Creating an Effective Virtual Onboarding Process

10-21-20 Natalie Lestini

Trying to refine your process for onboarding new remote employees? Here are six suggestions that can make virtual onboarding a breeze.

Onboarding to a new company can be both exciting, and, let’s face it, a bit daunting. Add in the nuance of a pandemic, and it becomes very interesting to say the least. As a remote project manager (PM) of five years, the routine of remote work was not new to me. But I was wondering how my soon-to-be-new colleagues at Sparkbox were getting along. Sparkbox is normally a hybrid company. With locations in Ohio and Pennsylvania as well as some full-time remote employees, it’s an interesting mix and a vibrant one at that. Of course, for the past several months, everyone has been remote, but I was still interested to see how my remote onboarding would go. Was it going to be smooth? Were they still figuring things out?

Spoiler alert: my onboarding experience was phenomenal.

During this pandemic, I’m sure many companies are newly remote and trying to figure out effective remote onboarding. Because of this, I wanted to share ideas from the process I recently completed that can make a great experience for any new employee starting a remote job.

Send a Welcome Box

Let’s start with the basics. The support/HR team was phenomenal. They communicated clearly about all the equipment coming my way, from monitors to laptops to cables and peripherals. I was told to wait for a welcome packet before delving in and setting up.

Well, the welcome box came in the mail—a lovely, branded box, a personal handwritten note, and some extra goodies (who doesn’t like branded swag!) as well as my official welcome packet. I felt like a kid opening it. It had instructions for setup as well as what my first day would look like. Even before I powered up my computer, I had a sense of what I was going to be doing that first week. 

This entire packet was a great first impression for me and set the positive tone that has carried through ever since. 

Create An Onboarding Checklist

I’ve actually never known what my first day or week was going to look like at a new company, remote or not. Having the packet include an onboarding checklist helped set me up for success on day one. This checklist was then transferred over to my digital onboarding tasks. What project manager doesn’t want that? 

As a project manager, I appreciated working through the onboarding checklist because I could come back to it as I worked my way through—in a project management board no less! Each task was spelled out specifically with necessary steps, meetings, and documentation to read and sign. 

Check it off. Mark the card as done. Keep the card source material to come back to later to reference as needed. An onboarding workflow. Brilliant.

Give a Clear First Week Schedule

I then had several meetings during the first few days with the HR team. Everyone was so helpful, and meetings were already set on my calendar. The team had clearly put careful thought into who I would need to talk to. 

The onboarding was logical and formed a clear picture of how processes worked at Sparkbox and how everyone worked together. Sparkbox may not have been fully remote before this year, but the HR team made it seem old hat. Schedules, tips, security, and strategies for working remotely at Sparkbox? Conveyed and understood. Yet I also appreciated that there was enough flexibility to ensure that as an experienced remote worker, I didn’t feel confined or stymied in any way.

Plan Meetings With Appropriate Leadership

One of the earliest conversations I had was with Ben Callahan, the president of Sparkbox. I had a chance to look over the handbook prior to this conversation, but hearing Ben personally talk about Sparkbox’s values was impactful. It was more than just talk or a “big picture” conversation. This was the core of the culture, and I could tell they hired toward it and stood by it. It helped me understand how my role aligned with the vision of the company. To be honest, I’ve never had that in my past onboarding experiences nor a chance to talk to the President or CEO of the company that early on in my tenure. 

Other first-week meetings emphasized Sparkbox’s values on learning, sharing, and apprenticeships. I was encouraged to write about this experience as you can see, so those values are truly ingrained in the culture and create a synergistic work environment. And frankly, this made me feel valued, validated, and happy to be able to contribute based on my past experiences. 

As a Project Manager though, some of the best conversations I had (and continue to have) were with the Director of Delivery, Drew Clemens. How he managed to make so much time for me is amazing, but it was invaluable. Being an accomplished PM himself, he led me through a PM specific onboarding process during the first few weeks. 

Each meeting and topic were carefully thought out before time. The topics varied, but each one built toward the next so I could understand the relationships and values we undertake as consultants, how we strive to do the best work with our clients, the types of projects we take on, and how the PM team works together and independently. By week two, we were into project lifecycle conversations, project management practices and review, project flow, best practices for remote meetings, improvement review, and the list goes on. These conversations gave me the detailed context I needed to see how I could make my own PM style work here.

Assign a Mentor

Another way Sparkbox excels in onboarding is assigning mentors. Throughout the week, I was able to sit in on team and client meetings, shadowing the process, the Agile rituals, and various tools. It was helpful to see how other teams communicated through the agile process. Then once a week, I was able to meet with my mentor to either review the projects I was shadowing or come with a list of questions around process improvement. Sparkbox mentors intentionally set aside time to support new team members, which helps new employees feel less intimidated by the numerous questions they have and also gives them a space to ask them all.

This was somewhat similar to how I helped onboard other PMs when I left a place of employment in the past. It’s really helpful to capture lessons learned and maybe even role play scenarios (“what would you do if…”).  I can’t express how helpful this was in quickly onboarding to the PM team. 

It was exciting to think that in such a short period of time, people had already invested in my understanding and comfort, and my understanding and contributions could in turn help our overall team success.

Encourage Folks to Introduce Themselves

And if I haven’t stressed it enough, the team is amazing. Sparkbox and the sense of effective teamwork seem synonymous to me now. So many people reached out to introduce themselves. This was not on the onboarding list or a set schedule. It was just a great team virtually “stopping by my desk,” to welcome me, offer insight, and just chat to get to know each other. The entire team also attended a “meet and greet” that took place on my first day. Remote hangouts helped build important employee relationships from day one. As a project manager, we often work with different team members in cycles, so it was nice to know that the culture was so inclusive and that people were just generally friendly!

A Warm Welcome

Sparkbox has no issues making you virtually feel welcome in the WFH onboarding process. I’d even go as far to say that this exceeded any experience that I had in previously fully remote companies. I truly believe Sparkbox understands that onboarding is crucial to team development and longevity. Nothing makes a stronger first impression. 

The insight from this is that remote onboarding doesn’t have to be a great obstacle, even if you are new to it. This process Sparkbox followed made me feel welcome and quickly prepared me to be a contributing member of the team. If your company is new to remote work, consider adding some of these simple steps into your own onboarding process to welcome your new employees into the team quickly and efficiently.