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Last updated Mar 2020
The ultimate guide to remote work
Anna Savina,
Content Marketing Manager at Miro
Anna has written about experience design, product development, and workshop facilitation. She has been working in distributed teams for three years, and is passionate about helping them succeed.

How to Onboard Remote Employees

Onboarding plays a critical role in a new hire's success and happiness. And good onboarding is especially important for remote employees, since they don't have as many opportunities to organically integrate into the company processes and culture. In this chapter, we lay out the best practices for getting your remote employees up to speed and finding employees that fit your company culture to a T.

What is remote employee onboarding?

Employee onboarding is a series of activities that allow new hires to get to know their team and learn about the company’s attitudes, methods, rituals, and tools. Remote employee onboarding is the same process, but when the new hire is going to be working remotely rather than from the office. From an employee's perspective, an onboarding program is an opportunity to get used to a new environment. For an employer, it's a valuable time to share all of the elements that will help new team members be successful as they learn more about their role in the company.

Onboarding can be formal and informal (and usually, companies use both approaches so the new teammate is fully ramped up). Formal onboarding usually includes a series of workshops, training sessions, video calls and exercises.

Informal onboarding can be more ad hoc and include shadowing other people on the team, getting to know various stakeholders, understanding the company’s conventions and approach to problem-solving through observation and impromptu coaching with the new hire’s manager.

How is remote onboarding different from orientation?

It’s important to understand the difference between orientation and onboarding. Orientation is a one-time event. Its goal is to welcome a group of new employees to an organization and, often, creating a space for them to learn about the company vision, mission, culture, and history. Sometimes it also includes a section where new hires fill in mandatory new employee paperwork, learn about the company’s benefits, and review codes of conduct and safety policies.

Onboarding is a series of events happening over an extended period of time and is usually tailored for a specific role. Onboarding can include orientation, but isn't limited to it. For example, as a new hire on the design team, you can be a part of an orientation with other new hires joining the organization, but your onboarding is likely to last for several months and be tailored to your role as a designer.

How long should remote onboarding take?

This period can last from a couple of weeks to 3+ months, depending on the complexity of the new hire’s role, the company’s maturity, and many other factors. Some remote organizations prefer to use a framework that helps a new hire to get fully trained in two weeks. On the other hand, some researchers suggest that extending the onboarding process up to a year may improve employee retention and help new hires feel like part of the team.

Why onboarding remote employees is difficult

According to BCG, onboarding is among the most influential factors when it comes to employee experience. Companies that have effective onboarding processes in place achieve 2.5 times more revenue growth and 1.9 times the profit margin compared to organizations with poor onboarding strategies.

However, creating a great onboarding experience isn't easy. Like many other processes in remote teams, onboarding requires way more documentation compared how so many co-located teams operate. Without a physical work environment which is critical in the traditional hiring process, you can use video chats and fun team meetings to get the new team member to feel welcome.

You have to list out each step of the process and make sure the new hire doesn’t get lost under the avalanche of new information. You also need to help them identify the best channels for asking questions and finding what they need, especially if they work in another timezone.

Another challenge is building an emotional connection with a new team – when you aren't in the same space, it’s easy for a new employee to feel isolated. Creating a structure to encourage informal moments should also be a priority. Ultimately, these "little things" are what creates a strong culture.

"Trust has to exist from day one. When you're remote you don't have the opportunity to lean into someone's cubicle to see how they're doing. You have to get creative about ways to nurture that relationship."

—Chloe Oddliefson, Head of People Operations at Dribbble

5 tips for onboarding a remote employee

When you bring people on board, it’s your responsibility as a hiring manager to make sure they have everything they need to be successful in their role. Here are some steps you can take to support new employees and secure quick wins for them:

1. Develop a two-week plan

Remote workers take longer to onboard because they aren’t in an office with others. Creating a plan, setting up all the meetings (three or four per day) with agendas, video links, etc. will reduce the stress and anxiety new hires can have and ensure they are getting introduced to all the people, processes, and projects that will be a part of their work.

Pro Tip: Think about balancing the more work-based sessions with some informal chats and fun ice-breakers. If you have employees who live near each other, they can meet in person for coffee or lunch. Or you can get food delivered to two people who can share a meal “together” over video as they get to know each other.

2. Start with a small project

Collaborate on developing a clear plan for the new hire’s first 30, 60, and 90 days so you’re both aligned on the expectations for the role. Give them an exercise within the first couple of weeks that requires cross-team collaboration or knowledge discovery to introduce them to other team members, information at the company, and regular ceremonies within your remote culture.

At Miro, we recommend a book called The First 90 Days to all our new hires to help them achieve their goal. It’s also important to agree on how you’ll measure success during this period.

3. Onboard in cohorts

Onboarding in groups is a great way to minimize the effort and redundancies of onboarding new hires and training them. It also creates a sense of community amongst your new hires. Crazy Egg, a SaaS startup that grew from 6 to 29 employees in 2018, uses this approach. They hire people in groups, and each group has “squad hosts” who create an environment for people to feel comfortable collaborating and “functional stewards” who are there for technical support.

4. Ask for feedback

If you’re not experienced in running a remote team, there’s a good chance you might experience some hiccups initially. Ask each new remote employee to pay close attention to the process and tell you what worked and what didn’t. This will allow you to continuously improve the process for your future hires.

5. Make space for personal connection

Ask your team to reach out to new hires and introduce themselves to start building relationships from the first week – and even meet if they live in the same area. If you can, invite new hires to spend some time together at the HQ, have lunch, or have an offsite with everyone. If this isn’t realistic for your team, you can still create some remote-based ceremonies for teams to spend non-work related time together.

Remote onboarding checklist

What does remote onboarding look like in practice? Here at Miro, onboarding lasts 90 days. To get fully ramped up, a new employee goes through a series of remote meetings, training sessions, and interviews. They’ll learn about company rituals, as well as how we plan our strategic initiatives, set objectives, and key results (OKRs).

To kick off the process, we take them through the following steps:

  • Go through a list of tasks that help them learn about the role, their direct team and its goals.

  • We ask them to create accounts in all our company productivity, security, HR, and communication tools.

  • They then write a welcome letter (a.k.a. a short note with their bio, interests, and hobbies) to share with the company. They’ll post it in our internal knowledge base platform, Confluence, as well as in our company Slack channel.

  • We help them set a one-on-one meeting with their manager, and important cross-functional partners to get to know all the people they’ll be working with.

  • We also share a list of important articles in our internal knowledge base.

  • Their manager outlines their goals for the first 30, 60, and 90 days. They do this via a personalized Miro Board that outlines and tracks everything they need to learn. It even has a section detailing what success looks like during their first 90 days.

  • Another key aspect of onboarding is about bonding with the team. We set up an introductory lunch with the team members who work in their same office. We also help them identify “remote buddies” in other office hubs so they can set up calls and get to know each other.

  • Next, we encourage everyone to set working hours on their calendar to show people from other hubs when it’s possible to book meetings. (Hint: We love the Working hours and World clock features in Google Calendar.)

FAQ about remote onboarding

How do you welcome new remote employees?

First, you’ll want to formally introduce them to the team and provide a bit of background on them. Make sure the team will understand the new employees role. Run some team games or activities that involve the new employee to break the ice. 

Is onboarding the same as training?

Onboarding is usually considered separate from training. Onboarding is the initial process of introducing new employees to management and the rest of the team, as well as some of the basic technologies like project management and communication apps. Training is the lengthier and more complicated task of teaching the employee the ins and outs of their daily duties. 

How do you train employees virtually?

Make simple instructional videos for tasks that they need to master, hold one-on-one chats with them to walk them through more complicated tasks, and enlist other team members to help teach them things.

Next up: How to Build Remote Work Culture & Why It's So Important

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