Virtual Onboarding: How to give your remote workers the best start

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29 July 2021
Written by Speak First Linked-in icon

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Starting a new job is a landmark moment. There’s always a lot to discover over your first few days, whether it’s your first job and you’re learning the dos and don’ts of being in a workplace, or you’re switching to a better role at a new company. Even at the best of times, the excitement is often accompanied by stress and nerves – and for the last year and a half, we haven’t been living in the best of times.

For those who were able to work remotely during the pandemic, adapting to the change was difficult for many people, even those who have been at their company for years and know the team and the systems inside out. A new starter during lockdown faced all the same challenges of getting used to doing things at home, without the benefit of ever having experienced it ‘normally.’

This is where onboarding comes in, helping a new employee learn their way around, meet people and learn what’s expected of them. It’s usually their manager, but mentors or even a buddy can help guide them through their first days and weeks.


A virtual future for recruitment

Since the start of the pandemic, 74% of UK companies have adopted a fully virtual recruitment process. 77% expect to keep this process even after the pandemic, with 48% reporting that they plan to keep a fully virtual recruitment process for all roles in the future.1 This trend is true across the rest of the world too.2

During the pandemic, the need for virtual hiring processes was obvious. As we look to the future, the time and costs saved make it an easy choice for many organisations. However, for those companies continuing to work remotely or adopting a hybrid model, it’s important to understand the next step in the process.

Recruitment is first and foremost about a company finding the right people, but it’s also a time for candidates to get a sense of the company and decide if they want to work there. Entirely virtual recruitment removes the ability to get a sense of the working environment or to see the current staff. Therefore, even if the benefits outweigh these lost moments, a virtual recruitment process needs to be backed up by effective and thoughtful onboarding of new employees.


What makes good onboarding?

Getting a new job can be an exhilarating and inspiring experience, but it’s also normal for people to feel nervous. Effective onboarding should be designed to ease people in and relax them into the role. Even the most knowledgeable employee will take time to learn everyone’s names and the subtle ways that the company does things differently from their old employers. Successful onboarding will help new starters learn all of these things. It’s an induction into the role and an introduction to the company.

The first few days at a company should be designed to let the new person find their feet. The company should guide them through expectations, meeting other members of the team and becoming acclimatised to the way the company does things. From their day-to-day responsibilities to the company culture, new employees should know exactly what they’re going to do and what people want from them. This may require a few days or even weeks, but the time should be viewed as an investment into getting the most out of the new person.


How virtual onboarding needs to be different

It used to be that you’d spend your first few days meeting people and getting acquainted with your new colleagues, being surrounded by the natural ebb and flow of the environment and the way the company operates.

While virtual recruitment may remove opportunities for getting a feel of the office and team, virtual onboarding absolutely creates a vacuum in these areas. Working remotely means new starters will become acclimatised to the company much slower. Gone are the ‘over the shoulder’ learning moments and informal chats to ask a quick question. You can’t see how other people are working and can’t overhear interesting conversations. A new starter is entirely at the mercy of the onboarding process.

Many fully remote companies establish buddies and mentors, as well as leaving it to managers. This gives new people someone to have informal conversations and to keep an eye on them, as well as having their manager to guide them through the formal parts of work.


Creating introductions

On your first day, you expect to be introduced to a lot of new people in a very short space of time, suddenly being bombarded with new names, their roles and where to find them. Conversely, when you start a remote job you’ll either be bombarded with emails – names with no faces and little context to who the sender is, or when you’ll need to talk to them again – or, in the worst case scenario, you’ll receive nothing.

It can be hard for existing employees to recognise that someone new has started. An announcement might go around, but if they’re unlikely to deal with the new person day-to-day then they might not cross their mind too much.

Team rapport is vital for cohesion and collaboration. Onboarding should create opportunities for a new starter to meet members of their team – whether through formal meetings or informal social gatherings. These relationships are a key element in the experience of working in the company and shouldn’t be taken for granted. Set up a time for the team to meet and talk. Having a few minutes at the start of a formal meeting for other conversation or setting up a small virtual social event giving people a chance to catch up and meet new people are just some ways to build the team.


Check in with each other

In person, it’s easy for a manager or colleague to look over and see how their new person is doing. Do they look calm or stressed? Are they getting on okay or are they getting confused? Working remotely creates extra layers of distance and makes it harder to sense how they’re getting on. Now, employees and managers have to rely on clear and open communication.

As a priority, managers should establish effective remote channels for their new team members to speak to them – as well as making sure they know who to ask for anything else they might need. Remove their uncertainty and give them the confidence to ask without judgement.

This also means making time for regular check-ins. Even if the company culture makes it easy to ask for help, managers shouldn’t assume everyone feels comfortable admitting when they’re struggling. Establishing a culture of feedback right from the beginning and finding ways to share any areas of improvement as well as highlighting positive areas is vital.

An induction doesn’t need to all happen in one go. Making time for spaced out conversations gives them time to settle in. This is true even in-person, but much more when they’re sitting at home on their own, working in an unfamiliar virtual team.


Don’t overlook or assume their previous experience

Research has discovered that over 55-year-olds are the least likely to have received any workplace training, with 28% of older UK workers saying they’ve had no training in the past decade.3 Younger employees are seen as a better investment for a business, rather than those closer to retirement who are often viewed as being set in their ways.

While this is unfair and discriminatory to older team members, it’s also short sighted. Giving all employees development opportunities means they’ve got the skills to adapt to unexpected changes. The sudden shift to working from home due to the pandemic is just one example that proves how important this is.

On the other hand, younger workers are the ones feeling most ignored in the workplace. A recent global report found that just 16% of younger workers (younger Millennials and Gen Z’ers) feel able to express their views and suggestions with their managers, compared to 67% of older workers. Similarly, 58% feel that leaders at their workplace empower them to express their views without fear of negative consequences, which is up to 74% of their older colleagues.4

When planning how to onboard a new employee, you should always consider how much previous working experience they have. People who have held numerous other jobs will start with a much better understanding and have more confidence – but this shouldn’t mean they’re completely overlooked for further help and development.

Virtual onboarding needs to reflect all of this. If it’s their first foray into the world of work, offer extra guidance to understand their role and feel comfortable in their team, while other employees may need some extra training to adapt to new technologies and systems – especially if they weren’t given as many development opportunities in their previous roles. Don’t make assumptions about what they will or won’t find helpful, and instead talk to them and create an onboarding experience that’s best suited to their needs.


Anyone running virtual onboarding needs to recognise the pros and cons it can have for the business and for the new employee. It is certainly quicker and easier, but also becomes more formal and has the potential to leave distance between team members. By tailoring it to the new starter’s needs and level of experience, creating opportunities for communication and checking-in with each other, and clearly establishing expectations of the role, it can be turned into a positive and useful experience which sets new employees up to perform their best and makes them part of the team.


For more insights and tips for raising up your business and leadership, take a look at our Learning Solutions.


1 HRreview (2021) Virtual hiring to increase following lockdown easing

2 Indeed (2020) Poll: what have employers learned from Covid-19

3 City & Guilds Group (2021) Skills Index 2021

4 Workforce Institute (2021) The Heard and the Heard-Nots