As New Zealand opens back up and people go on holiday, many businesses that shuttered during the covid-19 lockdowns will be looking to hire. Other companies may be waiting until the new year to recruit, and plenty of skilled people will be seeking new jobs, or looking to switch careers as they re-evaluate their priorities and goals.

All employers know that after hiring someone new, it is vital to get them onboard quickly, so they can learn the job and integrate into the team in the shortest time possible. Putting in that important work at the start of employment sets the person, and the business, up for long-term success or quickly sorts out whether you and your new employee are the right fit.

With the ongoing disruptions, restrictions, and changes brought about by covid, it isn’t possible for many employers or managers to onboard new employees on site. 

The remote-working trend was already well established before the pandemic, with technological advances, the rise of flexible work, and companies with multiple footprints, but now, remote onboarding is more a facet of normal business life than ever.

This presents unique challenges, as it may not be as easy for your new hire to learn the ropes and the company processes or to integrate with colleagues and the business culture. As a boss or manager, you can’t talk in person (other than via a screen or by phone) and you can’t easily stop by for a casual catch-up at the new employee’s desk or at the water cooler. 

Onboarding remotely requires a high level of trust: management must feel confident the employee is doing what is expected, and the recruit needs to know that management is there for them. 

There are risks on both sides: the employee could end up feeling poorly supported and isolated and as a result will be underproductive, take longer to get up to speed in their role, or end up leaving the business after a short period. Management, on the other hand, could end up spending more time than usual checking in with the new hire and making sure they have the tools, training, and connections needed to crack on with the job. It can also take longer to develop rapport and to get a sense of the new person’s strengths and weaknesses, and how they can best be supported.

Good onboarding is good onboarding

It’s important to recognise that the principles and aims of good onboarding remain the same; it’s just that when you are doing it remotely, the tools at your disposal are more limited. You need to approach the process deliberately, understanding the difficulties and limitations, and compensating for the restrictions.

Technology is obviously your friend here. There are many good online tools that can make the remote experience personal as well as efficient and effective. Given the new person will be working remotely, look for programs that will integrate with your existing systems. Use as many communication channels as you need, but be sure to define how they should be used and work with your new hire on the ways they prefer to communicate. 

In the absence of actual personal contact, structure and documentation are especially important. Clearly document tasks and expectations, and break them down into easily digestible portions so your new employee doesn’t get buried under an avalanche of information. Even if you have given instructions verbally, make sure you follow up in writing so both you and the person have them for reference.

This goes for some of the practices and procedures that may be “unspoken” within the business, such as how the company’s IT systems should be used, any cultural norms, or when the team gets together for social meetings.

Then set a regular check-in schedule. This may be as often as every hour or two during the first few days, just to check if the person understands what to do and can ask questions. A little and often is more effective than letting confusion build, and it demonstrates that the new person can rely on the business’s support. A set schedule also makes it easier for the boss or manager to set time aside to support them, rather than being constantly interrupted by a stream of employee questions.

Organise group meetings to build connection between your new employee and the wider team. Having some structure will help break the ice and ensure everyone has the chance to speak. Ongoing smaller catch-ups are also important in building relationships. These might take the form of virtual shared lunches with different team members, or relaxed team meetings where people can have a laugh and discuss things outside work. 

Effective remote onboarding requires a bit more planning upfront, and the learning and relationship building may take a little longer, but it is effort worth putting in to get your employee fully set up in their new role with the company.

Keys to remote onboarding

  • 20% effort addresses 80% of the issues.
  • Clear, documented expectations.
  • Regular check-in calls between manager and new employee.
  • Zoom/Skype/Google Meets/Teams intro to other colleagues.
  • Document “unspoken practices” in the workplace.
  • Book smaller lunch catch-ups between 2-3 people.
  • Informal hang-outs, eg Friday drinks.  

Sylvie Thrush Marsh is head of platinum services at outsourced human resources provider MyHR in Auckland.