Virtual onboarding: How to create a great new-hire experience from a distance

Onboarding a new hire in a virtual setting involves extra planning. This article delves into what goes into onboarding a new employee from afar. Check out the downloadable checklist for virtual onboarding below.

The first day at a job can be overwhelming under the best of circumstances. Not only are recruits meeting new people and learning new things, but they are also absorbing all kinds of visual data and environmental stimuli in unfamiliar surroundings. Observing everything from the physical workspace to how loud (or quiet) it is to the way team members interact, new hires have so much information influencing their experience. 

So what happens when all the information typically gleaned from body language, subtle social cues and the physical environment are unmistakably absent? 

Start with the interactions that make a face-to-face onboarding process successful. What is most likely to be lost in translation to a virtual environment, and how can you recreate those elements from a distance? The solution lies in a well-planned onboarding experience, which combines a clear learning agenda with deliberate time and space for social interactions. 

Plan spontaneity 

Informal coffee chats, encounters at the elevator and minutes spent waiting for a boardroom to clear provide important information for new hires. The spontaneity of those moments can be difficult to replicate virtually, but managers can plan intentional alternatives to deliver the social context and subtle cues that say so much. 

Keep it simple while continuing to find opportunities for your new hire to interact with a cross-section of the team. One easy way to insert social time into an onboarding plan is to start every meeting with a check-in or icebreaker. This could involve asking each participant to share their best work-from-home hack or a place they would love to travel. Once you get to know your new teammate a little better, you can begin to ask focused questions at check-ins, which will provide opportunities for them to share their experiences and add value to the meeting ahead. Take this a step further by scheduling one-on-ones with extended team members and facilitating a group check-in exercise. And don’t forget to insert some intentional fun! Put social events on the calendar, and take a break from shoptalk to take the conversation in a new direction. 

Go wide 

To get a true sense of workplace culture, norms and diversity, new hires need broad exposure to teams and the contributions being made. Involve a wide variety of people in the orientation and training sessions, and schedule virtual social one-on-ones and team activities to enable new hires to meet with people from across your organization, not just those they will be working closely with. 

You might pick a couple of team members from your social committee or your go-to culture ambassador to give your recruit an overview of current social initiatives. Ask a tenured employee to walk your new hire through the history of the company, or engage a few folks to conduct a virtual work shadow. Your recruit can shadow a teammate for a full day or different people for task-specific learning over the course of their first few days. The goal is to ensure that your new employee experiences a “day in the life” of a colleague and engages with a variety of teams across the business quickly, rather than waiting for more formal opportunities. 

Value vibes

Hiring decisions include culture and value alignment on both sides, so on-boarding is the time to ensure your new hire has reason to trust the organization and personally experience what was promised in the interview process. Figuring out how new remote employees will observe those values in action should be a critical part of your thinking during remote on-boarding. 

Act as the director of the on-boarding experience and have a clearly defined start and end. Thoughtfully plan the first few days and weeks to deliver the right content in the right sequence. Ensure your new hire is enabled to interact with employees from diverse teams and levels of seniority in your organization. Last, make sure you know what success looks like at key milestones. 

Your onboarding plan should provide helpful social cues and enable your new hire to absorb the digital work environment in meaningful ways. Accounting for the in-person elements that contribute to effective working relationships will make your virtual on-boarding experience more impactful and contribute to long-term employee success. With this thinking in place, add in the more tactical elements of on-boarding using the checklist below. Happy on-boarding! 

Further reading

Checklist: Virtual onboarding

This checklist helps you onboard new employees in a virtual setting. Download the checklist here.

Timeline Suggested action  Outcome 
Pre-arrival HR forms 

  • Direct deposit, compliance & security forms, etc.

Equipment delivery & set-up 

  • Who is sending the equipment to your new hire & when? 
  • Who will be setting up their equipment & how?
  • Can you send some swag with their equipment?

Welcome email with Day 1 agenda 

Send an email to your new hire that includes:

  • How their equipment will arrive & the steps to set up the computer & login
  • How the meetings will take place & the link to the meeting
  • Your contact number in case there is an emergency on their first day 
  • Their Day 1 & 2 agendas

Prepare Week 1 & 2 agendas (see below)

Prepared & clear ownership of steps to set up a new employee for work.
Day 1 IT set-up

  • Ideally, host this first thing in the morning on Day 1
  • Have IT communicate with the new hire & take charge of IT onboarding

Manager and new employee 1:1

  • Send link to new hire for separate meeting (to occur right after IT onboarding)
  • Proceed to new employee 1:1 with manager after IT on-boarding
  • Suggested agenda for Day 1: Company overview, team overview, role & responsibilities
  • Meeting logistics: Invite new hire to existing meetings & schedule new meetings
    • Schedule cadence of 1:1s (we suggest twice daily for first two weeks)
    • Invite to relevant scheduled meetings (e.g., team meetings, client meetings, all-staff meetings)
    • Add to regular Slack channels, etc.

Team lunch

  • Schedule a team lunch for an introduction to all team members
  • Play a turn-based ice-breaker game
Create a welcoming & exciting first day that highlights the values of your team.
Weeks 1 & 2  Company orientation 

  • Mission, vision values 
    • Why you do what you do
    • Culture, social norms, dress code & expectations around working hours
  •  Organizational structure 
    • Who’s who in the zoo
    • Hierarchy & leadership teams 
  • Company business review 
    • Larger projects & deals won 
    • Impact on customers
  • Team & job orientation 
    • Review of team/division business—outline the teams’ past projects, current projects & future goals
    • Review of team deliverables & of each person & their responsibilities
  • Job description review
    • How the new hire’s job aligns with the team
    • Setting goals & objectives (i.e., defining success)
    • 30-, 60- and 90-day on-boarding program
    • Development opportunities 
    • Career path
  • Organize calendar & communications 
    • Schedule daily/weekly 1:1s
    • Invite to relevant pre-scheduled meetings
    • Add to regular Slack channels
  • Technology overview
    • How to use tools & systems unique to your company
    • How to access specific documents

Team & social orientation

  • Schedule 1:1s with everyone on the team
  • Schedule a 1:1 with members of extended teams across various levels of seniority, roles, etc.
  • Schedule a virtual job shadow (have them shadow either 1:1 or  task-specific with few people)
  • Schedule an afternoon team social (held virtually)
Define success, build transparency & add a little fun to help your new employee feel a part of the whole.
Ongoing onboarding On-boarding doesn’t stop after Week 1—it continues until the new hire is fully able to execute on their role & responsibilities with once-a-week guidance & steering. Depending on the role, available resources & employee’s experience level, this process may take from a week to a few months. A thoughtful & observant leadership approach that continues to provide mentorship & guidance.