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7 remote onboarding tips to improve the new-hire experience

Onboarding new hires is one of the trickier aspects HR teams must face when using a work-from-home model. These seven tips on remote onboarding provide guidance.

Onboarding is that critical juncture of the employee journey when a new hire connects with other members of the team, learns the ins and outs of the job and has a chance to feel and embrace the company culture. All of that is likely disrupted if your company has recently moved to a work-from-home model, which means you need to focus on creating a positive remote onboarding experience -- and fast.

Onboarding new employees, both in the office and remotely, entails a specific list of requirements. The onboarding process must cover a lot, from administrative areas such as payroll tax forms to IT issues such as work tool assignments to core work such as introductions and first assignments.

"Integrating a new hire into an organization and ramping them up to full productivity and engagement is challenging with traditional onboarding programs," said Lauren Smith, vice president in the Gartner HR practice. "As onboarding for many jobs has now moved to be virtual, these challenges can be compounded by the realities of remote work."

Additional challenges that are unique to remote employees include technical and personal issues, as well as inexperience working from home.

"Due to [COVID-19], many employees may be starting jobs in a remote environment for the first time, and special consideration must be made to help them adapt to working from home," said Melodie Bond-Hillman, director of HR and administration at XYPRO Technology Corporation, a cybersecurity provider based in Simi Valley, Calif.

Even new hires in top managerial roles and with years of experience can find this new work reality challenging.

That was the experience of one HR leader who took a new job the same month COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.

"Not only did I have to navigate my own new role, but also assist other new employees with remote onboarding during a global pandemic," said Martha Delehanty, chief people officer (CPO) of Commvault, a data protection software company based in Tinton Falls, N.J. "Our team immediately focused on reimagining onboarding and welcoming new employees while Commvault moved its entire workforce to working remote."

Addressing any challenges that come up can quickly become time-consuming for both employees and the organization. However, good organization and strategic use of technologies, such as RPA and form prefill features, can trim down the time needed to complete the steps.

Here are seven remote onboarding tips to help guide your organization's effectiveness.

1. Maximize preboarding

Your HR team can get most of the rote tasks completed during the preboarding process.

"Use this time to complete as much of the paperwork as possible, and use an HRIS to allow employees to e-sign documents," Bond-Hillman said.

Making the most of preboarding will enable you to focus on higher-value aspects of onboarding on the new employee's first day.

"New hire paperwork should be launched the moment the employee signs the offer," she said. "We send offer letters out through our HRIS system which, once e-signed, triggers the onboarding and background check process to launch."

2. Prevent a negative experience

Onboarding is a true moment that matters in the employee journey. And a negative onboarding experience makes it twice as likely that a new hire will soon look for another job, according to a report from Deloitte.

Forcing a new hire to complete a confusing array of tasks is one source of a negative new employee experience.

"The average new hire has [far too many] activities to complete during their onboarding experience," said Renato Profico, CEO at Doodle, a scheduling application company based in Switzerland. "Overloading a new hire with too many onboarding tasks could create a roadblock for them in getting familiar with the business and understanding what's expected of them in their role."

Create a schedule for new hires so they know what's ranked most important, and give them a realistic amount of time to complete tasks.

3. Simplify remote onboarding tasks

Three words -- short, sweet, simple -- should guide your overarching approach to remote onboarding.

"Reduce the overall amount of content you plan to cover in a single session or break it out into a series of smaller sessions with clear objectives," Smith said.

Remote onboarding doesn't necessarily have to be more extensive than in-person onboarding.

"The beginning stages of the remote onboarding process takes no more additional time than the in-person onboarding process," said Johanna Jackman, CPO at Pure Storage, an all-flash data storage hardware and software provider based in Mountain View, Calif. "Resources are given to our managers before and after their new hire starts, addressing topics such as resiliency and adapting to change in order to support them as they adjust to leading remote teams."

Even if your onboarding processes for remote employees end up taking longer than traditional onboarding, or gets disrupted while in progress, there are ways to combat that.

"Keep in mind that while remote onboarding might take longer, you can be creative and find ways to speed it along while still ensuring it is a positive experience," Delehanty said.

Be sure to add software as necessary to speed processes and provide the legal or audit trail your company needs.

Learn more about remote work

4. Consolidate remote onboarding information

A unified onboarding platform can make virtual onboarding less daunting for new employees by simplifying the onboarding experience.

"Make sure new hires know where to find information by sharing a detailed onboarding plan that contains passwords and logins to the company's digital infrastructure," said Vladimir Stepuro, HR director at ScienceSoft, an IT consulting and software development company based in McKinney, Tex.

Self-service tools can provide employees access to corporate policies, guides and FAQs, he said. These tools can also provide the new employee's work schedule and provide introductory training materials.

5. Make e-signing more accessible

E-signing helps streamline onboarding, whether remote or in-person, but it's especially important for remote onboarding as a way to cut digital fatigue.

Consider technologies such as form autofills and RPA so new hires don't have to enter the same information repeatedly or fill out an excessive number of forms.

"E-signing programs like DocuSign, Adobe and Word make the process of acknowledging and signing offer letters, handbooks, waivers and new employment forms … easier," said Kelly DuFord Williams, co-founder at Slate Law Group, located in San Diego.

From a legal perspective, consider asking for permission to use such technology.

"Having employees acknowledge and consent to the use of electronic signatures is prudent," she said.

6. Foster social connections  

New hires need help in connecting to other employees, and this is especially true in a remote setting.

COVID-19 forced the company to adopt a remote work model, making onboarding more challenging, said Tracy Browne, senior director of human resources at Semtech, a supplier of analog and mixed-signal semiconductors and advanced algorithms based in Camarillo, Calif. But replicating in-person onboarding activities helps establish those personal connections.

For example, Semtech teams take new employees out to virtual lunches.

"Everyone brings their lunch to the video conference and comes prepared to socialize -- to talk about their experiences at Semtech, their favorite books or what TV shows they are binge-watching right now," Browne said.

Lewis, a global marketing consultancy based in San Francisco, recently implemented a buddy system for new hires.

"The buddy is the new team member's point person throughout the onboarding process," said Christina Ioannou, vice president of HR at Lewis. "The buddy is available for all the 'silly' questions, to fill them in on office happenings and add them to the office social channels."

7. Offer ongoing support

Remote onboarding is not a one-and-done endeavor.

"Assigning new employees ongoing support through peer contact on their team to answer questions, steer them through office dynamics and to monitor their transition into the office will ensure they have everything they need to succeed," Williams said.

Consistency is key during this time and making sure new employees are given access to and are aware of company tools, protocols and resources places them in a position for success, she said.

"Further, having their direct supervisor and HR representative periodically reach out to provide advice and to address any concerns will help new employees feel supported throughout their employment beyond the initial onboarding period," Williams said.

No matter how well you work out your processes, HR's work may never be done, at least not in perfecting onboarding for remote employees.

"As HR functions continue to build and deliver virtual onboarding programs, the best [teams] are gathering feedback from new hires and hiring managers, acknowledging any shortcomings and incorporating lessons from those mistakes into future iterations," Smith said.

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