Onboarding remote employees: Lessons learned and seven tips for success


With the arrival of COVID-19, the evolution of remote and hybrid work environments hit hyper drive, advancing to a point that many imagined would take decades to reach. For a distributed company with many offices, the chance to virtually "work where you live" had been a very attractive message. Today, what entices candidates and retains talent is being able to "work anywhere," virtually.

Yet, many CIOs, IT and engineering leaders are still sorting through lessons learned in recent years in order to adjust to this new normal -- and critical areas like onboarding technical staffers remains challenging. For me, being a year into the pandemic and noticing that not feeling that new remote engineers had a true connection to the product was a sign our processes needed updating. So, my team and I surveyed recent hires on common issues they faced when getting up to speed and how these were handled.

Two things jumped out at us. First, a lot of onboarding issues were resolved by having someone sitting there -- physically or via one-on-one conference calls -- guiding them through steps. Second, some problems went unsolved, which was not what we wanted. That said, here are some steps we took, along with tips to help you shore up your remote onboarding.

Curate your content

Our onboarding and training rely heavily on recorded modules. The age of remote doesn’t mean totally recreating your content, but it’s wise to curate what you have through a more current lens. When we started our revamping efforts, we took a hard look at our existing content. What we decided to focus on were the following key areas:

  • How to set up your environment;
  • What new employees should be doing during their first five days;
  • Separating recordings by topics that were essential for all, those targeting teams, and other subjects that weren’t vital but could still be worth sharing; and
  • Make things easy for people to find for future reference. You would be surprised how often people go back and look for what they did the first time it worked, then realized they missed a step.

Build it up and keep it fresh

With content streamlined, we turned our efforts to building content up with timely, relevant material, which eventually led to the creation of a wiki. Our employees embraced this, so much so that they eagerly added to it with better ways of doing things. Those getting onboarded also felt more engaged with that content and were eager to contribute to it as well. It became a self-feeding cycle where employees would continually go back in and add insight, constantly helping us to keep things fresh. 

Conduct a walk through

We felt we needed to create something that would feel as if someone was sitting right in the room with our new hires, no matter the location where they’re learning. So, we had three software developers do a recorded walk through of their set up processes. We then evaluated the information and determined how the recording should best be formatted. This was all structured in our wiki to allow for collapsible, easily digestible sections. Additional content was made available in case anyone wanted to drill down on particular topics or learn about something related. 

Remove the magic

It’s important to remove the "magic" behind processes. For instance, you want your people to be able to create their own development environments. Doing this for a new hire, however, means they won’t know how to take corrective action should things go wrong. You don’t want their workflow to be completely broken and lose time because they never were given real-world training.

Fill in gaps

We have a standard message with all recordings that new hires should contact their manager or a designated person if they need more context or to fill in knowledge gaps. This often results in scheduling a live session for help. The problem is, you can end up with session overload and not be able to scale this valuable aspect of training in a timely manner. What we did to address this issue was create live Q&A sessions specifically designed for groups of three or more. This allows for scaling and frees up those involved to conduct individual sessions as needed.

Prevent Zoom fatigue

Zoom has some terrific features to accommodate these live group meetings. New hires can use the hand raise feature to be sure their concerns are addressed. They can also type questions into chat while someone is talking -- no need to wait or interrupt. Having cameras on during Zoom meetings allows everyone to see each other and that’s ideal. However,  this can make people uncomfortable at times -- new employees might be a bit reserved or simply having a bad day. So, while the person heading up a session should lead by example and turn on their camera, don’t insist everyone do the same. People will always learn more when they feel comfortable.

Evolve with technology

The need for businesses to adapt to hybrid work has spawned a lot of technology development and that continues to occur. With this in mind, it’s important to evolve along with technology where it makes sense. For instance, we have long used, and are quite satisfied with, a specific training platform. Even so, we recently explored a chat platform with an impressive feature that could fortify our efforts. With this new platform, when someone joins a channel, an automated bot reaches out to ask if they’ve seen particular content, essentially providing employees a checklist or playbook. This reinforces efforts to ensure new hires have access to the right information and facilitates onboarding and training at scale, which is especially important during waves of new employees.

A lot was learned during the peak three years of COVID-19. The technological advancements that allowed remote work en masse was nothing short of remarkable. But we’re still adjusting to a way of work that will undoubtedly play a major role in the future of business. Getting remote employees onboarded and trained sufficiently is critical, so keep changes simple, execute and be open to new developments.

Image credit: iqoncept/ depositphotos

Alec Imperial is senior engineering manager for Veeva Systems, the industry cloud for life sciences. With nearly 15 years in full stack software development, he started his career as a computer programmer targeting enterprise application development. Alec’s computer engineering background originally focused on computer networks, specializing in analyzing network packets, configuring various routing paths and setting up servers.  A University of California graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering, he is highly skilled with development in multiple programming languages, including Java, JavaScript, and Python.  

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