The function of onboarding remote employees has evolved from exception to commonplace. Team members increasingly work either completely remotely or combine remote work with reporting to a physical office. 

With this shift in workplace models, organizations have seen the proper onboarding of remote employees become an imperative. Successfully navigating these nuances is critical for retention, engagement, and overall productivity. Organizations that perform this function well realize smooth transitions for new hires that result in increased job satisfaction. 

What are remote employees?

Remote employees are those who either do not come into an office or do not work from an office regularly. They are said to “work from home” or “telecommute.” From the time of onboarding, remote employees operate at home offices or other offsite locations.  

Increasingly, organizations have robust programs for onboarding remote employees to ensure that they are quickly and effectively integrated into company and team culture. 

This ensures that remote employees feel a part of the organization from a cultural perspective from their first day at the company and are able to become productive more quickly. 

Remote workers are generally divided into three categories: 

  1. Full-time remote work 
    Full-time remote workers work exclusively outside of an office. While they are said to work from home, the reality is that they can work from anywhere. Depending on their job, full-time remote employees may work exclusively from a home office or on the road, as is the case with many remote workers who are in sales.   
  2. Hybrid remote work 
    Employees with a hybrid remote work model divide their time between on-site and off-site work. In a hybrid work model, employees have specific schedules for the days and times when they work remotely or in an office.    
  3. Flexible remote work  
    Flexible work models give employees the ability to choose when they come into the office versus work remotely. With flexible work environments, employees come to the office on an as-needed basis, which can be anywhere from a few days a week to once or twice a month or per quarter.   

What is onboarding?

The onboarding process is the first phase of a new employee’s career with an organization and is the process of getting new employees integrated into organizations. In the case of onboarding remote employees, this experience is virtual.  

Onboarding remote employees covers everything from cultural assimilation to assigning IT accounts. During this process, organizations need to: 

  • Establish IT access privileges 
  • Present and collect documents for human resources, finance, and other operational functions 
  • Provide training on products and services  
  • Set up users on key systems 
  • Share the enterprise’s values and mission 

The many benefits of onboarding remote employees include: 

  • Creates digital records of every step of the onboarding process 
  • Enables fast customization of segments of onboarding 
  • Speeds some parts of employee onboarding 
  • Streamlines easily repeatable onboarding processes   
  • Supports digital transformation by moving many processes that were paper-based online 

While there are many benefits of onboarding remote employees, there are some challenges, including the following. 

Latency between onboarding remote employees and providing IT services 
A number of IT-related tasks related to onboarding remote employees take extra time due to requirements for authentication and validation of users and establishing other security protocols. This includes implementing systems and providing security training, as well as other actions that require coordination across teams, human resources (HR) professionals, and departmental liaisons. In addition, new employees must be provided with approved IT hardware, such as hardened laptops, authentication tokens, and access cards.   

Establishing access credentials and permissions 
A key part of onboarding remote employees is establishing their access control profiles before assigning permissions for network assets. This also requires coordination across multiple departments to ensure that new users get the access they need, but are not overprovisioned.  

IT and security teams need to create access profiles and permissions that accurately align with the team member’s role. Then, the new user needs to be trained on access control protocols, such as strong password requirements and multi-factor authentication (MFA) systems.   

Limited technical and administrative support  
Onboarding remote employees requires a significant amount of IT and security resources. Each new employee needs to have systems configured, application and system access privileges assigned, training, and IT troubleshooting support.  

Many organizations struggle with balancing the support needed for onboarding remote employees and day-to-day IT and security functions.

Communication problems when onboarding remote employees 
With in-person onboarding, HR teams and managers can make face-to-face introductions for new hires and various team members across an organization. When onboarding remote employees, all of these introductions must be conducted virtually.  

This can create communication issues and is a particular challenge when new employees speak different languages, are in different time zones, and are culturally disconnected.   

To minimize the impact of the challenges related to onboarding remote employees, keep these key takeaways in mind: 

  • Create a digital onboarding experience that aligns with in-person onboarding 
  • Develop plans that minimize gaps in onboarding processes to help new hires get set up as quickly as possible 
  • Ensure that remote employees are engaged in the organization’s culture   
  • Make a point of encouraging virtual face-to-face interactions 
  • Provide robust security and IT training to ensure the smooth adoption of systems and protocols 

Best practices for onboarding remote employees 

Make the first day welcoming

Make a strong, positive impression with the initial steps of onboarding remote employees. Get them a welcome package on their first day.  

In addition to digital assets, such as a welcome video that introduces them to the organization, social media channels, and training materials, send a package of company “swag.” Also, make sure that they have access to internal communications platforms when they start and are added to relevant channels.  

It is also helpful for managers to make a formal introduction on these platforms, including not just what they will be working on, but a little background about the new employee. 

Customize materials

Take time to add even small bits of customization to onboarding remote employees. It can be as simple as personalizing the first slide of a welcome presentation. At a minimum, make sure that the materials provided during the process of onboarding remote employees are relevant to their role. 

Grant new employees access to systems quickly

When working remotely, access to systems is an employee’s lifeline to the organization. Work with IT and security teams to get new employees set up on systems and give them access to applications as quickly as possible.  

Enable digital forms for onboarding remote employees

For all employees, it is helpful to have forms digitized, but it is particularly important for remote employees. All new employee forms should be online and readily accessible in a centralized location to streamline onboarding for remote employees.   

Provide checklists for tasks and forms that must be completed by new hires 

Starting a new job can be overwhelming. Providing new employees, especially those working remotely, with a checklist of what they need to do and who they need to work with (including contact information) to get set up helps make this transition easier.   

Review roles and responsibilities

While many details about a job are discussed during the interview process, it is important to review specifics and ensure that new employees are clear about what is expected of them. Helping remote employees understand communication protocols at the outset is of particular importance.  

As part of onboarding remote employees, team members are granted access to multiple communication channels. Providing clarification about how and when to use these tools ensures that they meet expectations and are able to perform their duties effectively.   

Create methods for keeping remote employees connected

To optimize productivity and retention, remote employees need to feel connected not just to their teams, but to the broader organization. This can be accomplished with virtual town halls, company meetings, and team meetings.  

In addition, channels can be created on internal communications platforms to encourage communication and collaboration. These help remote employees engage with co-workers, develop a sense of community, and have access to resources to answer questions and brainstorm ideas. 

Establish identity security when onboarding remote employees 

Identity security should be a priority for any new employee, but is particularly important for remote employees. Key considerations for identity security include: 

  • Align new remote employees’ access privileges with organizational hierarchies 
  • Avoid overprovisioning and granting excess permissions by providing granular user access 
  • Empower new employees with the right access from the start by granting access based on roles 
  • Ensure that systems are in place to regularly validate access, enable audits, and confirm compliance with rules and regulations 
  • Establish separation of duties as part of the setup protocols when onboarding remote employees to ensure that their access is limited to their job description 
  • Use identity-based controls to assign new remote employees access to the applications, systems, and data that they need 

Checklist for onboarding remote employees

Each organization has its own approach to onboarding remote employees. However, every organization can benefit by taking the time to develop a checklist.  

The following are considerations when onboarding new employees and can be used as a guideline when creating a checklist. 

  1. Send orientation links to new remote employees in advance of their first day.
    Provide new employees with links to information about company culture, the organization’s products and services, and the onboarding process. 
  2. Deliver IT tools to the new remote employee
    Employees should have any relevant IT tools in hand on their first day. This includes laptops, mobile phones, cameras, microphones, speakers, and tablets. These should be pre-configured with security systems set up before they are sent out.  
  3. Schedule a welcome orientation meeting for the new remote employee’s first day.
    An individual or group orientation video conference should be scheduled for the start of a new employee’s first day to orient them around the organization’s mission and values. This should be followed by an HR orientation and walkthrough of forms to be completed and other onboarding documentation.
  4. Assign new remote employees a mentor.
    Remote employees should be assigned a mentor to help them get settled, answer questions, and connect with others in the organization. The mentor should schedule a meeting with the new remote employee within the first few days of their start date.  
  5. Have the IT team schedule a setup meeting with new remote employees.
    This meeting should include a review of the applications, systems, and data that they will have access to, the assignment of user names and passwords, an explanation of security protocols for access (e.g., strong passwords and multi-factor authentication), and information about how to get technical support.
  6. Arrange for the new remote employee to complete security training.
    People are considered one of the most significant security vulnerabilities in an organization. Providing and requiring participation in security training that includes a review helps mitigate this risk. Coupled with testing, security training is an effective way to protect against cybersecurity threats. 
  7. Host an informal team meeting to introduce the new remote employee.
    In addition to regular team meetings, hosting a short welcome video conference with the team gives everyone a chance to meet and facilitates future collaboration. This should be followed by a review of team documents, an organization chart, relevant contact information, team calendars, and related tools and materials.
  8. Have someone from the sales team provide an overview of the organization’s offering.
    Regardless of what the new remote employee’s position is, it is important that they have a baseline understanding of products and services the organization offers. They should also know who the target market is, how the offering is positioned, and why it is special.  
  9. Document the process and criteria for remote employee access.
    Specific policies and procedures should be documented and followed when providing remote employees with access to applications, systems, and data. 
  10. Identity security should be a priority. 
    Ensure that remote employees are not overprovisioned, access privileges are based on roles and requirements, and systems are in place to continually validate access privileges.

Prioritizing processes for onboarding remote employees

Onboarding remote employees is not the same as onboarding in-person employees. While there are overlaps, onboarding remote employees requires critical thinking about engagement and the extra levels of security that are needed.  

When a new employee starts, having them up and running quickly is important, but it must be done carefully. Following best practices, using checklists, and leveraging technology ensures that new hires who work remotely are able to get to work quickly and without compromising security.     

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