Introducing: The remote onboarding guide

Richard Mabey, 2 June 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the world to a standstill, but people and talent teams at scaleups fortunate enough to still be in business must keep moving. 

Scaleups are all about growth. They can't afford to put hiring on the backburner, so teams need to find new ways to thrive in this strange, remote-first environment.

Where do you start? If employee onboarding is fully remote, how can you still make it successful, delightful, and human?

We tried it ourselves. Then, we gathered insights from HR and talent experts at CharlieHR, Sqreen, and People Collective, to explore every stage of the hiring process.

Find out what the experts had to say in our remote onboarding guide 👇

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Inside you'll find chapters on:

  • Why great onboarding matters: Sqreen's Head of People, Alison Eastaway, explains why onboarding matters - and what you can do to make it great. Read this chapter in full below.

  • How to write the perfect offer letter: I share my experiences with offer letters, and how making them engaging and dynamic is an important step towards a delightful candidate experience.

  • Preboarding: from signing to starting. You heard correctly - preboarding is just as important as its better-known counterpart, onboarding. People Collective's co-founder, Matt Bradburn, explains what preboarding is, why it's important, and how it can enable your candidates from day one.

  • Onboarding: productivity and culture. The experts at CharlieHR are culture gurus - their CEO, Ben Gateley, shares his top tips for delivering a remote onboarding experience that'll make new joiners productive and happy.

I hope this guide helps you understand how to deliver a delightful and more human remote onboarding experience. Let us know what you think!

Download the remote onboarding guide for free now. 

From the eBook: Why great remote onboarding matters

Alison Eastaway is Head of People at Sqreen. She previously created and led the people & talent departments at Side.co and at Callr.

Early in my HR career I worked for a large oil and gas company.

There was a team of ten people who existed solely to look after onboarding. They delivered a structured, lengthy programme, heavy on IT setup, compliance, and lots and lots of reading. So far, so normal.

Years later, I rolled up on day one at a startup I’d joined to find that nobody knew who I was. I had no seat. I had no computer. There were no activities or processes planned for me. That made sense - after all, I was coming in to create those processes - but still, I went from a red carpet candidate experience, led by recruiters, to a first day in the role where your manager is out of office, you have nothing to do, and you sit in the corner on your personal computer, twiddling your thumbs and reading anything you can get your hands on.

For a reasonably outgoing person, that’s fine - you can introduce yourself to everyone, invite yourself into meetings and dive in. But not everybody feels comfortable doing that. Introverts might struggle with that challenge, and they shouldn’t be punished professionally for their personalities. Some people might not be comfortable striding into a new company and making things happen with no structure.

Onboarding is a key moment for new hires. It will inform how they view the company, how quickly they ramp up, and how likely they are to stay with and be an advocate for the company. And yet, many companies still don’t give this crucial process the attention it deserves. I’ve spoken before about the ‘gap principle’ - if you treat candidates like royalty but then deliver average onboarding, there’s a gap, which can lead to disappointment, regret, and motivation to reconsider that rival job offer you just turned down.

Remember that people use their first week in a role to evaluate the company they’ve actually joined, versus the vision they were sold, and if a competing recruiter calls to ask how their first day went and the candidate is on the fence, you might just lose that hard-won hire. Employer branding doesn’t begin with marketing - it must be genuine. It’s far better to be realistic and transparent than shiny and inauthentic.

What makes onboarding great?

There are fundamental principles I follow when onboarding new employees, and they apply to remote onboarding just as they would to a process that takes place in the office.

1. Candidates should be expected, and welcomed with excitement

The least that a candidate should hope for is that they’re expected, and that their colleagues are excited to welcome them. It shouldn’t matter if their manager is in an unexpected meeting when they first walk through the door - everyone should know who they are, that they’re coming and be ready to talk to them, introduce themselves, and anchor them in the company from the first moment. This is no less important in a remote working environment - their first touchpoint with colleagues might be signing into Slack, or joining the all-hands, but the same principle applies.

“Remember that people use their first week in a role to evaluate the company they’ve actually joined, versus the vision they were sold”

2. Knowing who to ask or where to look for information

Onboardings involve an enormous information dump in week one, of which probably only 10 per cent is absorbed. However if a new starter at least gets to the end of their onboarding with knowledge of where to look for relevant information, or who to ask in order to find it, that’s a victory. In a remote environment this might mean heavy and regular sharing and signposting of key documents on your internal knowledge base (we use Notion), or in the company handbook.

3. New hires feel empowered to understand ‘the way things work’

This covers a host of little moments that collectively can make a big difference. There’s information in an office that all employees have learned but that goes unsaid, like: can I just grab coffee whenever I want? What happens at lunch? Do we eat together? What time does everyone go home? If you don’t actually communicate these things to new starters they’ll feel out of the loop and unsure what to do.

It’s also about cultural expectations. If a new joiner hears an off-colour joke on their first day, everyone laughs, and their manager hears it and has no objections, that sets the tone and expectations for the months ahead. Behaviours are learned from the first day and they can be hard to reverse.

4. New hires shouldn’t be expected to onboard themselves

A typical bad experience for onboarding involves a new starter being given a big pile of documents and told to “read all this, and we’ll catch up on Thursday.” Leaving new starters to their own devices, with no rhythm to the day, is a great way to foster boredom and disengagement. The first two weeks should be paced and rhythmic - don’t ask new starters to do the hard work of breaking the ice with their new colleagues, and don’t put the burden on them to book all the meetings they need.

The onus is on everyone - not just hiring managers, or one ‘buddy’ - to take responsibility for onboarding and make people feel welcome. I always tell colleagues that I expect them to act like they’re the only person involved in onboarding, and give their new colleague that level of attention. In a remote setting, this means reaching out of your own accord on Slack, email or by phone to make sure your new colleague knows who you are and what you do.

5. Structured downtime

All that being said, people do need downtime to digest what they’ve seen, read and heard. It’s effective to use a checklist to structure this work - including requirements like sorting out pensions, healthcare, updating LinkedIn, and so on - and go through the checklist on day one to give context. Particularly in a remote environment, we’re all learning just how exhausting it can be to sit on back-to-back video calls for the whole day, so make sure people have a break from time to time.

The challenges of onboarding remote employees

This way of working isn’t new, but it’s new at this scale, and there are various challenges specific to remote onboarding that you should think about before you make new hires. Here are some of the most pressing problems.

1. Logistics

IT setup is one of the most basic elements of onboarding, but the COVID-19 landscape makes it extremely difficult. For example, most MacBooks are imported, and sourcing them has become much harder. I’m based in Paris, and while we had a certain level of new laptops in stock, we have new joiners that have specific requirements, like French or Japanese keyboards, which are harder to procure.

Asking employees to use personal technology is a last resort option, but not ideal - particularly if you’re a security-first company like Sqreen. In one case we asked an employee to start a week later, so we could make sure their IT setup was ready for them. That may not work in a different jurisdiction - for example, in the US, where healthcare coverage is tied to employment, it might make more sense to let a sales person use their personal laptop for the first week.

2. Relationship-building

Welcoming a new employee is much more difficult in a fully remote environment. There’s nobody at the door to greet you when you start. Your first Zoom coffee is hopefully fun, but probably feels artificial, with a dozen faces on a video call muting and unmuting as they try not to talk over each other. It’s really important to keep an eye on the downtime between scheduled meetings and make sure people are offering catchups and friendly messages.

3. Shadowing

It’s possible to have an entirely remote sales organization - just look at Zapier. However, it’s much more difficult to achieve if it was forced upon you, rather than by design. Most companies now grappling with remote sales didn’t choose their sales teams or leaders with a fully remote way of working in mind.

It presents a particular challenge when it comes to learning through shadowing. Dialling into someone else’s Zoom or Hangout with a lead is better than nothing, but it’s nowhere near as useful as being in the room, picking up on body language and tone shifts as they happen. As a silent box in the corner of a screen you risk just being a distraction. Similarly, making sales calls in isolation means less incidental absorption of the turns of phrase and objection handling that colleagues develop.

“If culture is the sum of the behaviours people exhibit when nobody’s looking, then it’s even harder to control when so many interactions are almost invisible”

Sales leaders need to combat this proactively, increasing their efforts when it comes to analysing call recordings and presenting learnings back to their teams.

4. Observing norms

One of the key difficulties of working remotely is that you don’t see when people actually leave the office. I’ve experienced challenges where new starters dialled in to meetings at extremely unsociable hours to join managers on calls that bridge two time zones, in their first week. It’s great (and unsurprising) that new starters are happy to accommodate this, and keen to impress, but managers should be careful to set good habits from the outset.

Some companies combat this with an end-of-day standup to definitively wrap the day, giving people a clear signal that they’re not expected to work into the night. That’s particularly important given the nature of this remote working environment: employees have an increased cognitive burden of anxiety and stress due to the very real worries about their health, finances, families, and so on - it’s vital to work proactively to combat that. If this means posting an abnormally high number of pictures of your pets, or bouncing the odd work meeting for a fun activity like a quiz or a game, then so be it.

Culture and wellbeing for virtual employees

The founding team of a startup can usually describe the culture really well; they inform and embody it. But as the company grows, and executives are onboarded later on, everyone who joins brings elements of how things were at their previous company. They have the opportunity to resist and perhaps even dilute your culture, if unchecked.

That balancing act is constant, and is much harder to achieve remotely. If culture is the sum of the behaviours people exhibit when nobody’s looking, then it’s even harder to control when so many interactions are almost invisible. Conversations, behaviours, reactions and moods take place at best in front of a laptop camera, but more commonly away from any oversight. Subcultures - the way a particular team or department behaves, distinct from the main company culture - can run rampant and lead to conflicting behaviours growing unchecked, without the day-to-day scrutiny that the office brings.

Mitigating this is difficult (unless you’re a mind-reader) but not impossible. Reverse-engineering people’s issues from their behaviours is fraught with assumptions, which can be dangerous - explicitly checking in and chatting with people will lead to better results. Let people vent and rant, and find out what problem you can fix. Ideally that would come from a manager, but that’s not always possible in a startup; however, it should always be possible to find a friendly ear.

In the new world created by COVID-19, it’s important both to be explicit about cultural expectations, and to repeat them often. If a colleague has two kids under five at home and a partner still working full-time, make it clear that you fully expect them to be operating at well under 100 per cent - and that’s ok. It won’t impact their pay or perception in the company.

It’s the responsibility of management to lead by example, and be comfortable showing vulnerability. If you’re struggling too, let your team know. If you find remote working leads to wild variations in your productivity, there’s zero chance you’re alone, so share that with your team and help them unburden themselves of any anxieties or guilt they might have around performance.

Finally, remember that startups and scaleups in particular are full of particular kinds of personalities. High-growth companies tend to attract people who work extremely hard - dialling back their productivity might actually mean going from 120 per cent to 95 per cent, so you should feel comfortable letting your overachievers take some time to focus on their own mental health. Huge changes to our working lives affect different people in different ways - only by listening and being flexible can we hope to navigate safely through them. 

Download the remote onboarding guide for free now. 

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