How to Onboard Your Virtual Employees for Long-term Success

March 18, 2024 Theresa Rex

business owner onboarding virtual employees

In all of the time spent talking about the benefits of telework and allowing your employees to work from home, one topic tends to be overlooked: how to onboard virtual employees. That's true even here on the Personiv blog, and we spend a lot of time welcoming new talent onto completely virtual teams.

Read More: Rethinking What An 'Office' Looks Like: The Rise Of The Virtual Team

We've published webinars on how to be productive while working from your kitchen table, shared what has worked for us when it comes to engaging newly virtual workforce in a pandemic and have literally made our reputation on matching the best accounting talent to stateside leaders in search of those skills and facilitating virtual working relationships between them. And even we haven't really addressed best practices for onboarding virtual employees.

So, let's change that.

Table of contents:
  1. Your Remote Workforce Needs a New Hire Experience, Too

  2. Create and Document a Virtual Onboarding Process Before You Need One

  3. Onboard Virtual Employees: Day Zero Implementation

  4. Hook Your New Hire up With The Technology They'll Use as Quickly as Possible

  5. It's Not Just About the Paperwork

  6. Setting up Your Training Process for Success in the Long-Term

  7. How to Get Started: Your Virtual Onboarding Checklist

Your Remote Workforce Needs a New Hire Experience, Too

new virtual employee starting to work on her own after onboarding for 2 weeks

Onboarding is an important part of welcoming talent that you hope to keep. Consider recent research from Glassdoor that found an astounding 82 percent increase in employee retention among organizations that had "great" employee onboarding. Meanwhile, a full 88 percent of organizations fall far short of employees' expectations when it comes to a full onboarding experience, according to Gallup.

That's a pair of statistics that's really difficult to ignore. It tells us that onboarding is perhaps the first and most powerful tool leaders have in their new hire toolkits, yet it's very likely that those same leaders haven't sharpened that tool so that it works the way they need it to. And if that's true, it's safe to hazard a guess that the task of creating a process for onboarding virtual employees – suddenly necessary as a part of the 'new norm' – hasn't gotten the attention that it really needs in most organizations.

Create and Document a Virtual Onboarding Process Before You Need One

CEO teaching how to onboard virtual employees & document the process

Scrambling to onboard employees without meeting them in person is tough, especially when you've never had to do that before. At the very least, you can let go of the "scrambling" part of the equation if you take some time to plan for the switch to a virtual onboarding model – and then get it all down in writing to keep everyone on the same page.

Start by taking a look at your current onboarding processes. For most companies, bringing a new hire into the office pre-Covid-19 onboarding checklist would look a little something like this:

First day:

  • Prepare and complete new hire paperwork

  • Collect and file employee documents

  • Issue company ID, create login credentials and set-up email address

  • Prepare employee's workstation or office

  • Issue needed equipment and tools

  • Distribute welcome packet with company policies, benefits information and employee handbook

  • Office tour and team introductions

First week:

  • Assign materials, reading and tasks for initial training

  • Facilitate mentoring or shadowing with a transition buddy

  • Introduce new hire to company culture

  • Review role description and expectations

  • Assign first project or task under supervision

  • Finalize all paperwork and correct if needed

First month:

  • Plan check-ins with leadership and mentor

  • Facilitate team-building with social activities

  • Gauge understanding of duties

  • Provide further training opportunities

  • Create future long-term goals

  • Transition from supervised to autonomous work

Next, look at the action items on your in-person onboarding checklist and identify gaps in the process and items you'll need to adjust to work virtually so that your new hire can complete them from afar:

  • Keep important documents on the cloud and use a tool like DocuSign to make digital access and completion easier.

  • Turn your employee handbook into a knowledgebase or wiki with tools like Microsoft OneNote, Google Keep or Notion.

  • Record training processes in video form or turn them into training modules with an eLearning app

The next step is to make process documentation do double duty by putting it in the form of a task-based onboarding experience on your team's project management software. For instance, you can create a Trello board just for onboarding or use Asana to make a list of tasks and subtasks that you can copy, assign to and follow every time you welcome a new hire.

Finally – and frequently – collect feedback from your team on your new virtual onboarding process to fine-tune it for your new hires, before you ever welcome your first virtual teammate. Have current employees, especially the ones most recently hired, test out your new onboarding process and tell you what works or what may be missing. Better yet, give them edit access to the virtual process and make onboarding process documentation collaborative!

Once you've adapted your onboarding process to the virtual office, you're ready to welcome newly minted talent to your organization, at least on "paper". There are still a few critical steps to take to onboard virtual employees as smoothly as possible.

Onboard Virtual Employees: Day Zero Implementation

new virtual hire joining onboarding call with other employees

A lot of the operational tedium of onboarding – tax withholding paperwork, gathering identifying documents and preparing login credentials can be moved from the first day of work to the days leading up to it. Think of it as "Day Zero".

There are tons of benefits to working exclusively with virtual talent, but in order to enjoy them fully, you want to spend more time on training initiatives that have a slightly steeper learning curve when you're completing them via Zoom or video call.

Since your new hire won't be stepping into a workstation or meeting with IT on their first day anymore, it's important to get a list of all of the tools you use together and put them into a shared document or in a relevant card or task group within your newly digitized onboarding process.

Secure software licenses, create login credentials and make sure that their assigned company switchboard phone extension (if they have one) are up and functional. Where possible, pre-install software and tools on any hardware you're planning on issuing directly – you'll cut a lot of static out of the process this way.

Hook Your New Virtual Employees up With The Technology They'll Use as Quickly as Possible

Remote manager helping with the technology needed for a digital onboarding session

While we're on the topic, make sure that if you are issuing a laptop, desktop or phone to your new recruit, they get it well in advance of the first day. Have it shipped directly to their home address and make sure your new hire knows when it's arriving so they can confirm its receipt and crack it open before you need them to.

This helps with your "Day Zero" task checklist because your teammates' official first day can be spent on more important things than updating operating systems, wrestling wi-fi routers or scrambling to find a backup machine because the one you sent them is still in transit, all so they can actually start work. Low stock, weather and shipping delays are all a reality we're well aware of by now – get ahead of them so you can get 100 percent of your new teammate's focus on their first day of work.

It's Not Just About the Paperwork: Onboard Virtual Employees Into Your Company's Culture, Too

manager welcoming team members during zoom call

With day zero tasks out of the way, once the initial assignments have been reviewed and the communication channels have been signed into, you can expect to dive into training in much the same way that you would if you were all meeting in the office. Some of it will be self-led and some may be directed and supervised, with the only difference being that that direction is happening over Zoom with help from screen sharing capabilities.

It's not difficult to bring the nuts-and-bolts of most jobs into the virtual office training "room". Even before so many teams were operating exclusively online, a lot of training documentation and training was digitized. But what about the less tangible aspects of welcoming a new recruit? What about corporate culture, including what your company and team count among their values? What about all of the nuances of team bonding that would usually happen in an in-person setting?

Well, you have to plan for them and in some cases, manufacture an equivalent experience online by:

  • Everyone loves a care package – send some branded swag through the mail

  • Hosting a virtual meet-and-greet so everyone can get to know one another

  • Assigning a welcome buddy and facilitate a 1:1 "getting to know you" opportunity

  • Digitizing the watercooler with Slack apps like Donut or other chat app integrations

  • Encourage cross-boarding by setting up virtual shadowing sessions

  • Make space for off-topic chatter

  • Gamifying company policy orientation and training with assessment tools like quizzes, polls and interactive content

  • Host video breakout rooms for a deeper dive into your organization's mission and values

  • Designate a space – whether in a weekly Q&A coffee hour or in a dedicated chat channel – for informal, judgment-free information-gathering and sharing

  • Check-in frequently and at regular intervals with 1:1 manager meetings in the early stages

  • Combat isolation with optional social activities like trivia, online karaoke or game tournaments

  • Solicit regular feedback from your new hire to improve your process for onboarding virtual employees

Setting up Your Training Process for Success in the Long-Term

New virtual employee on initial meeting talking about long-term success

The early days of onboarding are critical, but they're not the only ones. Too many onboarding programs drop off after the first week, which is simply not enough time for employees to even encounter every scenario they'll need support understanding, learning and executing. At minimum, plan to be onboard your employee for 90 days, hitting benchmarks and scheduling 1:1 check-ins along the way.

If you really want a stretch goal, think about laying the foundation for a year's worth of onboarding and cross-boarding initiatives. Yes, a year. Research shows that it takes an employee about eight months for a new hire to reach full, autonomous productivity. That means that even 90 days may not be enough for fresh talent to feel confidently up-to-speed. It definitely means that you need to plan for longer than a week.

By continuing to engage with the onboarding process in the long-term, leaders signal their willingness to engage with the employee moving through it, too. It also signals that you expect the employee to stick around while increasing the probability of exactly that outcome. Not only is this kind of mutual investment great for employee engagement, but it's also great for the bottom line.

The organizational costs of employee turnover are measurable and can be as high as 300 percent of your separated hire's salary. When 33 percent of new hires report looking for new opportunities within six months of their start date, churn costs are a real risk. Investing a little extra time into the initial employee experience can mean saving a lot of resources later.

How to Get Started: Your Virtual Onboarding Checklist

manager going over onboarding checklist with new employees

As an organization that's been pairing remote talent to stateside teams for over 35 years, we've learned a thing or two about best practices for onboarding virtual hires. Every organization is different, so there's no universal checklist for bringing virtual employees up to speed. But here's a great place to start to onboard virtual employees successfully. Tweak it to suit your needs depending on the role you hire for, the industry you work in and the country you call home.

Day Zero:

  • Review and document your onboarding process

  • Draft and discuss role responsibilities

  • Compile and send new-hire paperwork

  • Order and ship any company-issued equipment

  • Send a little swag

  • Hand over account credentials and logins

  • Tell your team when the new hire starts

  • Collect any documents you need from the new hire

  • Create a first-day itinerary

  • Secure needed software licenses

Day One:

  • Assign your new hire a "welcome buddy" to meet your employee when they first log on

  • Host an interactive company orientation

  • Meet the team in a video call with departmental break out sessions

  • Outline week one expectations

  • Go over company culture and values

  • Schedule and end of day 1:1 with manager

  • Distribute cross-channel shadowing schedule

Week One:

  • Goal-setting meeting with manager

  • Independently-led role training and company orientation

  • 1:1 shadow sessions with team members

  • Daily 1:1 Q&As with welcome buddy

  • Interactive assessments

  • Brain breaks and ice-breaker socialization on Slack or Zoom

  • Assign first project to new hire with guidance from welcome buddy

Year One:

  • Revisit role responsibilities

  • Schedule frequent 1:1 meetings with manager

  • Revisit goals and OKRs each quarter

  • Facilitate regular optional virtual social opportunities

  • Solicit ongoing and in-depth feedback

  • Include hire in collaborative onboarding process documentation

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