Onboarding remote employees is one most challenging things a distributed company has to do - hopefully these tips will help you get it right.

Hiring can be a frustrating process for any organization.  When your organization is remote and your talent pool isn’t limited by geography, the process becomes a bit more stressful - where do you find applicants?  How do you interview them remotely?  How does onboarding remote employees work?

We’ve already covered some of the best practices related to remote interviews and this post is going to focus on the next piece of the puzzle: remote onboarding.


What Is Onboarding?

On its surface, onboarding is the orientation that new hires go through in order to help familiarize themselves with the ins and outs of their new job and employer.  Quality onboarding, however, is much more complex and involves making sure the employee takes steps to fully understand company culture as a whole as well as their role and responsibilities.  It is a process that extends far beyond signing the required forms and into meeting relevant coworkers and developing a routine, a process that PeopleAdmin suggests should take 1-2 years.

If your new employees aren’t in the same city or even the same time zone then the onboarding process can get much more complicated.

How do you introduce culture when the majority of interactions are going to occur via a computer?  How do you lay the foundations for relationships when remote employees might only meet each other once per year?

The truth is that while difficult, onboarding remote employees is never impossible and given the right process it’s easy to make even the most distant hires feel like part of the team.


All Hands on Deck

As I mentioned above, employee onboarding is a process even in the best of scenarios.  While HR might be the tip of the spear, it’s up to the entire company (or at least the employee’s team) to pull their weight in order to make the process as seamless as possible.

onboarding for remote employees teamwork
  • Welcome Email(s) - Feeling welcome starts long before the new hire logs on - it’s a good idea to have at least the team leader or point of contact send the employee an email a week ahead of time.  Take it a step further and have one of the higher ups do the same (after all, if Sergey Brin and Larry Page could approve all hires at Google, I think your CEO can at least extend a virtual welcome).

  • Introductions - If there is a person or group with whom the hire will be working regularly, it’s a good idea to have some brief introductions of each member sent over ahead of time.  This can be as simple as a Google Doc with pictures and a brief bio and it does wonders to help close the gap between stranger and friend, especially in a virtual work environment.  Bonus points if they include a personalized greeting!

  • Public Announcement - Unlike in a traditional office, it’s not easy to realize the company has a new employee if they work remotely.  Sending out a company- or department-wide email is a good way to keep everyone in the loop and trigger some more welcome emails.  A word to the wise though, keep it brief to reduce the risk of embarrassing shy employees.


Put a Face to the Name

Yes, the welcome emails and introductions are crucial in making a new hire feel welcome, but some companies find additional value in having the employee work from an office at the beginning.  AMZ Tracker, one of the leading analytics platforms for Amazon sellers, has a semi-distributed team.  This means they have people working from all over the world, but they also have a home base in Saigon, Vietnam, where all new employees must work for at least 3 months.

According to CEO Erik Emsley, they do this for a few reasons:

First off is training and immersion in the Amazon seller world. When they come to HQ and spend a few months with us they can work with us hands on training on our tools, workflows, and spend time learning from each other since the team is very diverse and all have different specialties. Second is definitely team building and company culture. We work and play together, our whole team is very good friends. From our daily team lunches to weekend explorations and gym time we spend a lot of time together. We eat sleep and breath Amazon selling and discuss related topics all the time. I like the whole team to be fully in the loop on every project that is going on, as well provide support to our customers. We have a company-wide support team, everyone handles support emails and personally gets to know our customers and their needs.

And if 3 months seems like a long time, there are other options:

  • Fly ‘em In - If your company can afford it, flying in new hires to meet the team is a great way to kickoff their onboarding.  Taking this approach not only ensures that they can meet people face to face and get fully ramped up, but it also starts their employment off on a very high note (who doesn’t like traveling for free?).

  • Regular Retreats - Another option for fully remote companies like Visiple that have no physical office is to host regular retreats for all employees.  This not only allows people to meet and interact with each other in person, but is also something to look forward to as most of the expenses are usually covered by the company.  

company retreat for onboarding remote employees


Organization Is Key

Don’t expect to pull off quality employee onboarding without a bit of work - it takes some serious forethought to plan, schedule, and execute everything needed to get your new hire feeling (and acting) like part of the team.

There are, however, some good organizational tricks to establishing a process that is not only effective, but also reproducible to minimize the amount of work needed for each new remote employee.

  • Internal Documentation - Once you figure out how you want to approach onboarding for remote employees, document it!  This can be done in a simple Google Doc or made public on your company’s wiki.  The goal is to have the process down to a science so everyone knows their role once the offer letter is signed.  Tip: break the process up into 3 sections: Pre-Arrival, First Week, and Ongoing - it makes it easier to keep track of.

  • The Project Management Approach - If you want a more segmented and project-esque approach to employee onboarding, consider using a project management tool like Trello to break out the steps, FAQs, etc for each new hire.  The company behind Trello, Fog Creek, uses (of course) a Trello board to organize everything from what happens on the employee’s first day to the history behind the company.  

onboarding remote employees trello

One last thought on organization - the more work you put into what happens before the employee starts, the easier it will be for them to hit the ground running.  After all, according to ZenDesk:

Each member of a virtual team is essentially the sole inhabitant of an island. The more resources they have, the better. They are their own first line of defense, and if the team is well equipped from the get-go, their survival...is almost assured.


Engage Frequently

In a virtual environment there is no water cooler.  Sure, you might have a Slack group named something similar, but nothing can replace regular face-to-face interaction with your peers, especially if you’re new.

As a company, it is essential that planned and frequent video meetings be part of your remote onboarding process.  It will not only allow the employee to better convey questions and concerns, but also allow them to build up some rapport with their colleagues.

onboarding for remote employees hand raise
  • Regular Touch Bases - Our love for touch base meetings is no secret - we really think they are an invaluable management tool, especially for remote teams.  Even if you don’t extend them to your seasoned employees, having them scheduled for the first few months for new hires is a good habit to be in.

  • Team Stand Up Meetings - Similar to touch base meetings, stand up meetings are quite brief, usually occur at the beginning or end of each day, and try to include the entire team.  Focus on team goals, individual progress updates, and making sure everyone has an opportunity to express their opinions about the tasks at hand.

  • Mentor or Partner - Depending on the task, it could be appropriate to have new hires team up with another employee.  This is a great way for them to get ramped up for certain projects and interact with their colleagues.


Wrapping Up

There is a definite learning curve that comes with hiring and onboarding remote employees and it’s not easy to find the balance between making them feel comfortable and making sure they know everything they’re supposed to.  If you yourself were hired remotely, my advice is to think back to things that would have helped you during that time and work backwards to make sure they are included for all new hires.  If this is your first rodeo, then use these steps as a jumping off point to help you establish a process that will work for you and your company.