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Best practices for remote onboarding on a distributed team

The first day of work at any new job can be intimidating. But when that job is fully remote, and joining a team means opening up your laptop at home, it becomes even more important for companies to consider how to thoughtfully welcome new team members. Set up remote employees for success by prioritizing remote onboarding.

Remote onboarding is the process of welcoming remote employees to your company, familiarizing them with your team culture and processes, and providing them with the resources and knowledge to succeed long-term in a distributed environment.

Here’s why a structured remote onboarding is important for your startup or small business:

  • Make a positive first impression of your company culture. Providing an onboarding experience that’s thoughtful and organized will help put your best foot forward as a company and leave a long-lasting impression. Showcasing how your company does connection, communication, and culture provides new hires with context on how you operate as a distributed team.
  • Set up new employees for professional success. Providing new hires with the knowledge and information to succeed at your company will allow them to thrive professionally in their role.
  • Boost employee engagement and improve long-term retention. In the absence of an office, a personalized onboarding experience with ample face time and warm welcomes can help remote work feel more engaging. Guiding an employee through the early days at your company, making the implicit explicit and leaving no question unanswered, will give them the best chance at remaining at the company.

Since the start of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, remote work has risen and become a mainstream operating structure for businesses. According to a study from Pew Research, as of January 2022, 69% of workers whose jobs can be done remotely are working from home all or most of the time. For your new remote team members, this may be the first time they’re starting a remote role at a distributed company. Provide them with a world-class welcome by following remote onboarding best practices.

Start remote onboarding before day one

An effective onboarding process starts before an employee ever logs on for their first day. Prior to their start date, take care of the important details that will make the onboarding process feel seamless.

  • Send out a welcome email. After the offer letter has been signed, send a welcome email to new team members that demonstrates your enthusiasm for having them aboard. Include anything they need to complete prior to their start date.
  • Mail them company swag. Send out branded items to new teammates with the company logo—from t-shirts and stickers to mugs and stationary. At scale, these items can be an inexpensive gesture that provides a personal touch that makes new employees feel like part of the team.
  • Provide them with company equipment. Set up remote team members with the tech equipment they might need to work from home. Essential equipment includes a laptop, a monitor, a mouse, keyboard, headphones, and webcam. If possible, provide employees with different options, allowing them to choose items that best suit their working style.
  • Request signed tax forms and paperwork. Send new employees necessary tax forms, direct deposit forms, and miscellaneous paperwork prior to their start date. This will ensure they can be registered to payroll and paid on time once they start.
  • Create their employee profile. Set up your new employee’s corporate profile, email address, Slack login, and any other accounts that will help them gain access to the work tools they need on day one.
  • Give them instructions for day one. Provide new hires with everything they can expect on day one—from the time they should log on to what their schedule or onboarding itinerary might look like.

Set-up a first-day onboarding orientation

Whether you’re a startup onboarding a single employee or a larger company welcoming an entire cohort of new hires at once, set up an onboarding orientation that guides new employees through the ins and outs of the company starting on day one. Being truly onboarded—having a full understanding of one’s role and the ins and outs of a company—realistically takes weeks, or even months. But an onboarding orientation, the first step towards being fully onboarded, should take anywhere from a 4-hour half-day to two full 8-hour days. Leave plenty of time for taking breaks and asking questions.

Creating an onboarding orientation from scratch can be an arduous exercise, but will pay dividends as you repeat these sessions with each new employee and add to them over time as your company evolves. Avoid having new employees simply sift through documentation and your internal wiki by themselves on day one. Instead, prepare presentations and workshops that provide an overview of your company, products and services, IT and security training, and role-specific context.

Provide context on your company

Use your onboarding orientation to educate new hires about your company and culture, providing background on what your business does.

  • Company history. Share how the company came to be, including any interesting lore. Provide a timeline with key milestones—from the first paying customer to raising a round of funding.
  • Company values. Provide a list of your company’s core values and explain how they manifest in the day-to-day operations of the business.
  • Company mission statement. Explain the purpose of your business, the problem you solve for customers, and your ultimate ambitions.
  • Company culture and practices. Explain interesting practices, traditions, or events that are unique to your company. Share information on any employee resource groups, social clubs, or fun Slack channels.
  • Code of conduct. Go over your company’s values and ethical standards. While new employees should separately review and sign a code of conduct, providing an overview during orientation is a useful exercise.

Explore your company product

While new hires will likely be familiar with what your company does, provide joining employees with a deep-dive into your products and services. Regardless of where in the organization a new employee sits—from design to customer support—developing a deep understanding of your product will be valuable in their role.

Here’s a checklist of areas of your business to cover:

  • Current and upcoming product features
  • Pricing structure
  • Kinds of customers
  • Company competitors
  • Product values
  • Key partners

Extend IT and security training

Ensure the cybersecurity of your remote company and the integrity of your data by providing new hires with training on how to properly set up their devices and any necessary software.

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of areas to cover in your IT and security training:

  • Using work devices versus personal devices
  • Connecting to the the company VPN
  • Setting up two-factor authentication for applications
  • Using the team password manager
  • Safeguarding corporate information
  • Avoiding phishing scams
  • Disclosing lost or lost devices
  • Reporting security breaches and concerns

Create an onboarding checklist

An organized and itemized onboarding checklist ensures that a new employee completes everything they need to, while also providing them with concrete tasks to complete and feel like they’re making progress. Provide relevant links and information to each task so that new hires have access to all the details they need.

Consider dividing your onboarding checklist into multiple sections like the following:

  • Software access: Email, Slack, collaboration tools, password manager, cloud storage, corporate wiki, etc.
  • Benefits: Health and dental benefits, additional corporate perks, etc.
  • Certifications and training: Code of conduct, IT and security training, role-specific training, etc.
  • Resources to read: Company goals and OKRs, quarterly planning documents, vacation and holiday policies, role-specific documentation, etc.

Assign a remote onboarding mentor

Without the shared space of an office and teammates a few feet away, onboarding as a new remote employee can be isolating. Assign each new employee an onboarding mentor that they can lean on during their initial months at the company. This person might simply be their hiring manager or another senior (and long-tenured) member on their direct team…

A remote onboarding mentor will have the following responsibilities:

  • Answering questions about day-to-day work and the wider company
  • Providing context and clarity about their mentee’s role
  • Pointing their mentee towards any relevant or important information
  • Reviewing initial work and providing feedback
  • Meeting regularly to check-in

Provide role-specific training

While there’s general information that every new hire should know about your business, onboarding should eventually diverge depending on what team your new employee is joining. This portion of onboarding is one of the most important and will likely extend into weeks or months into a new hire’s tenure.

Ask your company’s team leads to create role-specific onboarding that provides more targeted training for their specific area of the business:

  • On a customer support team, training might involve learning the customer response software, responses to common user queries, or the workflow for reporting product bugs to developers.
  • On the engineering team, training could include best practices for peer programming, code quality standards, and the architecture of your codebase.
  • On the design team, training might involve learning the team’s design principles, etiquette for peer design reviews, and proper hand-off to software developers.

Role-specific training is also a good opportunity to determine the availability and robustness of your team’s documentation. Lacking resources to point your new team member towards might indicate that your documentation processes require review.

Make the right internal introductions

Everyone who joins your company will need to collaborate with others and embed themselves as part of your wider team. Encourage new employees to meet with fellow team members in the company—face to face—that they’ll work with across projects. They should be provided with a list of people they should meet, or their hiring manager can directly organize these calls and introductions. Encourage your wider team to prioritize calls with new team members and be welcoming and supportive to newcomers.

When possible, consider having new hires meet senior leaders at your company—from Directors and VPs, all the way to the C-Suite. Lucy Kahn, a People Operations Associate at DigitalOcean, has supported remote onboarding at the company for years. Despite the company being over 1,400 team members strong, onboarding still includes an opportunity for new team members to join a presentation and Q&A with the CEO, Yancey Spruill.

“At DigitalOcean we are big on transparency and connectivity and giving new hires the chance to meet with Yancey is a huge part of this mission,” says Kahn. “We strive to keep ‘love at our core’ and many employees have voiced how much this is reflected in having Yancey go through DO’s mission and values as well as answer their questions in real time.”

Set professional expectations

New employees don’t know what they don’t know. Make the unknown clear by covering areas around professional expectations and how to thrive at the company.

  • Working hours. As a remote team, make it clear whether employees can work the schedule they choose or if there are expectations around being online and available at specific hours.
  • Team communication. Share any communication rituals on your team, like if you have daily-standups or weekly asynchronous updates. Also let new hires know the level of responsiveness you expect from them—whether that’s responding to messages within two hours or simply the same day. Let new remote team members know whether your company has expectations around attending meetings, like having the camera on or off.
  • Workload. Share expectations around the output you expect from team members to allow them to prioritize their workload and meet deadlines and goals.
  • Quality. Be explicit about what “gold standard” work looks like and what kind of work falls short of that—whether it’s responses to customers or the code being deployed.
  • Vacation policies. Provide context on your company’s vacation policy and if there are any dependencies that restrict booking vacation time. If your company has an unlimited vacation policy, provide context on what a “realistic” amount of vacation is and the average number of days taken on your team.

Ramp up responsibilities

Teams are often eager for new employees to hit the ground running and fill a gap, while new employees often want to quickly make an impact and establish their value to the team. But ramping up too quickly can be a mistake that leads to confusion, disappointment, and burnout. Allow recent remote hires to ramp up over time, and expect the full onboarding process to take months, not days.

  • Start slowly. Avoid handing off a substantial project to a new hire on day one or giving them a list of tasks and deadlines before they’ve gained familiarity with their role. Instead, allow them to spend the first 1-2 weeks going through their onboarding checklist, reading through documentation, meeting team members, and attending team meetings to gather context. After this, start assigning small tasks for them to gain familiarity with processes while working on low stake tasks that they can receive initial feedback on.
  • Enact a “no stupid questions” rule. Often new employees feel they should have everything figured out on day one. Of course, this is not the case. Be explicit that they should ask their manager and teammates questions at any time, with no such thing as a “stupid question”. Remind them of this early and often.
  • Create a 30-60-90 day plan. Cut ambiguity by having a hiring manager prepare a brief 30-60-90 day plan for new hires. This should be a brief checklist of milestones a new employee might hit during their early tenure with the company. For example, within the first 30 days they might start on initial projects, while by day 90 they’ll have worked cross-functionally with another team on a large project.
  • Relinquish control. At a certain point, it becomes important to let go and allow new employees to settle comfortably into their role. With ample onboarding, employees will be able to reach a level of independence where their work no longer requires close review and they can act with autonomy to pitch their own projects and to carve out their own space in the company.

Ask new hires for remote onboarding feedback

Remote onboarding is a process that companies can improve on over time. After onboarding is complete, ask each employee to complete a survey and/or provide feedback on their onboarding experience. Don’t provide a survey too early; instead, invite newer employees to provide feedback after their first 30-60 days of joining the company. For honest and candid feedback, allow survey participants to submit their feedback anonymously.

Here are a few scaled statements (“1 to 5” or “strongly disagree to strongly agree”) to consider including when asking for remote onboarding feedback:

  • Prior to my first day, I received all the tools and information I needed to start at the company
  • My first-day onboarding orientation provided me with valuable information
  • My first-day onboarding orientation felt overwhelming and stressful
  • The IT and security training I received was clear and gave me an understanding of how to be cybersecure
  • My onboarding orientation helped me better understand the company
  • The onboarding process made me feel like a valued new member of the company
  • I feel confident that I have the tools, resources, and information I need to be successful in my role
  • I have a good understanding of the company’s products and services
  • My onboarding checklist was well-organized and useful to me
  • My role-specific orientation helped me better understand my position at the company
  • I received ample time and opportunity to ask questions during the onboarding process
  • My onboarding buddy helped guide me through my early days at the company
  • I was given clear information on the professional expectations my managers expects of me
  • I finished onboarding with a positive impression of my team and the wider company

Here are a few open-ended questions worth asking in your remote onboarding feedback survey:

  • What additional information would be beneficial to include in the onboarding orientation?
  • What aspects of the onboarding process were done well?
  • What aspects of the onboarding process could be improved?

By asking for feedback on your remote onboarding process, you’ll provide each new employee with an experience that’s better than the last, building a distributed team that’s well equipped to do their best work.

Set up your business for success

Creating an ideal onboarding process for your remote employees is only one of many steps in building a world-class distributed company. Check out all of DigitalOcean’s resources for startups and SMBs in The Wave, our startup resource hub, for more company-building advice. Also, sign up for a DigitalOcean account to start building your product on DigitalOcean’s virtual servers, databases, and more.

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