Illustration by Signe Valentin Andersen

The culture gap in remote and hybrid onboarding 

Remote onboarding can no longer be written off as a temporary evil. Over the past year, companies have been forced to embrace remote hiring and onboarding, presenting them with the challenge of introducing newcomers to the company culture without having the tangible support of the in-office routines and over-the-desk conversations. 

The million-dollar question is of course: How do you set up procedures that capture the essentials of your company culture and give newcomers the tools they need to gradually navigate the culture like natives?  

We invited VP of People at Whereby, Jessica Hayes, and Director of Human Resources at Swoon, Miranda Sullivan, to share their best, hands-on advice on onboarding remotely in a talk moderated by Head of People and Culture of Dreamcraft, Nico Blier-Silvestri.

Over the past year, Miranda and her team have hired and onboarded approximately 100 new employees – transitioning from flying in newcomers to the Chicago headquarters to setting up remote procedures – and learning a lot in the process. 

Whereby is a fully remote, and fast-growing organization, with currently 14 open positions, so when it comes to remote onboarding Jessica knows her game.  

And if their advice should be summed up into one doctrine it could be: Communicate deliberately, act accordingly – and learn from your experiments. 

But let’s get into how they do it: 

Starting the day… as you always do

It’s just you, in your home, in your office with maybe your kid or your dog in the background. It’s kinda like an everyday thing. So how do you recreate that culture and that environment at somebody's desk?! – Miranda 

A crucial step in remote onboarding is taking the newcomer by the hand, in much the same way they would in on-site onboarding where someone would greet them by the reception and walk them through their day. 

At Whereby, Jessica and her team have set up a series of emails, Loom-videos, and a Notion-board that creates a flow of information for the newcomer imitating the guidance of an in-office reception. 

We send an email immediately after someone signed the contract, which says: “In a couple of months this is gonna happen. This is what to look forward to”. Basically, this is what's gonna happen between now and the week before you start. Then we sent another email one week before you start. The People team sends one, and the hiring manager sends another. 

We want to build a very structured process where we’re giving people a look ahead at what they need to know. And making sure we're very deliberate in the hierarchy of communications. Giving people the information they need when they need it. – Jessica

Instead of loading information onto the newcomer, this communication flow is designed to take the newcomer by the hand filtering the information and demonstrating to them that they don’t need to figure everything out – it’s on the organization to steer the process. 

This is all about relieving that stress of starting a job where you’re not only new – you’re also (literally) on your own with very little to lean on practically. Creating a detailed schedule complete with coffee-beaks and lunch-time (and time to be on your own!) is a means to counter the insecurity the comes naturally when you’re starting something new. 

People will never forget how you made them feel

People won’t forget if they show up on the first day and they never really got a laptop. If they don't know what they were doing. If they don't know who anyone is. That's the stuff that makes you feel devastated. And like you failed somehow. That, I think is the thing you would avoid the most. Don’t start adding beautiful toppings onto a cake that's half-baked.  – Jessica

The point is: The basics that any remote onboarding process needs to focus on is establishing a sense of confidence and trust. People need to feel safe. Being on your own increases the room for feeling lost. That is why both Miranda and Jessica underscore the importance of very deliberate communication and scheduling. 

We're making sure that people know that we're prepared for them. A top priority is communicating to the employees and preparing them so that they can feel confident. That means knowing what you're gonna do, and knowing that we’re gonna take care of you, and we're gonna make sure that you're successful. – Miranda

Creating bonds

Not surprisingly, research shows that the ability to create a sense of connection among co-workers is strongest when working in proximity. Sharing everyday routines and a common context is a key ingredient in building relationships and creating a shared sense of belonging. According to Gallup, relationships, or even friendship, among co-workers increase engagement significantly.  z

This loss of connection – or fear of losing it – has been a major challenge for organizations used to relying on in-office socializing to create personal bonds and transmit information on culture. 

When working remotely, a lot of information on culture gets lost in translation especially when you are a newcomer with limited access to the cultural codes of the team or organization. 

Finding ways to transmit that information and aide newcomers in creating bonds across the organization has been a central focus for Miranda Sullivan and Swoon: 

We added what we call a buddy system. It doesn’t matter where you sit in the company or how long you have been with us. You get six or seven buddies from across the company, with different tenures: Six months, six years… And you set up regular catch-ups with them, and you talk about what's going on in their work and their day-to-day life and it really helps to create that friendship bond and also give employees an overall picture of what everybody does in the organization. – Miranda

By engaging in the “Buddy-system” newcomers can establish relationships outside of their immediate team. And by prioritizing informal “catch-ups” they get to recreate the casual encounters that are usually a rich source of information. These types of communication are useful for getting insights that are not formalized or otherwise never end up as need-to-know information such as who actually does what outside of your immediate team. 

Recreating social bonds and imitating social traditions is, according to Jessica Hayes, one of the big differentiators of remote-first and office-first organizations. A crucial realization for her, when first joining a remote organization, was the shift in her social attention. 

When I started working remotely my social energy flipped and work was like 15% of that social energy. All of a sudden that other bit [social energy] I was giving it to my family, my fiancé, and my close friends instead. And that started a realization that there's a different thinking. You don't need that. Some people don't need to have their social energy coming from work. – Jessica 

The point here is, that working remotely can open the door to allowing time spent on other meaningful relationships. Having never had an in-office culture taken away, it was an issue for Whereby to recreate these relationships.s

A surprising realization for Jessica has been that this creates more clear boundaries for the People Team: Employees are given the liberty to commit their social attention to whomever they please and the responsibility of the HR department is limited to all things work and helping people grow professionally. This allows Whereby to be focused on communicating on their culture in terms of values, ethics, and policies. 

These core differences on the relevance of social bonds in the workplace underscore the importance of seeing company culture not as one-size-fits-all. Culture is never “great” in itself (a topic we’ve written a bit about here). Any culture will be promoting certain values and practices - and that will create an environment where some people thrive and others don’t. The key is being very aware of what those values and practices actually are and find the people that will thrive with you (which is why we created Valuebeat in the first place).

Find out which messages don’t translate

In my opinion, culture is a series of messages you send to people: The policies you have, the way you think about the work that you do, the people you employ, the values the ethics, those kinds of things… The office and the look and feel of things are just one of those messages. 

So if someone comes up to me and says: “I feel like we cannot communicate our culture to people.” The question is, do you think you’re sending no messages then? And in that case: Which messages don’t translate and can we just work from there? - Jessica

“Losing” the office should if we are to take Jessica Hayes word for it, be an invitation to realize what your culture actually is and figure out how to communicate more deliberately. 

This is an invitation to get into the practice of doing your culture. Your culture was never far-fetched ideals, but the actual reality of how leadership and employees acted. Those actions continue, but information about what practices are condoned, promoted or the opposite might be missing because this information was read between the lines when you were all interacting at the office. 

You can read about it and you can talk about it and you can have it on a pretty wall. But it’s really gonna come down to your actions. And if your employees are seeing you and seeing leadership and other employees living these actions about your culture and continually doing them, that's what's gonna stick. - Miranda

Jessica and Miranda’s top tips 

  1. Create a flow of information that signals to the newcomer that you are in control so they don’t need to be. They need to feel safe before they need to be impressed by your swag. 
  2. Experiment, test, get feedback, and improve. 
  3. Be deliberate in recreating the informal encounters that require extra effort, but give valuable informal information. 
  4. Pay attention to the messages that you feel are not coming across. Make effort to translate core values and principles into easily recognizable actions. 
Written by
Sigrid Leilund
Content Specialist

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