When people hear “remote work” or “work from home” they almost always think that the person they’re talking to really just means sitting in front of the TV watching Buffy reruns with Slack open on their laptop on the coffee table. However, a recent study by IWG found that at least 70% of the global workforce works remotely at least once a week, and 53% telecommute for half of the week or more. Remote workers must be solely responsible for keeping Netflix in business—or are they?
In fact, remote workers are, according to a study done by TalentLMS, 90% more productive when they are working at home. It’s no wonder then, that tons of companies are shifting to a partially remote workforce. But changing habits isn’t always easy, and there are a lot of new frontiers that organizations are having to discover as they shift to allowing remote work.
A beautifully designed onboarding experience is one of the most important things that your company can do for any employee, not just remote ones. But, it does seem that remote employees are left wanting for it a bit more. In fact, 67% of remote workers say that they want more onboarding and training in general to do their jobs better.
We at PartnerHero have partnered with the team at Support Driven to interview some of their most active community members about remote onboarding. Over the next several paragraphs you’ll see a compilation of insights that we gleaned from chatting with employees, managers, and representatives from BPOs around their experiences with remote onboarding. Here’s what you can expect to get answers to:
- Does onboarding every actually end?
- What’s the difference between remote and colocated onboarding?
- How do you maintain culture and values when remotely onboarding?
- What tools do you use?
- How do you measure success?
- What are some of the red flags of remote onboarding?
- Was anything much harder or easier than you expected it to be?
Does onboarding ever actually end?
Onboarding is an ongoing process. Everyone that we spoke with agreed that even beyond the initial onboarding, training should continue for an employee’s whole tenure with a company. This can be done through offering a training budget, or even just scheduling regular company-wide trainings on important initiatives or changes. Sarah Ellenberg, a Program Manager at PartnerHero said: “initial on-boarding for new hires technically has a beginning and an end. However, we all know that training and continuous improvement never ends. Between product updates, new workflows, defects, and expanded responsibilities for the team, onboarding is ongoing!” And that’s true! Whether you’re working remotely or colocated, your training should be ongoing and continuous if you want people to be the best employee that they can be.
Onboarding does have additional benefits beyond just making sure your product knowledge is up to snuff. Training and personal development helps to uplevel every employee, and keep teams and internal organizations in sync. Instead of looking at it as a necessary evil, Mico Quijano of Boldr Impact, looks at it as a persistent benefit for everyone:
“More than just a routine administrative procedure, we think of onboarding as an ongoing practice that keeps employees and businesses in sync as their needs constantly evolve.
When our people are equipped with valuable information at every pivotal point of their journey with the company, we’re able to establish trust, reinforce values, and foster an inclusive and dynamic culture.”
Give people consistent opportunities to improve themselves, and you’ll improve the whole company.
What’s the difference between remote and colocated onboarding?
Despite remote and colocated job responsibilities often being similar, there are some key differences to onboarding the two. For instance, while both groups may need to be trained on your company’s tone and style, you probably won’t need to train remote employees on how to use the office coffee machine. Mico says that, for their company, time and effort are key considerations:
“Perhaps the key difference between the two is the amount of effort required from the program owner to ensure the overall success of the onboarding process. Whereas traditional onboarding provides a more intimate and accessible space for communication and collaboration, the inherent limitations of distributed onboarding require facilitators to be more patient, thoughtful, and aggressively helpful in the ways they communicate.”
Erica Varlese of Automattic spoke a bit more about the physical aspects of colocated onboarding (like the coffee machine we mentioned above), and how they compare to remote working:
“Traditional onboarding and distributed onboarding differ in one very obvious way: traditional onboarding is more physical. Getting a metaphorical ‘lay of the land’ is valid in both types of onboarding, but in my previous office-based jobs, there was a lot of literally showing me where things were. As such, it also involved meeting key people, quite literally understanding *where* things were, and how to find things I needed.
In that sense, it’s not so different to be onboarded in a distributed role, but it’s more abstract. Knowing where things are doesn’t mean where they are in a physical office, but navigating internal Slack communications, blogs, documentation, and Google Drives. Knowing who to ask for things doesn’t mean knowing who’s office to knock on with a question, but a general understanding of which teams do what throughout the company.
At the same time, because there’s no body language in distributed onboarding, it requires a more conscious effort to welcome people into the company – which strikes me as a good thing. Reaching out, being friendly, offering help proactively – all of these are even more readily available in distributed onboarding since you don’t need to physically be in the same room and also have the opportunity to showcase company culture even more.”
How do you maintain culture and values?
A Columbia University study shows that the likelihood of job turnover at an organization with strong company culture is 13.9%, whereas the probability of job turnover in companies with a low focus on company culture is 48.4%. But how do you maintain company culture when people aren’t physically inside of the building? Erica suggests that culture should be threaded throughout everything, not just about the physical space:
“Because distributed company culture isn’t physical—think motivational posters, the way an office is decorated, etc.—it becomes a more explicit decision as to what you want your culture to be and the best way to share that message.
A large part of culture is invisible and that’s something to keep in mind when developing onboarding materials for a distributed company, as well. If you’re trying to build a collaborative culture, it doesn’t make sense to use super formal language for a handbook or documentation for new employees. The message of culture can be shared through design, language, and the ways in which you approach new team members. Likewise, I find a lot of value in being explicit about company values – when we’re in the “ocean” of own cultures, it’s really easy to forget how unique your company culture may be. It’s helpful to take stock of that and really take a step back so you can be clear about expectations.
I also think it’s important to remember that culture is a two-way street. For distributed companies, we’re also in a unique position where the people we work with can have very different backgrounds from one person to the next. It’s helpful to keep that diversity in mind when creating onboarding materials so that you, too, are aware of cultural differences and work to create an inclusive environment that can still support company culture and values.”
That’s all well and good, but how can you create something like that for your remote employees? It takes a bit more intention than when you have someone in the office who is able to pick it up by osmosis. Sarah Betts of Olark suggested a more intentional use of the tools you already have in place:
“When people start here, we have a special Slack room for them where all the Olarkers are invited, but their team specifically is added. It’s outside the work chatter, and we pop in and out to get to know them. It’s a really great way to help them ease into our tone and culture outside of the business of getting things done.”
Leaning on remote technologies that create a proxy of in-office culture makes training feel a bit more inclusive for all employees.
What tools do you use?
Many of the people that we interviewed had the same answers when it came to what tools they used. Everyone used a company chat tool like Slack or Hipchat, a video conferencing software, and a few other productivity apps to facilitate collaboration. Sarah from Olark gave a good breakdown of how important these tools are, especially for things that might not be related directly to work:
“We have built some bots in Slack that help with onboarding. One reminds employees to take a break, eat lunch, and asks them about favorite things like foods, vacations, books they’ve read. It’s pretty cute.
We also set them up with a Trello board, with a section for each day. We invite the Olarker who will be helping them with each topic to the card, so if they have questions they can find who to ask. Zoom is also a huge help. We Zoom a lot to help them learn faces, and feel like there is a real human walking them through.”
Because remote employees don’t get the opportunity to build relationships in person, using online tooling to facilitate it is a great way to keep them looped in and engaged.
Erica also took an interesting perspective on this question and reminded us that tools do not always need to have utility based directly on the employee’s role:
“One tool that isn’t software related is using swag and welcome packets to introduce people to the company. Including things like company swag, useful tools – i.e. backpacks or cable organizers for traveling – can be an amazing way to make someone truly feel part of the team. Receiving a surprise package is like getting a present, so it’s a simple yet meaningful way for new team members to feel valued and to thank them for their presence in the company.”
A good rule of thumb is to treat your remote employees how you treat your colocated ones. So, if you’ve got a big swag shipment coming in, make sure you have a way to get it to your remote workers, too.
How do you measure success?
Numbers! They’re one of the best ways to double check and make sure everything is working as expected. While gut-feeling can be helpful in some cases, there is nothing as straightforward and unbiased as hard numbers. Every individual that we talked to confirmed it. Mico from Boldr Impact had some great suggestions for teams looking to measure the success of their onboarding efforts: “we track New Hire Retention Rate and Employee Satisfaction as the main KPIs for measuring the success of our onboarding. Moreover, we conduct post-onboarding assessments to gather feedback from participants and help us continuously improve our program.” Following up immediately after training to ask for constructive insight in the moment is a great way to better your onboarding for your next new hire.
Sometimes, though, metrics and reviews don’t tell the whole story. Erica from Automattic has a different, more qualitative, tactic for measuring the success of onboarding:
“A key indicator of success is when I see someone who’s been onboarded recently naturally start to help onboarding others. When a team member automatically jumps in to welcome a new member, help answer questions, share documents – that’s a good sign that that person feels comfortable and confident as a member of the team.”
What are the red flags?
Everyone has worked with or hired someone that just didn’t really fit. The signs are usually there from the very beginning, it’s just a matter of learning to keep your eyes out for them. Sarah Ellenberg of PartnerHero mentioned that one of the big ones for her is a lack of focus:
“A big red flag is when a person always has their camera off in meetings. Being distributed is difficult and I require my team to have their cameras on. Not only is it important to pick up on body language and facial expressions, but it also shows me an increased level of engagement.”
If they’re not engaged from the get-go, they likely aren’t going to be engaged later on in their career with your company. That goes for both physical conversations and training, as well as being engaged with the company principals as a whole. Sarah from Olark echoed this in her interview:
“Since our values are so clear and so prevalent in our day-to-day, those are easy to catch if there isn’t an alignment. And since everyone works closely together despite being remote, we get feedback super quick if there is a problem. We don’t wait around for small problems to get bigger. If something is an issue, it’s addressed immediately. This does two things: first, how do they respond to the feedback? Are they quick learners and willing to correct course? And second, it gives them an immediate chance to change instead of building bad habits. If they don’t respond well to that, we’d know there was a big issue and would take action.”
Conversely, if you catch someone being disengaged, talk to them about it. If they hear what you’re saying and make a good turnaround, you’ll know you’ve snagged a good one.
Was anything much harder or easier than you expected it to be?
Most things in business come with an element of surprise. You don’t have to let it catch you off guard, though. Mistakes are excellent learning opportunities. Onboarding remotely, especially if you’ve never done it before, is ripe for mistake-making. For example, when doing distributed staffing, it can be hard to remember where all of your employees are. Time zones are tricky—try to get a steady handle on where people are and when their work hours are before scheduling a meeting or sending a calendar invite. Sarah from PartnerHero said that was one of the most challenging things about staffing remotely. On the flip side, though, she was always surprised by how quickly she was able to build rapport:
“I have team members in Brazil, Philippines, Honduras, and interact with three US time zones. It always surprises me how quickly I can build rapport with team members through video calls. However, staying on top of time zones and individual shifts for me is—in the most professional term I can find—BONKERS. Luckily, there are many apps and time conversion visualizations that help me not wake up my sleeping team with Slack notifications.”
Onboarding remotely after building a distributed workforce can definitely be challenging—but there are ways to do it well. As helpful as it may be to hear the insights of professionals who are already doing work in this space, the best way to get real insights that you can act on is to talk to other people within your company. Take time to understand how you are currently onboarding, both in-office and outside of it, and see if anyone who’s gone through that training has constructive insights for you. There are tons of useful tools and practices that have grown with the rise of remote culture, so luckily you won’t have to reinvent the wheel. Take time to figure out exactly what works for your employees and don’t forget to iterate on it as you grow.
This article was produced in collaboration with PartnerHero as part of our supported channels program. We appreciate their support as it helps us invest in content for the greater Support Driven community. Want to be part of the discussion? Join us in the #outsourcing channel in the Support Driven Slack