Onboarding remote employees — whether they're working from another country or a home in the suburbs — is about more than shifting face-to-face meetings to videoconferences.
To be sure, virtual onboarding is as important as a new hire process that's in person, and the end result may be the same.
"Onboarding effectively builds loyalty and sets up a new hire for success," said Rose Hollister, a consultant with Genesis Advisers, a global leadership development firm. "What is essential, whether virtual or in person, is that the leader gives sufficient time to identify what is needed to successfully onboard the new hire."
But remote onboarding comes with different challenges. It's easy for remote hires to not feel they're part of the team or the organization, human resource experts and accounting firm leaders said.
Here's how they handle these challenges.
Bolster team spirit
Dustin Verity, CPA, CGMA, managing partner at Honolulu-based Verity CPAs, has hired several accountants based in the Philippines. He travels there at least once a year to meet with them in person and ensure they're treated as and feel like full firm employees, not just remote contractors.
"It's really important that they feel like they're part of the team, and it's really important that folks treat them as part of the team," he said.
Other than some differences with pay and benefits administration because they're in a different country, Verity's off-shore accountants go through the same onboarding process as the firm's Hawaii-based staff. That includes taking the same basic audit training as everyone else in the firm, going through the same quality control training, and learning the same office cellphone etiquette.
Getting employees in the Philippines a new computer can take two to three months, however, so Verity will often start that process even before they've interviewed job candidates there. If a computer arrives before a new hire starts, the firm's contracting company in the Philippines, which handles local taxes and employment matters, can store it until the new person starts.
Offer peer support
Changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic prompted some large accounting firms, such as Grant Thornton and EY, to onboard all new hires virtually regardless of whether they work from home, at the office, at a client site, or at all three.
To immerse new hires in firm culture, Grant Thornton continues to teach its six core values during its formal 90-day onboarding process, said Rashada Whitehead, Grant Thornton's national managing director of culture, immersion, and inclusion. New hires also take self-assessments, figure out their own behavioral styles, and learn how those styles contribute to firm success.
But they are also able to interact with each other online during onboarding — through Microsoft Teams chats, video calls, and small group breakouts. Managers hold weekly videoconference "office hours" with new employees to answer questions and clarify matters covered during onboarding.
Grant Thornton also conducts "pulse checks" via online surveys with new employees as part of the 90-day onboarding period. The checks inquire, for example, whether remote hires feel like they belong, can work well with their teams, and have met with their coaches, the more senior employees who mentor and guide new employees. Scheduled check-ins with coaches are another way the company monitors how onboarding is going.
Grant Thornton plans to retain most of its virtual onboarding process, Whitehead said, though it is planning to add some local in-person activities to help new hires connect with their local offices.
At EY, the first-year onboarding process includes a three-day virtual orientation that encompasses the use of breakout rooms and online chats to help new team members participate, said Michele Nelson, EY Americas director of onboarding and transitions. Frequent breaks from screen time are scheduled to reduce "virtual fatigue."
"Onboarding is a new joiner's first opportunity to experience a company's culture, build connections, and learn about the various resources available to them," Nelson said. "We onboard new joiners through virtual cohorts that help them establish key contacts right from the beginning that continue to meet throughout the first year."
Individual cohorts can range from a few dozen to a few hundred, depending on hiring numbers. New employees fresh from college typically are in service-line-specific cohorts together. Cohorts of more experienced employees, by contrast, mix individuals from different service lines, different locations, and different ranks.
Officially, the process is 100% virtual, but informally new employees sometimes arrange in-person coffees, lunches, and office tours with key contacts, she said.
Also, Grant Thornton and EY both assign new hires a "buddy" to welcome them and support them during onboarding. That buddy, Nelson and Whitehead said, is usually someone who has a similar role, is based in the same office location, or is in the same business unit as the new hire.
Avoid onboarding pitfalls
Hollister said a common shortcoming in onboarding is that leaders and managers spend too little time connecting with new hires — a process that might happen more organically in a traditional in-person office environment.
"Schedule frequent check-ins to support the new hire, answer questions, and give additional advice," she advised.
Another common problem with onboarding programs is providing new hires a list of people to "meet and greet" without giving them context about who that person is and how the new hire might work with them.
"Expecting someone to 'sink or swim' and onboard themselves is not fair and not wise," Hollister said. Telling new hires why they should meet someone in the company and how that person's role interacts with their job helps new employees learn their jobs.
Businesses have been onboarding new employees for decades, but doing it remotely is still new for most organizations. Verity, Whitehead, and Nelson said their firms continue to seek feedback from employees and find ways to improve virtual onboarding.
— Mark Tosczak is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.