How to Virtually Onboard Your New Hire


December 21, 2020


180 Engineering

2020 has had a tremendous impact on the way we work. For those who continue to report to job sites and offices, PPE, social distancing, and Plexiglas barriers have become the norm. And, for the millions of us who quickly transitioned to home offices, we had to rethink and retool our usual work processes. 

Nowhere is that more clear than with hiring and onboarding. Some organizations may have already had remote hiring processes in place. But onboarding has more traditionally been onsite, to give new employees a chance to interact with their coworkers, attend training sessions, work with a mentor, and pick up on company culture.

There’s no doubt that a thoughtful onboarding experience is valuable.  Studies show that onboarding:

  • Boosts retention;
  • Enhances engagement;
  • Increases productivity; 
  • Helps to build company culture.

The problem is that so much of the onboarding process involves welcoming new employees to a physical space and providing them with a chance to take cues and ask questions. How do you effectively transition that process to a virtual environment?

While it may take some time to figure out the logistics of virtual onboarding, it’s well worth the effort. Not only will a virtual process assist new employees and benefit the company while we work remotely, but it will continue to be a valuable tool when we all return to the workplace. Some onboarding modules (such as training) are actually more efficient to complete online. 

Welcome To Our Company!

When transitioning to virtual onboarding, think about how your in-person onboarding can be broken into online modules. Whether virtual or in-person, the first modules will inevitably involve welcoming the new hire to your company and preparing them for their first day of work.

The Welcome Email

You probably already send new hires a welcome email that provides more details about the job. With a few adaptations, this email can become a key part of your virtual onboarding. For example, if you don’t already do so, consider adding a short agenda for the first day of work, which may help calm first-day jitters. 

The welcome email is also a terrific chance to break the ice and ask the sort of small-talk questions that you would pose on their first day. Asking about their interests and favorite pastimes makes new employees feel valued and welcomed. It also provides useful information for pairing them with a buddy or work shadow partner.

As well, if you traditionally provide swag, use the welcome email to find out if they would prefer a refillable coffee mug or water bottle and what their t-shirt size is. Branded swag will help to instill a sense of company culture and is particularly valuable when employees aren’t surrounded by the company’s visual identity in the workplace.

Make sure to include a phone number in case your new employee has tech issues on the first day and needs an alternate way to get in touch with you.

Welcoming Social Chat

If your company uses Slack, Basecamp, Asana or any other platform for social chat, post a welcome message to your new hire. This allows other employees to say hello, engage in welcoming small talk, and offer advice. It also gives new employees insight into office culture, which may make it easier for them to navigate their first day.


Although getting paperwork filled out isn’t the most exciting part of the onboarding process, it is, of course, necessary. Why not get this step done before the first day of work? It will allow you to focus on the fun, social aspects of onboarding on the first day, which may help new hires avoid information overload and online fatigue.

Technology and Software

Given that we’ve been adapting to remote work for most of 2020, your company probably has policies in place regarding IT requisitions and software installations. Some companies have hardware shipped directly to their staff along with instructions for downloading necessary software. Other companies preinstall the software before shipping the computers out themselves. Whichever way you handle this, be sure that your new hire has a fully-functioning computer by their first day of work. 

Be prepared to offer training guides for unfamiliar software, particularly any that might be needed for the first day of work.

Welcome To Our Workplace!

The first day of work can be nerve-wracking and overwhelming at the best of times. But, in a physical workplace, a new recruit can pick up cues about office culture and etiquette from their surroundings. Without those cues, everything is a little bit more difficult. Take care in designing your orientation modules to help ease the transition for your new hire. 

Scheduling Orientation Modules

The first day at a physical workplace is often crammed full of activity: welcome messages, facility tours, meet and greets, break out sessions, training, coffee breaks, and other planned social activities. 

Obviously, some of those activities won’t translate well to a virtual environment. As well, online fatigue is very real. Resist the temptation to make the first day of virtual work as full as the first day at the physical office. Instead, consider:

  • Spreading your modules over a longer period of time, such as the first week.
  • Focusing on a few key points that make your new hires feel excited about working for your company. The more detailed information can always be provided afterwards, via email, pre-recorded videos, or text guides.

Keep It Animated And Interactive

An animated presenter, a variety of guest speakers, and opportunities for interaction help minimize online fatigue and keep participants’ attention.


Starting any meeting with an icebreaker is always a good idea. It kicks off the meeting on  a positive note and usually makes people feel more at ease. Icebreakers are especially important during virtual onboarding because they take the place of socializing around the water cooler or coffee station. 

Animated Speakers

Kelly Chuck, a member of LinkedIn’s Learning and Development team, overhauled the company’s onboarding curriculum early in the pandemic. In a blog about the overhaul, Chuck says that in order to keep participants engaged:

I am about one and a half to two times more animated when facilitating virtually than non-virtually … A lot of it is how am I using nonverbal communication, like how am I using my hands, how am I using my facial expressions, am I looking at the camera, am I pointing at people, am I using names? I’ve made it less formal and invite people to butt in at any time.

Inviting a wide variety of facilitators to participate is a terrific idea. And a facilitator doesn’t necessarily need to be someone in a more senior position or someone on the same team. It can be helpful to invite people from different areas of your company so that new hires gain a broad understanding of all aspects of your company. Remind all facilitators that keeping excitement in their voices and actions makes it easy for people to respond with their own excitement about joining the company.

Opportunities For Engagement

Frequently inviting engagement helps keep people alert and focussed. Try doing things like:

  • Asking participants to raise their hands in response to a question.
  • Using the chat box to ask get-to-know-you questions like everyone’s favorite breakfast cereal or muppet.
  • Creating break-out rooms for small group discussions.
  • Doing frequent check-ins, especially in regards to energy levels.
  • Taking notes and using details offered by new hires later on in the session. For instance, if a new hire reveals that they jog daily, you could ask if that has helped with managing pandemic-related stress.

Engagement is an important part of making people feel like their contributions are valued; but it’s also a very useful tool in battling online fatigue. 

Ask IT To Sit In

As wonderful as technology is, we’re all very well aware that it has its issues. It can be difficult to keep your own enthusiasm and energy levels up if you’re distracted by technology breakdowns (particularly if you’re not adept at solving them yourself). To allow all facilitators to focus fully on the content they are presenting and on making connections with the new hires, ask IT staff or a techy coworker to take over the technology reigns for the day.

Onboarding’s Virtual Toolbox

Once the welcome modules are completed, it’s time for the new hires to start learning the fundamentals of their jobs. Developing a virtual toolbox of supports and materials for job success is essential for remote work. The investment of time and creativity required to build that toolbox is well worth it, as it will continue to be useful once we return to the workplace.

Virtual Training

In most workplaces, training is done in person. But, one-on-one training, in particular, requires a large investment of resources. Creating online training material can increase efficiencies for both virtual and in-person instruction. This material can be in any format including videos, podcasts, text guides, and simulation training.

Virtual Mentoring

Having access to a mentor or buddy can ease a lot of anxiety for new hires. Whether a new employee is paired with someone as a work shadow placement, or more casually as a resource to call on when needed, a more senior employee can offer insight into company culture and provide answers to a range of questions.

Going back to the welcome email: depending on the size of your company and of the new hire’s own team, try to look beyond simply matching jobs. Instead look at matching people. Try to choose an existing employee who has similar interests similar to the new hire’s so that it’s easier for them to bond.

Virtual Schedules and Milestones

Sometimes, it can be difficult to manage time and productivity when you are unsupervised. It’s also unlikely that a new employee will intuitively understand the pace that they should be working at. Developing a schedule of work and milestones can give both you and the employee a way to measure success. 

Virtual Socializing

Spontaneous socializing is one of the best ways for new hires to learn about company culture and etiquette. They can take cues and ask questions of fellow employees as they wait for meetings to start or congregate in the break room.

There is a very real need for socializing in the workplace. Although spontaneity can be difficult to create virtually, scheduled social activities can fill the gap. A blog at Memory suggests:

  • Creating non-work related chat spaces, like Slack channels.
  • Always using video so that you’re talking to each other’s faces.
  • Scheduling virtual events, like lunches and movie nights.
  • Taking virtual tours of each other’s home offices.
  • Holding remote contests or competitions.
  • Marking days where people are typically excited, like Fridays and paydays.
  • Setting up virtual wellbeing classes.

A team that’s connected and enjoys spending time with each other — yes, even virtually — will be more effective. Efforts to create social time are well worth it. 

Stay Connected!

In a physical workplace, designated people (senior employees/mentors, team leaders, managers, IT support,  HR/benefits staff) often check in on new hires at random times. It’s important for this practice to carry over into virtual onboarding. Use email, chat, and videoconferencing to make sure the new hire isn’t floundering in some way and knows that any help that may be needed is easily accessed. 

Connection can also be forged through feedback. Virtual onboarding is new in many companies. New hires may have valuable suggestions for how things can be improved for future recruits. Create a survey or set up a focus group to gather that information. Those who already went through your onboarding process will feel valued when asked for feedback; and that feedback is essential in honing your onboarding program.

A successful onboarding practice has a bigger impact on employee engagement, productivity, and retention than anything other than effective recruiting. If virtual onboarding is new to your company, look to best practices to develop your own onboarding process. But flex those best practices to fit with your own company’s culture, values, and needs; and always be open to feedback and change. Given the importance of onboarding, developing a strong and enthusiastic virtual onboarding practice is one of the best things you can do, both for the present remote work realities and for the future, when we return to our physical workplaces.