these programs are well worth the CFO’s attention.
- Best practices include creating materials in various media formats, programming informal and formal interactions among all team members and budgeting appropriately.
Let’s state the obvious: Hiring top talent is neither easy nor inexpensive, even when unemployment is high. Once your recruiting team finds just the right person, leaders can’t just sit back and expect the productivity to commence. Onboarding is critical. It involves everyone in the company — and it’s gotten complicated in the past year.
Still, it’s vital to get this right. New hires who had negative onboarding experiences are twice as likely to look for new opportunities in the near future, increasing hiring costs and lowering morale and productivity.
Yet, as many companies continue to operate remotely in light of COVID-19 restrictions — and some even look toward going remote permanently — the typical in-person onboarding process has been rendered less practical.
Losing that in-person component only increases the urgency to update and properly fund a remote-optimized onboarding program. For CFOs looking to avoid high turnover costs, promote efficiency and prevent disruption in their organizations, there are best practices that can impart company culture, goals and expectations, even from a distance.
1. Develop a new plan.
Preparation is critical to successful remote onboarding. The fact that new hires won’t be in the office on their first days renders most of the traditional process obsolete — meaning the details of your new program must be in place before a new hire’s first day.
“Planning is everything with remote new hires,” said Janine Yancey, CEO of Emtrain, an online training platform. “The opportunity to be physically present to answer questions isn’t possible, so answering potential questions in advance, while leveraging available remote-working tools, will help fill the void.”
“Planning is everything with remote new hires. … Answering potential questions in advance, while leveraging available remote-working tools, will help fill the void.”
Remember, onboarding is not the same as orientation. The process of acclimating a new employee can take six months to a year.
2. Focus on technology.
In addition to creating a comprehensive onboarding plan with supporting documents — more on that later — you need to get new hires the technology and access they need to be productive.
Think back on your first days at a new company, and ask yourself: How much of my time did I spend with IT? If your response is anything like most, it comes out to a pretty sizable percentage. Between picking up a computer and accessories, installing software and applications, going over security requirements, overviewing systems, setting up logins and all the inevitable obstacles along the way, you may have found yourself spending more time with the office IT team in your first week than your new team.
Without ready physical access to IT in those first days, companies need to put a process in place for smooth technology adoption. Send any physical gear — laptop, phone and any other office equipment — to employees prior to their start date. Allow additional lead time for laptops and phones to be ordered, configured and shipped. Required software should already be installed and accounts provisioned, with clear instructions on how to log in. The only assumption should be access to in-home WiFi.
“The first way you can make a new hire feel welcome is by making things easy for them,” said Craig Wisneski, co-founder and head of G&A at software company Akkio. “Their computer, their remote work setup, their software accounts — these should just work.”
With no human interaction to ease technical issues or delays, a plan to help the new hire remotely is critical. Start prepping early, and use collaboration tools to ensure the experience reflects favorably on the company.
3. Create a central repository and detailed onboarding plan.
An easy-to-access online portal should house the copious onboarding information, so new hires can quickly find answers when questions arise. This could validate the need for specialized onboarding or human capital management software.
The latter part of that sentence is integral: There cannot just be a massive, messy repository that a new hire is expected to sort through. There needs to be clear navigation and instructions.
“What doesn’t work is simply making the information available online and expecting employees to access and digest it thoroughly,” said Lin Grensing-Pophal, author of the book “Managing Remote Staff.”
Instead, instate deadlines, goals and expectations.
“A well-defined agenda is vital,” said Brian Wilson, CRO of the text-message marketing company SlickText. “This helps you hit your objectives while allowing the new hires to know what to expect throughout the day.”
Components of a Good Onboarding Plan
|Essential new-hire paperwork||Access to tax and legal forms, job contract (if applicable), offer letter, banking form for payroll/direct deposit, retirement and health plan enrollment forms and any other required paperwork — provided before the start date|
|People directory/organizational chart||Serves to familiarize a hire with their new team, roles and responsibilities and whom to go to with questions and requests|
|Employee handbook||Outlines the company culture, values, mission, vision, holidays and HR, vacation and sick leave policies, among other specifics|
|Welcome letter/video||Could be from leadership or the team as a whole. For smaller companies with fewer than 100 employees, it may be better to set up a one-on-one introduction with the owner.|
|Key contacts information||Details on HR representative, manager, buddy (see below), immediate team, IT team and any other important contacts|
|Logistical information||A list of company resources, email, software and applications, plus login information or passcodes|
|Compliance and training details||Covers how to access the training portal, which courses must be taken and deadlines|
|Calendar||An itinerary for the first few weeks or months, including invites to meetings|
|Assignments||Checklist of assignments and goals for the first few weeks or months|
|Role-specific information||Description, responsibilities and expectations for the new role, as well as how it fits into the team and the business as a whole|
The first tenet of onboarding, “earlier is better,” applies here. The earlier a company can get a new hire the needed onboarding materials, the better prepared they will be to hit the ground running. In fact, delays are a top reason onboarding efforts fail.
4. Consider implementing a formal peer-to-peer learning program.
The buddy system has graduated from middle-school field trips. In a survey by Degreed, 55% of respondents turned to informal peer-to-peer learning to acquire a new skill — not a corporate learning program or Google. In the remote world, companies are looking to formalize that practice.
“Right now, we’re obsessed with the idea of peer-to-peer learning,” said Sammy Courtright, co-founder and chief brand officer at the employee engagement platform Ten Spot. “We’re exploring building and using a peer-to-peer learning tool designed to help employees acclimate to their new company, learn company systems and get to know their team members.”
Additionally, the program will provide outlets for employees to both teach and gain new skills, so both the mentee and mentor are improving and growing and feel acknowledged and recognized by their company, team and coworkers.
Ten Spot isn’t alone in embracing the trend toward workplace peer learning programs.
“We [at Emtrain] have also seen success with companies that create ‘virtual onboarding buddies’ — those working in similar positions where one employee started a bit earlier,” said Yancey. “It’s a good way to bring new hires up to speed while engaging the concept of team.”
Steps to Create a Peer-to-Peer Learning Program
1. Determine format.
Peer-to-peer learning can take many forms. For instance, programs could pair participants in one-to-one sessions or create cohorts that work together on real work problems over a few months. Determine the best format for your company by analyzing factors like how many new hires are starting, the goals of the program and the overall structure of the company.
2. Create a safe learning environment.
No one should be afraid to say what they are thinking, to ask questions or to make mistakes. Feedback should be constructive, honesty should be promoted, and confidentiality should be upheld.
3. Appoint a facilitator.
In cases of group peer-to-peer learning, appoint a facilitator to help guide group discussions and ensure a productive, safe environment.
4. Eliminate hierarchical dynamics.
Peer-to-peer learning is effective because participants feel comfortable coming to someone who does not control their compensation or officially evaluate their performance. Ensure programs are structured so employees are paired/grouped with others who are not their supervisors.
5. Provide resources for mentors.
Not everyone is cut out to be a “buddy.” Ensure an employee is up for the task by providing a comprehensive description of the role, access to resources and training to prepare them to address new-hire issues.
5. Use multiple forms of onboarding materials, particularly video.
Because in-person presentations and explanations aren’t an option, you need to create comprehensive remote onboarding materials. And, considering how employees differ in learning styles, it’s beneficial to embrace a multitude of formats.
“Remote onboarding requires substantially more documentation compared to in-person onboarding,” said Matt Bertram, co-owner and CEO of the digital marketing agency EWR Digital. “We have found that offering different media gives variety and takes into account different learning styles. So we not only use digital documents but also visual slides, infographics and videos.”
However, in our conversations with executives, one format seemed to reign supreme: video.
We know, we know: The benefits of videoconferencing have likely been hammered home over the past year. However, recorded video is a powerful conduit of company information, with multiple experts pointing to it as an asset to any onboarding process.
“Remote onboarding has forced us to document and organize a lot of our training materials like we never have before,” said Ravi Parikh, CEO of the reservations platform RoverPass. “Creating training videos is also a new space we have entered. The perk is that you do it one time and can use it repeatedly, thus it seems to ultimately be saving us time on the onboarding process.”
When creating training videos, “the perk is that you do it one time and can use it repeatedly, thus it seems to ultimately be saving us time on the onboarding process.”
Adam Binder, founder of digital marketing agency Creative Click Media, concurred: “Each new employee is tasked with watching a series of custom animated videos created in-house that pertain to our company as a whole and their role within our business. This learning management system has increased productivity, improved our team’s overall satisfaction and reduced the number of mistakes caused by inconsistent training.”
A comprehensive collection of videos explaining needed skills, processes and programs can help managers avoid being asked the same questions repeatedly, allows employees to learn at their own pace and can be referred to as needed — all in a less time-intensive manner than text-based instructions.
In addition to training remote hires on needed competencies, videos can easily convey company culture, executives pointed out. Many advise companies to consider recording a welcome video featuring leadership to outline the values, goals and mission of the company.
Need some inspiration? These videos featuring companies like Zendesk, Annie’s and Zappos effectively introduced the core values, leadership team and missions of their companies in under 10 minutes. Don’t have a Scorcese and “The Irishman” moment around length. Learning videos should be 30 minutes or less, with content broken into learnable chunks.
6. Tweak the budget.
When the hiring process goes remote, there are budgetary considerations. While you may be saving on new-hire team lunches, aspects of the remote hiring process may require more funding.
Remote-worker salaries could either save money or require more spending — it all depends whether your organization will adjust salaries based on remote work.
Many companies are grappling with the question of whether to factor cost of living into remote workers’ salaries. Is it reasonable to pay a Buffalo employee a New York City salary? Is it fair to pay two workers with the same role and performance differently based on location? On one hand, adjusting pay based on location can equalize buying power. On the other, it could potentially result in discrimination against those living in higher-cost areas during the hiring process. If your company is giving employees the choice of where to live, it could break cities into high-, mid- and low-cost tiers — and then adjust salary to partly compensate for the difference. That way, employees can take the pay factor into account before moving. However, if the company is requiring the move, avoid cutting a salary in the process.
Office equipment stipend:
The question of whether a company should pay for an employee’s home office furnishings, equipment and internet and phone is still very much in discussion. Research shows just two in 10 respondents said they provide tools and resources to employees who are working remotely and may do so long-term, although two-thirds plan to or are considering doing so. Just 10% have offered employees subsidies to manage the costs of working remotely, although nearly three times as many are contemplating it.
From a legal standpoint, the sole federal law requiring expense reimbursement applies only in cases where an expense would bring an employee’s salary below the mandated minimum wage. However, several states require expense reimbursement. For instance, California’s reimbursement laws require that businesses reimburse “all necessary business expenditures or losses incurred by the employee in direct consequence of the discharge of his or her duties,” which could include expenses like home office equipment, internet and mobile phone service if used for work. A company will need to verify whether, legally, it needs to put aside money for a remote employee’s work-from-home setup.
There is a case for giving employees an allowance for home-office equipment, outside of legal requirements. It can help make an employee feel welcomed, valued and motivated — and make them better-equipped to perform their job.
Needed systems and platforms:
One difficulty frequently mentioned around the remote-hire process is getting the capabilities to move the onboarding program online. For instance, many organizations must invest in additional tools and upgrade their servers to host training videos. As HR departments work through the massive amount of information and training that needs to be digitized, companies may find they need to invest in onboarding software, which will centralize information on a platform that can present the needed learnings in a clear way. While a worthwhile investment to ensure a smooth, clear onboarding experience, it is an expense that must be considered prior to hiring remotely.
Yes, it’s time to turn your swag on — that is, consider setting aside some budget to send onboarding gifts to new hires. Companies like SwagUp, Buyboxes.com and Gemnote allow businesses to send a customized “employee welcome box” filled with company-branded gear. While it may seem minor, this is a great idea for all new hires and can pay dividends by making an employee feel welcome and included. The opportunity to promote your brand doesn’t hurt, either. You can send swag boxes separately or consolidate them with a new employee’s technology and other equipment.
|Swag Box Ideas|
|Coffee mugs (and perhaps some coffee or tea while you’re at it)|
|Clothing (shirts, hats, jackets, socks)|
|Office supplies (notebooks, pens, sticky notes, business cards)|
|Backpacks, duffels or tote bags|
|Tech accessories (chargers, power banks, headphones, speakers)|
|Eco-friendly products (reusable straws, grocery totes)|
|Fitness gear (yoga mat, resistance bands)|
|Wellness items (mask, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, Vitamin C packets)|
|Happy-hour items (drinkware, koozies)|
7. Create a community.
One of the most challenging — yet most necessary — components of a successful remote onboarding program is the opportunity for connection.
“There is a need to recreate a way for employees to truly connect in a virtual world,” said Courtright. “When you begin to work for a company, you typically are introduced to a team, have the opportunity to share interests, join town halls and all-hands meetings. When you’re fully remote, you do not have that option. So how do we go about creating these connections?”
Many of the interactions that help new hires get to know their teams and key individuals in the company are informal: chats by the coffee machine, elevator chatter, happy hours.
Creating a community while distanced without it feeling forced isn’t an easy feat. However, executives we spoke with have found success in the virtual world through happy hours, trivia, milestone celebrations, one-on-one coffee chats, collaboration platforms, “meet the team” intro sessions and even virtual team-building services offered by companies like The Go Game.
“… Remote employees are subject to being ‘out of sight, out of mind,’” said Grensing-Pophal. “The organization, [its leaders], professionals and managers need to make a commitment to regular and ongoing communication with remote employees.”
For some leaders, though, it’s less about the channel and more about the context of the conversation.
“While Zoom, FaceTime and collaborative projects can mimic some of the in-house work of the past, right now it’s important for managers to understand that asking questions and truly listening to responses will allow them to be objective and proceed accordingly with each individual employee,” said Yancey.
“‘How are you doing?’ or ‘Are you OK?’ shows personal concern, but it’s the next step of, ‘What are your concerns?’ and ‘What do you need?’ that will better engage those working from a new environment and allow managers to make better case-by-case decisions,” she added.
The strongest teams are the ones that put the most effort into building a relationship, as a united team is a productive one. Ultimately, the recipe for success includes a multitude of ingredients: a blend of synchronous and asynchronous communication, informal and formal conversations, video and phone, email and instant messages, scheduled and random chats. And, like a recipe, it may take some tweaks to get it right for your team’s needs.
8. Revisit the plan.
Tough love moment: Your first attempt at remote onboarding probably won’t be flawless.
“Most likely, as you move through the new experience of onboarding remote employees, you’ll realize some concepts take longer to teach,” said Wilson. “Make the necessary adjustments as you go. It took us three weeks to remotely onboard our first set of salespeople. We adjusted our process and reduced training to two weeks for the next set of hires. Go into this with a mindset of constant improvement.”
Tracking new hires’ questions can also prove fruitful, as the inquiries can help determine which areas of your resource kit require more clarification. Also consider adding opportunities for employees to give feedback throughout and at the end of the process, for example, with a feedback request at the end of a training video. In addition to spotlighting issues or confusion arising from that part of the process, this makes new employees feel heard and like their input matters to the company.
The Bottom Line
As overwhelming as doing it remotely may seem, the fundamental goals of employee onboarding remain the same. It still serves to welcome a new hire and provide them with the necessary skills, knowledge and behaviors to contribute to the overall success of the company. This newly-remote environment simply provides new opportunities to engage — and demonstrate why your company is a special place to work.