How to onboard staff in a remote team

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Over the coming months, trainee accountants and apprentices will be looking to start new jobs.

Many will not be able to join the office in the traditional way, either because they will be working for home, or they will only be coming into the office one or two days a week.

What can managers do to create an effective onboarding process and help new starters assimilate the culture of the organisation they are joining?

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Be empathetic

Sherad Dewedi, Managing Partner at Shenward Chartered Accountants and Business Advisors, says that being on the receiving end of an onboarding process is always a nerve-wracking experience.

“It’s important to be empathetic towards the candidate during both the recruitment and the onboarding phase, especially at such an unprecedented time,” he says. “We’ve successfully run the Shenward annual apprenticeship programme for four years, but this year we’ve had to adapt our approach for hiring and onboarding.”

He says that employers often structure their onboarding processes around their own needs, expectations, and requirements and forget that the success of the process relies on the happiness of the employee.

“It’s no secret that the most productive, loyal and hardworking employees are those who feel happy and respected by management, and a valuable part of the wider team,” he says. 

Organise hardware set-up well in advance

Ensure that your new hire has access to all of the technology they need to perform their role at home, including laptops, phones, headsets, and more, says Chris White, Director at Zellis and an expert in systems and technology for core HR processes, including onboarding.

“Where possible, set up automated alerts from your HR system to your IT team, so that when a new starter has been confirmed, you can work as quickly as possible to get them the equipment they need,” he says.

It is important to make the transition as seamless as possible, says Paul Williams, Director at Highstream Solutions, which provides IT solutions for businesses. 

Talk through your chosen IT software with your new recruit to ensure they fully understand how everything works.

“Send over their new laptop/PC and any accompanying equipment in plenty of time so that they can familiarise themselves with it and set up their new home office. 

“It is also beneficial to do a walk-through with your new employee to ensure they understand their new IT software,” he says. “Be aware that this may be a suite of tools that they have not used before, so setting up online training on their first few days is a must.”

Set the right tone from the beginning

Gareth John, Executive Chairman and Director of Accountancy Training College First Intuition, says managers could send an eye-catching ‘welcome to the team’ e-booklet to new staffs prior to their start date.

This could include:

  • Pictures and bios of colleagues
  • Mission statement and core values, perhaps with video links of senior staff talking about the genesis of the organisation
  • What they will need on their first day; P45, driving licence, passport etc.
  • Details of mental health and wellbeing resources
  • Video chat etiquette and dress code expectations

“For their first day make sure you have thoroughly planned out a schedule of meetings and training,” he says. “Communicating your organisational culture, ethics and values should be every bit as important as logistics, policies and procedures.”

A ‘first day’ virtual lunch where the new starter can chat informally with colleagues, and a ‘first Friday’ online social event is a good idea, he says. Sending an M&S voucher in advance so they can buy some drinks and nibbles is a nice touch. 

Schedule regular informal contact

Schedule regular touchpoints to ensure that your new member of staff does not feel isolated or lonely.

“Make sure they are subscribed to receive all of your important internal communications,” says Chris White. “Companies are increasingly using ‘social recognition’ platforms in the workplace, which allow employees to celebrate hard work and achievement in a fun, simple, and social way – using GIFs, memes, videos, and more.”

These platforms can help build a coherent team ethos during the crisis, especially for new starters, since its purpose is to recognise employees who have demonstrated a commitment to company values, he says. 

Lee Owen, Director at Hays Accountancy & Finance, says managers should get a new starter involved as soon as possible with their new team. 

“Add them to a group chat on WhatsApp, Skype or similar, send email updates to inform them of what’s happening in the department and invite them to remote social occasions like quizzes or coffee meetups,” he says. It will help them build rapport quicker with their team and get a sense of the social culture.

“Increasingly we are also seeing employers use virtual office tours to give candidates and new hires a sense of what the workplace looks like. If your organisation does not have access to this technology, you could send photos or even talk the individual through a typical day in the office to give them a glimpse into the culture.”

Use a buddy system

“Have a buddy system where each new starter is paired with a buddy who is not their line manager,” says Gareth John of First Intuition.

“Choose someone who works in the same team or bubble, has a couple of years of experience with the organisation, and shares similar personality traits,” he says. 

Getting it right early on is key for loyalty and engagement at work.

‘Employees are a huge investment and it’s critical to support them — over 40% of leaders fail to meet the needs of a new employee within the first 18 months,” says Jonathan Richards, CEO, and Co-Founder of Breathe, a cloud-based HR software platform which works with SMEs.

“As part of the onboarding process, pair them up with a buddy and encourage them to virtually eat lunch together — this will be a more informal introduction and will help them settle in and become part of the team.” 

Create a virtual culture using communication

“Remote working can sometimes create obstacles to communication, collaboration, relationship building, and accessibility within your team, however, with the right strategy and communication techniques you can still maintain a unified team ethos,” says Lee Owen, Director at Hays Accountancy & Finance. 

“A key element of this is effective and open communication,” he says. “It is important that you establish frequent communication via the right digital tools, taking advantage of all channels at your disposal. Video calls help to build a stronger connection between participants, so make sure these feature heavily in your communication plan.”

As well as maintaining transparency, it is important to build in ‘team time’ on conference calls to provide the opportunity to encourage small talk and build relationships. With fewer opportunities for those impromptu interactions which happen in offices, it’s important to make the time for these virtually to help foster working relationships and build team ethos. 

“Efficient knowledge sharing is another part of creating an ethos that needs attention while working remotely,” he says. “Everyone will possess specialist knowledge that is easy circulated in the office, so encourage them to share this through PDFs, webinars or podcasts. This could be a unique opportunity to encourage your team to appreciate one another’s value.”

Choose the right method of communication

Online meetings can be more regular and shorter than in-person meetings which are great for a feeling of constant engagement, says Gareth John of First Intuition.  A ten-minute daily team meeting at the start and end of each day can work wonders.

“Pick the right platforms for different types of communication,” he says.

This could include:

  • Zoom video calls where there are a number of participants
  • Slack is replacing email for internal communications and can be broken down into channels for different teams and projects, and even for ‘fun and games’. Slack also has an easy one-to-one video call function that replaces a ‘quick phone call’
  • Whatsapp for more social interactions and chatter 

He suggests that managers record meetings at which key news or developments are being discussed so that those that cannot attend are kept in the loop and do not feel excluded.

Think about your own management style

“Managing trainees is not always easy even when you’re in the office, so now everyone is working from home, it can be a real challenge which requires changes to your management style to overcome,” says Lee Owen, Director at Hays Accountancy & Finance.

“While some of your trainees will need reassurance to feel secure and satisfied, others will flourish working more independently under flexible circumstances, so account for personality when supervising and see how you can add different value to the individuals you manage,” he says. 

If you are managing multiple remote trainees, it is going to be impossible to infiltrate every aspect of their working day, so effective delegation is important, he says. 

“Take sufficient time to brief individuals on particular tasks so you can empower them with the responsibility while easing your own workload. It shows you trust your workers to get the job done without too much oversight and helps their development and progression.”

Supervising trainees working remotely does mean that you will need to be sensitive to their schedules, so make allowances where possible.

“Give them the freedom to decide when their breaks will be, how they will spend them and when they get back to work. Offer support wherever possible while also making deadlines clear.” 

Do you really need to have everyone back in the office?

“We are now much more open to recruiting remote workers in the future,” says Caroline Collyer, Head of People, Bright

“This is due to the fact that we have successfully navigated running the company with everyone remotely and adapted comfortably to the tools of communication needed,” she says. “This will do wonders for opening up new roles to a wider range of people and has the added benefit of improving accessibility and diversity.”

Further reading:

Marianne Curphey is an award-winning financial writer and columnist, and author of the book How Money Works. She worked as City Editor at The Guardian, deputy editor of Guardian online, and has worked for The Times, Telegraph and BBC.

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