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All Aboard: How Remote Onboarding is Changing the New-Hire Experience

Published: 2020-10-05T16:26:40+0000 Updated: 2020-10-05T16:26:41+0000 Author: Tyler Bethke

New Survey Shows What Employees Want, and What They’re Getting

How Remote Onboarding is Changing the New-Hire Experience

Perhaps the biggest impact of the COVID-19 era has been the forced transition of many companies to a remote work environment. Not only has the traditional office and the traditional work environment been disrupted, but many employees who lost their jobs have had to find other work. All of their onboarding and the transition to a new company and even a new position is often done remotely.

For some companies, remote work has been normal for a long time, and it’s not unusual to “meet” a new co-worker through Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, or even via email. Suddenly, nearly every organization that is hiring at this time is onboarding new employees remotely. So how’s it going, and what does that process look like? Are employees and employers happy with it?

A new survey by Promoleaf in conjunction with CensusWide surveyed 1,005 respondents in the US who had a job change or were laid off after the pandemic started in March and as a result, found a new job working remotely. Let’s take a look at their answers to a series of questions, and what that data means to the future of onboarding, employee satisfaction, and company culture.

3-2-1 Contact

We all know that typically the first few days of employment anywhere are filled with form-filling, benefit sign up, and some kind of orientation. New employees get a lot of attention from supervisors, mentors, and other employees during this transition time. However, when an employee is at home working remotely, how much attention do they need and want?

When asked, “What frequency of video calls would you prefer with your manager for the first few weeks of employment?” nearly 35% of all respondents wanted to be contacted by video at least once a day. Another 26% preferred contact two to four times weekly, and another 18% wanted weekly calls. Only 7% wanted less frequent calls, and the remaining 14% didn’t want any video contact at all.

3-2-1 Contact
What frequency of video calls would you prefer with your manager for the first few weeks of employment?
  • More than one a day: 12.64%
  • Once a day: 22.39%
  • 2-4 a week: 25.87%
  • Weekly: 18.21%
  • Every 2-3 weeks: 7.26%
  • I wouldn't want any video calls: 13.63%

While “COVID-hair” really is a thing and dressing for conference calls only from the waist up has certainly benefited loungewear companies, most respondents believed that video contact was an important part of their onboarding process.

“For the newly hired remote employees, I always try to check in with them on a weekly basis for a quick video call,” says Tom Winter, a Tech Recruitment Adviser and Co-founder of Devskiller. “I find that it helps to have a "human face" to speak with when you first join a company and the only social interactions we have to work with are over the internet. My approach is individualized in this regard, as it varies depending on the employee, their personality, and general disposition for working remotely. Some adapt really fast and I don't need to check in with them after a couple of weeks, while others may take months to get accustomed and integrated to working in a remote work environment.”

“For new employees, I would ask what they need but would connect daily via video, until I felt comfortable with their knowledge level,” Cori Maedel Chief Executive Officer at Jouta told us. “If we have a question for one another during the day, we video call [each other], as if we walked down the hall to their office. I encourage people to think along those lines... it’s a shift in thinking that can make a positive difference.”

For some companies, everyone meets weekly for a check-in. Others leave the frequency of check-ins up to individual departments. For both employees and employers, these are a vital part of onboarding and ongoing communication. “Working from home can be very isolating, which is something we have to support employees to overcome,” Maedel says. “Instilling organizational culture, even while working remotely, is the key to a successful WFH strategy. You can’t lose sight of what you stand for and who you are as an organization.”

How to engage employees remotely is not a new debate by any means , but the effect of COVID and a necessitated shift to working from home for large numbers of employees has brought it front and center.

But what happens when things go wrong? What if your company is struggling? How do you have those conversations remotely?

Seeing Clearly

When a company struggles, it is hard to share that struggle with employees, who often know that non-key positions are the first thing on the chopping block. With the onset of COVID-19, many companies had to react quickly, the reason many of our respondents had to find other work in the first place.

What does that mean to them? Transparency is more important than ever. Job security has become a challenging thing to find during this crisis. So it’s no surprise that when asked whether transparency is key when it comes to feeling a strong sense of job security during a pandemic, 48% agreed. Another 47% also said that they wanted to hear from CEOs, leadership, and others about how the company was being affected by current events, and what was being done to protect it, including their position.

But perhaps the most telling of the responses was that 38% said their company needed to do more to keep employees informed. This means that despite the fact that over half of employees want their company to communicate clearly about the effect of the pandemic, over a third feel their company isn’t doing enough or should do better.

“During COVID, the only constant is “I don’t know”. That has been the answer to many of the questions I was asked during this period, particularly in the first few months,” Cori Maedel says. “So it’s important to be honest with staff about that, and also to share what we know, when we know it. Employees have enough fear and uncertainty in their lives at this time, the sooner we can tell them the truth, whatever it is, the better.”

“Ongoing and open communication is necessary to engage any workforce during this uncertain time,” says Matthew Burr, Strategic HR Consultant and Founder of Burr Consulting . “One-on-one conversations are [absolutely] necessary.”

Previous to COVID, these conversations would usually happen in person. “With the impact of COVID on the way we work, we still think these difficult conversations should happen over [the] phone, Eric Mochnacz, Management and Human Resources Consultant at Red Clover told us. “So there is still the ability for a discussion and the impacted employee to ask questions. Even when [they are] remote, it's a matter of treating your employees with the respect they deserve.”

While uncertainty may be constant due to current events, companies must be honest about both struggles and successes. A remote employee can’t see the glum look on your face when exiting a tough client meeting. Not unless you show it to them. If remote work and remote company culture are to be successful, constant open and honest communication is vital.

Remote Training and Mentors

Can you train and mentor employees remotely? The answer, of course, is yes. “Remote mentoring and teaching, in general, was already quite popular before the pandemic,” Tom Winter of Devskiller told us. “The obstacles are that sometimes you need to show someone in person how to do some "physically" on the computer, for example, but we have found a workaround with programs such as Teamviewer that have helped bridge the gap.”

According to 80% of survey respondents, remote mentors are important. The good news for employers? You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to make this work. Many companies, like Buffer , have had completely remote workforces for years, and in fact, started out that way.

“I think we took in-person learning a little for granted because that’s all we knew,” says Maedel. “Working from home was really not an option in many business leader’s minds. Having new staff working from home forces us to be more thoughtful about training, mentoring, and learning.”

Remote Mentors
Do you think that remote mentors are key for onboarding new employees?
  • Yes, definitely: 39%
  • Yes, possibly: 41%
  • No: 10%
  • Not sure: 10%

It’s about more than that, though. Think about the number of new employees who leave an organization because they feel inadequately prepared for the job. “Organizations have lost millions of dollars due to not properly orienting their staff over the years; I feel this new era of working from home can be a turning point for that.”

How do you do it? It’s important to equip your team to work from home and make sure they have the things they want and need to be successful.

Needs, Wants, and Swag

For many companies, swag is just a part of the normal onboarding process. “For me, what matters here is that staff have the tools they need to do their jobs, Cori Maedel of Jouta told us. “So, swag would be [a] computer, printer, camera, speakers, a good chair, shredder, etc. If employees are going to work productively from home, they need the tools to do so.”

Benefits might even include the company paying for the employee’s internet service or at least a portion of it. A part of a remote company culture is making sure the employee can do the job and has the proper tools to be productive, including a location if necessary. Working remotely doesn’t have to mean working at home. It can mean working from anywhere, and for those who lack space at home, some companies pay for smaller offices or shared workspace memberships that offer social distancing and safety.

For those who are working from home for the first time or have been transitioned to working at home, companies are offering home office stipends to cover initial expenses or providing employees with desks, chairs, extra monitors, printers, and scanners.

Another need is the opportunity for employees to engage with each other in a casual way. Often, remote workers not only feel isolated, but they feel chained to their workstation, and even feel guilty about taking breaks and walking away. Providing unstructured time and breaks during the workday is important to both employee and overall company health.

When asked: “Which of the following, if any, would you like to have/have you had to make you feel welcome in a new role?” respondents mentioned things like virtual happy hours, one on one introductions, team lunches, trivia games, and dedicated company chat systems with specific team member channels.

New Employee Needs & Wants
We asked: Which of the following, if any, would you like to have/have you had to make you feel welcome in a new role?
I would like this
  • Virtual happy hours: 23%
  • Trivia games: 23%
  • One to one introduction with each team member: 28%
  • Reimbursed team lunches: 31%
  • A buddy system: 25%
  • Cool swag (e.g. branded company items): 35%
  • One to one mentoring with a leadership team member: 27%
  • Company/Team online chat system: 29%
  • None of the above: 4%
My company did this for me
  • Virtual happy hours: 16%
  • Trivia games: 15%
  • One to one introduction with each team member: 24%
  • Reimbursed team lunches: 21%
  • A buddy system: 17%
  • Cool swag (e.g. branded company items): 27%
  • One to one mentoring with a leadership team member: 23%
  • Company/Team online chat system: 25%
  • None of the above: 15%

But it’s more than just virtual engagement that drives employees to feel welcome. Over 34% said that “cool swag” was something they would like to receive. “Earlier this year we sat down to create a "remote work care package" of sorts, for new employees, with a few tweaks based on their hobbies and interests,” Tom Winter told us. “Every kit contains DevSkiller branded socks, a yoga mat, and a reusable water bottle. These three items reflect our company's philosophy on keeping our employees fit, thinking sustainably, and, of course, keeping their feet warm in the winter!”

Note that swag helps to define the company culture, but is also based on employee interest. In addition to their initial package, DevSkiller offers employees monthly rewards and gift cards so they don’t feel like the gifts from the company were a one and done affair. Many companies offer regular, branded gifts to their employees as a part of keeping them engaged.

How effective is swag? A telling result of the survey was that 91% of those who received swag felt effectively welcomed to their new company. What swag was the most popular? While apparel had a slight edge over other items, opinions overall were divided.

Top Preferred Swag Items
We asked: What type of ‘swag’ (e.g. branded company items such as pens, water bottles etc.) would you most like to receive upon hire?
Top 5 responses
  • T-shirts and other apparel: 36%
  • Water bottles: 30%
  • Journals, notebooks and other paper stationery: 25%
  • Pens: 25%
  • Coffee mugs: 25%

So what do you offer your new employees? A simple solution is to ask. Ask your current employees what they would have wanted to start out with. Ask applicants and new prospective employees what they would enjoy.

And don’t limit those questions to swag. Ask about different events, and get a feel for what kinds of things your team wants to engage in virtually. While virtual happy hours are popular and necessary right now, your team may have an appetite for something different.

Getting Satisfaction

One of the most important parts of the remote onboarding process is the answer to the simple question: “Is it working?” A company could take all the data and the information in this article and even apply it, but the final determination of its success is the answer to the previous question.

To help determine this, respondents were asked not only what they wanted, but then were asked, “Did the company that hired you do this for you?” We mentioned already above that 91% of those who got the swag they wanted said their employer did a good job of welcoming them.

Besides swag, what else worked to make new employees feel welcome? A variety of activities were received well by new employees, including virtual happy hours, trivia games, and a buddy system at 86.5%, 88%, and nearly 89% respectively. In each case, the employee chose that their company was either very successful or somewhat successful at welcoming them to a new role.

What other things were successful in making employees feel welcome?

  • Team Lunches where costs were reimbursed (87.74%)

  • One on one introductions with team members (89.30%)

  • One to one mentoring with leadership (91.81%)

  • Company or Team Online Chat with a Channel for team members (90.87%)

Getting Satisfaction
What companies provided and how successful they were at welcoming new employees.
Top 5 responses
Very successful Somewhat successful Not particularly successful Not successful at all
Virtual happy hours 86 55 21 1
Trivia games 85 48 17 1
One to one introduction with each team member 120 97 18 8
Reimbursed team lunches 105 81 19 7
A buddy system 89 63 18 1
Cool swag (e.g. branded company items) 128 123 17 8
One to one mentoring with a leadership team member 118 95 16 3
Company/Team online chat system 125 104 15 8
None of the above 44 63 33 15

Finally, for those who said their transition was not successful at all, 40% did not receive any of these things from their employer. Of those who said their transition was very successful, just under 10% did not receive any of these.

What can you take away from this? Even if you do something wrong, you’re more likely to make employees feel welcome by offering something rather than doing nothing. Swag is important, but so are other virtual events that help build camaraderie and company culture. In a virtual workforce, this doesn’t happen as organically as a chance meeting in the hall or a chat in the break room. “Unstructured time” must be more intentional, especially for new team members.

A Matter of Age

One thing that was clear from this survey was that the vast majority of respondents were younger people. Of the 1,005 survey respondents, under 100 were 45 or older, and only 18 were over the age of 55. Why might that be?

First, those over the age of 45 are more likely to be in management or more stable roles. They may be the ones making the decision about who is furloughed, who stays with the company, who can work remotely, and who can’t. They are quite simply less likely to lose their job and then have to take on a new role.

The second factor is that of early retirement. There are two groups affected by this. The first is the so-called FIRE community, which stands for Financial Independence Retire Early. The large majority of those in this community have not been impacted negatively by COVID, and are in fact still planning to retire early . Should their position with a company be eliminated, many are prepared or close enough to their goals to simply stop working or cut back to a less demanding role.

There are also those who are being offered early retirement as companies trim labor budgets. For those who can negotiate a good exit deal, this can be positive. Unfortunately, there are those older people who find the current employment challenges too difficult to cope with , and simply retire because they feel they have no choice.

Think of these statistics: employees over the age of 55 in February numbered 37.8 million. That number had fallen to just over 32 million in May, and numbers have been declining ever since.

“Unlike previous recessions, this pandemic-led downturn has hit older workers especially hard and will likely create long-term employment challenges for them,” Richard W. Johnson, who directs the program on retirement policy at the Urban Institute told Market Watch. “After the Great Recession, workers ages 62 and older were about half as likely to become reemployed as their counterparts ages 25 to 34,” wrote Johnson. “And when unemployed older workers found a new job, they earned barely half as much as they did at their previous job.”

Those workers who find remote work challenging or feel like they may be forced to take a lower-paying position and work their way back up are often just calling it a day. Some of the emerging jobs that offer full-time remote work may also be more appealing to younger workers than to their older counterparts, who might have to learn new skills or even revisit their education.

What does this mean to companies now and post-COVID when remote work will likely continue or at least be an option for many employees?

Company Takeaways (Conclusion)

“I think that as employees got used to working remotely, many of them are actually quite happy now that they have a better work-life balance,” Winter told us. “In fact, many of them have become more productive as a result and consider it ‘normal’ to work from home already!”

That may be true, but time has also proven that communication: open, honest, and frequent communication is essential. Younger people tend to struggle more with remote work according to Computer Weekly. Why? Communication tools are a key pain point companies must address.

“Don’t get me wrong, this is not nirvana unless you set up the right systems, hire the right people, and work together to create a new normal that works for all,” Cori Maedel says. “This includes being open to other changes to ‘the way we’ve always done things’. For example; does 8:30-4:30 have to be the hours of work for everyone? Maybe for a receptionist, but what if some do their best work very early in the morning, or late at night?”

Flexibility is key. Work-life balance may be improved by the lack of a commute, efficiency may be excellent, but what about employees who feel invisible or marginalized? Companies must use caution to ensure this is not an unintended result.

That’s why transparency is so important. “We share transparently on a biweekly basis with the entire company exactly where we are and if we are meeting with success or friction,” shares Dave Secunda, CEO of WorkBright . “At times this can be uncomfortable for employees, but that has become our company culture and we hire for folks that will welcome this level of communication.”

Employees want to know about issues, know if their job is secure or not, and what action companies are taking to protect themselves and their staff.

Remote mentoring is a key element in successful onboarding and can have advantages. “I've found mentoring to be much easier in a remote relationship as the scheduling has become easier, and I can offer more accessibility to my mentees,” Secunda told us.

“Remote calls can be less risk[y] and allow people to be more comfortable,” Eric Mochnacz says. “...having Zoom networking meetings and training calls and onboarding has really helped me get more comfortable with others since I am a natural introvert.” The important takeaway is that as remote training and mentorship have become a necessity, the only option is to get better at them. “Ask for suggestions and make the necessary changes,” Matt Burr says. “Find creative training approaches, flipping through PowerPoint slides is no good.”

Employees love swag and unstructured, non-work related events. Those who got something, whether that was swag or some kind of welcoming event felt that their company did a good job onboarding them. Contrariwise, those who felt their company did nothing felt their company failed at welcoming them.

Doing something is better than nothing, and it’s much easier to steer a moving ship than one sitting still. Start using a few methods of welcome for new hires, learn as you go, and adapt.

Probably the final and most important takeaway points for companies from this survey data:

  • Individualize communication. Some employees need daily contact, for others, it is an annoyance. Once you and your new employee are comfortable with each other, set a schedule that meets both of your needs.

  • You can’t please all the people all the time. Even those employees who got what they said they wanted from employers were not 100% satisfied.

  • Not everyone can or will adapt to working from home. Remember, work from home really means work from anywhere. Be flexible, and listen to your employees.

  • Make sure that first and foremost, your employees have what they need to work remotely. Computers, access to the internet, and even office space are vital to their success.

Will remote work be here to stay? Most companies think the COVID crisis has sparked a change that should have started long ago.

“Productivity does not necessarily decrease (as has been a long-held belief for many employers). In fact, it is likely to increase with the right systems in place. Many people (myself included) can do more work in 4 hours at home then they could ever do in 7.5 hours at the office,” Cori Maedel told us. “Tens of thousands of dollars a year can be saved on rent/lease payments by switching to a full WFH model. At Jouta, we have saved well over $500K over the past many years by not having those payments... it can be a true game-changer for a small business.”

More companies are seeing these savings, looking at the bottom line, and opting for a more permanent work from home model. Remember when we mentioned Buffer earlier? With the money they save from not having an office, they get together twice a year in exotic locations (2020 is, of course, an exception) despite having a distributed team all over the world.

What does this forced change to remote work mean to companies? “At the end of the day, this provides businesses the opportunity to truly revolutionize how they do business and how they interact with their workforce,” Eric Mochnacz, of Red Clover says. “Remote work and flexible options are a benefit that workers want - and you set yourself apart in the job market if you plan on offering those benefits despite COVID.”


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