Despite the economic recession and the ongoing pandemic, there are still software startups hiring briskly and onboarding employees into fully virtual new workplaces. Onboarding a new employee during the weirdest, most difficult year in most of our lifetimes is a special challenge.
Most companies weren’t great at employee onboarding in pre-pandemic times. But getting onboarding right is even more urgent now when you can’t count on the live office culture to animate the workplace for your new hires. As the employer, it’s on YOU to curate the new hire’s experience actively, so they feel welcomed and plugged in from day one.
Here are four key things you should do when onboarding a new hire right now:
1. Start the onboarding process before the new hire’s first day.
This has always been true, but it’s doubly important now when you can’t make up for a chaotic first day with a welcoming in-person lunch or happy hour. I recommend sending a welcome email introducing your new hire to the company as soon as they accept an offer. Get them added to all the regular meetings they need to attend. This is also a good time to send them advance material on the company’s top priorities. But only share stuff that’s fun and energizing—you’re trying to get them excited about the job, not give them homework.
About a week before their official first day, schedule a call or Zoom meeting to go over any questions they have. If you can, take care of paperwork and administrative details before their start date, so they can spend their official first day meeting colleagues and getting oriented.
2. Take responsibility for their WFH setup.
Don’t make assumptions about your new hire’s ability to do remote work effectively. Check in with them well before their start date and allocate a reasonable budget to help them optimize their space. Do they have kids doing remote school, or a partner or roommates who are also working from home? Maybe they need noise-canceling headphones to help them concentrate. Maybe a monitor or an ergonomic desk chair would make a huge difference in their ability to stay focused. Wherever possible, give your new hire the flexibility and autonomy to decide what would be most beneficial for their specific situation.
Your new hire—like your long-standing employees—may also be anxious about when they might be expected to return to an office and what that looks like. Some employees will be eager to participate and others really won’t. Talk through your company’s plan with them. Do this live, not over email, so it’s a dialogue. Explain who, if anyone, works in the office now and what metrics you’re watching to determine when to bring everyone back. Be as transparent as possible about the long-term plan for remote work—share what the company’s policies used to be pre-pandemic, and how they might change post-pandemic.
3. Give them a virtual office tour.
Pre-Covid, on any new hire’s first day you would’ve walked them around the office, showing them the kitchen and other amenities and introducing them to everyone. This is obviously difficult to replicate in an all-remote environment—but you can and should create an equivalent virtual ‘tour.’
The new hire’s supervisor should walk them through the company’s org chart in a live Zoom call. If you can, try to include headshots, so the new hire can put faces to names and get a sense of who does what. I’ve gotten huge mileage out of the Battery team’s webpage since my first day.
Assigning each new hire a mentor is another great way to orient people. Ideally mentors should be someone other than their supervisor but adjacent to their team. You want the new hire to feel comfortable probing sensitive topics without feeling judged for asking. Depending on how fast you’re hiring, you might organize a new-hires cohort event so that new employees can trade useful tidbits they’ve recently learned.
4. Get creative about engaging them socially.
Social engagement should always be a priority during employee onboarding. But it’s even more crucial now when you likely can’t meet new hires face to face, and your existing team is probably more-than-usually stressed out by everyday realities.
Make social time a priority during your new hire’s first week. If your team and new hire are all in the same area, you could foot the bill for an outdoor, socially distanced lunch. If you’re more geographically dispersed, think about creative ways to convene different groups of people they need to get to know. You could send them a bag of nice coffee and a company-branded mug and organize a virtual coffee hour. You could get lunch delivered to their home and have a small group ‘take them out’ to virtual lunch.
Whatever the activity, keep in mind that your existing team already all knows each other, but the new hire doesn’t know anyone. An awkward social dynamic like that is even more awkward over Zoom. Prepare some icebreaker questions, like: “If you could go anywhere in the world right now, where would you go?” On a recent Battery virtual offsite, we played ‘virtual bingo’ – guessing who had broken six iPhones in the last year, for instance. I love the custom welcome gifs the team at Lever, a recruiting-software company, creates to welcome new hires and new clients.
With everything you do, ask yourself two questions: How can we reach through the screen and personalize virtual encounters? And how can we build mutual excitement for our shared mission as a company?
Onboarding is crucial to talent retention, and remote onboarding is a true challenge. Plan ahead to design a first day and first week that go above and beyond and show your new hire how excited you are to have them on board, even if you can’t welcome them to the office just yet.
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