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The best way to onboard a new employee virtually, according to 7 seasoned leaders who've managed remote teams for years

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  • The coronavirus pandemic has forced companies to operate remotely — and that includes welcoming new hires and showing them the ropes from your respective homes.
  • Plenty of managers of remote companies have been doing this for years, and they said to make sure you make new employees feel welcomed — and you need to prepare for a different way of checking in on them.
  • Pick a time to onboard them that works for your schedule, prepare their first day in advance, and make sure there are resources to help them learn who's who.
  • Be patient with the virtual process and encourage them to collaborate with others early.
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For the past couple of months, the COVID-19 crisis has meant that companies worldwide have had to transition their operations to employees' homes. 

Almost overnight, Zoom calls have replaced in-person meetings, Slack has replaced the water cooler, and workers have adjusted to life in a virtual environment.

Until, of course, they face situations they've never dealt with remotely before — such as welcoming and onboarding a new employee, sans the norms of the office.

One thing is clear: This isn't a situation you want to approach the same way that you have in the past. 

Carolyn Peer, CEO and cofounder of Humaxa, Inc.

"I have found that with virtual onboarding, planning is crucial. With people spread out, the relaxed atmosphere of being able to 'pop your head in to see how everything's going' vanishes," Carolyn Peer, CEO and cofounder of Humaxa, Inc. who's led virtual teams of up to 20 people and currently manages a remote group of six, told Business Insider. "It's impossible to be overprepared. I've learned that the hard way!" 

For anyone currently facing this situation for the first time, seasoned managers of remote employees share their best tips for getting a new hire up to speed and feeling like part of the team as soon as possible.

Pick the right time — otherwise, when you're most available 

Yaprak DeCarmine, CEO of Game Jolt

Rather than having a new hire start as soon as possible, make sure you pick a time that's going to work for you and the team, recommended Yaprak DeCarmine, CEO of Game Jolt who has a virtual team spread across the US, Australia, Germany, and Israel. 

"In the past, we've had folks start in the middle of important projects, which really hindered the quality of their training," she cautioned. "I've learned to carefully pick start dates on weeks where I can be on call for whatever they need, whenever they need [it]." 

Start the process before your employee starts

Claire Humphreys, cofounder and COO of Wethos

Claire Humphreys, cofounder and COO of Wethos, an entirely remote company with 21 employees plus a network of more than 4,000 freelancers, noted that her company's onboarding process gets rolling long before an employee starts working. 

"We want to make sure that they join the team on even footing, with a strong foundation that's intentionally built to set them up for an empowered beginning with our company," she shared. 

Before their start date, new hires are provided with HR documents, healthcare options, and log-in information for essential accounts. "This sounds like boring paperwork, but it's critical to making sure our new hires feel safe and secure. We think of it like an onboarding care package," she said.

Her team also makes sure that new hires know exactly what their first day will look like. 

"With a remote team, your first day can simply feel like opening up a computer and signing into Slack. What next? We provide structure by pre-scheduling meetings to provide a few tangible milestones for the first few weeks," she explained. Those meetings include a chat with the operations/HR lead, a check-in with the CEO or COO about the state of the company, "shadowing" opportunities with other departments, and a 30/60/90 day planning session with their direct supervisor.

If you're planning to onboard many people over the next few weeks or months, consider how technology can help you make the process more efficient. 

Yulia Eskin, remote manager of healthcare company

"When we had an influx of six remote employees all at once last year and we knew more were coming, we took the time to formalize what the onboarding should be," added Yulia Eskin, who led a team of more than 20 in a prior role as a technical team lead at a healthcare tech company in Silicon Valley. She created an onboarding schedule, assigned it to a trainer on the team, recorded everything, and saved it in Confluence, the company's internal knowledge base.

Help them understand who's who

While meeting a whole new team of people can be overwhelming for in-office new hires, not meeting people face to face can add a whole new challenge. 

"Every new hire is likely wondering, 'Who are all these people on this call and what are their roles?'" noted Humphreys. "[Creating] a deck that outlines each team member, their responsibilities, and how the team functions and operates every week will help alleviate the 'I don't know what's going on!' anxiety." 

Shanna Tellerman, CEO and founder of Modsy

Shanna Tellerman, CEO and founder of Modsy, which has 100 employees, all of whom currently work virtually, agreed.

"One really helpful tip is to ensure each employee uploads a picture and has their role stated in their Slack profile," she said. "Managers should also identify key people across the company and proactively set up one-on-ones for their new hires in the first two weeks. Help them quickly get a sense for who they will be working with and the key people they will interact with regularly."

Facilitate collaboration

Beyond introducing team members to each other, managers should take the extra step of helping facilitate their shared work. 

Part of DeCarmine's process is assigning go-to contacts for each new employee so they always have someone to turn to. 

"In addition to having a primary person to go to for guidance and questions, I've learned it's important to assign a secondary person as well," she advised. "Not knowing who can help you and who you can interrupt is a terrible and lonely feeling that is amplified when you're working from home."

Eskin likes to use the approach of pairing people up on specific work tasks or projects. "Especially early on, either I would pair with them on a task or I would pair them up with some of the more seasoned engineers on the team. This way they get to develop relationships with everyone," she said.

Job van der Voort, CEO of Remote

Job van der Voort, CEO of Remote, who runs a remote team of 20, also noted that managers should make sure to build bridges outside of the team the new employee is on, be that sales, engineering, or marketing. 

"For a remote organization, 'cross-pollination' like that doesn't happen accidentally … you have to force it somehow," he said. He recommended team-wide calls (if the team isn't too large) or bringing together a random selection of people outside of your group. 

Iggy Moliver,

Iggy Moliver, head of product and strategy at Remedy Point Solutions, which has 38 employees — 75% of whom were remote pre-COVID — noted that for remote employees, there's a tendency to be task-oriented and work in silos. 

"You may hear things like, 'I did my part' or, 'That's not my responsibility,'" he cautioned. "It is easy to forget being warm and empathetic when you don't actually see your coworker struggling with a problem or going through a tough time. You can lose the human side of being teammates."

Build in social activity 

On that note, just like the office isn't all business, all the time, the remote workplace shouldn't be, either. 

"We try to learn about each other's lives outside of work and spend time on each call just chatting, like you would by the coffee machine," said Moliver.

Just as you'd schedule team lunches or coffee dates for a new hire, try to create social interaction virtually. 

"Working by yourself and away from your team gets lonely, so it's up to you to create a company culture through virtual tools like Slack and Zoom," offered DeCarmine. "Having a 'general' or a 'random' channel is a great way to build a team atmosphere like a virtual water cooler would in the physical world." 

Tellerman shared similar traditions at Modsy. "Each team has their own Slack channel, but we also have a tremendous number of channels for various interests ranging from music to books to dogs," she said. "Throughout the year, we host company-wide spirit weeks over Slack where we ask a thematic question each day of the week and people post pictures and personal stories." 

van der Voort added that he has new hires do a "coffee call" with everyone on the team — a 15- to 30-minute call just to get to know everyone outside of work — and employees have outside of work activities, like playing video games together or holding Zoom-based Dungeons and Dragons sessions.

Touch base regularly and often

Nearly everyone we talked to emphasized the need for regular touch-points with new hires. 

Tellerman recommended weekly one-on-ones for at least 45 minutes. "Whenever possible, do this with the camera on," she explained. "Your time with your remote employee should be spent building trust, building personal rapport, and especially watching their body language to read between the lines on how they may be feeling."

In a new hire's early days, Humphreys recommended even more frequent check-ins. "Put a daily touch-base on their calendar to fill the void of the daily swing by their desk," she recommended.

But don't assume that those early encounters are enough. Moliver noted that one month into the new employee's tenure a people lead conducts a culture interview to understand the person's perception of the company and practices. 

"This provides an opportunity to assess our culture and course correct any issues," he said. "Check in often for feedback to ensure that the employee's perception matches what you are trying to communicate."

Be patient with the virtual process 

Humphreys noted that managers should expect an extra week or two of onboarding in a remote setting. Over time, she's adjusted her process to reflect that. 

"At one point, we were trying a week-one daily 'onboarding' to each department, which in the end left the new hire more confused at the end of the week than when they started," she recalled. "Take the pressure off them to learn everything and fill their days with company meetings where they can instead sit in and be a sponge to how everyone operates — as if they were in an office overhearing other teams talk about their projects and collaborate."

Eskin similarly encouraged managers to overcommunicate and repeat things as many times as necessary. "Not everyone has a great memory or is very focused and can retain information right away. Don't get upset if people forget something you've explained. Be patient!" she said.

And, added Peer, "The remote onboarding experience will always be more tricky than an in-office onboarding experience, but that doesn't mean that it can't work well." 

Her most important advice? "Think through every detail. Be rigorous during the planning process. Be precise and disciplined. Being hyper-organized will help everyone involved have a great experience," she said.

This article was originally published on Business Insider March 27, 2020.

SEE ALSO: 6 CEOs and executives who've been managing remote teams for years share the tools they use to keep their employees motivated and happy

NOW READ: CEOs who've lead large remote teams for years reveal the best ways to manage employees when everyone's scattered across the globe

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