It’s a curious new issue for companies around the world: how do you welcome, set up and train a new member of the team who you never actually see in person? Of all the challenges posed by remote work, starting out on the right foot is arguably the most important.
As a company that has worked remotely for years now, we’d like to share a few thoughts on how we go about it. Here’s how to onboard remote employees the right way and secure the long-term success for your remote operation.
It sounds simple, but from a remote worker’s perspective it’s an absolute game changer. Sloppy process and failure to sort the most basic parts of remote operation sets a depressing tone. And since trust and reliability are foundational for remote team success, you should always start as you mean to go on. Be prompt with your offers and contracts, making sure all legal aspects of your new work relationship are settled well before your new remote employee is ready to start.
Everything can be done virtually: send email contracts and forms, respond promptly to any questions or requests, and get all your digital signatures down as quickly as possible. Then set up accounts and essential access log-ins to keep that momentum going. If possible, put your new employee in touch with someone working from the same country as them, to help answer any domestic questions they may have.
This doesn’t defeat the viability of the remote work model; meeting in-person is essential for kick-starting remote teamwork. Wherever possible, fly your new remote worker to your main HQ for their first week of work. We tend to extend this for people making the trip to our Oslo office from the other side of the globe!
Starting your relationship in person is crucial for a few inter-personal essentials: building meaningful relationships with remote workers beyond a Slack thumbnail picture, understanding how they like to communicate, and offering inclusion and group belonging from the get go – which are all essential for remote company culture and collaboration. Obviously, this isn't always immediately possible if you're onboarding someone in lockdown, but make sure you meet them in-person once it's safe to do so.
Welcoming someone new to the team is a big event for the whole company – even when you’re remote. We always start a new employee’s first day with a welcome breakfast and company-wide welcome call. It’s a great place to start: all the other remote workers get to introduce themselves and their background, and the new person gets to match faces to names and see how different people interact.
Then move onto more focused intros – like the core team the new remote employee will be working with, or key people around the company they may need to approach for different things. It’s also important to try and start conversations with colleagues your remote worker is unlikely to speak to every day, as otherwise their relationship may never really get off the ground until your first company-wide meetup.
To keep cross-team conversations going, you could even consider hooking your new worker up with a “confidante” (AKA “mentor” or “buddy”) outside of their immediate work group, whom they can approach with questions and concerns.
With any employee onboarding, there’s always a ton of information to get through. But it’s that bit more intense with remote employees who physically can’t start their work without everything falling into place first.
We recommend protecting big chunks of time to cover these essential inductions:
Onboarding can be overwhelming, so it’s important to give your new employee space during their first few weeks just to process everything. But with remote workers, you need to ensure they’re 100% set-up before they jet off back to their home country.
You’ll likely already have a plan for regular remote worker check-ins, but for the first few months we like to have weekly one-on-ones to make sure any questions and issues can be quickly surfaced and satisfied. So start it in-person: take the opportunity to ensure your remote employee has access to everything they need, let them raise any gray areas from their training and deep-dive introductions, and relay how they’re finding everything.
Crucially, you need to be sure that they feel comfortable heading back to resume their work solo. If your new remote worker isn’t clear on how to get started, you have more work to do. These regular one-on-ones are invaluable spaces for airing everything and learning how to better support your remote workers’ needs.
Employee onboarding can be quite a passive experience: you’re loaded with a ton of new information, and pass the week feeling quietly overwhelmed without getting stuck into anything that really shows what you’re truly capable of. So make sure you create opportunities to let your new remote employee express their personality and demonstrate how they like to work.
Obviously, it’s a good idea to get started on a work task while you’re together in-person, but it’s also important to speak as individuals with interests, personalities and soul. We get every new employee in Memory to put together a short presentation of themselves – no more than five minutes. They’re free to structure it how they want, talk about what they want, and use any medium they want just to give everyone a taste of their humour, background and interests.
Every single presentation is filmed, so that new remote employees can also look back on those of established employees to get a better idea of their new colleagues too. Perhaps it’s a bit of an anxious exercise in group empathy, but everyone in the company – even the CEO – has to do it!
With remote work, out of sight should never mean out of mind. Disconnect and isolation represent two of the biggest threats to remote worker success; studies show that the lack of physical presence leads remote workers to forge much weaker relationships with their teammates than in-office counterparts.
So once your new remote worker has flown back, take every opportunity to strengthen your relationship with them in-person again. Hold annual company meetups, extend invites to Christmas parties, attend conferences together, and simply just make an effort to meet up if you ever happen to be in the same country.
But remote team bonding should also just be a regular feature of each week. There are tons of things you can do here – we share the responsibility between our remote and in-house team to organise remote lunches, hangouts, games and celebrations. Try out different group sizes and formats (one huge group video call doesn’t encourage meaningful individual interaction), and get creative with your activities.