Career Advice

10 Realities of Virtual Onboarding—According to Career Experts and a Bunch of Employees Who’ve Done It

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Like many others who’ve started new jobs since the onset of the pandemic, I didn’t walk into my first day at Well+Good in the spring of 2021 so much as log on. The ladder-shelf-meets-mini-desk in my bedroom would remain my place of work, and it would be from there that I’d need to meet my coworkers, connect with my editor, and learn the ins and outs of the role. For the past two years, both the adoption of virtual work by many companies and the rising tide of employee turnover have introduced more and more people to this reality of starting a new job remotely. And for the unacquainted, remote onboarding differs pretty vastly from the alternative.

While some jobs have always been remote and others never will be, pandemic safety measures have majorly shifted the distribution. The number of people in this country who primarily work from home jumped from about 6 percent in 2019 to 35 percent in May 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And as recently as September 2021, that number only showed a slight dip, with a Gallup poll finding that 25 percent of people are working solely from home and another 20 percent are splitting their work time between home and office.

1 in 67 jobs posted on LinkedIn was remote pre-pandemic; in October 2021, that number was 1 in 8.

In many cases, that's also translated to more open roles being posted as either fully or partially remote (onboarding, included). Case in point: While only one in 67 jobs posted on LinkedIn was remote pre-pandemic, that number was one in eight in October 2021. Given the well-documented perks of WFH flexibility and the employee call for workplace benefits that support their full personhood, career expert Gillian Williams, partner and founder at recruitment agency Monday Talent, predicts that the remote office will remain a thing even as the pandemic threat diminishes. And that just means even more remote onboarding to boot.

Because this ever-broadening population of employers and employees now has about two years' worth of hindsight into the WFH world, the concept of starting a new job remotely is beginning to feel less like uncharted territory. Even so, there’s no denying that remote onboarding adds an extra level of the unknown (When will I get my equipment? What are my coworkers really like in person?) to the already unfamiliar landscape of a new job. Below, career experts and employees across various industries who recently started jobs remotely share just what to expect if you’ll be taking the dive.

10 realities of starting a new job remotely, according to recent job-starters and career experts

1. Your onboarding schedule could feel very structured—or super flexible

The vibe of your orientation is likely to fall somewhere between these two extremes. On the one hand, the company you’re joining could have a set onboarding program for day one, week one, or even the first couple weeks for all new hires during which you could spend time watching virtual presentations by company leaders and engaging in onboarding activities (like, say, a faux client pitch). That was the case for Mira Hanfling, a tech consultant for a data-mining start-up, and Michelle Shtivelberg, a demand planner at wellness company Therabody. But on the other hand, your onboarding could look more like that of social media analyst Casey Federbusch, and involve reaching out to folks independently to piece together the intel you need to do your job.

In either case, though, your first-week calendar will likely include at least a handful of pre-set meetings, which Williams says can help remove a lot of the uncertainty around what you need to achieve or accomplish right off the bat.

2. The dynamic of day one will hinge on the size of the team you’re joining and whether anyone else is onboarding with you

Because of how remote work naturally silos workers (you’re physically isolated from coworkers, after all), the way you get oriented will depend on who’s onboarding alongside you, if anyone, and what your immediate team looks like. “For me, I’m essentially a team of one,” says Federbusch. “Because I’m the only person who does what I do, onboarding took a longer time [as] I figured out what information I needed from different coworkers.”

Some of that natural uncertainty was squashed for folks who onboarded at the same time as someone else, like Kelly Vaughan did, when she joined digital food publication and marketplace Food52 as a staff writer. “Because I did my orientation with one other new hire, we felt free to ask all our initial questions and bounce them off each other, which made it feel even more individualized in this virtual setting than I was used to [with in-person situations],” she says.

And once you’re officially on the team, the same distinction applies: Having one or more people whom you know you can turn to right away tends to clear up question marks. “I onboarded onto a large client, so there was a team of five people already working on it that I started meeting with daily,” says Hanfling. “So, I had these five built-in people to learn from and work with who could troubleshoot issues if they arose.”

3. There may be a bit less built-in excitement than usual

Prepare for starting a new job remotely to feel a little bit lacking in the celebration department. Sure, people might email or Slack you about how excited they are to work with you, but it’s just not the same as an in-person lunch or even a stack of fresh supplies at your new desk. “The day was a little anticlimactic, since there was no commute and no real reason to put on real clothes, and I was working in the same spot as I was for my old job,” says Vaughan.

To make your remote onboarding experience match your new-job energy, Vicki Salemi, career expert at Monster, suggests creating the buzz for yourself. “On the morning of day one, it’s okay to get dressed up or go a bit more formal, and you can even switch up your home-office space or buy yourself fresh flowers to mark the start of something new,” she says.

4. It’s normal to forget (almost) everything you learn on day one

Back-to-back meetings and presentations on your first day in any work setting are common. But while the barrage of information can be both overwhelming and mind-numbing in person, add in the component of staring at a screen for hours on end, and it’s even easier for your brain to simply zonk out. “It’s tough to feel like you’re really digesting that much information at once,” says Elana Ross, a program coordinator at an HIV-prevention nonprofit.

“It would be a red flag if you started a new job at a new company, and you felt like you knew everything or were bored on the first day.” —Vicki Salemi, career expert at Monster

The good news is, you’re not expected to internalize everything right away—and, in fact, feeling overwhelmed on day one is a sign that your new role has a healthy amount of room for professional growth, says Salemi: “It would be a red flag if you started a new job at a new company, and you felt like you knew everything or were bored on the first day.” To combat the natural overwhelm, make it a point not to over-schedule your personal life right around your start date. “Maybe you plan to go to sleep one hour earlier each night, or spend more of your weekend prepping meals, so you don’t need to worry about lunches,” she says.

5. One-on-one virtual “dates” can really help you get oriented

The fastest way to feel like you belong while you’re in the process of remote onboarding is to set up one-on-ones with folks on your broader team; Ross and Vaughan both credit doing so with turning coworkers into friends.

“I think when you’re working virtually, everyone is more aware of the fact that in order to just have a relationship with your colleagues, you have to ask questions, set up the longer Zoom calls, and put yourself out there because otherwise, it’s very easy to go several days without talking to anyone,” says Vaughan.

And though these coffee dates aren’t quite like the real deal, they do still offer another personal window into your new coworkers’ lives. “You have the opportunity to meet people's children, especially young ones who crawl into the frame, or their pets, and I’ve really relished those non-work moments,” says Lisa Wadlington, head of chemicals at a global chemicals company.

6. A few tech fumbles are pretty inevitable

As might be the case with in-person onboarding, starting a new job remotely could involve calling IT—but when you’re virtual, there’s a fresh set of issues to contend with (namely, getting all of the right, working equipment to your home), and finding the right person to resolve them might take longer.

“If I figured out I was missing something, there wasn’t just someone next to me who I could ask, ‘Hey, do you have this application?’” says Diane Sparks, the director of corporate accounting at a health-care company. “So, as I’ve found things that I needed, I’ve had to track down the right person to help.”

That becomes a lengthier process when the person needs to teach you a new program virtually, too, according to Simone Scheurer, an assistant designer at a fashion-manufacturing company. “We use a ton of different softwares, and it was hard to learn them all while onboarding when I didn’t have anyone who could just lean over my shoulder and show me in person,” she says.

But if you can make some light of the perils of video-conferencing everything during onboarding, there is some coworker bonding to be had. “Everyone can relate to how frustrating it may be to deal with logistics over Zoom,” says Saoirse Hahn, an archival researcher at a documentary film production company. “For me, I think the integration was a baptism by fire, of sorts, into a new industry, as I was completely on my own while also trying to learn a new role and a new team dynamic entirely on Zoom,” she says.

7. Certain policies, procedures, and protocols may be over-explained

There is almost no such thing as too much communication when it comes to remote onboarding, according to Williams. Since employees aren’t as easily able to pick up on cultural or operational cues without the water-cooler banter and osmosis learning that comes from being in the office, companies are compensating by expressing everything more explicitly.

“We’ve found it helps with onboarding to over-communicate our company ethos, values, protocols, culture—really all of our best practices, from how we handle Slack messages to the way we prepare for certain meetings,” Williams says.

8. You’ll likely be doing lots of direct messaging

In losing the in-person chitchat of the office, the remote onboarding experience will involve a whole lot more typing—whether in the form of Slack messages or DMs on any other platform. While you’ll likely be using these messages to ask questions and learn about your job function, they’ll also be the gateway to understanding your new company’s style and lingo, as well as gaining insight into the personality of your coworkers.

“A lot of learning about the company ended up coming through Slack for me,” says Federbusch. “We have a bunch of channels, and many of them are about non-work stuff, like pets or books you’ve read or cooking, and participating in those was a big entryway for me into the company culture.”

9. You may feel the need to be a self-starter

When you’re sitting next to someone in an office, asking for help often requires little more than turning and saying something like, ‘Hey, do you have a second?’ But when you’re remote, that question has to come in a documented, written format to a person who could be deep in the middle of something. (Sure, you might be able to check their calendar for meetings, but you can’t gauge a person’s working vibe when they’re not in your presence.)

“I found that I had to be more comfortable taking initiative and messaging someone for help, or even asking someone to just hop on a call if I found that we were going back and forth on a thread,” says Kristen Resman, operations lead at Parsley Health.

Because the kinds of conversations that happen with in-office onboarding also tend to answer multiple questions at once, you can recreate some semblance of that by grouping questions that arise during remote onboarding into one message or saving them for one meeting that you have with a coworker who can answer them, rather than firing them off throughout the day, suggests Salemi.

10. Virtual events could become your lifeline to company culture

It's very possible that the novelty of a Zoom trivia night or happy hour has long worn off by this stage in the pandemic—but when you’re starting a new job remotely, those virtual events remain an essential part of getting and feeling integrated. “My company has a team for planning work events that I was on this past year with a few other new staff members, and we hosted a holiday happy hour, a Valentine’s Day party, and even this event we called 'COVID Chronicles,' where we just talked and commiserated and shared what we were doing to make pandemic life more bearable,” says Ross.

It might feel like an extra obligation to pencil such programs into your calendar, but Salemi recommends going to as many as you can—especially if they're during work hours. "Taking part in non-work activities is an easy way to quickly feel more a part of the group," she says. And the more connected or integrated you are, the more comfortable you'll feel speaking up, sharing an opinion, or reaching out to your coworkers for support—work-wise or otherwise.

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