High-Touch Tools For Remote Onboarding (Parts 1 & 2)

Dr. John Sullivan and Michael Cox

In last week’s companion article, Stop Creating Zombie Remote Workers – Use High-Touch Remote Onboarding, we highlighted the importance of developing and then offering a variation to traditional onboarding for use when all new-hires are forced to work at home during the pandemic.

The focus of this article is to provide a “toolkit” of effective intuitive high-touch tools that should be used at the team level when every new worker must be onboarded remotely. However, it’s important to note that the remote onboarding tools listed here are especially effective for any employee that is working 100% remotely.

The Top 8 Remote Onboarding Goals – with Recommended High-touch Tools Under Each Goal

Listed below, in all italics, are the top 8 highest impact goals for 100% remote onboarding at the team level (with the highest impact goals listed first). Under each goal, we list several effective and easy to implement high-touch onboarding tools for your team. These tools are tailored specifically for your new hires that will be working remotely either for the current COVID-19 “Shelter in Place” order or permanently.

Onboarding goal #1 – Increase the team’s focus on onboarding.

Onboarding needs to be viewed as more than a new hire orientation process. Adding even one new team member changes the entire team’s capabilities, productivity, and innovation level.

Building a new team takes an average of eight months. The fastest way to improve the results from onboarding remote workers is to increase the time and resources at the team level that are devoted to this process. That added focus simply won’t occur until managers and team members fully understand how everyone benefits from increasing the effectiveness of onboarding. The available remote onboarding tools that increase the team’s resources assigned to onboarding include:

  • Extend the onboarding time period – there is tremendous pressure put on remote new hires to learn everything during a short period of time. This causes new-hires to forget three-quarters of what they learn under traditional onboarding. During their first week, especially remote new-hires don’t even know what questions they should be asking. Depending on the job, that usually means extending it to 30, 60, or 90 days.
  • Assign a peer buddy to reduce “answer fishing” – remote new-hires don’t know who to ask, so they tend to burden everyone on the team with numerous questions using a process known as “answer fishing.” Preboarding is a great opportunity to assign peer buddies so that the new hire is familiar with someone on Day 1. Assigning two peer buddies (one team member hired within 6 months and another within 18 months) will provide the option to ask questions to someone who is most likely to know the answer. Also, providing them with a list of frequently asked onboarding questions will allow them to get accurate answers faster without burdening senior team members and the manager unnecessarily.
  • Communicate the direct benefits to increase participation – everyone will devote more time to onboarding remote workers when they realize how it directly impacts them. Make a list of the likely benefits to individual team members (i.e., work is taken off their plate faster, the likelihood of getting a team bonus increases, they have to fix fewer new-hire errors, they won’t have to answer as many dumb questions). Also, make sure you justify the ROI business case and the dollars of business impacts to every hiring manager. So they, unambiguously, know that excellent remote onboarding will directly increase productivity by 25% and it will also measurably reduce new-hire turnover and any initial customer impacts.

Onboarding goal #2 – Develop a personalized onboarding plan.

The most serious foundational flaw with most onboarding is that it is a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Although a general approach might be necessary with corporate-level onboarding, the team-level onboarding will be much more effective if it is tailored to the individual’s unique needs. Develop a plan designed to increase the assimilation, initial productivity, and retention of new hires, whether they are working remotely or not. This personalization is focused around areas that are important to this new-hire. Often, it includes initial training, continuous learning, and career advancement. The plan should be developed jointly during a two-hour Zoom meeting with their manager and their peer buddy. In order to be successful, the plan will need to have mutual goals, timelines, progress milestones, and assimilation metrics.

  • Onboarding goals – the first step in building the onboarding plan is for the manager to send the employee a link to the description of the normal onboarding process for remote workers. In a follow-up, remote Zoom meeting, the manager must provide the new-hire with their goals and expectations for the entire onboarding process. The new-hire must be asked for their own goals and expectations. Assessment milestones for each need to be set within the onboarding plan.
  • Offer them preboarding components  assimilation and anti-ghosting efforts can be enhanced by allowing the remote new hire to begin some phases of onboarding before their actual start date. This Day 0 packet might include the opportunity to read about the upcoming remote onboarding process, benefit choices that they will be asked to make, and making them aware of information that will eventually be needed to get them fully signed up. Excite the new hire by letting them know the team’s plans and the investments you plan to make in them to help reinforce their yes decision.
  • A personalized learning plan – the best new hires are almost universally interested in learning. During an hour-long one-on-one Zoom meeting, the manager should identify and schedule immediate job training needs that can be met with remote learning. And then, work with the new-hire to jointly develop sub-plans for their continued development, including future interests, and remote projects they would like to work on. In addition, because new-hires are often quite busy, this plan should be prioritized based on what the team needs for the new hire’s success.
  • Understand what drives them – provide all new-hires with a “help us get to know you survey.” This tool helps their manager understand the new-hire’s professional interests, excitement factors, learning targets, and the nonmonetary rewards they prefer.

Onboarding goal #3 – Action steps for increasing a new-hire’s productivity.

Without specific actions designed to increase their initial productivity, remote new hires are likely to wander. So, tools are needed to help new hires understand their performance expectations, their likely barriers to productivity, and their performance assessment process.

  • Make the impact of their work clear – many individuals change jobs with the goal of increasing their impacts. It is true that “showing them why their work matters” is the #1 employee motivator. To increase productivity, make it crystal clear to the new hire where and how their work impacts the team and the customer.
  • Identify likely productivity barriers – unless you educate new hires about the likely productivity barriers that they will encounter, it will take them longer to overcome them. Survey recent hires in this job (companies with multiple individuals in this role) and on this team to identify the problems and the productivity barriers that they encountered. Then provide each new hire with a prioritized list of barriers and a few tips for overcoming each. Also, make their peer buddy and their manager aware of these barriers and solutions.
  • Help them understand their performance assessment process – performance metrics are essential for assessing remote workers. However, performance metrics also help the new-hire focus on the outputs that they will be assessed on. So, have their manager prepare and share a list of their likely performance indicators (KPIs). Specifically, reinforce what is expected during their first week and month on the job. And then, schedule a one-on-one Zoom meeting during their first week to explain and adjust those measures. At the same meeting, the team’s performance appraisal process should be highlighted along with common questions about the process. At the end of their first month, a follow-up meeting should be offered to clear up any new issues and to assess their “time to minimum productivity” progress.
  • Encourage right direction questions to minimize confusion – new hires often get confused and go off in low priority directions. To minimize that and improve their focus, managers and teammates need to encourage new hires to ask, “Is this the right direction?” questions at the very beginning of any project. Additional errors can be avoided if the new hires are told that before they ask a question that could possibly make them look foolish, they can start with the phrase, “A possible dumb question from a new-hire” or “I want to redeem my new hire question coupon.”

Onboarding goal #4 – Proactively build the new hire’s network.

Google research demonstrated that the size of an employee’s network directly impacted their productivity. In addition, a quickly acquired network builds a feeling of belonging and it speeds up the process of acquiring information. Rather than leaving it to chance, take actions to proactively accelerate the growth of a new hire’s informal and formal network development.

  • Provide new-hire’s with profiles of team members – if you’re using remote onboarding, there have likely been no face-to-face meetings between the new hire and members of their team. To speed up a new hire’s appreciation of and their sense of belonging to their team, start by providing them with a compilation of short profiles of each of the team members (usually from LinkedIn). Encourage each team member to automatically connect with the remote new hire on LinkedIn.
  • Sharing electronic contact lists – encourage their peer buddy and other willing teammates to scour their contact lists and to share the most relevant ones with the remote new-hire. If a team has a large number of new hires, a continually updated important contacts list should be maintained and shared.
  • Ask the new hire who they would like to meet – encourage the new hire to ask their peer buddy to arrange a virtual introduction meeting with key individuals (by title) that they would like to meet. At the very least, they should encourage these individuals to connect with the new-hire via LinkedIn.
  • Make them aware of corporate affinity groups – it is especially difficult for remote workers to connect with people with similar backgrounds, interests, and goals. So, make them aware of the different corporate affinity groups that involve diversity, sports, and hobbies. Encourage them to join.
Remote onboarding
Image from Pixabay

Onboarding goal #5 – Accelerating the assimilation of the new-hire.

One of the primary goals of any form of onboarding is to get the new hire to feel that they are fully assimilated and that they belong to the team. There are many high-touch remote onboarding tools that can help speed up that assimilation. They often include welcoming celebrations, scheduled daily contacts, and “getting to know you” events.

  • Welcome and getting to know us celebrations – most are familiar with new-hire welcoming celebrations, but they are a little more difficult when everyone can’t be in the same room. However, team Zoom meetings where everyone shares the same food through delivery services can be almost as effective. Start by making sure that everyone attends. Then, choose the version that best fits your team, but consider parties that involve ice cream, wine tastings, a shared breakfast, or a local delicacy. Have each team member prepare a sixty-second video clip on their phone highlighting something about them that everyone should know. Incidentally, nothing is more frustrating than not having the hiring manager on the day that a remote working new hire starts.
  • Shock them with a startup electronics box – nothing shows that you trust a new-hire more than sending them a startup electronics box before they even start. Work with operations to ensure that the new hire receives a “Startup” FedEx box at home before they start. It should include their business cards, notepads, their new smartphone, laptop, and their associated accessories. This has a WOW impact because few firms even have this done on the new-hire’s first day. The manager can also send a swag box to their home. This box can include company-branded items for friends and family so that they can all be involved in identifying with the company.
  • Offer periodic virtual coffee breaks  to avoid a feeling of isolation. Research shows that informal meetings promote camaraderie and risk-taking. Team members should be meeting one another informally at least three times a week. In addition, each team member should be required to schedule their own individual virtual coffee breaks with each remote employee at least once every three weeks. New hires have revealed that “get to know you” events were the most beneficial in getting up to speed.
  • Provide “I am online” notifications – often the difference between successful and unsuccessful remote workers who operate on weird schedules is the availability of their manager and teammates. In this case, being available means being notified when another teammate is online at the same time. In the office, employees should also be made aware of the importance of reaching out and connecting with a remote employee whenever they happen to be online. When members are in different time zones, make sure that every member can have his or her team available to ask questions on a regular basis.
  • Make new hires aware of team ground rules – all teams need codified guiding principles to be successful and remote teams are no different. These ground rules set the expectations for the team including scope, cost, response time, roles, and time management. In addition to these categories, teams should address the following common issues related to remote work, including attention problems, burnout, isolation, confusion, and communication. Part of that process might include creating a NOT To-Do List. A list of specific actions that have in the past hurt the team and its performance. 
  • Provide them with examples of the team culture and values – new hires can “dilute” a team’s culture. It is critical that new hires truly understand the team’s culture and how they are expected to act in certain situations. Research shows that the best way to reinforce these values is by telling compelling stories and providing specific examples that illustrate these expected actions.
  • Minimize confusion with a glossary of key terms and acronyms – take preemptive action to avoid confusion by providing all new hires, but especially remote ones, with a glossary of common terms, acronyms, and buzzwords. So, they don’t have to ask uncomfortable questions about words and acronyms that might make them appear to be a dumb hire. Knowing these words might also decrease the number of errors on the job.
  • Video games can unite a team – portions of onboarding can be turned into a game. Where the new hire strives to complete important onboarding tasks within a targeted period of time. Having the entire team take off an occasional afternoon and play a joint remote videogame can also strengthen teammate bonds. Adding quizzes with small prizes can help to accelerate the learning of key onboarding information.

Onboarding goal #6 – Encourage continuous two-way communications.

It’s difficult to maintain communications with any new-hire that is going through onboarding. However, if they’re going to work remotely for any period of time, you must proactively increase two-way communications. Some of the ways to improve communications include:

  • Reveal everyone’s communications preferences – the best way to ensure that an important message will be received and read is to send it via the receiver’s preferred communications channel. So ask everyone to post internally on Slack, or other sharing mechanisms, their preferred communications channels for each type of message. As well as the times when you are the most responsive to messages.
  • Take advantage of internal communications networks – even medium-size organizations now have access to remote work facilitation tools like cloud files and transparent scheduling tools. There are also many new electronic internal communications platforms. So make all new hires try them at least once. Common corporate tools include Slack, G-Chat, HipChat, Google Sites, Chatter, Currents, and virtual whiteboards.
  • Encourage the use of CRM systems – many teams have Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software that periodically reminds them to connect with customers. It makes sense to also use that software, or use a project management alternative, internally to remind the new-hire’s manager and teammates to communicate frequently – especially on birthdays, anniversaries and project completion dates.
  • Encourage a high level of honesty – when a new-hire working remotely feels like they don’t fully understand the culture, they are less likely to be straightforward and honest. If the team requires honest answers, managers need to make it clear that the team practices constructive confrontation or radical candor. This communication expectation frames feedback and criticisms to be straightforward with nothing withheld (other than personalizing the feedback). With remote teams, managers can help demonstrate this model through online lists (keep doing this, stop doing this, start doing that) and a virtual whiteboard/slideshow. A related best practice is that there can be “no hidden work”. This practice reduces duplicate and low priority work. Having nothing withheld means that there can be no tasks, projects, and activities that no one else on the team knows about. In remote environments, it’s best to use project management tools like Trello, MS Project, or Smartsheet to improve everyone’s knowledge of what you are working on.

Onboarding goal #7 – Assessing a new hire’s onboarding progress.

It’s always important to assess the progress of onboarding. However, it’s especially important when you extend onboarding over multiple weeks. That periodic assessment of progress should include setting individual onboarding performance metrics, scheduling remote check-ins and progress assessment meetings.

  • Set individual onboarding progress measures – rather than relying on words to assess a new-hire’s progress during onboarding, specific metrics and passing scores should be set up in advance and communicated to the new-hire. These progress metrics should always include time to minimum productivity. And, managers should assess two-way satisfaction in key accomplishment areas including trust, two-way communications, flight risk probability and the degree of assimilation into the team. Teammates should be measured and recognized for having the shortest average response time from each remote worker.
  • Schedule periodic remote check-in and onboarding progress assessment meetings – because new hires and managers are quite busy, the assessment of an individual new-hire’s onboarding progress is allowed to slide. Prevent this slide by requiring and scheduling periodic one-on-one Zoom check-in meetings with their manager. To ensure that these actually occur, designate them as “no cancel meetings”.
  • Schedule stay interviews – failing to retain a new-hire hurts the team because all of the invested coaching and training is lost. So rather than assuming everything is okay, proactively improve new-hire retention by scheduling stay interviews at 6 and 12 months. These stay interviews are one-on-one Zoom meetings with their manager where the key reasons why they stay are identified. Managers develop a personalized retention plan to reinforce each of these “sticky factors”.
  • Are we keeping our promises assessment – unkept promises are a significant cause of frustration, unhappiness, and early turnover. And unfortunately, many recent hires feel that promises were made during the hiring process are not being kept. Rather than letting that feeling fester, proactively address this issue during the regularly scheduled check-in meetings. During a one-on-one Zoom meeting with their manager, ask the new-hire to list the key promises that are, or are not, being kept. The manager should develop a short-term plan to meet those promises or renegotiate expectations.

Onboarding goal #8 – Sign-ups and remembering start-up information. 

Unfortunately, many of those who manage corporate onboarding place an over-emphasis on what I call “administrative sign-ups”. Unfortunately, forcing the completion of too many sign-ups will frustrate anyone going to remote onboarding. At least at the corporate level, we recommend a three hour per day limit on onboarding administration.

  • Electronic sign-ups for payroll, benefits, etc. – thanks to new technology, these sign-ups can be completed 100% remotely (provided that your system has enough security). As a plus, these electronic sign-ups can be even more effective than a paper form if they allow electronic signatures. And provide the new-hire with hints or even block them from inputting data incorrectly. Obviously, getting security badges, keys or other physical onboarding materials will have to be done via courier.
  • Stretch out communicating corporate policies and values – this significant portion of corporate onboarding can be problematic because the amount of information provided during a short period of time can literally cause headaches. At the very least, managers should realize little of it will actually be remembered. So the most effective approach is to prioritize information that absolutely must be provided on the first day. Then, split the remaining information over the next week following the three hours per day limit. If possible, allow the new-hire to select whether they receive their information as a podcast, reading, a video or even a video game.

Additional Fun Remote Onboarding Tools To Consider

The prioritized tools provided in the previous sections have the highest impact on remote onboarding results. However, there are many lower impact onboarding tools that add fun to any remote onboarding plan. These tools are highly intuitive so they don’t need much of an explanation.

  • Welcome email – Introduce the new member to the team through a welcome email to spark the hire’s first introductions to the team.
  • Remote scavenger hunt – as a challenge have new-hires seek out key information and “who’s in charge of this”. An alternative scavenger hunt is to seek out interesting items in your home that can spark a conversation with your teammates.
  • Baseball cards for the team – introduce new teammates with baseball cards covering each team member. With “stats” on the back of the new employee’s card relating to work and hobbies.
  • “Meet everyone card” – Give them a “meet everyone card” that requires (rewards) them for pasting in a copy of the email address of all key team members on the card during the first ___ days.
  • Thank the family – Thank the significant other by sending flowers or a “dinner for two” coupons to celebrate the new job. Send their children welcome gifts, T-shirts, etc.
  • Create shared moments remotely – Casual, themed meetings are a great way to increase camaraderie. Use remote ice cream socials, themed coffee talks, and costumes to show different employees. Celebrate national days together as a team (i.e. national dog day). Attend virtual activities together including games, streaming movies, or concerts.
  • Daily small challenges – Use your #fun chat to enjoy sharing daily, work-friendly challenges that include 3-minute meditation, daily walking, fitness goals, or personal habits.
  • Exercise together – when appropriate, set up daily times where members of the team can exercise together using Zoom.
  • End meetings positively – Especially in small teams, one way to improve team communication is by sharing “an aha, an apology, or an appreciation” at the end of each virtual meeting. This process closes the meeting with everyone sharing a lightbulb moment, apologizing for something, or highlighting something that they really liked from the meeting.
  • Know the Rules Game! – Design a game for new hires/transfers to learn the must-know rules for the job by making it fun to pay attention to health and safety standard issues.
remote onboarding
Image from Pixabay

Final Thoughts on Remote Onboarding

Most onboarding programs are designed to get a new employee to meet his or her team and finish the company paperwork. It’s a process to get new hires to be in the right place at the right time – not to be the best they can be. This does not work for the in-person office where new hires can be seen struggling. And, it’s hurting the company more when making this mistake remotely. By settling for limited onboarding programs, managers are missing the opportunity to improve productivity, retention, customer satisfaction, employer brand, and reduce error rates.

By reinforcing the right expectations, communication habits, and developing the individual, managers can lead world-class teams without ever meeting in-person. Ask yourself these questions to evaluate if you need to do more:

  • Goal – Is the primary goal to get new hires productive as fast as possible?
  • Innovation and ideas – Are remote employee ideas falling on deaf ears? Are you investing in a remote employee’s projects at the same rate as local projects?
  • Feedback loop – Are the causes of successes and failures communicated to ensure that every process continually improves?

Remote Onboarding Resources:

Author’s Note: If this article stimulated your thinking and provided you with actionable tips. Please take a moment to follow and/or connect with Dr. Sullivan on LinkedIn and to subscribe to his weekly Talent Newsletter.

Images from Pixabay.

Part 1, Part 2

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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