Bethany Agge, Human Resources/Accounts Payable, Rooster Strategic Solutions

Let’s take a moment to pity the HR professionals. As the first contact for new hires, it’s their responsibility to ensure that new employees feel welcome, understand their roles, and are set up for success. And during this pandemic, as all this takes place remotely, that’s no easy task.

Since Rooster employees have always worked virtually, we have a lot of experience in remote onboarding. And the good news – especially for our beleaguered friends in HR – is that there are some simple steps that can help new employees hit the ground running, even from home offices.

First impressions matter. A lot. According to a Deloitte study, 90 percent of new hires decide whether or not to stay with a company within the first 6 months of employment. Those who feel welcomed, challenged, and valued from the outset are much more likely to stick around.

As soon as the hiring process is completed, send an e-mail to the entire company, or at least to the new hire’s department, welcoming them to the company. Ask your CEO or senior leadership to send a personal e-mail welcoming them to the company. If appropriate, draft a press release for local media or industry publications, such as AgriMarketing.  Include their hobbies, interests, and talents as well as academic or professional experience. The first time they participate in video or phone calls with the team, spend some time getting to know them. A little effort at the beginning can make a big difference in retention.

Swag is a good investment. In addition to providing the hardware and software a new employee will need to work remotely, savvy HR pro’s will also include a box of company swag – clothes, coffee cups, water bottles, and other gifts adorned with their company logos. Gifts like these reinforce that new employees aren’t on their own as they work from home, they’re part of a cohesive team.

Set clear expectations. Any new employee, no matter how much experience he or she has, will be apprehensive about the new duties. These feeling are exacerbated when the employee is working remotely with less communication and interaction. You can alleviate this by giving them a clear picture of their duties and requirements with milestones. Most companies have checklists that spell out what a new employee must complete by the first day (HR paperwork, software loaded), first week (one-on-one with supervisor and team members), or first month (completing first assignments). Make sure these reflect the new realities of remote employment. Do your new hires know how to connect to and use your e-mail system? Do they know how to contact team members? Do they know where and how to submit completed assignments? Your checklist should be empowering, not frustrating! You will likely need to check in frequently with new employees to ensure they fully understand and are prepared to meet the job requirements.

Serving virtual Kool-Aid. Back when your new employees spent the day in your office interacting with team members, it was easy for them to see your company’s norms, values, and culture firsthand. Not so much when they’re working from home. Do you have a company handbook in digital format? Are there videos or presentations that explain your company’s mission? Does the supervisor understand the importance of explaining how various departments operate separately to achieve common goals? Make sure these and other contextual support items are included in the virtual checklist.

Assign a mentor. Pairing a new hire with an experienced company hand is a great way to get them up to speed. Ideally the mentor is someone of similar rank in the same department, allowing them to answer real-world, day-to-day questions – as well as questions the new hire may be too embarrassed to ask you or their supervisor. The two should have scheduled and regular communication – a daily or weekly phone call, for instance. This should be part of the virtual checklist.

Make the first assignment a group assignment. The goal here is to foster teamwork, even when remote work makes teamwork difficult. Generally, these types of group assignments are inter-departmental, where more experienced employees show a new employee the ropes and oversee a project; but they can also be intra-departmental, with the new hire working with others outside their team. Either way, it introduces new employees to current staff, forging bonds with a variety of employees and making them feel more like a teammate than an individual contributor.

Supervise the supervisor. Simple fact: some managers are better than others in supervising new employees. This discrepancy is accentuated in a remote environment. Make sure that supervisors are holding and prioritizing regular one-on-one meetings with their new employees to answer questions, explain short- and long-term goals, provide feedback, and ensure that new employees understand what’s expected of them and have the tools to meet these expectations. Many companies provide new employee checklists to the managers, as well as to the new employees. This is a good idea, but only if there’s a mechanism in place to ensure that the items are being addressed.

Arrange an in-person meeting as soon as possible. Video meetings are better than phone calls and certainly better than no communication at all, but there’s nothing better than face-to-face interaction. Assuming the new hire is within driving distance of team members, an introductory coffee or lunch can help break the ice and put faces to names. If not, make sure new employees are aware of the next quarterly or annual face-to-face meetings that you have scheduled.

Onboarding new employees in a remote environment definitely has its challenges, but also presents a list of opportunities for companies. With a little advanced planning, and by using the strategies listed above, HR professionals can build even stronger loyalties with their new employees, whether the employees eventually return to the office or continue to work remotely.