Online Onboarding: How to Master the New (Virtual) Reality

Online onboarding is a bit more complicated than onboarding employees in person. Here are 5 tips to make your online onboarding process effective to maximize your employee lifetime value.

Get the whole team involved with your online onboarding process for new hires. (Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash)

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”  It’s unclear who first coined that truism — Oscar Wilde, Will Rogers, or the marketing geniuses at Procter & Gamble — but it holds true for both people and companies.

And first impressions are what make onboarding so important. In fact, 93% of employers agree that a good onboarding experience is critical to employee retention.

But online onboarding is a bit more complicated than in-person onboarding.

When you’re onboarding online, there’s no popping in to ask your new hire, “How’s it going?”or reading their body language to decipher their comfort level. And for the employee — who is being asked to absorb a ton of new information — there’s no leaning over to the person at the next desk to say, “Wait, tell me again how we do that?”

Employers need to be extra attentive during online onboarding to ensure new hires get off on the right foot.

Here are the keys to delivering a positive online onboarding experience that sets up future hires for a long and successful career with your company.

Pre-board new hires to prepare them for day one

Twenty-nine percent of employees surveyed don’t think their organization’s onboarding process helped them prepare for their first day. Pre-boarding can clear potential roadblocks to a productive start, such as problems with equipment and access. It can also help set expectations for the new employee while maintaining the excitement generated by the job offer.

Emily Connery, Senior Director of People and Talent at ChartHop, a people analytics platform with an all-remote workforce, said, “We believe that onboarding starts as soon as somebody has signed their offer letter.”

New hires at ChartHop “immediately get a welcome letter with a new hire checklist so they can just be made aware of what their first few weeks will look like,”said Connery, adding that they are contacted by their onboarding buddy, their manager, and the people team before their first day.

Many traditional onboarding activities can be handled during pre-boarding, such as:

  • Reading company policies and the employee handbook
  • Watching videos on company culture and processes
  • Filling out benefits paperwork
  • Composing an introductory video or email

Of course, if your new hire is finishing up their tenure at another job, this might be a lotto ask — especially since they’re not yet on your payroll.

But at a minimum, send new employees a welcome kit with the equipment they need (perhaps even some company swag) well in advance of their start date so they can hit the ground running on day one.

Enlist the whole team to help with onboarding

There’s a lot to learn when you’re starting a new job — as in, everything. And everything is a lot to expect your People Ops team to know. So make onboarding a team sport by including people from different departments in the onboarding process. New hires will develop a deeper understanding of your company’s processes when they learn from the people doing the work every day.

Team involvement also increases the chances of a new hire making meaningful connections, which is even more important when onboarding online, which can be an isolating experience.

Here are a few ways to leverage the experience and knowledge of your teams to create a positive online onboarding experience.

Assign onboarding buddies. At ChartHop, new hire buddies reach out before the start date. “[New hire buddies are]meant to be that resource that’s not on your team to help facilitate some cross-team relationships,” said Connery. “And just somebody that can answer some questions you might feel awkward asking your manager, like dress code or working hours or PTO.”

Make information sharing quick and easy. Your teams are busy, and hopping on a Zoom call to walk through a process is inefficient and distracting. Tools like Scribe make it easy for employees to share "how-to" with new hires, regardless of location. With Scribe, your employees can create and share visual, customizable step-by-step guides for any digital activity in seconds — and the less time it takes veteran team members to share what they know, the more willing they’ll be to do it.

Build a crowdsourced company wiki or handbook. At all-remote GitLab, an exhaustive, searchable online company handbook “serves as a single source of truth that all team members can reference and depend on for answers about GitLab.” According to its Guide to Remote Onboarding, “Onboarding through documentation is more efficient because it’s scalable, repeatable, and instills the basics of asynchronous work.” It empowers new employees to be proactive and self-sufficient during onboarding (and beyond). Making it accessible to and editable by the whole team will help you ensure it stays up to date and empower your employees to fill in gaps as they discover them.

Keep new hires engaged to prevent turnover

As many as 30% of new hires churn in the first 90 days. An engaging onboarding experience will help maintain employee enthusiasm and get them up to speed faster (not to mention prevent them from falling asleep in front of hours of reading material).

Online onboarding generally involves some combination of the following elements:

  • Meetings and introductory calls
  • Reading the company handbook
  • Watching videos on company policy and culture
  • Completing HR paperwork

Help stave off boredom by assigning new hires a mix of different types of activities each day.

Sara Bent, People-Ops Specialist at all-remote Hotjar, writes: “Make sure the information and work are varied for the sake of keeping the person engaged. Too many chunks of long reads are likely to get tiring or boring for your new start, so mix up reading with watching videos, or have them carry out a task like writing a ‘10 Interesting Facts’ list.”

You can also give new hires an onboarding checklist to work from, which helps them visualize their progress and fosters feelings of accomplishment. You can even gamify the process to make it fun.

In a Forbes magazine article, Stephen Baer, Chief Creative Officer at The Game Agency and The Training Arcade, writes: “Managers can incorporate game-based elements, including games, activities, competitions, points, badges, and rewards, to help boost engagement and motivate new hires early on. Making this a core part of your strategy can help to build an engaging work environment that encourages community and fun in the onboarding process.”

Tailor the onboarding experience

Twenty-two percent of employees say they’d look for another job if they didn’t receive good onboarding, while a further 41% say they might look elsewhere.

Personalize the onboarding experience. Be flexible in your approach to accommodate each new hire’s unique circumstances and preferences. Prioritize their onboarding tasks according to their role to prevent overloading them with unnecessary information during their first few days.

Of course, there are onboarding activities that are required for every employee — benefits and tax paperwork, for example — so everyone’s onboarding should begin with the same template. But once those first-day tasks are complete, each person’s experience should follow a narrower path that is tailored to their responsibilities and career goals.

“I think the biggest thing is making it clear to the new hire that you have a plan for them. Because it’s their first impression of you, and if you come off as disorganized or not ready for them, they’re not going to feel welcome and then not going to feel like you have it together. And that first impression can never be undone, unfortunately. It’s just human nature.”
- Emily Connery, ChartHop

Employers should also consider an employee’s personality and communication style during onboarding. For example, are they an introvert who is exhausted by high levels of human interaction, or an extrovert who is energized by it? Are they a digital native adept at independently searching the internet for information, or do they require more one-on-one guidance?

You might also take into account whether your new hire is:

  • A visual learner who digests information best through guides with text and images
  • An auditory learner who would benefit from listening in on a voice or video call
  • A tactile learner who absorbs information by physically doing the processes they’re trying to understand

Accommodating employees’ unique needs gives them the best chance to thrive in their new role and sends a message that your company is invested in their success.

Review and revise your online onboarding process

Most organizations’ online onboarding programs are still in their infancy, spurred by the mass exodus from office buildings amid the COVID-19 pandemic. While these best practices will help you design an effective online onboarding process, time and experience will be your best guide to perfecting it.

Solicit feedback from your employees about their onboarding experience and use it to make continuous improvements. This will help you maximize your employee lifetime value by creating a positive first impression that makes new hires want to stick around for the long haul.