This article was published on February 4, 2021

Remote onboarding isn’t going away — so here’s how to perfect it

2020 might be gone, but remote onboarding isn't

Remote onboarding isn’t going away — so here’s how to perfect it

Most of us are all too familiar with how expensive it is to find and hire new employees. And losing a new hire weeks or months after they join your team is even more costly. 

To increase retention, human resource departments invest incredible time and resources into their onboarding strategies. But, in my opinion, these strategies require a fresh perspective. 2020 might be gone, but remote hiring is here to stay as the new norm. So here’s what I think needs to change.

First, take some time to consider what remote employees don’t experience when they start a new job.

They don’t walk into a room where new colleagues clap and celebrate their arrival. They’re not introduced to their new workspace and they miss out on the small chit-chat when a coworker shows them how to make coffee in the break room or recommend the best lunch spots in the area.

These experiences might sound trivial, but trust me, they’re far from it. During the first few weeks of onboarding, these casual encounters help employees understand what to expect in their new role and get a better feel for the company they now work for. 

Sure, remote orientation programs exist. Employees can meet with colleagues over Zoom. Shared Google Drive files can guide new hires through processes, workflows, and even the company handbook. 

But job satisfaction and company loyalty require more than an introduction to the how-tos of a job. They require a deeper connection to a company’s organizational culture. 

How exactly do you virtually transfer your team’s values and belief system to new hires? 

For me, it starts with understanding the theory of organizational socialization — so let’s dive in. 

What is organizational socialization?

Organizational socialization is the experiences new employees have when joining a new organization, job role, or cohort. Think of it as learning the ropes, where new teammates discover what matters most at your company.  

Through conversations, shared experiences, and activities, new members connect with the core of your company’s value system and norms — beyond the words pasted on a wall or website. Supervisors and coworkers play an integral role in shaping a new employee’s socialization at work. 

The outcome of a successful organizational socialization experience is higher retention rates and a better chance that your company culture perseveres — even as you scale.

Here’s the challenge you face: serendipitous interactions and experiences with coworkers come naturally in an office setting. Not so much with a remote workforce, where employees connect with colleagues through the confines of a computer.

Remote workers can’t absorb the ambiance of an office environment. They can’t stop by a coworker’s desk to chat. It’s up to company leaders and their HR departments to create an employee orientation strategy that does its best to replicate the real-world experience. 

Why organizational socialization matters

Why is a well-thought-out socialization process so important to your onboarding? Research in organizational behavior reveals three theories for why a positive social onboarding experience matters:

  • Social exchange theoryIf the costs of a relationship are higher than the rewards, then the relationship may be abandoned. This is particularly true in new relationships, like with your new hire.
  • The need to belong theory People want strong interpersonal relationships, that includes in the workplace. 30-minute one-on-one meetings with new colleagues over Zoom isn’t enough.
  • Uncertainty reduction theory People need to decrease their unfamiliarity with others to predict their behaviors, a critical part of relationship development.

Your existing onboarding process may do well to initiate locally based new hires. But how effective is it for your ever-growing remote workforce? 

It’s probably time to revisit your orientation program to ensure your remote hires get the experiences they need to thrive. 

Understanding the different stage of organizational socialization is a great tool to create new tactics for your remote hires. There are three stages in total in organizational socialization:

  • Pre-arrival stage
  • Encounter stage
  • Metamorphosis 

The last stage, metamorphosis, is straightforward: when a new employee begins to identify themselves with their new organization. Rather than just consuming experiences, they contribute to the company’s goals and objectives. 

They embrace and exude your organizational culture.

The success of this stage depends on how effective you are with the first two stages. That’s where we’ll focus our energy, below. 

Hone in on different stages of organizational socialization to improve your remote onboarding.

Pre-arrival stage (or anticipatory socialization stage)

Successful onboarding occurs well before an offer is accepted. 

New hires learn about your company before they ever join your team through channels like your website, social media, and review sites like Glassdoor. 

Hiring remotely doesn’t change that experience. However, local candidates usually visit your office during the interview process. They get to see how the sausage is made. Remote candidates don’t get that experience. All they know is the digital impression you offer. 

Prospects should have a clear understanding of what life will be like working for you — particularly in the role they’re applying for.

Make an effort to share the “office experience” on social media and your website. What do your all-hands meetings look like? One approach I particularly like is to publish an article on your blog about your meetings. How do your teams collaborate? What tools do you use? Help prospects answer these questions. 

Buffer has made transparency a cornerstone of its brand identity. The result? Candidates know exactly what they’re getting into before they ever apply for a role. 

Also, encourage current employees to add reviews on Glassdoor and other sites. The more specific they are about the culture, the more effective the review.

Encounter stage

A candidate accepts your job offer. They’re now in the encounter stage, where their expectations meet the reality of the job. 

This is where you can incorporate the theories we presented earlier. 

Social exchange theory

When a new hire comes on board, the demand for their time is high. They typically have a checklist of tasks to complete for their first 7, 14, and 30 days. At the same time, HR fills their work calendars with one-on-one meet and greets. 

This experience works well for employees who report to an office on a set schedule. It’s less effective for remote workers. Remote employees expect a certain level of flexibility in their workday, in large part because they have to balance work and life obligations.

The more control they feel they have over their schedules those first few weeks, the more balanced a relationship they’ll feel they have with their new company. 

One-on-ones are great, but they won’t solve every aspect of good remote onboarding.

The need to belong

Remote employees can’t go out to dinner and drinks with colleagues after their first day at work. But these types of casual encounters are critical toward helping new teammates feel welcomed in your tribe. 

Remote teams compensate with one-on-one video calls and a company-wide introduction on Slack. These are a nice touch — but they aren’t enough.

I’ve found a more effective approach is to arrange a group meeting with your new employee and the team she’s on. This meeting — which could be 2-4 hours long, should be a mix of work and non-work related activities. For example:

  • The first portion of the meeting can be icebreakers. Hubspot has a great list. This is to help set the tone for the rest of the meeting.
  • The second portion is a problem-solving team-building activity. Think virtual escape room. International Monster Hunter is a good example.
  • With the activity complete, you can focus on work. Each existing team member can talk about their role in the company.
  • Then, the team can discuss any current and upcoming projects.
  • Finally, the new team member can ask any questions she might have, personal or professional. 
  • This group meeting helps your new employee see her new team’s dynamics — something she can’t do with one-on-one meetings.

Don’t get me wrong. One-on-one meetings do have their place — they help new team members reduce the uncertainty of their new surroundings, if done correctly. But don’t treat them like a blanket solution to making new employees feel welcome.

Uncertainty reduction theory

We can tell a lot about a person from social cues and body language. Remote employees don’t have the luxury of either — not even with video calls. 

To overcome this, give those one-on-one onboarding calls a focus. 

Have everyone on your team create a user guide — a how-I-work document. Have your existing employees share their user guide with your new employee before their one-on-one meetings.

The user guide is a great way for your new employee to learn more about her teammates and is a great starting point for a one-on-one conversation about work and life. 

Refresh for remote workers — refresh often

The most successful companies retool their organizational socialization processes regularly. At the end of their onboarding process, I like to ask new employees share their experiences. Did their expectations before joining the team align with reality? Did they get to know their teammates before jumping into work? Do they feel like an integral part of the team? 

By reviewing and refining your socialization process, more employees will likely remain loyal and committed to your company — and its culture.

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