Practical Tips for Successful Employee Onboarding

by Katy Lindsay

This article looks at employee onboarding. We make suggestions about onboarding a remote employee, and also about how to re-onboard people when they return from furlough.

In recent months, many of the working relationships that we had established in a face-to-face life have moved online, to become relationships at a distance. Face-to-face teams have become virtual, remote teams.

For many of us, the intensity of the experience of responding to the pandemic, coupled with the connection of video conference seems to have helped us to create deeper relationships with people we worked with but didn’t know very well.

However, that is starting to change. Plenty of people have now joined established teams without having met the rest of the team face-to-face at all. Without a good onboarding process, there is a high risk that people are likely to feel disconnected from the rest of the team.

This means that the manager or leader who is bringing a new hire into the team needs to put much more effort into creating a great onboarding programme for new arrivals.

What is Employee Onboarding?

Onboarding can be split into four elements:

  • First, there’s the practical, physical part of onboarding, setting the new person up with the technology and tools that they need to be able to do the job.
  • Secondly, there’s the knowledge aspect, getting the new hire up to speed both on the organisation and on the knowledge they need for their role.
  • Thirdly, there’s what the onboarding literature calls ‘organisational socialisation’— in other words, getting to know people.
  • Fourth, there’s the management support required to help the new hire to be successful.

All of these may be harder in a virtual or remote team. Depending on your organisation, you may be lucky enough to have a tech or admin person who takes care of the practical part, and you may have some excellent onboarding material for getting people up to speed.

However, if you’re hiring someone into a virtual or dispersed team, you’ll really have to put some thought into how you’re going to help them get to know people, and then how you’ll support them to be successful.

How to Create an Onboarding Process into a Remote Team

To create an onboarding process, start with the four categories of onboarding – 1) practical 2) knowledge 3) socialisation and 4) management support. Then, think through each of these four categories to work out what action is needed to bring your normal onboarding process into the remote team environment. Make sure you’re taking some action in each category – otherwise, your poor new hires will end up either disconnected, uninformed, lonely or unsupported.

Here are 5 more specific tips to reduce employee onboarding challenges:

  1. Before they arrive, make sure that the rest of the team know they’re coming and what they’ll be doing. It’s amazing how often managers and leaders forget to do this necessary groundwork.
  2. Set up one-to-one video calls for the new arrival with each member of the team, followed by a debrief afterwards with each person concerned. This will allow you to pick up any mismatched expectations early.
  3. Look for opportunities to get the new arrival working closely with one or two other team members on some meaningful project or workstream. Working closely with a colleague is one of the best ways to get to know them.
  4. Set them up with a mentor or buddy. Research into onboarding is clear that this makes a big difference.
  5. As the hiring manager, touch base with your new hire every day for the first few days, making sure that you ask how they’re feeling and take time to listen carefully to their responses. In a couple of weeks, settle into a sustainable pattern of regular one-to-one meetings or calls. In standard times, once a week is often enough, but for remote teams twice-weekly may work better for you.

Re-onboarding furloughed employees

So, we’ve thought about the challenges of onboarding into a remote team. However, some managers already have to face another challenge that’s specific to our lives in 2020: how to bring people back onboard successfully after furlough.

As the CIPD points out, the pandemic has affected people differently. Some will be happy to come back to work and establish some kind of normality. Others will be anxious for health reasons or may be stressed by having to cope with work as well as manage caring responsibilities at home.

Both employees and employers may be feeling stressed by unforeseen complexity. One CEO I spoke to recently was feeling mildly irritated by an employee who was reluctant to return from furlough because they’d just got a puppy and couldn’t trust their teenage children to get out of bed in the morning to look after it.

Meanwhile, the people who have stayed at work and not been furloughed may feel they’ve already done more than their share.

Coupled with the fact that many organisations face existential challenges in the coming months, there is plenty of scope for conflict, particularly in mixed teams where some people have been furloughed, and some have stayed working.

So, what can HR and operational managers do to try to help onboard their furloughed people and re-integrate them?

We have the following suggestions:

  • Prepare the ground
    Put lots of thought into communication, starting a couple of weeks before your furloughed people are expected to return. Get empathetic messages out to both the people who stayed and the people who have been away, helping them to understand the possible perspective of the other group. More practically, decide specific steps to help the returners get up to speed on what’s changed since they’ve been away.
  • Be prepared for some conflict
    Don’t be upset or surprised if there is a period of some conflict as teams re-form. This ‘storming’ period is quite normal in the life of a team (see Bruce Tuckman’s team development model). If people come to you with issues, listen and show empathy. When the time is right, but not in the heat of the moment, try to help people to see others’ perspective. Throughout, try to help the team understand the common purpose of your team or organisation – which may be different than it used to be.
  • Be understanding
    Once you’ve welcomed your furloughed people back, keep making an effort to understand what people have been through or are going through still. If this feels difficult, take some time out, close your eyes and really try to visualise what someone else might have experienced. You may need to be more flexible as a manager or leader than you’d typically be. If this feels hard, then seek out someone you can talk to about what really matters to your organisation and what you want your employees to remember about this period when 2020 is over.

Download the Guide Below

To read more about how to manage teams effectively, we have created a ‘2020 LEADERSHIP: A to Z Guide for Managers and Team Leaders’. In this article, we’ve looked at ‘O’ for ‘Onboarding’!

The guide is for managers and team leaders who are looking at 2020 and wondering what all this change means for them. It covers key topics and challenges that will likely arise for leaders over the coming months.

What’s in the Guide:

  • An A to Z exploration of leadership insights, skills, knowledge and expertise.
  • Topics ranging from adaptability, blended teams, collaboration, delegation… through to the familiar Zoom meetings!
  • The key issues leaders need to think about to successfully navigate the new future of work.



Further Reading:

If you’re interested in onboarding, a good place to start is Talya M. Bauer’s report Onboarding New Employees: Maximising Success for the SHRM. She includes a helpful summary of a wide range of academic articles and book chapters.