The 4 Steps for Onboarding a Remote Employee

By Kurt Birkenhagen · February 21, 2018

The best part of remote work is that it makes life easier for the worker. Remote work eliminates or reduces commutes and helps the employee manage the demands of the rest of their life.

But remote work can be a challenge for workers and managers early on. Some of the most basic parts of the onboarding process can get difficult if they’re done from a distance.

But have no fear — I spoke to managers and HR professionals, and they helped me compile these onboarding best practices. With these tips in mind, you’ll have an ironclad onboarding plan.

Help a new remote employee with their paperwork

Paperwork can be one of the more frustrating aspects of onboarding a remote employee. The process is time-consuming but straightforward in person. From a distance, it can get complicated quickly.

First, send the employee all the new hire forms they need before you hold remote meetings with them on the first day. Have the employee submit the documents by the day they start. That way, you’ll both be able to reserve time for training and team building.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to fill out remote paperwork. You should not send the new hire PDFs, have them print out the documents, fill them out, scan them, and send them back. This is an onerous process that can result in lost pages, assumes your new colleague has a scanner (or smartphone scanning app) and — worst of all — puts you at the mercy of printers.

More seriously, it’s a bad idea to ask new hires to send their Social Security and bank account numbers through email. Email is easy to hack, so asking new employees to fill out onboarding forms via email is asking them to put their identity at risk.

Instead, use a secure signing service like DocuSign or Adobe Sign instead. Secure signing apps allow users to upload documents that can be filled out in a browser and are kept safe behind sophisticated encryption. This kind of software will also make documents harder to lose and faster to fill out.

I also recommend using our onboarding/new hire checklist. We created it to help onboarding managers keep track of things like paperwork.

Hold an orientation on the first day

You’ve held in-person first-day orientations before. Remote orientations are tricky because they will require you to cover slightly different content. You will also need to address issues that are unique to remote work. You should cover the following items during the onboarding process:

  • Employee handbook: Go over the most important items and have the employee affirm that they’ve read it.
  • Email policy: Have a written policy — email etiquette is very different from office to office.
  • Office hours: Are there certain times that everyone in the company or on the team is expected to be available or online?
  • Response times: How quickly does a remote employee have to return calls, emails, and chats?
  • Time off and time tracking: How should a new hire request PTO, family leave, and sick leave? How should they log and manage their time — if they can only work for two hours on Wednesday, can they make up the other six on the weekend?
  • Dress code: This still applies if you hold meetings on video. If your on-site team needs to wear a tie, it’s only fair to ask the remote employee to do better than a t-shirt, tousled hair, and no shaving or makeup.

Arrange an office visit if you can

So this seems a bit contradictory — I’ve just spent a whole bunch of time telling you about how to onboard someone from a distance. But bear with me.

“It might be prudent to bring remote workers in for a week or two,” says Robert Half Finance & Accounting recruiter Kathleen Downs. “That will let them understand the lay of the land. If they get oriented remote-only, they’ll have no feeling of company culture.”

“Plus, you need to establish relationships. That can be really helpful in stressful situations. With a strong relationship, you can say to a remote coworker, ‘I know you have a lot on your plate, but I need this to meet my deadline.’”

Of course, this step isn’t strictly necessary, according to Downs — if your new colleague works in another state or country, it might not make sense to have them spend two weeks in the office. But you’ll both be better off if they can.

Connect new hires to the team with video

“The effective use of technology, like video software, can help virtual leaders connect with remote workers and deliver a powerful, inspiring message,” says Rick Lepsinger, the managing partner of Onpoint Consulting. Lepsinger is the author of Virtual Team Success, a book about remote leadership.

Video is especially important if you’re managing people who can’t visit the office regularly. Video meetings foster relationships and understanding that would normally have to develop in-person. If you can see someone’s face and hear their voice on video, you’ll have a better chance of understanding their cadence and sense of humor in text later.

I’ve spoken to many professionals — including health coaches and mental health practitioners — who swear by video chat. One health coach, friend of the blog Julia Sarver, believes so much in the relationship-building power of video chat that she has an entirely remote practice.

Remote health coaches and therapists work with people they’ve never met in person, but they still help their clients work through the most difficult and intimate problems in their lives. That just goes to show that your new remote employee can, and will, be a full and productive member of your team.


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