Virtual onboarding: the new reality

Having to join a company virtually is likely to outlast the coronavirus pandemic as many companies shift to more permanent remote working. But this raises challenges over how to get new starters up to speed and feel part of a company


The deep trepidation felt by Jeevan Singh when she was appointed finance officer of influencer marketing platform Fanbytes in September is relatable for those who have endured a remote onboarding process in the past year, especially workers at the start of their career.

“Starting a new job in lockdown was terrifying,” says the 23 year old, who in 2019 graduated from Royal Holloway, University of London. “I thought I’d feel like an outsider and lack the essential team-working environment. Above all, I was worried that I’d miss out on training and be left to figure out how to do things.”

Fanbytes’ suite of online collaboration tools and a “fantastic culture” of frequent, virtual meetings and social events soon allayed her fears, though. “For anyone looking to start a new job remotely or for businesses wanting to create a more inclusive culture, regular face-to-face calls and chats should be at the top of the agenda,” recommends Singh. “While I haven’t met any of my colleagues in person yet – and they may all turn out to be catfishing [creating a fake identity] – I nevertheless feel like I know them well.”

Charlie Johnson, founder and chief executive of BrighterBox, a London-based recruitment firm that places graduates with startups, agrees that for younger talent beginning a full-time job virtually is particularly daunting. His organisation’s research reveals that more than a third (36 per cent) of respondents feel less confident about starting a role remotely, although 44 per cent say it would make no difference.

“Ultimately, what new starters are looking for in 2021 is plenty of contact time: one to ones with their direct managers as well as the wider team and virtual socials to get to know teammates on a more personal and less formal level,” says Johnson.

Managing a remote team by example

What about remote onboarding as a new manager? Having amassed 16 years’ experience working in financial services, Cedrick Parize was perhaps not as terrified as Singh when, last March, he joined MUFG as Europe, Middle East and Africa head of internal audit for the bank’s global markets. However, 12 months after he took up his position, Parize is yet to meet any of the eight-strong team, two of whom he hired, in the flesh.

“Initially, with it being the start of the first lockdown, it was a challenge to get a feel for the team,” he says. “So much human communication is performed through body language and experiencing a person’s energy.”

From the outset at MUFG, Parize was open minded and flexible, even agreeing to reschedule meetings so they didn’t clash with Joe Wicks’ workout sessions, and keen to display his human side. 

Ultimately, what new starters are looking for in 2021 is plenty of contact time.

“I encouraged video calls and switched my camera on, no matter how bad my outfit was,” he says. “There was no pressure for others to do the same, but I was happy to see that through leading by example, and slowly building up relationships, my team began to feel more comfortable, turning on their cameras. This change helped enormously to gain a sense of each individual.”

Clearly, the coronavirus crisis has transformed hiring practices and talent management. While organisations are struggling to keep pace with the change necessitated by government-enforced remote working, the direction of travel is evident. “Virtual recruitment and onboarding are undoubtedly here to stay,” says Jon Addison, vice president at professional social network LinkedIn. 

Indeed, 84 per cent of the 1,500 human resources and talent professionals surveyed from around the world for LinkedIn’s The Future of Recruiting report predict virtual recruiting will outlast COVID-19.

Winning the war for talent in 90 days

Addison argues that as the war for talent intensifies, organisations must sharpen their remote onboarding, career development and training capabilities. “The first few days in a job are extremely important in setting up new joiners well,” he says. “Remote onboarding can make that challenging, particularly for younger generations joining the workforce who may not know what to expect.”

The most progressive organisations will start the experience well in advance of the new hire’s first day. Addison says this is achieved by connecting them to their team, ensuring home office equipment arrives, if remote working is possible, and sending a welcome package that includes information about company culture and explaining what the coming days and weeks might entail.

As vice president of people and operations at ClassPass, the fitness and wellness network that hit a $1-billion valuation last year, and with almost 400 employees distributed across 30 countries, Hollen Spatz has had to ensure her organisation’s remote onboarding runs smoothly. 

All hires join a programme coined “the 90-day warm-up”. The onboarding process starts with “a few surprises in the mail, including some company swag” and a personalised note from the ClassPass leadership team. The programme consists of a series of sessions introducing new team members to various aspects of the organisation over a three-month period.

“Onboarding and staff retention go hand in hand,” says Spatz. “An employee’s experience in the first 90 days of their role will have a massive impact on their happiness, productivity and longevity with a company.”

To accelerate the assimilation, ClassPass has also created a series of virtual check-ins with managers so beginners are clear on their role expectations and have ample opportunity to raise questions.

Finally, Spatz acknowledges that the remote onboarding process requires continuous tweaking. “We used to send out gift cards for a welcome lunch over Zoom, but quickly realised people might not feel comfortable eating in front of new colleagues on camera,” she concedes. 

With remote onboarding and virtual training set to remain, there’s plenty for business leaders to chew over to improve the recipe for success.

Five tips to improve remote onboarding

1. Divide and conquer interview duties

Moneypenny, a global outsourced communications provider, has recruited more than 350 new staff members since March 2020, and group chief executive Joanna Swash believes the secret to a successful hire is to divide and conquer. “We have two people to carry out remote interviews,” she says. “This allows each person to ask different questions and enables them to watch body language while the other person is talking.”

2. Use technology solutions to ease the load

Alexander Nicolaus, chief people officer at Paysend, a UK-based international money transfer fintech, urges business leaders to embrace technology solutions to improve hiring and training efficiencies. “We built an onboarding intranet that acts as a self-service toolkit for new joiners,” he says. This facility relieves the pressure on the business and allows employees to access a wide range of information.

3. Build a remote culture

GitLab is a fully remote technology company that has 13,000 employees spread across 67 countries. Head of remote Darren Murph says the key to successful remote onboarding is instilling a company culture. “The three key aspects are our commitment to working handbook first, being outcomes focused and having intentional communication,” he says.

4. Buddy up new hires

Being assigned a work buddy is vital for remote hires, according to Nicole Alvino, co-founder and head of strategy at SocialChorus, a workforce communications platform. “We added ‘sidekicks’ early on in the pandemic to ensure every person would have a personal connection. The sidekick is a person who can help navigate the culture.”

5. Introduce the CEO

In many ways remote onboarding has improved efficiencies, not least when it comes to including the C-suite in the process. “It has offered an opportunity for our chief executive to join the new hire training sessions,” says Joan Burke, chief people officer at DocuSign. “Booking in time to lead a Zoom session is much easier than clearing his schedule for a face-to-face orientation session.”