An onboarding process is a series of actions that allows new employees to get to know their team and learn about the company’s approach, procedures, and tools. And whilst creating a great onboarding experience takes time and thought, especially on a remote team, it isn’t impossible, and will ultimately benefit the company in the long run.

Tips for onboarding remote team members

A well-planned onboarding system can reduce turnover rates, increase employee engagement, boost productivity and efficiency, and reduce costs, among other things.

If you don’t already have one, you can create a very basic onboarding plan and add to it as time goes on. Remember to make it visible to the entire team so everyone knows what happens when a new colleague joins the team.

Start with a warm welcome

Onboarding starts with a thoughtful and generous welcome. You can do this by:

  • Have an onboarding PLAN in place
  • Ensure people have the equipment needed to start work
  • Assign a buddy/mentor to guide the person through the start-up phase
  • Send welcome gifts in the mail
  • Ask new team members to create a personal user manual 

The Happy Melly team used a Trello board for their onboarding process. Anyone on the team can make suggestions and contribute to the process. When someone is hired, they are added to the Trello board, and they, together with the team, make sure that the onboarding process is completed.

Happy Melly onboarding Trello board

Set expectations

To set expectations you must first define what success and failure look like. Once you’re able to do this, you can then align yourself with company goals and values. The best way to get everyone on the same page is to create a team agreement — a basic set of expectations for how to work together. This will outline what kind of information you share, how you communicate with each other, and how you know what each other is doing. This may already be in place, and if it is, be sure to introduce the new team member to the existing one.

  1. Define what both success and failure look like.
  2. Create a team agreement. Be sure to introduce the new team member to the existing one.
  3. Build-in feedback loops.

Get to know the team

These days the internet is rife with team-building activities for remote teams. Some of our favorites are:

  • PERSONAL MAPS, created by Jurgen Appelo from Management 3.0. The idea is to create a map of who you are so others can get to know you.
  • VIRTUAL ICEBREAKERS are a great way to get to know one another in a fun and relaxed way.
  • CREATE A ‘GETTING TO KNOW YOU’ CHANNEL — a group instant message tool such as Slack, specifically dedicated to getting to know members of your team. Similarly, you can create an “Onboarding” channel.

For more great team-building ideas, download our Ultimate List of Team Building Activities.

Learn about the company

There can be a lot to learn about a new company, namely goals, values, and culture. Incidentally, this can also be the most difficult part of integrating into a new place. The best way to learn is by doing! Learning new processes and procedures at work expands your perspectives on what your organization does and how it gets things done.

When someone new arrives, try to get them involved in a group project as soon as possible to help them get acquainted with people and processes faster.

Learn about the company

Working together in the same space gives us constant contextual feedback and the opportunity to share concerns and satisfactions. On remote teams, we have to create a space for things to be brought out into the open.

All teams can benefit from doing a little reflection and highlighting both “the good” and “the bad”, and scheduling regular times to check in with each other gives teams the opportunity to focus on what’s going well and what can be improved.

More resources

133 – Superpower Hour: Feedback On Virtual Teams

77 – How Do We Know What People Are Doing On Remote Teams?

Original transcript

Welcome to the Collaboration Superpowers podcast. My name is Lisette and I’m interviewing people and companies doing great things remotely. Welcome to another episode, everyone. I’m glad you’re here. A couple of episodes ago, we talked about what to do on a virtual team when someone leaves the team. And I highlighted the process that Happy Melly uses when someone leaves the Happy Melly team. Today what I want to focus on (and this may seem a little backwards) is onboarding. So what happens when we hire somebody? And what does the onboarding process for a virtual team look like? There are a lot of similarities between co-located teams and remote teams when it comes to onboarding. For example, when somebody is new to the team, we want to give them a generous welcome and really make them feel like we’re glad to have them there. I know it seems very basic and it should go without saying, but I can’t tell you the number of stories where people have showed up to work and have been, let’s just say, underwhelmed. And a generous welcome doesn’t mean that it needs to be extravagant or expensive.

I mean for example, I went on this hike a couple of years ago in Switzerland, which took us about seven hours to get to [The Hut – 01:23]. And it was a long hike and a long hike up. And when we got to [The Hut – 01:27], the woman who was there came out and brought us tea and cookies and welcomed us. That gesture went a long way and everybody sat outside watching the sunset, drinking a nice, warm cup of tea. So this is the kind of thing that I mean by generous welcome. Now this translates directly into the remote world because we can also have virtual tea with each other. So when somebody joins your team, set up a virtual tea or a virtual coffee or a virtual adult beverage with people and sit down and have a drink together. Something as simple as this can go a long way. You can also give people virtual gifts, for example. One might be you send them a gift certificate to a local restaurant where they and their family can go one night, maybe sending them a Beer of the Month Club membership. There are lots and lots of little things like this that you can do. And for inspiration on that, listen to episode 53, perks for remote employees. There’s a lot of great remote gift ideas and remote celebration ideas there.

Once we welcome somebody to the team, then what? And this is where most companies drop the ball. They don’t have a plan. So the next, most important thing after welcoming somebody is have a plan. Have an onboarding plan. The first time this concept of having a plan became so clear to me is when I interviewed Jeremy Stanton way back in episode 10. But instead of paraphrasing him, I’ll just let him say it. Here’s Jeremy.

[Jeremy] So if we’re talking about onboarding, I think that’s the thing where a lot of companies drop the ball. [inaudible – 03:04] well, we did the best we could. We interviewed. And now [inaudible – 03:07] we really hope this person works out. And then there’s no follow-up. So you get six months, a year into a position. And this person is wasting all kinds of time. And everybody wishes that they could [inaudible – 03:17]. But there’s no rigorous process to get them out. And I think you’ve got [inaudible – 03:21] people as fast as possible. Find out that they’re not going to work out as soon as possible because the longer they stay there without being the right kind of fit, that’s just money being flushed down the drain because you’re going to have to find somebody else. And this person is working out. And they’re probably [inaudible – 03:34] everybody else down because everybody else has got to deal mentally with the fact that this person isn’t a fit. So having a really well-planned onboarding process is essential to that. So for us, [inaudible – 03:46] off the top of my head here, something along the lines of multiple points at the beginning, sort of on a logarithmic scale. So there’s like a week, maybe two weeks, then four, and then eight, and then maybe it’s like six months. So you want to have things that you’re looking for each of these stages where you want everybody to sign off that yes, this person is working out. And it’s not just you looking at them. You want to make this process very visible to them so that there are no surprises, so that they know if they’re failing or not because oftentimes, that process is made completely transparent. They’ll know it’s not a fit before you do. And sometimes, they’ll quit before you have to tell them to leave because they’ll feel very uncomfortable if it’s not [inaudible – 04:30] and they should know that. And if your process [inaudible – 04:35] provide you that level of clarity on both sides, there’s something wrong with it. And if you don’t have a process for doing that, then that’s a huge mistake.

Thanks, Jeremy. Okay, so here’s what a plan looks like. I’ve broken it down into three basic parts. The first is to set expectations, the second is to get to know the team, and the third is to learn about the company. For setting expectations, we just go back to what Jeremy says. We need to know what success looks like and what failure looks like. So really clearly define that.

Another way of setting expectations is to create the team agreement together. And when somebody new is coming onto the team, this is the perfect opportunity to introduce them to the existing team agreement.

Now what we do on the Happy Melly team is that when a new person comes on board, they sink into the existing team agreement. And during the next review session which we do about once every two to three months, then this person has input into how the team works and how things should change.

And the last component of setting expectations is building in feedback loops. Especially in the beginning, you want to build in regular feedback loops where you’re assessing success or failure and any hurdles that may have gotten in the way. While we’re setting expectations, we also want to get to know the team. There are a number of ways to do this. I’ve already mentioned the virtual drinks. But another really fun way of getting to know the team is a Jurgen Appelo exercise called personal maps. And it’s basically a mind map of somebody. So you’ll start out with your name in the middle and then around the name or other circles with your hobbies, your work, your values, family, whatever you want to put there. And then you basically draw a mind map of yourself. And on remote teams and co-located too, actually, the trick is that you don’t show your personal map and then give a presentation about yourself. You hold up your personal map for other team members to see. Or you share your screen, whatever you’re doing. And they get to ask you questions about yourself. So that is a way of keeping it a two-way, engaging conversation and getting to know somebody in a more well-rounded way. There are of course Virtual Ice Breakers that you can play. And I’d like to refer you to virtualicebreakers.com where they have some great ideas, especially for virtual teams, for ways to get to know each other.

There’s also the awesome trust game that Howard Esbin came up with. It’s called Prelude. It’s a series of interactions between virtual team members that helps them get to know the strengths and weaknesses of their personality, really fun to do. You can find more about that at playprelude.com. And a really easy way of doing this is to create a group chat specifically dedicated to getting to know you. On the Happy Melly team, what we use is the Getting to Know You channel in our Slack group. So periodically, somebody will just post a random question. And whoever is around and whoever wants to participate can answer. So that’s just a fun way of getting to know each other in a very asynchronous, low-key way.

Getting to know each other doesn’t need to be a one-day, team-building event necessarily. We can build it into our daily interactions with each other, just takes a little bit more conscious effort and deliberate effort.

Okay, so while we’re setting expectations and getting to know the team, the last component of the onboarding plan should be learning about the company, of course. And this ties into setting expectations because we need to define what success and failure looks like, and then we need to figure out how to align around the company goals. Some teams do this by setting OKRs. Some just have regular check-in periods. It’s hard to give specifics because it really is so different between different companies.

But the important thing is that when you’re learning about the company, you really want to learn how to align around the company goals with your day-to-day tasks. So the onboarding plan has three components: setting expectations, getting to know the team, and learning about the company.

Another thing that Jeremy mentions in his interview is that the onboarding plan really should be visible to the team so that everybody knows what’s going on. The Happy Melly team uses a Trello Board for this, for example. There’s a column that says, “Before the first day.” And another one says, “The first day.” And another one that says, “During the first couple of weeks.” And in each one of these columns, there are separate tasks. So like before the first day, for example, we ask everybody on the team to connect with each other on social media where they’re comfortable, of course. And on the first day, we add them to all of the folders on Google Drive. And we add them to the Slack group, and we add them to Trello and to I Done This and some of the other tools that we use. And during the first week, we help them create their own work profiles. And we have a virtual drink with the team. And then the rest of the Trello Board is made up of columns [inaudible – 09:37] where do I find out about invoicing, for example. So there’s a whole column. And where do I find out about the team agreement. And then there’s a link to the file. Another column is who do I talk to about. And then in each of the cards, it lists who’s responsible for various aspects. But this kind of open, transparent system makes it clear to everybody how people are going to move through the system. It gives the team a chance to review and make suggestions for how to make the onboarding process better. And it lets the new person know where they are in process and what’s expected of them.

So now I’ve only touched the surface of onboarding on virtual teams. But what I want people to walk away from is to remember, give a generous welcome to a new person that’s just coming onto the team and have a plan. Put a very basic onboarding plan in place if you don’t have one now, and then keep iterating to make it better.

That’s all for this week. If you want to hear more stories and more tips and tricks about working together from anywhere, then please visit the website collaborationsuperpowers.com. You’ll find lots more podcast episodes, video episodes, virtual team meeting cards, the latest book, workshops, facilitators. How can you not be typing collaborationsuperpowers.com into your computer right now? Stay tuned next week when I speak with Mariana Rego. She is the co-founder of a company called LeadWise, which is actually interesting. It’s a new initiative from Ricardo Semler, which is helping to modernize management practices of companies across the world. And if anybody can do it, Ricardo Semler can do it. And not only are they doing it, but they’re doing it with a remote team. So stay tuned next week to hear all about that.

A very special thanks to Nick, the podcast monster who keeps this podcast so pro. You can hire him to make you a star at podcastmonster.com. And another big thanks to my very favorite, dazzling designer, Alfred Boland. You can hire him to make you look cool at bolanden.nl. All right, everybody. Until next week, on-board the best and be powerful.


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