Remote Onboarding: THE GOOD, The Bad and The Ugly

It is your first day of work at a new employer. You are both nervous and excited about this next chapter in your professional career. You look forward to meeting your new colleagues, getting to know your manager, and learning more about the company and your place within it. However, you are also well aware of the many less-than-fun onboarding activities you must complete in the first few days, weeks, and even months of your new job. From trying to have IT set you up in the system to completing all of the legally required forms and trainings, there are many opportunities for an onboarding experience to go from “meh” to an outright nightmare under “normal” circumstances. Add a global pandemic that makes the entire onboarding experience transition to a fully remote approach, the technical and legal components are made even more difficult. Not to forget that many of the “fun” parts of onboarding, such as tours of the office, lunches with coworkers, and informal opportunities to meet others not located within your team or department, are made impossible.

Onboarding covers a wide variety of tasks and trainings, as well as coordination between different HR functions (benefits, payroll, talent development, the list goes on…) and other departments (most notably IT), so there is NO WAY to cover all of the intricacies in a single blog post (I believe a glance at the high-level process map below will make this clear). With this in mind, I hope to share some of the good associated with remote onboarding based on my personal experience of starting an internship in May of 2020 and working on remote onboarding-related projects and initiatives.

Many of you at this point are probably thinking – what could POSSIBLY be “The Good” of remote onboarding. Well, as our resident HR lady, I am going to tell you!

My company, Clean Harbors, was making a big push towards remotely training new hires even before the pandemic started, specifically through the use of eLearning (i.e., online videos, quizes). Many of you are likely thinking, “but most of these videos are so boring and disengage new hires!” I agree; if done poorly, they do just that (and sometimes they do that even if done well). However, eLearning’s benefits far outweigh its cons for a company of 15,000 employees who operate across the US (and Canada) in a highly regulated industry. Not including position-specific OSHA (30 hrs) or Hazwoper (40 hrs) trainings, the company has approximately 30-40 hours of training that every employee must complete. These range from trainings all employees must complete like sexual harassment (Title IX) and how to submit PTO; to position-specific government required information, such as chemical waste packaging requirements for Chemists and Dept of Transportation load requirements for truck drivers. Since government compliance is a necessity, eLearning enables an auditable, efficient, standardized, and cost-effective way to provide the required trainings on a mass scale.

Now many of you are probably thinking, “well, yes, this makes sense for highly regulated industries, but is not a good method for most other companies.” I agree and disagree with you there – I think many large firms can benefit from having general all company orientations and trainings conducted via eLearning. For example, I could not remember the order of a particular process a month after starting my internship. The online training index made it simple to find the appropriate video and see the parts I needed a refresher on. Another benefit of generalized trainings for an entire firm is that it presents a unified vision, mission, and purpose of the company, which is especially important for new hires to understand.

 Another positive of the pandemic and the shift to remote onboarding is that it has pushed many firms, including Clean Harbors, to adopt a paperless approach for documents not required by law to be signed and saved using real ink. Using platforms like DocuSign and I-9 express (when virtual ID verification was allowed for employment authorization forms) or developing internal systems for submitting new hire information has drastically decreased the amount of physical paperwork previously required. For example, Clean Harbors has several optional benefits offerings (pet insurance, gym rebates, grocery promotional memberships, etc.). Every employee used to complete and sign a paper form that would then be scanned and emailed to the benefits department. The IT department developed an internal form that new hires now complete and check a box to e-sign the form. Once submitted, the form automatically sends emails to the appropriate benefit program coordinator based on a new hire’s selections. It makes one wonder why it took a pandemic to implement such a simple solution…

Think of all the employment forms you complete from the time you receive a job offer through your first 3 months of work…

Lastly, remote onboarding enables a culture that promotes connecting with employees not located in the same office/region for training and networking. Before the pandemic, it was not uncommon to receive training from someone based on their proximity to the new hire rather than them being the best person for that new hire to learn from. For example, one of the projects I worked on required me to learn about the company’s reporting of employee survey data. Instead of learning about the reports from my manager, who distributed and did not create the reports, I was connected with an HR colleague in the Midwest to learn about the current reporting process. That was not a cultural norm for the company before the pandemic, but has become a training norm today. Additionally, the SVP of HR hosts a daily trivia via WebEx created specifically to resolve the lack of “water-cooler” type interactions. Regular remote events such as this enabled me as a new employee to develop social ties with employees from California all the way to India  (where there is a Sales, IT, and HR team).

As you can tell, I really focused on the GOOD in this post. However, if you are interested in hearing about the BAD and the UGLY from this HR lady’s experience in a future blog post – let me know! I have plenty of remote onboarding horror stories to share.

9 comments

  1. conoreiremba · ·

    Great post Lisa, and this resonated with me quite a bit. I can’t tell you how much I was dreading my remote-onboarding experience for my internship, right from the moment I got sent my laptop in the mail a few weeks before with a big sticker saying “Do not turn on until day 1”.
    But just like with Clean Harbors, my company made the whole process super easy and very engaging. They gave us access to an online “new hire lounge” that had a tonne of intro videos and other eLearning content related to not only general company goals and policies but also to our own individual roles, which were actually pretty entertaining and definitely made it easier to hit the ground running in the first couple of weeks, so I agree with you on the benefits of eLearning. They also set up a Slack channel for all of the new hires and we were able to connect with other employees in similar roles across the country as well as ask HR questions directly all in a very informal setting. Big fan of the push to paperless also, and it’s definitely an aspect of the onboarding process that benefitted from the effects of the pandemic.
    I’m all for hearing about the horror stories in a follow-up post, because I must admit I still managed to fall victim to an IT glitch on my first day.

  2. I think the eLearning videos and tutorials work well for standardized onboarding activities but I don’t think they work as well for more job specific trainings. When learning things that are specific to my job, I would rather work with a manager or person on my team who has experience doing it. They may be able to show me the way they want something to be done or options for doing a process faster or more efficient. The only benefit that I could see of having that be online is that I could go back and view that multiple times if I need to reference it.

  3. Very relevant post! I have had a bad onboarding experience in non Covid times, it takes a lot of skill to be able to successfully onboard someone in the current environment. I like the flowchart that you created. In my opinion, pandemic or not, it really comes down to how much the company cares about the employees being onboarded. If they care they will ensure that the process goes smoothly, if the employee is just another body to them they will not go out of their way to make it a smooth process. It sounds like you department goes the extra mile which is encouraging to see.

  4. sayoyamusa · ·

    Awesome post, Lisa! Remote onboarding is the hot issue all companies should think seriously.
    I was the one who complained about the boring, helpless e-learning of my company but totally agree with all the benefits you stated. After reading your blog, I’m convinced that my company should improve the programs to be more exciting, well-organized ones. Especially I like your point that online onboarding enables more diverse connections around the world. You definitely have a growth-mindset, regarding this situation as an opportunity, not a limitation. Now, my question is how would you gain buy-in from more fixed-mindset employees? The larger or/and the more traditional the organization is, the more challenging this would be. Thanks to you, I’m now thinking about making a suggestion on e-learning to my company (which is large and in the traditional industry,) so want to hear more thoughts from a HR expert like you!
    And YES! I’d love to hear “horror” stories as well! I’m also curious about what your company specifically do to make up for water-cooler chats which encourage idea-generation.

  5. williammooremba · ·

    I was not sure if it was the different companies, but I noticed a big physical paperwork difference of remotely onboarding for my internship last summer versus onboarding in person at my pre-MBA job. I remember a lot of printing scanning and in person paperwork when I onboarded in person a couple of years ago. In contrast I do not think I wrote out a physical document for my internship and only had to do a picture of ID information. One other big difference I noticed between the two onboarding experiences was immediate feedback. When I was in person onboarding, I would be able to get unstuck quickly by either going to a manager, trainer or simply talk to a coworker next to me. Also, if for instance I was getting visibly frustrated it would not be unreasonable to have a colleague try and help. This contrasts with remote onboarding where I would message individuals and then could be delayed on getting a response. It likely did not help I was on a couple hour time zone difference from the rest of the team. This really impacted how quickly I felt “part” of a company and even after having fully completed my internship, I still feel fairly detached from the experience. Also, I would certainly be interested in hearing more about your remote onboarding stories.

  6. lourdessanfeliu · ·

    I really like your post and how relevant it is to the world today. The flow chart you added to your post is great and I can relate to it and the processes the new hires in my department are going through. Remote onboarding is definitely challenging, training a new hire remotely is more challenging (in my experience). While I personally hate it, I must agree that elearning is the way to go with the more generic trainings that need to be trained for compliance purposes and usually need to be retrained every year.

    I would love to hear some of the negative experiences you have encountered while onboarding remotely!

  7. changliu0601 · ·

    Great post!!!I think the biggest challenge of a remote onboarding is how to make the new employee feel the company’s culture.I have watched a lot of videos about the company’s culture, especially boring.From my personal perspective, remote onboarding is even less effective at bringing employees closer.Some people have difficulties to express themselves well online

  8. marissaspletter · ·

    Great post Lisa, the graphics fit very well!

  9. AndraeAllen · ·

    Hey Lisa
    Thanks for sharing your insider knowledge of Remote Onboarding and yes I am interested in the horror stories. Currently I work in an I.T. Setting a would be curious to learn how the whole remote onboarding procedure could be streamlined even more. I can’t think of one instance where going paperless has not had a positive effect on the surrounding processes. Has going digital enabled Clean Harbors to be more efficient at managing employee data? Or has this caused more headaches in other areas such as cyber security?

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