How to Onboard New Employees During Times of Remote Work

BY Boris Manhart

The times they are changing… and when it sunk in that I wouldn't be able to meet new employees in person anymore and that I might not be able to accompany them during onboarding, it became clear to me how difficult it would be to develop and maintain a company culture. Ironically—in a remote environment, it is even more critical than ever for all employees to understand how a company's collaboration works and its vision, mission, values, product, brand, and team.

When Jen, an American data scientist, started at TRIQ in early 2021, we felt the challenges we were up against during the pandemic. Jen was the perfect match for the job. Quickly, we both decided that we wanted to work together. We knew that travel from the U.S. to Switzerland in a matter of days would be massively complicated. So we faced the onboarding challenge per se and quite a few logistical challenges, such as organizing an apartment. Jen had never even considered moving to Switzerland before, where we have our headquarters. Switzerland on lockdown—probably not the best time to get to know a new country.

Organizing an apartment was not a big problem. But how do you communicate your team culture if you never see each other in person? The solution was a well-structured, partially automated process and an onboarding playbook.

Why Employee Onboarding Matters

Effective and "in-depth" onboarding usually helps new team members feel more valued, get into their new role more quickly, and increase their productivity and performance, resulting in increased engagement and happiness. The onboarding process begins even before a new hire starts, and usually, it takes around three months and includes many different steps. A new hire should be given a chance to understand the company philosophy, values, and strategy, and everything about their role, and of course, get to know their teammates as well. Especially in a fast-growing environment, employee onboarding can make the difference, as it quickly creates a sense of unity and clarity regarding goals and direction.

Sounds great. But how can you ensure all of that in a startup environment, without an HR department, operational overhead, and not much money for fancy software solutions?

Onboarding in Startups

Honestly, it's something that's often done on the side. I often accompanied new employees for a couple of days, gave them some time to arrive and familiarize themselves with their role. But it's rarely an utterly structured process. In the past cases, I'm referring to, I was not focusing on it too much. And I'm not alone. According to a study by Silk Road, 10% of new employees leave companies again due to a poor onboarding process. 37% even say their supervisor did not play an essential role in their onboarding experience.

I became particularly aware of this when I began adopting the previous onboarding process to the current remote times. I mean…what process? Changing this for me started by thinking about and writing down what I'd like to learn when joining a new company, what I would like to know about the staff, and who to ask when I need something. Since onboarding is similar to a strategic plan, if you want to do it right, you should go as far as mapping out all the critical touchpoints. By doing that, you will realize how much time good onboarding takes.

Principles of Successful Onboarding

Principle Number 1: Have Everything Prepared

We're not only talking about the basics, such as setting up the workplace (or even providing one at all) and providing access to the needed software. Onboarding is also about welcoming new team members personally with a welcome letter, a welcome box, and a summary of all other onboarding information required. I now make it a point to present the onboarding playbook myself and set up an appointment with the new team member before joining.

Principle Number 2: Have Everyone Prepared

This is about informing the team of the newbie's background, role, responsibilities, and collaboration. In addition, we name two "buddies" who are in charge of the onboarding. One is the "role buddy," often their direct manager, responsible for getting across a good understanding of the job that needs to be filled. The other is the "culture buddy" that will try to make sure new employees feel at ease during the onboarding, understand visible and invisible rules, and quickly feel as empowered as possible.

Principle Number 3: Send Them on a Mission

It's good to get started with something meaningful. That's why we send the new hire on a mission by setting some goals that can be tackled immediately AND with valuable output. We do this by creating a plan with 30, 60, and 90-day goals. This helps to ease into the job by being productive from day one and getting into the team quickly without the risk of early disappointment or uncertainty.

Principle number 4: Let Them get to Know Everybody

It's essential to get to know the whole team and start conversations quickly, rather than simply looking up information. Although we have everything well documented, it's just not very effective since it's too much theory and on its own won't allow us to get a feel for the personalities and different skill sets we have on the team.

The Onboarding Playbook

The onboarding playbook is the almanac into the heart of our company, so to speak, where all important things to get started are written down. It includes our WHY-HOW-WHAT: Our vision or the goal that drives all of us, our values that define how we work, and our mission statement, which further outlines what we want to achieve precisely on a product level and give to the world. The onboarding playbook also holds lots of information on our product and critical tips for making the most of the onboarding process. In addition, the design of the playbook is as vital as each word: It reflects our values, our brand, and how we want to appear to the outside world. It gives a feeling of what the company is about – with images and visual elements and a written introduction to the other people who work in our company.

I present the playbook to every new hire personally. Even in bigger organizations, the senior leadership team should hand it over and be ready to answer culture-related questions.

The Automated Onboarding Checklist

In addition to the playbook, we use a checklist sent automatically via our HR tool to make joining effective, despite the home office situation. The checklist contains some essential tasks that can be carried out in the first two weeks. For example, the new employee is asked to read through our knowledge base, get familiar with our social media channels, or hold meetings with individual team members. This provides structured guidance during the first phase of the onboarding and ensures that every new employee gets all the necessary information. Additionally, it supports the line manager who does not have to deal with the basics of onboarding.

Our checklist includes basic tasks such as "signing the receipt when getting the office keys" and many basic learning tasks like "reading the knowledge base. " Or it guides through our software jungle. But the list also helps to learn about our communication by introducing all the social media channels, our newsletter, or our brand book.

To make sure onboarding isn't just a one-way street of handing information to new people, every new hire is also asked to fill the employee questionnaire during the first week—more on that below.

Meeting the Team – Virtually

Getting to know new people takes months in regular times. How do I start a conversation? What gets on someone's nerves? What do they like or care about outside of work? Things like this are usually learned in a trial-and-error process. But what happens when you only get to know each other via video? According to a UCLA study, a large part of communication takes place non-verbally. It showed only 7% of any message to be relayed through words, 38% through vocal elements such as tone, and 55% through nonverbal elements such as posture and gesture. This precisely is the weakness of video chat because non-verbal communication can only occur to a significantly reduced extent. Casual, unscheduled moments and conversations between work meetings are also missing. The small talk over coffee or at the office table? Gone.

To make getting to know each other more manageable, we have implemented a remarkably successful idea to start with: Each employee fills out a questionnaire. And that's not just new hires. Everyone else has already done it, and the results are shared with the joining team member in the onboarding playbook. For example, we want to know a typical ice-breaker question to start a conversation or how someone likes to work, what is important to them, and what they expect from others. The effort required for this measure is relatively low, but the impact is all the more remarkable. Even well after the onboarding process, employees seem to consult this questionnaire, especially if conflicts arise, and use the answers from others to understand the other side better by looking at what they had to say about themselves in the questionnaire.

This questionnaire is also an excellent start to the video calls, which the new employee conducts with all (or most) team members. These calls are informal meetings to get to know each other and learn about each other's backgrounds. We also found that weekly one-on-one sessions are crucial in this phase: They build trust and a strong relationship between the new hire and team lead.

Another thing we have introduced is virtual coffee breaks. Every day at 3 p.m., everyone has the option to meet in a Zoom room and talk about everything except work. This option is used more sparingly and does not seem to meet a general need. But there is a loyal following. Again, it shows that we are individuals with our own needs and that an organization should also cater to these different demands by providing options rather than demands.

Quizzes and Valuable Feedback

The quiz might sound like school. But it's not that. While establishing the company's vision, mission, and values, we started coming up with quizzes to make sure what we had decided on as our shared philosophy stuck. The quizzes serve as light-hearted reminders and now can even show new employees if they're on the right track or missing some information. The quizzes are not tests, and the results are only visible to the new employee. But let's be honest: You need to learn a ton about a new job, and that's not an easy thing. It does not matter if it's on triathlon or mobile product knowledge or finance or whatever the company is about – it's always a lot. We've tried to make it enjoyable on all levels. Our quizzes consist of multiple-choice Kahoots sent out during the onboarding process, the first one after two weeks.

In addition to "fun" quizzes, feedback is also a vital component for us as an organization. Building the processes to make sure feedback is appreciated, given, and heard are never finished! You have to optimize them continuously. Maybe someone needs support that we haven't provided for. Or they see things differently and come in with a fresh view regarding something that we can improve in general. A new set of eyes looking at the organization, the product, or processes is always worth its weight in gold. That's why we conduct feedback meetings in weekly one-on-ones with the direct supervisor. After two weeks, after thirty days, and after three months, I perform a check-in call and want to know if the new employee needs more support, faces obstacles, and what we should start, stop or continue doing. These conversations are an extremely valuable gauge for me and help me constantly get a fresh perspective on the organization to get better.

The Result

We've seen great results and got excellent feedback. Remember Jen? I'll just let her talk about the experience: "Onboarding at TRIQ was, in short, an absolute pleasure. Having just moved to a new country and facing the daunting task of integrating into a company while in a lockdown, the onboarding process provided a series of focused tasks that accurately anticipated how I would be feeling and then guided me forward. Each task nudged me to meet and interact with someone new, gave me a series of tours around various tools used by the company, and provided someone available specifically to answer whatever question I might have along the way. In the whirlwind that was accepting this opportunity with TRIQ and the subsequent move to Switzerland, the onboarding process guided me to feel a bit more "at home" with my new company. And for that, I am immensely grateful. The onboarding process certainly set me up for success in the early months at TRIQ because I didn't waste time figuring out what I needed to know. There was a process to show me the critical aspects of working at TRIQ, and then I could set about contributing and learning as I go. Beyond being helpful on the company level, this helped me as an individual to feel productive and successful in my early days." The only thing left to say is: I am delighted that Jen is now a vital part of our team and that the process has helped her get there quickly. Who's next?

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