There’s more to onboarding remote employees than you might think. While you can—and should—use your master onboarding checklist as a guide, the “where, what and how” of many activities will change.

Some tweaks are minor. For example, equipment will be shipped to remote employees’ homes instead of placed on their desks. But other processes will be much different, and you may need to have separate sub-lists for remote starters who will work from home versus a satellite office or coworking space. What specific laws around PTO, nondisclosures or work schedules are relevant to the worker’s home state or branch office location? How will you communicate your company culture and build esprit de corps?

Are there implications for sales and use taxes, or new credits and incentives that your company is now eligible to receive?

What Is Remote Onboarding?

Onboarding is the process of organizational socialization, with the goal of helping new employees acclimate to the culture so that their skills and productivity levels are aligned with company goals as quickly as possible.

It’s a process that can extend for up to 12 months, through multiple phases. Remote onboarding adds a new wrinkle because it can be challenging to acclimate home-based workers, especially when it’s infeasible to have them spend time in the office, meeting colleagues, working through orientation and absorbing the company’s culture.

Calls for a comprehensive remote onboarding process accelerated when the coronavirus pandemic forced many from central workspaces to home offices. Still, remote and flex work schedules were growing in popularity before the pandemic, and remote employees will surely make up a larger percentage of the workforce for many companies moving forward—and remain a key focus of human capital management efforts.

Key Takeaways

Break remote onboarding activities into a series of short sessions and limit the number of trainings per day to avoid frustration and increase recall. Don’t create “Zoom zombies” by scheduling too many conferences back-to-back.

  • Get a running start where possible: Prior to the onboarding date, have needed hardware delivered, set up software accounts, ensure new hires have access to required systems and have them fill out documents to comply with employment laws.
  • Spell everything out, as misunderstandings are more likely in the absence of the body language and facial expressions that come with person-to-person interactions. A comprehensive online FAQ document is invaluable.
  • Assign specific deadlines to tasks so remote employees are able to prioritize completion of onboarding activities as they get started on their jobs.

Remote Onboarding Explained

Employees are operating remotely any time they’re working off company premises—at a client site or conference, in a rented office space not owned or controlled by the company or from home—occasionally or permanently.

In all of these cases, when the worker is either a part- or full-time employee, all the standard regulations, requirements and company benefits apply, along with considerations relevant to their main work locations. Remote onboarding comprises the steps a company takes to enable new employees to do their jobs effectively and familiarize them with the company culture within the requirements necessitated by working off-site.

While the goals are the same as onboarding someone who primarily works in an office, the methods used to get remote employees up-to-speed in their new roles may differ.

How Do You Onboard Remote Employees?

Remote onboarding is typically done online via secure websites and applications; through communication tools including company email, instant messaging, phone and video conference; and—especially when the remote employee is working in a locale where internet and telephone access are limited or unreliable—by mail or digitally via satellite connections. In some cases, the employee may travel to a company-owned location for a period of time. If this is feasible, it’s best to do as many mundane tasks online as possible and maximize interactions with colleagues during on-site time.

In any case, remote onboarding requires an ongoing, two-way exchange of information between employee and employer to give new staffers all the applications, resources and information they need to do their work effectively. The activities that comprise remote onboarding establish an official working relationship that meets the expectations and needs of both employer and employee and ensure compliance with all applicable laws.

How Is Remote Onboarding Different From Orientation?

Orientation, while important, is just one facet of the onboarding process.

Remote onboarding is about bringing new employees up to speed so they’re productive, engaged and working toward company goals no matter where their “work” is done. This begins with the hiring process and continues with orientation, training and ongoing bi-directional feedback.

4 Phases of Onboarding: PACE It Out

PREPARE

  • Order gear and provision accounts
  • Think about the Day 1 experience
  • Assign a peer buddy

ACCLIMATE

  • Make sure the new hire understands expectations
  • Begin to communicate culture
  • Provide an FAQ for common questions

CONNECT

  • Schedule team-building exercises
  • Schedule one-on-ones with executives/departmental leadership
  • Introduce employee to key contacts in IT, HR and other departments

EVALUATE

  • Set HR check-ins daily at first, then weekly or biweekly for three to six months
  • Ensure supervisor is setting goals and providing feedback
  • Ask employee what you could do better and continually iterate

Remote orientation usually happens on the first day of work or soon after and may be the best use of a remote employee’s onsite time, should the new hire be able to spend a day or more at HQ. A standard orientation often includes presentations and one-on-one introductions to executives and key colleagues. The idea is to immerse new hires in your company’s culture, communicate values and share broader business goals, often using conferencing technology.

Some companies believe that a formal onboarding process negates the need for orientation, especially if much of the onboarding is digital, as is usually the case for remote employees. However, an immersive orientation, especially in person, helps create team cohesion and plants the seeds for productive relationships.

How Long Should Remote Onboarding Take?

SHRM says that the onboarding process can span a full year. Clearly, this will vary based on role, seniority, how well the hire meshes with company culture and whether new-skills training is needed to achieve full productivity.

Whether in-person or remote, the key to effective onboarding is documentation, preparation and patience. In fact, remote onboarding needn’t take longer than standard onboarding simply because the employee is not in the office.

It’s best to break orientation-related training into shorter sessions conducted over several weeks, rather than attempting to pile everything into one or two days. A deluge of information only overwhelms and potentially frustrates employees, who then may forget details and feel delayed in actually getting down to their day-to-day jobs.

What’s key: Don’t rush, and don’t mistake “here, fill out these forms” for onboarding, remote or otherwise. By building a comprehensive onboarding checklist, with sections for various roles and partially and fully remote hires and expected completion timelines, HR teams can develop an estimate of how long the onboarding process will take for any given hire.

Why Onboarding Remote Employees Is Difficult

Many onboarding activities are centered on human-to-human encounters. Yes, HRMS systems can automate some steps and lend a big assist, but the ultimate goal is to build a strong relationship between employee, colleagues and employer. You’re looking to quickly introduce new hires to the organizational culture and their teams and accelerate time-to-productivity. That is more difficult to do when conversations are not face-to-face but over the phone or through a computer.

When employees are remote, relationship building often requires more effort and time. HR and business leaders should work to facilitate the sort of spontaneous, informal conversations and encounters that build camaraderie. A good collaboration tools bundle will help.

Leaders also need to realize that misunderstandings and conflicts can happen more easily—and without the other party even realizing it—when communications are remote. The answer is addressing conflicts as they arise, patience and recognition of positive intent on both sides.

In other words, remote onboarding is an exercise that relies on soft skills.

Add to that a higher potential for technical difficulties and issues unique to offsite locations, and you have a larger than usual array of challenges inherent to remote onboarding.

How Do You Make Onboarding a Remote Employee Fun?

To make remote onboarding more effective and enjoyable, managers can adapt many of the tools and activities they use to incentivize employees. Think gamification, virtual hangouts, Slack channels that aren’t strictly work-related, rewards, swag and other efforts. Look for ways to make onboarding interactive by involving managers and colleagues, rather than just giving employees a pile of material to read and videos to watch.

Gamification for onboarding is a growing trend. In businesses, gamification is the practice of using the techniques that make games so engaging to encourage desired behavior by employees. Apps including Centrical, PingBoard and QuizGame specialize in making onboarding fun.

3 Low-Cost Ways to Gamify Your Onboarding

Studies show that gamification techniques can increase attention span, recall and positive mindset. Companies can get started inexpensively.

Award badges for accomplishments or memberships: These can be physical pins, desk tchotchkes or virtual icons on an employee’s online bio and signature line. Some companies provide branded e-badges to employees who are veterans, for example, or for completing various levels of training.

Use the lingo: As new hires complete more-challenging trainings, reward them publicly for leveling up. Set up online leaderboards within departments, like sales, or cadres of new hires. Send new workers on quests, where they’re challenged to find items around the office or information online. More lingo.

Schedule a free or inexpensive online game: A major challenge with remote onboarding is getting teams to interact with new hires. A free virtual team builder will get employees talking. Or try an online escape room, like YouEscape ($30 per month) or a Paruzal quest that brings as many as 20 people together for adventures in Zoom for about $15 per player.

You can also conduct remote onboarding in groups rather than individually to encourage conversation between new colleagues and forge a sense of community.

Remote Onboarding Examples

A variety of companies have upped their remote onboarding games. Here are three real-world examples.

Remote onboarding case study: Ten Spot

Sammy Courtright, Co-founder and Chief Brand Officer at Ten Spot, a platform that helps companies manage remote and on-site employees, says the company’s onboarding focuses on helping new hires have a voice—which is even more important when they are remote.

“We have found that one of the best ways to build this foundation and give employees opportunities to foster connections are through virtual companywide events,” said Courtright. “Ten Spot’s recent survey revealed 60% of the most productive and engaged workers are frequently offered virtual social work events, whether it’s a virtual trivia night, a cocktail crafting class, a scavenger hunt, a 15-minute group meditation—we’ve found the most success when these events happen consistently.”

Ideally, these are non-work-related events, where hosts minimize shop talk and encourage people to chat about their hobbies and interests.

Remote onboarding case study: Potentia Workforce

Potentia Workforce helps large corporations including Baker Hughes and Chevron hire and manage neurodiverse individuals. Alex Pearson, Director of neurodiversity programs, says that in a remote onboarding situation, roles and responsibilities need to be well-defined and clearly assigned to compensate for a lack of traditional opportunities to “shadow” on the job and learn through observation.

Pearson recommends providing new hires with expectations for the first 90 days using a three-part onboarding checklist: The first page is an overview, the second page lists expected activities for the first 90 days and the third includes conversational and ice-breaker topics.

“Create a virtual workday that mimics being in the real office—start time, end time, lunch, virtual coffee breaks for all employees,” says Pearson. “Encourage employees to create their own break schedules—studies have shown that individuals work up to three hours more per day in a remote environment.”

All parties can benefit from having existing employees on the new hire’s team conduct mini-tutorial sessions remotely to explain office functions and foster connections. And reinforce trainings.

“Provide writing assignments, where the new hire will need to synthesize information learned live with self-learned info,” she says. “If you allow the new hire to present back the learnings to you in summaries, this actually results in up to 90% knowledge retention.”

Soft Skills for HR Pros

While Potentia specializes in neurodiverse hires, many best practices it recommends for HR staff are widely applicable.

  • Be specific in written and verbal communication, meaning you attempt to leave nothing to up to interpretation. Ambiguity results in not only anxiety but misinterpretation/misalignment.
  • Think one step ahead, as if the new hire is using Google maps and the job trainers are the voices sharing what direction to take next.
  • Reassure the employee that needed knowledge will be acquired eventually. New hires working remotely face the ambiguity of assimilation into a new workplace that they are experiencing only from their personal spaces, which might be quite different from anything they have done before.
  • Model trust-building behaviors—ask questions, admit fault, praise publicly, reward courage. This creates a psychologically save workplace and dramatically decreases anxiety.

Remote onboarding case study: Growmotely

Sarah Hawley, CEO and Founder of Growmotely, has had a fully remote workforce since 2014 and depends on a comprehensive onboarding checklist. Growmotely is a global consultancy that helps companies build remote teams.

“We use Basecamp to set that up from a template,” says Hawley. “It has everything in there, from setting up all their software access; to reviewing company docs, like our vision and values and brand promises; podcast episodes and blog posts to get a feel for how we interact with the world as a brand; and booking 10-minute one-on-ones with other team members to get to know each other.”

Hawley also advises companies to request that new hires update their social media profiles to reflect their new positions and have them complete profiles with both practical and personal, fun biographical insights. Then, share those profiles with the team. Finally, for geographically distributed companies, she encourages universal use of a time zone management app.

5 Tips for Onboarding Remote Employees

Remote work is a growing trend, and HR teams that empower their companies to hire the best talent regardless of location will be ahead of the game.

You may look to how employees are onboarded at branch offices or satellite locations to help develop your remote onboarding strategy. Here are more top tips.

1. Pay attention to ergonomics and workspace setup. Employees working from home offices may need a desk, chair, laptop, phone and specialized gear, like a noise-canceling headset for a call-center worker. They also need dependable internet access and, possibly, a separate phone line. Consider everything you would issue to an employee in the office and decide whether you now need to provision or ship these items to the remote employee, or whether you will offer a stipend or expect the employee to provide the item. Make sure that remote-work policies align with your culture.

2. Get IT and the support desk involved early. Remember: Employees working from home mean you now have many branch offices that need secure access to business applications. After you’ve shipped computers and other equipment to remote employees, IT and the support desk should communicate with the employee promptly to ensure everything is up and running correctly. That includes solving home-networking issues and explaining security protocols. Hopefully, IT loaded the computer with all the necessary software needed for that role in advance. If not, they will likely have to remotely walk the new employee through the setup process.

3. Stay up-to-date on local regulations wherever you have employees. Taxes are an obvious example: In states that have income taxes, local agencies publish annual tables to determine the amount of tax to be withheld from each paycheck depending on the employee’s gross earnings, filing status, number of exemptions and pay frequency. The last thing you want to do is fail to properly set up the remote employee’s paycheck and have them owe taxes. But that’s not the only consideration when it comes to payroll and labor laws. In addition, California mandates that employers cover “all necessary expenditures or losses incurred by the employee in direct consequence of the discharge of his or her duties.” That could range from purchasing a desk to covering utilities and internet access or automobile-related costs.

4. Make job requirements and limits clear. Remote workers, whether they are in the field or working from home, may want or need flexible work hours. But be careful that they don’t actually work too many hours, which could lead to overtime—a sure budget buster if they’re hourly—or burnout if they’re salaried. Make job requirements and rules crystal clear from the start to avoid costly problems later, but keep flexibility and work/life balance top of mind. Wherever possible, focus on project completion as a measure of productivity and professionalism instead of worrying about unavoidable disruptions or what hours of the day an employee worked.

5. Limit daily onboarding activities. Break down onboarding activities into bite-size sessions and let new hires do a few per day to avoid subjecting them to information overload—one of the top onboarding mistakes companies make. Provide due dates for tasks. Shorter, easily prioritized sessions enable employees to complete onboarding duties around other important tasks, such as teleconferences with co-workers and their supervisors.

7 Best Practices for Onboarding Remote Employees

Best practices for remote onboarding focus on simplifying the process as much as possible, preparing for challenges ahead of time and setting clear expectations. Here are a few best practices common to all industries:

1. Start early. If you are not ordering hardware and office supplies and scheduling IT support until the employee’s start date, you’ve just sunk two weeks or more of the employee’s productivity. Ditto with the employment documents you’re legally required to collect—make sure the worker has all the necessary documents to complete that paperwork ahead of time. If a remote employee lacks a passport and can’t locate her original social security card, you’ll have to wait to finish onboarding while she requests a new card, which can take a long time.

2. Get the employee online fast. A new remote employee may not have an internet connection set up yet if he’s moving to a new location as part of this opportunity to work from home. Or, employees may need to increase the bandwidth with their internet service provider (ISP), wait for IT to give them access to the company VPN or complete other security protocols before they can access your company’s data and systems. Make it a top priority to address any potential roadblocks here.

3. Provide a remote employee handbook on Day 1. Do not just send a copy of, or link to, the standard handbook for employees working in the office. If you do, remote employees may not finish reading it once they realize most of it doesn’t apply to them. Customize the handbook for remote workers, and refer them to that version. This has the added advantage of eliminating the need to repeat things included in the handbook every time you onboard a remote individual or group. People expect FAQ documents and are happy to be able answer many of their own questions.

4. Assign a buddy, and make introductions as you go. Create a sense of belonging by assigning new employees a “buddy” or mentor early on who can introduce them to co-workers, supervisors and executives as employees move through the onboarding process. This facilitates more interpersonal interactions than just giving the person a list of names or a link to a company flowchart.

5. Offer development opportunities early and frequently. Remember that today’s employees are motivated by personal and professional growth as much as—if not more—than by pay increases and benefits. A strong focus on employee education, training and reskilling is a top talent management trend for good reason.

6. Encourage collaboration. Remote employees may be hesitant to speak up on company social channels like Slack or in team Zoom meetings. Ensure that they feel comfortable and accepted so they participate more and feel included sooner. How? The aforementioned buddy can help. Experts also recommend regular employee engagement exercises for remote workers, such as end-of-the-week team-building activities.

3 Pillars of Successful Remote Collaboration

CFOs whose teams are new to working from home can foster a culture of success, and not just for month-end remote closes.
Leadership Technological Social
Manage the project, not the hours. Evaluate productivity by setting and monitoring specific goals versus clocking time online, as judged by “the new face time” of being active on Slack or an instant messaging platform. Make sure the right tools are in place (opens in a new tab). At minimum, finance teams need instant messaging, the ability to securely share files and collaborate on documents, and videoconferencing. Strongly encourage people to turn on video. Not only does it foster the human connection and bring non-verbal cues into play, being on camera tends to minimize multitasking.
Model certainty. Research shows that anxiety is contagious (opens in a new tab). Effective leaders display confidence in, and actively encourage, their teams. If financially feasible, cover the cost of bandwidth upgrades for employees’ home Wi-Fi. In some cases, spouses and school-age children are also online, and few things are as stressful as getting dropped from an important conference. If time and team size allow, have weekly one-on-one meetings with each team member. Also consider a social connection app, like Donut (opens in a new tab), that facilitates virtual coffee or group lunches, or even happy hours.

7. Set clear goals and deadlines. Don’t just send an employee a form to fill out or a task to perform and wait indefinitely for it to be finished. Provide clear instructions, contact information for questions and a completion deadline for each item. This enables the employee to prioritize . Remember, if you don’t make expectations clear at the beginning, you can’t complain about results later.

Free Remote Employee Onboarding Checklist

Improve Onboarding with Software

Software can automate and organize many remote onboarding activities so that processes do not become repetitive or overly burdensome. For example, fields can be automatically populated across documents, and materials can be sent or requested according to the employee’s role and answers to previous questions. Such a solution can also help HR create an employee portal, with new hire FAQs and contact information for people with expertise in various areas who can answer questions.

The right HR software can also create an audit trail to ensure the company remains in compliance with employment laws and has up-to-date information for all employees. Further, it ensures that onboarding is consistent for all new hires and relevant to their jobs, and that no steps fall through the cracks.

Remote employees give companies reach into a larger, more diverse talent pool. So, while remote onboarding may be a bit of a challenge, it’s certainly worthwhile given how much it can boost the company’s resilience and overall competitiveness.

Remote Employee Onboarding FAQs

How do you welcome new remote employees?

Most, if not all, welcoming activities will be done online, and video conferencing is a key piece of the equation. Be warm and authentic and keep sessions conversational rather than lecture-like. Introduce the employee to other people in the company, but don’t just state names and titles—share a little about each person to make it feel more personal.

Is onboarding the same as training?

No. Training, be it on security protocols, systems, or tasks specific to the position, consists of specific events that are just one part of the onboarding process.

How do you train employees virtually?

Computer tutorials and instructional videos are useful training tools. But you may also need to schedule time for the employees to meet with a manager or an internal training professional to walk them through complex processes and answer technical questions. Other team members and an assigned buddy can also answer questions and help get remote employees up to speed.