Getting Off On the Right Foot: A Guide to Stressless Remote Onboarding

Mustafa Šuvalija

Onboarding is a well-known term and concept. It refers to the process that begins unfolding when a newcomer joins a company and starts adapting to their new role/job, team, leadership and new company culture. Technically, this adaptational process happens every time someone joins a company, and it happens in every company. However, it does not happen in a conscious, structured and organized way everywhere and every time. Only when it does do we call it onboarding. 

From the very description of the process—getting to know everything and everyone of importance in one’s new job—it’s clear that those companies who do it consciously and who do it well are at an advantage. Adaptation in any context, in all of its shapes and forms is a stressful process. The less structure, control and certainty there is to it, the more stressful it will be. And the more stressful onboarding is, the longer it will take for the new employee to become fully engaged and productive. Looking at it from the company perspective, it will take more time for the new talent investment to start paying off. A defined, structured onboarding program makes this process a stressless experience and reduces time to productivity. 

But that’s not the entire story. An onboarding program can be structured and clearly defined, yet ineffective in helping an employee adapt to the new environment. Typically, the reason for this is that the onboarding process itself is not sufficiently adapted to the individual circumstances of a particular employee.  

To avoid this trap in the age of rising popularity of remote/distributed work, traditional onboarding programs need to adapt to meet the needs of the increasing number of location-independent employees. They need to be updated so they could facilitate newcomers’ success as effectively as their classical counterparts. But, what exactly is it that they need to change to remain relevant? 

Remote Onboarding – A Difference in Degree, Not in Type 

Being a performing employee, in a nutshell, is about doing one’s job as expected and “playing by the rules”, be they formal (laws, processes and procedures) or less formal, but nonetheless binding (culture and values). Onboarding, as the first and introductory stage in a new employee’s journey, is about helping newcomers get to the point where they can do both with as much independence as can be expected considering their level of experience and maturity. To make that happen, each of these goals needs to be approached from two angles: understanding and meeting the needs of the employee, and supporting the employee in meeting the needs of the company.  

In other words, employees need to learn what it is they’re expected to provide, in terms of their job and in terms of their relationship with their community, but also what it is that they can expect to get in return on both fronts. Transferring this knowledge in a clear and effective way is no easy feat, and the challenge is compounded when we try to do it remotely, without having direct contact and interaction with the newcomer most or all of the time. Let’s see what the specific challenges of onboarding remote employees can be and what can be done to overcome them. 

To reduce time-to-productivity, newcomers need to be effectively introduced to their role, understand their success measurement criteria, get a good grasp of team/department processes and understand the nature of the specific projects and tasks they’ll be working on. Also, they need to understand what learning resources and tools they can utilize to sharpen their skills and move up their career ladder. As quality of communication and interpersonal interactions can be reduced to the lack of access to non-verbal cues and generally less opportunity to interact with people, the process of transferring this knowledge can stall.

As a result, the employee may worry that they will not meet their job expectations by the end of the probation period and/or that they will not have enough opportunities quickly enough to realize their potential. The ensuing stress typically affects the whole process negatively, rather than making things better. Here’s what can be done to compensate for the negative effects remoteness has on communication and interpersonal interactions: 

  • Have the employees buddy/mentor and/or team leads schedule more meetings than would normally be necessary to give them an opportunity to ask questions and get guidance. Whenever possible, share meeting notes with agreed on points where the newcomer can go back to for reminders and clarifications. 
  • Establishing connection with other teammates in a digital setting may be a slow process, and the preparedness of the newcomers to ask questions may suffer as a result. To avoid that, have team members role-model asking questions in team meetings to make sure that asking questions is presented as a genuine part of team culture, as an expectation rather than a risk.
  • Sometimes, employees have issues that require immediate answers but may hesitate to contact their support network (buddies/mentors, team leads, teammates, HR staff) outside of the preset meeting schedules. Having peers reach out to them randomly, outside of scheduled time slots may provide an opportunity to resolve such issues before newcomers experience stress in attempts to address them on their own.  
  • Make sure feedback on newcomer’s performance and/or learning efforts is provided quickly and clearly. Anticipating feedback can always be stressful but is much more difficult when one is waiting for it alone and separated from the source of feedback by distance. Providing it early and quickly can reduce this anticipatory stress to a significant degree. 
  • Finally, create a document with FAQ on all team-related dilemmas faced by other teammates, particularly those that were also onboarded remotely. Ask the teammate to read it, add their questions or ask for clarifications regarding some of the answers provided therein. 

The pressure to prove oneself during the probation period can be intense. This pressure can be further intensified in remote settings if, due to reduced quality of communication, the newcomer feels unsure about their performance. Also, before the newcomer gets to know the company culture well, they may fear that they are under extra watch because they’re not physically “there” and sufficiently visible. This pressure, experienced in the form of excessive worrying, can lead to working long hours and facilitate exhaustion and burnout.  

To prevent that, the first course of action is to improve the quality and frequency of communication (as discussed previously). However, it is also important to additionally emphasize the available space and resources provided to employees to care for themselves. Here are a few things that can be done in this regard:  

  • Company procedures related to breaks, vacations, sick days, personal days and other time off need to be shared and clarified from the very get go. However, edge cases in terms of how these procedures are interpreted are always possible, particularly if communication is skewed by a factor such as physical distance. For example, there may be less opportunities in a distributed environment to casually start a discussion on these matters or more hesitation to reach out and ask for explanations. That’s why it is key that the designated HR person takes a proactive approach in maintaining close contact with the newcomer to remove any confusion that may arise in this regard. 
  • It is crucial that employees understand that it’s ok to utilize company perks during onboarding and that this is not something they need to “earn” by passing the probation. Here too, the sense of remoteness can compound the feeling that one isn’t on the same “level” as other employees. Therefore, buddies/mentors, team leads and teammates should actively encourage the newcomer to utilize some of the perks and benefits offered by the company and generally set aside some time for themselves.  
  • If preventive steps don’t do enough to keep stress at bay, ensure that newcomers have sufficient online resources that can guide them in regaining their balance. Recorded in-house seminars/lectures, external courses, blogs – any piece of material that can be of use for self-care purposes should be organized and made easily available in a single digital location. If the company offers additional resources aimed at supporting employee wellbeing (e.g., mental health coaching), it is crucial that they are accessible online as well or that a version of that service is available in the location the newcomers are working from.  

To be properly understood, culture and values need to be experienced and felt rather than simply read or heard about. This is why, despite the availability of written or recorded resources on the topic of company culture, it is difficult to convey its meaning in a distributed working environment.

As a result, newcomers working remotely may feel that they haven’t fully grasped the company spirit or could actually face difficulties in making sense of it. Either way, stress and anxiety may ensue. Here’s what should be kept in mind in order to reduce the risk of that happening: 

  • Company culture and values are showcased in every interaction and conversation between employees. This means that in all of the previously discussed situations there will be ample opportunities to explain and role-model behaviors that conform to those values. Such opportunities should be used consciously and consistently by everyone involved in supporting newcomers.  
  • People working remotely can lack opportunities to strike up casual conversations and hear stories about company history. People in charge of onboarding could compensate for that by giving them an overview of company history using stories that best illustrate the desired attitudes and behaviors. Moments in which some major challenges were resolved or milestones achieved, important charitable efforts, awards and recognitions received by either the company or its employees, examples of support provided to employees in exceptional circumstances – all of this can be very effectively used to impress upon the newcomer what it means to practice core company values.
  • Companies can consider introducing newcomers to those people who are seen as good exemplars of company values and culture. Discussing their life in the company, their experiences and giving an opportunity to the newcomer to pick their brain and ask questions could be a good way to clarify what exactly is meant by the values that are being promoted. 
  • Finally, feedback about value-related behaviors is as important as performance feedback. And as is the case with performance feedback, value-related feedback during remote onboarding needs to be communicated with more clarity and less delay than is the case with onboarding done on site. That way, the newcomer can test and self-correct their behaviors faster than would be the case considering their relative isolation from other employees who typically provide such feedback in co-located work.  

Working hours are typically not just working hours. Subsumed in the 8-hour workday are numerous small breaks, watercooler chats and usually one longer break. In a physical office, these and other similar moments provide more than enough opportunities to socialize and establish stronger bonds with one’s colleagues. When one is working remotely, however, these opportunities are much more scarce, which also means that there’s less socializing and bonding.

As a result, newcomers may spend more time feeling alone and disconnected from the community, resulting in disengagement and stress. Fortunately, here too exist ways to bypass the limitations imposed by remoteness. Here are some examples: 

  • Intentionally introduce newcomers to as many people in the company as possible. If there are people in the company with whom they’ve worked before, make sure to point that out or offer help in setting up a meeting between them. 
  • Assign people in the company that are not officially involved in the onboarding process (i.e., they’re not a buddy/mentor, team lead or even a teammate) who will occasionally check upon newcomers to see how they’re doing, offer to go to lunch together (if they live nearby) or at least chat with them online. 
  • Instruct the newcomer’s team/department to organize several online team get-togethers during the onboarding period that focus solely on socializing. 
  • If your company is utilizing one collaboration platform such as Slack or MS Teams, encourage employees to create groups and channels tending to particular employee interests (sports, music, hobbies, art). Then, encourage newcomers to join them and share their interests, content or simply chat. The existence of such channels and groups is usually left for employees to discover for themselves, but in a remote setting it’s important to point it out so it happens earlier. 
  • It’s great when companies keep track of important personal employee milestones, such as birthdays, weddings or becoming a parent. When the employee is working remotely, this gains in importance even more. And if you’re there for them for the less happy occasions, such as illness or death of a loved one, then their sense of being one of your own rises to the next level. It’s often difficult to do things of practical value in such situations if the newcomer is working remotely. However, keeping in touch and showing concern for them even though you’ve mostly interacted with them online speaks volumes about how genuinely important they as a person are to you. 

In Summary

If key insights about remote onboarding had to be summed in as few words as possible, I’d go with “Communicate better and more frequently”. Onboarding, in its essence, is about transferring information and shaping perceptions. Most of the challenges posed by limited social interactions in distributed work settings can be overcome with persistent and creative use of available communication channels. 

Doing that, in a way that is tailored to specific employee needs, can help you remove any meaningful difference in quality between remote and office-based onboarding. Communicate better and more frequently and remoteness may genuinely end up being only a benefit without any associated costs, during and after the onboarding. 

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