Despite the abundance of technology designed to keep us connected, loneliness is a growing problem — and it’s not constrained to our personal lives.
According to the 2021 State of Remote Work, 32% of remote workers say loneliness or difficulty with communication and collaboration is their biggest challenge.
It’s a problem employers should be actively working against for the well-being of their teams — as well as their bottom lines.
A recent study found that feelings of workplace belonging lead to a 50% lower turnover risk, increased job performance by 56%, and reduced employee sick days by 75%.
Since remote work is becoming increasingly common as more organizations embrace the hybrid working model, employers should take steps to prevent feelings of isolation on day one to increase employee satisfaction, productivity, and retention — starting with the remote onboarding process.
New hires have a lot of questions that they won’t always feel comfortable asking their manager. That becomes a problem when that new employee can’t turn to a neighboring teammate for the answer and doesn’t know who to ask remotely. You can help new hires feel more at ease by assigning them an onboarding buddy.
An onboarding buddy is a peer who is matched with the new hire to educate them about everyday processes, help them build relationships, answer any questions that might arise, and generally make them feel welcome.
New hires with onboarding buddies were 36% more satisfied with their experience in the first 90 days than those without.
Having a guide who can help explain culture and expectations is even more important for folks who are onboarding remotely and can’t simply turn to their neighbor to ask about the company’s time-off policy, for example.
Once a buddy is assigned, schedule a meeting on day one and regular check-ins throughout the first month of remote onboarding. Otherwise, give the buddy and the new hire the freedom to meet as they choose to encourage an authentic connection that doesn’t feel forced.
According to research at Microsoft, new hires with onboarding buddies were 36% more satisfied with their experience in the first 90 days than those without. This is important because up to 20% of new hires leave within their first 45 days, which can cost employers up to twice that person’s annual salary in today’s tight labor market.
It doesn’t matter if the assigned buddy works remote or on-site, as long as they are a willing participant and have time in their schedule (employers should facilitate this by reassigning some of their workload). The buddy will be best equipped to provide context and support if they report to the same manager and are familiar with the expectations of the new hire’s role.
Day one of in-person onboarding often includes a tour and an introduction to every employee in the office (and probably more than a few jokes about being quizzed on names later).
People who are onboarding remotely have the opposite experience. In fact, remote employees may never meet their colleagues in person — or get to know those they don’t work with directly — at all. This makes it much more difficult to identify common interests, which can spur conversations and connections.
One way to create the opportunity for connection is to have new hires, whether they’re onboarding remotely or face-to-face, create a short video introducing themselves to the rest of the team. This allows them to share their hobbies, passions, or any interesting tidbits that might help them connect with other colleagues.
One way to create the opportunity for connection is to have new hires create a short video introducing themselves to the rest of the team.
“Let new employees know how they can become involved with and contribute to the company’s culture from the start by sharing a piece of themselves with the company or building community,” wrote Daniel Chait, CEO of Greenhouse, an applicant tracking and recruiting software company.
“At Greenhouse, for instance, we always aim to make connections between new hires and their teams before their first day by sharing potential points of common interest, including personal hobbies and fun facts about themselves.”
Of course, people who are camera-shy or introverted may not feel comfortable putting themselves on video for the entire company to see. For those folks, sharing a personalized email introduction — or even their responses to a “getting-to-know-you” survey — with the company can work just as well.
Remote employees miss out on the spontaneous, organic connections that take place in an office setting.
“In person, it’s easy to bump into someone when you’re getting a drink in the kitchen and strike up a conversation,” Chait wrote. “Virtually, companies need to be more intentional and prescriptive since these chance encounters don’t exist.”
Encourage one-to-one connections with water cooler chats, where employees can invite a team member they’d like to get to know better for a video call.
Organize optional group sessions at a regular cadence using software like Zoom or Microsoft Teams, where participants don’t talk about work. They can be purely social and freeform or focus on topics like diversity, equity, and inclusion, or industry trends. Additionally, subject-matter experts can host virtual workshops to help their peers — whether they’re in remote onboarding or are in-house veterans — get more proficient with a type of software or hone a skill, such as customer management or public speaking.
You can also encourage one-to-one connections with weekly or monthly water cooler chats, where employees can invite a team member they’d like to get to know better for a video call or be randomly paired with someone using a Slack bot like Donut.
Employers should also give their team members space to create their own social groups and activities, such as virtual happy hours and Slack channels for people with common interests like cooking, music, or sharing pet pictures.
Nearly 1 in 10 people have left a job as a result of a poor onboarding experience, according to a report by SilkRoad and CareerBuilder, and social connections are just one aspect of onboarding.
“Many of us can remember the first-day-on-the job nervousness of having both everything and nothing to do,” wrote Chait. “The simple action of earmarking time for new hires to do autonomous work or self-paced learning can help ease any fear they may have of not being productive while making a first impression.”
A good remote onboarding experience provides new team members with an onboarding checklist and documentation they can reference to educate themselves on various aspects of the organization and job. That way, they can focus on building relationships with their colleagues rather than just peppering them with repeat questions.
“Onboarding through documentation is more efficient because it's scalable, repeatable, and instills the basics of asynchronous work.”
GitLab, an all-remote software development company, maintains an ever-evolving employee handbook that serves as a single source of truth for the team.
“In an all-remote setting where team members are possibly working from a variety of timezones, mastering asynchronous workflows is vital to avoiding dysfunction,” the GitLab website reads. “Onboarding through documentation is more efficient because it's scalable, repeatable, and instills the basics of asynchronous work.”
With software like Scribe, any employee can create a step-by-step visual guide for onboarding or other processes — from sending an email to submitting an expense report — to add to the company wiki, handbook or SOP library.. And individual teams can build unique onboarding guides to support disparate processes and special roles. Even new hires can quickly and easily create guides for future employees if they find information gaps in your remote onboarding program — which will help them feel like part of the team even faster.
Remote onboarding is relatively new to most companies, so listening to new hires about their experience is critical for refining the process.
Survey your new remote employees once they’re through onboarding and make improvements where necessary. Like your company handbook, your onboarding process will continually need to be updated to reflect your organizational growth.
Maintaining curiosity and flexibility to ensure new hires have a positive remote onboarding experience and can create meaningful connections with their peers will help you create a cohesive team, a strong company culture and a better employee experience.