Onboarding Remote Workers: How to Do It Right to Build Team Culture

Onboarding remote workers

The best teams are built upon people’s differences and their strengths. Startups are a great example of where people from different backgrounds and experiences collide to make magic.

The key is having a diverse group of people with different skills. This helps drive innovation, competition, unrestricted thought, and open-mindedness. These values have to be instilled at the onboarding stage and reinforced in order to cement the company culture.

In order to bring together people from such diverse backgrounds, it’s becoming more and more common for companies (particularly startups) to widen the net and recruit people living in different cities or countries to work as remote employees.

But how can companies build a culture when employees are spread out all over the globe? Often, coworkers that have been working together for months will have never have met in person.

The key is to build culture right from the start: during onboarding.

In this post, I’ll show you why getting on-boarding right is key to building team culture in a company of remote workers, and I’ll give you some tips so you can make sure you’re getting it right.

What exactly is onboarding?

For many companies, onboarding is just the process of giving new people logins and showing them where they can make their coffee.

What onboarding should be is a structured process of introducing new hires to the company, the work environment, their coworkers, and any processes or documentation they need to be familiar with.

It’s the time when new recruits learn and unlearn things that they need to know to fit into the company culture and do their jobs effectively.

“I don’t want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stifled. I want all the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible.”

– Mohandas K. Gandhi

How does onboarding differ for remote workers?

Onboarding team members remotely is typically more difficult than onboarding them in person, for several reasons:

  • Physical distance and time zone differences makes communication and relationship building more challenging.
  • It’s harder to motivate someone who works alone.
  • Cultural differences may alienate remote team members from local teams.

These reasons make it all the more important to onboard remote workers properly. Remote workers aren’t able to pick up team culture or company knowledge by osmosis as easily as people in the office, so they need this information delivered to them as early as possible.

It is important that the onboarding process is led by a team leader or line manager, and should involve the entire team that the remote recruit is joining. Building relationships with team members at this stage is vital, so that remote workers have a support network they can reach out to.

The physical distance can create a communication barrier. Only being able to talk online or over the phone can make it more time consuming to build up a relationship, and time zone differences can make it hard to coordinate meetings and training sessions.

So what can you do to make sure your remote workers settle in quickly and become part of the family? Onboard them really, really well.

How to onboard remote workers properly

Onboarding isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach – you should tailor your onboarding schedule for each new hire.

Before you dive into preparing your onboarding program, consider your new employee’s role, responsibility and skillset, and the company culture. These things will determine how you approach your onboarding planning for each individual.

Here are my five tips for how to get your remote hires through their first few weeks at your company feeling like they’re one of the team.

1. Be clear on expectations

Setting clear expectations is key to a good onboarding program. Expectations should be set around what the new team member should achieve from the onboarding process, and also what the team lead or manager should provide.

Make sure that both you and your remote team member are clear on:

  • Their key areas of responsibility
  • Organisational values
  • Individual goals and wider team goals
  • Time frames for onboarding, goals and reviews

Document the onboarding process and share this with your new team member so that they can refer to this if they have any questions later.

Make sure that at the end of each day during onboarding, you review these notes and expectations with your team member so they can ask you to clarify anything they are unsure on.

2. Enable communication with the right tools

Communication is more difficult for remote workers. It’s important to give them the tools they need to make long-distance communication easier, both for one-to-one conversations and group discussions.

Initially, video calls is the best way to communicate with a remote employee. Speaking to a person face-to-face, even if it’s on a screen, helps you develop a relationship with them much more quickly as you can see facial expressions and gestures as well as tone of voice.

Remote workers should be able to easily communicate with anyone in the business almost as easily as if they were in the office, or they will spend time trying to get in touch. Messaging or collaboration apps are essential for remote workers to be able to communicate seamlessly with coworkers.

There are several good options for communicating with remote workers:

  • Slack or other instant messaging tools
  • Video calls (Google Hangouts or Skype)
  • Conference calls
  • Central repositories for storing documentation (Google Docs or Github)

“Company intranets needs to be backed by strong internal communication programs. The success of an intranet is about 60% communication, 40% technology.”

– Bob Cohen

3. Encourage a culture of openness and acceptance

It’s important to have a culture where people are willing to share new ideas, thoughts and experiences with one another, and in turn listen and accept one another’s approaches.

When onboarding remotely, it’s important to remember that there may be cultural differences, and it’s vital to make sure new joiners don’t feel alienated and feel they have the opportunity to express themselves freely.

  • Introduce the new hire to teammates early on
  • Encourage the remote worker to share their thoughts and experiences with the rest of the team and vice versa
  • Make sure the whole team is open and willing to accept the new starter

Introducing your new starter to coworkers early on helps them settle in more quickly and understand who to go to for help or to discuss certain topics. It will help them to build relationships, which are so important for happiness and satisfaction in work.

“Vulnerability is not weakness. And that myth is profoundly dangerous. Vulnerability is birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”

– Brene Brown

4. Facilitate self-guided learning

Make sure you have a schedule and documentation prepared before you begin onboarding your new team member.

It’s even more important to have solid training guides in place for remote workers because they won’t always be able to ask you or other coworkers for help. There are a few options for guides:

  • Product documentation (online documents or PDFs)
  • Self-help articles
  • Process and policies
  • Performance tracking tools
  • Online training tools

Along with guiding the self-learning process, you should also set measurable performance targets and goals so that your team member knows what to aim for.

5. Outline processes and policies

Language differences may cause difficulties for onboarding remote workers. You need to make sure you’re equipped to overcome this barrier.

Processes and policies should be documented and they should be open, visible and transparent for all new hires, but especially remote workers as they won’t be able to pick these up through casual conversations in the office.

It’s really important to have these processes and policies decided on, clearly documented, and accessible. Here are some best practices to help you:

  • Prepare all documentation before the new hire begins
  • Keep a record of all agreements and meeting outcomes
  • Talk through all areas discussed in policy documents so your new hire understands them
  • Create FAQs for easy reference

The takeaway:

Sometimes you have to look outside your local area to find the best people for your team. Not only will they bring their professional skills, but they’ll also bring new ways of thinking into the organisation.

It is worth investing the time into onboarding your remote workers properly. If you onboard well, you’re more likely to keep hold of your employees for longer, and have happier, more engaged remote team members.

“The will to win is not nearly so important as the will to prepare to win.”

– Vince Lombardi

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About the author
Vinay Sharma

Vinay is a Team Lead (Technical Support) at Kayako. He's fond of organizing and delivering courses, and loves to discuss and work on new customer success theories. His favorite thing is making people smile!

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