Every business has had to change and adapt in the wake of the mass international lockdowns that have been imposed to try to halt the spread of coronavirus. But, while many companies are sadly struggling, others are lucky enough to be in a position to continue growing, despite the global situation. For those businesses still looking to grow and add to their teams, lockdown presents the significant challenge of how to successfully integrate new members of staff to the team when everyone is working remotely.

Joining a new company can be stressful enough under normal circumstances, but the challenge of starting a new job without even being able to meet any of your colleagues is even more daunting – for employers and employees alike. What does onboarding look like in the age of remote working? 

Structure is key

Under normal circumstances, overengineered meet-and-greets can feel false and forced and adding a little spontaneity and fun to the induction process is worthwhile. However, with everyone working remotely and coordination far more difficult, organisation is a must, so don’t be afraid to go overboard.

Structure is crucial to ensuring that everyone knows what they need to do and when. The last thing you want is your new hire sitting on their own in their house with nothing to do and unsure of what they should be doing or who they should be talking to. Fill the calendar with meetings, team introductions and training sessions, and ensure that your existing staff know what they need to be talking through, and when. You should also communicate all this with the new joiner before they start – making sure that, from day one, they know what to expect and who they should turn to will help alleviate any new job nerves.

Lower the barrier to communication

Unsurprisingly, communication is the most important aspect of onboarding a new hire to get right. There is nothing worse than feeling lost or overwhelmed in a new job without a clear line for support. We have written previously about how isolation can affect people’s mental health, and why providing a safe space to communicate is so valuable to remote workforces. If anything, this is even more pronounced for a new starter, who hasn’t yet established close work friends, and will inevitably have more questions and more doubts.

Encourage even the smallest questions and lower the barriers to asking – for example, instant messaging apps, like Slack, promote more informal communication than slower media, such as email. One solution could be to create an ongoing video call link, which can be staffed in turn, where the new hire will always be able to ask someone a question – think of it as the online equivalent of an office door that’s always open. The inclination for a new joiner to bottle up questions and concerns, and try to press ahead solo will be amplified when they’re not surrounded by colleagues whom they can quickly tap on the shoulder. This could be detrimental both to their happiness and development, but also to the business as a whole. Try to remove any and all barriers to communication, and encourage questions – no matter how small or how brief the call is. Providing access to a digital coach can also help empower your new hire to honestly assess where they need support and will encourage open communication.

Create a virtual ‘water cooler’

For most people, one of the most highly anticipated parts of starting a new job is getting to know who they’ll be working with. It’s easy to underestimate how much communication happens on a daily basis in an office, and it goes far beyond official meetings and work-based conversations. From group lunches and personal chats around the proverbial water cooler down to subtle interactions, such as positive body language or a passing smile, all these levels of communication contribute to the overall team atmosphere, and are difficult to replace while working remotely.

It is important to introduce new hires to as many team members as possible, particularly those from different departments or job roles, whom they may not have otherwise come across, and to facilitate conversations outside of a work context. Consider arranging remote lunches or coffee breaks, or even something like a team treasure hunt, whereby new employees are provided with a list of names from the company and have to find out their interests and hobbies. These are just a few examples to help your new starter feel like part of a happy, healthy and close-knit team. Likewise, after work drinks may not be high on your priority list, especially when it entails everyone staying at their computers into the evening. But you’d be surprised at how much people benefit from this – socialising with colleagues is an essential part of maintaining team morale and individual wellbeing, and will ease any transitions for new starters.

Adapting to a new team culture and getting to know your new teammates is a challenge we all face when we move jobs. In the current climate of remote working and social distancing, this is undoubtedly a much greater challenge. Acknowledge the difficulties, but do what you can to lower the barriers and try to replicate virtually as much of your social community as you can.