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How to Build a Virtual Onboarding Program for Remote Workers

September 28, 2020 Digital Workplace
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By Sarah Fister Gale

We’ve all heard the statistics. Turnover risk is highest in the first weeks on the job – and that risk can be dramatically reduced with an effective onboarding program.

The onboarding process is the first real experience employees have with a company and it sets a lasting impression. When employees are warmly welcomed, given guidance, training and maybe even a mentor, it sends a message that they will have the support and community they need to thrive.

That is relatively easy to do when everyone works in the same office. But how do you create a welcoming onboard experience when everyone is working remotely and no one can meet the new hire in person?

“You have to rethink all of the touch points,” said John Jordan, head of The Academy, the training and development organization for the client-facing consumer and wealth management businesses at Bank of America in Charlotte, NC.

When the pandemic began, Jordan’s team faced the joint challenge of rapidly going remote while supporting the bank’s launch of the Paycheck Protection Program, the loan program administered by the U.S. Small Business Administration to help businesses keep people employed during COVID-19. The bank redeployed thousands of people from across the organization and hired hundreds more to support the program. “We had to pivot very quickly to virtual onboarding,” Jordan said.

Redraw the Onboarding Journey Map

A few years prior to the pandemic, Jordan’s team had created a journey map of every touchpoint in the onboarding process. They used that map as a starting point then adapted it for a virtual experience. The key was constant communication.

In a virtual work setting, more communication is always better, Jordan said. His team established a cadence of communication for new hires and began training managers to connect more frequently with new hires through individual and team video calls, emails, texts and other frequent points of engagement. “Face-to-face video is always better than the phone,” he says.

To support this shift in management behavior, The Academy rolled out a series of communication training modules on topics such as how to host an effective WebEx meeting and how to engage teams remotely.

“We also keep reminding them to connect and to share messages about the job and the mission,” Jordan said.

Jordan often forwards messages and videos from senior leadership to managers that they can share with new hires. “It is easier if they don’t always have to come up with something new to say,” he said.

Related Article: Improve Your Onboarding for a Better Employee Experience

Let Other Employees Be Their Guide

In addition to more frequent contact with the boss, companies should give new hires a mentor to help them get acclimated, said Grant Walsh, cofounder and managing partner of Culhane Meadows, a national law firm with 73 attorneys in 11 cities.

At his firm, every new lawyer is assigned another lawyer who is not their direct boss or subordinate and may have a different specialty. They call them Sherpas.

Walsh’s team tries to match new hires with Sherpas who have similar interests or experiences which could range for having kids of similar ages to a shared passion for running marathons or scuba diving. “We want it to be someone they can build a rapport with,” he said.

The Sherpas introduce the new lawyer to the company, answer their questions and help them build a network in the firm. Then at the monthly all-company meeting, the Sherpa introduces the new lawyer to the team. “You have to be intentional about creating a personal connection,” Walsh said. “Sherpas help make that happen.”

Another important aspect of onboarding is providing new hires a framework for what’s expected of them especially in the early days on the job. Culhane Meadows defines this framework through a series of task lists to be completed on the first day, week, month and six months.

The tasks range from completing training on company platforms and updating an individual LinkedIn profile, to meeting with key team members and notifying their clients of the move. By breaking it into weeks and months, new lawyers can map each task to their own calendar, Walsh said. “The goal of the roadmap was not to overwhelm them, but to provide a timeframe for getting things done.”

Related Article: How Mentoring Programs Encourage Employee Engagement

Build a Cohort

Onboarding multiple new employees at once can also foster a sense of camaraderie and engagement, said Michael Alexis, CEO of, a Covington, Wash.-based company that provides virtual team building activities.

Bringing them onboard together allows them to go through training as a group and rely on each other as they acclimate to the new surroundings. “Being part of a cohort helps new hires build relationships and feel like they have friends in the company,” he said.

Alexis is also a fan of frequent communication with new virtual employees. When his company onboards a new cohort, they plan virtual events daily which can range from live training via Zoom to having new hires sit in on client meetings. “They get to be a fly on the wall where they can observe the host, watch the client’s reaction and see how team building works,” he said.

These events all include an icebreaker where the group spends five minutes introducing themselves and answering a personal or playful question like, "If you had to haunt a place for eternity, where would it be?"

"It’s a comfortable way to share stories and learn about each other," Alexis said.

Virtual onboarding will never replace face-to-face contact. But constant communication, camaraderie and collaboration can go a long way toward engaging new hires even if they never get to meet their team in person, Walsh said.

“It feels weird to do everything remotely, but when you are deliberate about creating personal interactions it can work,” he said.

Related Article: The Benefits and Challenges of Remote Mentorship Programs

4 Ways to Improve Remote Onboarding

  1. Write a journey map. Start by identifying every single thing a new hire needs to do in the first days on the job, then build a workflow to help them achieve those goals. Once you have that list in place, consider building additional maps for the first month and year.
  2. Communicate constantly. Managers should touch base with new hires multiple times a day in the first few two weeks to see how they are doing, show them the ropes and introduce them to the team. Working remotely at a new job can be isolating. Frequent communication will help them feel connected.
  3. Teach them the little things. Along with all the necessary job training, provide guidance on the details of your company culture, like whether teams use emojis on Slack and what to do if your cat walks past the camera on Zoom calls. Learning the company quirks can prevent new hires from making embarrassing mistakes and help them feel like they are part of the team.
  4. Give them a mentor. Give new virtual hires a peer mentor to guide them through their early days and help them meet people outside of their team. This helps them get acclimated without worrying about looking foolish in front of the boss, and sets them on the path to build a social network which will help them feel like a part of the company.


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