Remote Onboarding and how to include everyone

Look at any company’s team member engagement to-do lists, and somewhere on there is “onboarding new employees.” When you onboard new people on a regular basis, it’s easy to fall into a rut, pulling out the same materials each time and giving a stump speech about the company. It’s easy to get to the point where you have it so memorized that you might not even listen to yourself while you’re saying it. However, the onboarding process is a crucial opportunity to build belonging among new hires.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) recently defined “belonging” as “the feeling of security and support when there is a sense of acceptance, inclusion, and identity for a member of a certain group or place.” According to the Harvard Business Review, creating a sense of belonging helps reduce employee turnover by as much as 50%, reduces sick days by 75%, and increases job performance by 56%. A Boston Consulting Group study showed that the onboarding process specifically is the second-most influential activity in hiring and retaining employees.

Team member engagement is an important priority here at Detroit Labs — so important that we conduct a quarterly engagement survey whose results inform and guide decisions we make as a company. Our onboarding process pre-pandemic was in-person at our main offices and took face-to-face interactions for granted. Moving suddenly to a remote-only environment required rethinking the hows and whys of our onboarding process. We don’t claim to have achieved perfection, but we’ve certainly learned a lot along the way. Here are a few key ways to cultivate a sense of belonging in new hires during the remote onboarding process.

1. Make meaningful connections at orientation. Your new hire orientation is a great first chance to help team members build connections to your organization. The first thing to do, whether in person or remote, is look over your materials and consider the language you usually use, screening for any corporate lingo, in-jokes or acronyms. When you can, try to leave these things out if they won’t be part of the new team member’s day-to-day work world. They don’t need to bother to learn about your TPS Reports if that’s not a term they’ll be using on their team. On the other hand, do take the time to explain references or acronyms that are likely to arise in the orientation or beyond; this will help your new team member feel engaged and informed later on. You want the new team member to feel like they’re joining a cohesive team, not like they are on the sidelines of a fun party where nobody is asking them to dance.

Make sure your orientation allows you the chance to really get to know your new team member. When we moved to a fully remote onboarding process, our team added some light, fun getting-to-know-you questions to engage new team members. Examples include: what’s the weirdest quarantine purchase you’ve made? What is your must-have topping on hot dogs (or carrot dogs or turkey dogs)?

Invite company leadership to attend the orientation, ideally to provide key insights into the company’s history, values, or their own “moving up the ladder” journey. In the remote environment it’s much easier to “land” one of the leaders into your Google Meet video call, and getting some face time with even just one person at the top can make a strong impression on new team members.

2. Collaborate with other units. We talk a lot about shifting to new practices in a way that implies the remote environment is less than ideal, a temporary fix for the current times. However, take some time to brainstorm the advantages of the all-remote landscape — what can you do now that you couldn’t do before? One advantage of being remote is you don’t have to walk among floors or buildings to reach out across the company. Your Human Resources department, Learning & Development department, individual business units, and even the new hire’s individual team can easily collaborate on an onboarding process that goes beyond a welcoming handshake and a benefits booklet. 

3. Create intentional space to ask, “How are you, really?” In a fully remote world, there is little opportunity for casually running into a new team member to observe how they are doing, so creating the space for evaluating how onboarding is going becomes more necessary than before. Don’t wait for new team members to reach out to you, especially if your role is one where they don’t necessarily have day-to-day reasons to interact with you. Creating intentional one-on-one check-in opportunities that are built to allow open conversation will help your new team members feel like they matter and increase their willingness to engage.

You should also consider a cadence of check-ins with reminders built in at certain milestones of the onboarding process. Create a 90-day (plus or minus, depending on how your company operates) check-in schedule with space built for conversation and space built for reminders (either during the conversations or separately as emails or internal messaging app messages). This can help ensure you are able to weave this part of onboarding into your regular tasks. Things you might want to remind team members about include benefits elections, benefits and perks availability, company policies, etc. If you’re stuck on what types of things to bring up, take a look at what policies or procedures current team members most often forget about or make mistakes around. 

“This is the way we’ve always done it” has never been a good way to design or execute an onboarding process, and that’s even truer now because in a lot of ways we can’t do it the way we’ve always done it. Hopefully these tips will help you take your existing culture and stretch it into the remote onboarding process to get your team members engaged early and excited to help build your company’s future!