Top tips for successful (virtual!) onboarding

Friday 01 May 2020
Starting a new job can be scary and stressful - but usually, meeting smiling colleagues puts minds at ease. How can we translate these meaningful interactions to be wholly online?

The onboarding process is different in every business, but its goals are the same: integrate new starters into the business. This means making them feel at home at work, giving them the necessary points of contact and information, and settling them in. Doing this online naturally presents a unique challenge. As we know, body language is harder to read via a screen; internet speeds can cause delays in communication over your chosen software. Someone who is usually chatty and conversational may struggle to be so in a virtual hangout, just as someone who is assertive can come across as rude or blunt.

“In the current crisis, the natural curiosity, excitement and optimism of new employees can be muted by a sense of trepidation – so you need to mitigate this with a sense of reassurance and positivity during the onboarding process,” says Alph Keogh, a leadership and team-building coach and author of OnBoard. “Remote communication technology tends not to be the best method to provide these. However, there are some creative ways of ensuring that the online process can go some way to meeting the requirements of both the learning and the emotional bonding necessary.”

So how can we successfully bring new starters into the fold while working from home?

The first step is to think... outside of the box

“Before the deluge of remote meetings, why not send each new employee a customised package in the post?” asks Alph. “You could include t-shirts, photos of team-mates, a note from the boss, and a picture of the employees’ workspace. This tactile engagement not only provides reassurance, but it can also fuel a great conversation when the online meeting happens. You could even ask them to hold off unboxing it until the first online session!”

This is also a great opportunity to ask the your new colleague of any things that may get in the way of working safely - such as their study set up and their access to a computer. If you’re able, it may be worth thinking about other ways you can support them to work from home safely. One person we spoke to suggested sending a voucher to put towards a new office chair, or towards tech equipment to use for work, like a mouse or a printer.

Then realise: it's all about the connections

“The right team-building activity aligns directly with your company’s culture, bringing your unique brand to life and reinvigorating everyone’s passion for what they do,” says Jonny Edser, managing director of Wildgoose, an award-winning business which hosts team-building events. “One aspect that we encourage virtual companies to have a structure for is welcoming new staff into the team, as being able to communicate company values and conveying the ethics of the wider team can be challenging enough in an office environment. So much of a good welcome is about face-to-face interaction, so you should try and replicate this via other means as much as possible.”

The lesson here? Let the team lead on how they want to introduce themselves. They may have specific duties they’re expecting the new starter(s) to help them with, and they’ll form their own ways of communicating that fit their relationship. By letting this be a people-led exercise, you’re encouraging unique, genuine connections between team members. But bear in mind that a good manager will check in about how the process and the relationships are going.

You could also suggest buddying them up with a colleague, so they have two touchpoints for any questions - informally through their buddy, or formally through their line manager.

Encourage chit-chat...

Wildgoose have recently launched new entirely online team-building exercises, aimed at helping both new and existing teams keep the culture going from afar.

“It’s a good idea to produce a digital welcome pack, and its contents should form the basis of an integration period during the first couple of weeks,” says Jonny. “Presentations about culture and working practices can be delivered just as effectively in the virtual space. It’s also important to set up conference calls with each department head so that a new employee can get to know team members as well as getting a sense of the company.”

This also allows for organic jokes and interactions between colleagues, and provides conversation-starters and ice-breakers for their next conversation. “One of our products, The Daily Kick-Off, is designed to boost morale every day with a small challenge,” Jonny says. “Participants are encouraged to shoot motivational photos and videos in their own home, which are saved into a presentation for the team to share, creating a lasting memory and plenty of fun. It’s a great way to integrate someone into a new and unfamiliar team with some light-hearted questions and challenges. What new team member hasn’t benefited from a work social during their first few weeks? It’s important to find ways to recreate that and provide the same benefits.”

...but remember, onboarding is a professional exercise

“Ensure that each new employee is not treated as a dumb terminal in online sessions,” says Alph. “Plan for everyone to have a task and give them some preparation homework. There are many possibilities for this from the simple “Tell us about the best team you ever worked in”, to something more job-specific. Also, give them the opportunity to share their previous experience and successes, and any other introductory information about their professional journey.”

It’s also worth sending over information on dress-code and video-chat etiquette for the new starter to read ahead of time. While these may currently be more unofficial guidelines, they’re a useful starting point so they don’t make any faux-pas! Little things, like advising them to mute their mic in a large meeting, will help them to put their best foot forward.

Encourage contribution, not just consumption!

Alph says that one of the pitfalls of virtual onboarding is that the new employee may feel like they are expected to just be silent and listen during these meetings – but that shouldn’t be the case.

“Do not line up a series of managers to pitch their piece of the company in half-hour slots and have all participants attend each session,” Alph says. “Instead, split the group up into smaller cohorts and have these attend input on different topics. Then let them cross-teach each other in a supervised session. This helps to make the initial connection tangible in the form of a customised package. Then engage online in small groups, utilizing short focused sessions for bonding conversations, work specific content discussions and cross learning.”

For more leadership tips on getting the best out of your team and encouraging genuine collaboration, find out what type of management style you have. We also have top insight into how you can keep your company’s culture alive during lockdown.

For more content to help you manage through the current crisis, visit our Leading Through Uncertainty hub.

Don’t miss out - get notified of new content

Sign-up to become a Friend of CMI to recieve our free newsletter for a regular round-up of our latest insight and guidance.

CMI members always see more. For the widest selection of content, including CPD tools and multimedia resources, check out how to get involved with CMI membership.