How Do I: Onboard a Remote New Colleague?

A former colleague recently asked me for some advice on this topic.  There are literally millions of answers out there on the web.  In fact, a simple Google search yielded more than 18 million hits – and that was with a properly formatted Boolean search!  The rest of this post will reflect my own personal experience and suggestions based a combination of both successes and failures in onboarding a remote employee.  I am intentionally ignoring the Orientation process which is typically managed and delivered by the HR organization.  Orientation is most commonly about the organization’s rules.  Rules are certainly part of a company’s culture but there is a lot more.

Culture:

In many ways, this is the most important factor when thinking about how to onboard a newly hired remote person.  There are as many different company cultures as there are companies.  Every company has a culture – whether they recognize it as such or not.   And many teams within the company have their own particular manifestation of the company culture.  There is no way to address every permutation of culture in this post but at the team or department level you can boil the thought process down into a few critical questions:

  • What do we care about?
  • What do we measure and why?
  • What does success look like for this job?
  • How do we respond when people make mistakes?
  • What is more important – the what or the how (I reject the notion that both are equally important – one always trumps the other in a pinch)?

Once you’ve answered those questions about the broader company culture, ask the same questions about your department or team.  Lastly, ask the same questions of yourself as the manager.  Hopefully, the answers will largely align.  If they do not you probably have a different and bigger problem than onboarding a remote employee.  But that’s a subject for another day.  

The Work:

Clearly, one of the most important elements of a successful onboarding plan for any new hire is for her ability to learn her job so she can successfully meet the objective performance criteria.  Based on your experience leading the team, what is the best way for someone to learn the job?  Consider reflecting on other new hires in the relatively recent past.  What experiences differentiated successful new hires from those who may have struggled?  Do any patterns emerge?  What can you learn from those experiences that will help this new person ramp up quickly?

A Buddy:

I’m a big fan of assigning a buddy to every new hire.  This can be especially important during our COVID times when the new hire does not have the benefit of the informal mentoring that happens when we are all together in a traditional workplace.  During normal times, mountains of behavioral information is accumulated just by being in an office and witnessing how others behave under different circumstances.  It is a mentoring experience because the new hire is being taught.  It’s informal because typically, it’s not a planned process.  We just expect people to figure it out – until they don’t.

That’s where the buddy comes in.  The buddy is there to:

  • Help teach the new hire how to do the job
  • Answer routine questions about how to get stuff done
  • To identify subject matter experts the new hire may need to tap into
  • Help the new hire navigate all the stuff that is not written down anyplace
  • Explain and orient the new hire to the behaviors and work habits that will yield success

Selecting a Buddy:

Once you’ve answered the questions posed at the beginning of this post – at all 3 levels, you should be well positioned to select a buddy for your new hire.  Here are some considerations and suggestions for making that decision.

  • Pick someone who aspires to be a people manager.  Being a buddy is a wonderful development opportunity for someone who wants to be a people manager.  After all, what is a manager?  In my view, a manager is one who gets work accomplished through the efforts of others.  (And yes – I am drawing a big distinction between manager and leader).
  • If you do not have the luxury of having a non-manager available or ready, choose an existing manager who will benefit from the experience.
  • Be clear with the buddy about what you expect him/her to accomplish with the new hire
  • Agree on a new hire work plan with the buddy.  What should the new hire learn and by when?  Is the new hire new to your industry?  Does she need to learn the vocabulary of your business?  Does your company live and breathe acronyms all day?  Is your company one that loves to have lots of meetings?  How should the new hire behave in all those meetings?  Are they expected to contribute or just listen?  I could enumerate many more examples, but I think you get the idea.  Your buddy needs to be the new hire’s guide to figuring it all out in a way that will make that new hire successful as quickly as possible. 
  • How will the two of you assess the new hire’s success at some key milestones?  If it was not already established as part of the new hire selection process, have the buddy work with the new hire to identify how the new person learns best.  The work plan should be adjusted as much as possible to accommodate the new person’s learning style.
  • Agree with the buddy on how you will evaluate her success as a buddy?  If you’re using the assignment of a buddy as that development opportunity, what do you want the buddy to learn?
  • This is a big deal!  Do not assign a buddy to be your spy!  I once worked for a company who typically used the new hire buddy system to great effect.  However, my own buddy (when I was a new hire) felt compelled to share every adjustment concern or complaint I had with our shared manager.  I don’t think you’ll have too much trouble figuring out how that felt and the avoidable complexity it created once I learned what was happening.  That does not mean the buddy should be silent if there is a problem.  Quite to the contrary, if the new hire is struggling, early intervention can save the day.  Bottom line on this point – select a buddy who has the maturity to know when there is a problem that needs attention as distinct from someone who uses the buddy program  to advance their own interests at the possible expense of the new hire.

Onboarding During COVID Times

All the above applies. Being remote does not eliminate or change any of the above recommendations.  What does need to change is your behavior as a manager. A key outcome from a successful onboarding is the establishment of trust.  Trust between the new hire and his/her teammates and trust between you as the manager and the new hire.   It’s pretty common for a team manager to check in with new hires fairly frequently.  After all, you want the new teammate to be successful.  It’s almost always more efficient and cheaper to invest in a new person’s success than it is to experience a failure in hiring.  Selection and the consequences of failing to hire the right people is a topic for another day.

But during these COVID times, it’s important for the manager to reach out more frequently – at least until the new hire is settled and that mutual trust is established.   You’ll each have your own criteria for what settled means.  I urge managers of new hires to:

  • Use video connections – who doesn’t have access to ZOOM or TEAMS or some other video conferencing capabilities these days?
  • Make sure key onboarding milestones are achieved.  Examples include:
    • New hire orientation
    • Any required legal or regulatory training
    • Review and acknowledgement of company policies/confidentiality agreements
    • IT security rules (more important than ever as more and more of us work remotely for extended periods)
    • Etc.

I’m emphasizing these routine items because they ARE important.  But more particularly, I consider the absence of or tardiness in completing them as a yellow flag.  Something is not quite right if the new hire either does not or cannot satisfactorily complete these standard procedures.  The buddy can help but the manager is accountable.  Observing body language in a video call works both ways.  It will help you identify nonverbal queues in the new hire.  And if the new hire can more easily see you too, it makes it easier for her to identify when something is troubling you.  Video connections will support the creation and cultivation of shared trust.

Feedback and Final Thoughts

Constructive, honest, timely, and accurate feedback is absolutely critical to successful onboarding.  Use your video check ins with your new hire to provide these nutrients of success.  I like to frame feedback in the form of 4 bullet discussion points per item:

  • What happened or how things are going (good or not so good)
  • Why it’s important I’m providing feedback on this item – how the situation impacts work or others (or both)
  • Use one or two specific examples to illustrate the why
  • Specify what you want the new hire to differently (or to keep doing) and (if appropriate) when you want the change to be effective

Effective new hire onboarding is critical to the new person’s success.  Done well, it can accelerate a person’s impact and contributions. At its worst, a failed onboarding costs you time, money, and aggravation.  It’s worth the investment of time to do it right.

If you found this post useful and/or if you can use some help in addressing a people leadership challenge, contact me at:

+1 508-507-1207

ken@somershrsolutions.com

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