Blog»

Remote Employee Onboarding Checklist: Building Structure and Flexibility for an Async Team

Kristen Craft | January 3, 2019

This guest post comes to us from Julia Melymbrose. Julia is the Head of People Operations at the content marketing agency Animalz. She’s fascinated by the development of work culture and the way remote teams are revolutionizing how we connect and collaborate. She loves digging into all things people and understanding what drives fulfillment and happiness (at work and beyond). You can connect with her on LinkedIn here and on Twitter @juliamelymbrose.

Checklists are a tool of underrated potential. Most of us use checklists to keep our daily priorities top of mind (and, let’s admit it, for the feeling of accomplishment that comes with crossing things off). But with some strategic planning and careful crafting, checklists can help break down complex operations, such as caring for patients in critical conditions and flying planes, into traceable, repeatable, and manageable steps.

For the checklists used in ICUs and piloting, controlling the order of tasks is of vital importance. It’s not just about getting all the tasks done, it’s also about doing them in the order that guarantees success.

After experimenting with employee onboarding checklists for our growing team at Animalz, the remote content marketing agency where I lead People Operations, I’ve come to realize that for remote employee onboarding checklists, the key lies in providing both structure and flexibility.

Structure doesn’t mean making everyone on your team work in the exact same way and in the exact same order; that’s impossible. Structure, rather, means that everyone on your team operates from a basis of common principles and knowledge for seamless collaboration. Similarly, flexibility doesn’t mean that any of the onboarding tasks on the checklist are optional; your company needs a good, systematic, and well-thought-out onboarding process in order to succeed with new hires. Flexibility means that your checklist is built for asynchronous collaboration and self-guided completion.

Remote employee onboarding checklists, in other words, aren’t a way to micro-manage new hires into dependency but a tool that lets them gain autonomy and build productive remote work habits from day one.

Let’s take a look at the main elements for building both structure and flexibility through your remote employee onboarding and unpack each with specific examples you can adapt to your onboarding checklist.

Using Your Onboarding Checklist to Structure Common Company Knowledge

Without clearly defined and agreed upon processes, no team can be productive, whether co-located or remote. It’s like trying to have a conversation in different languages. All languages are suitable for conversation, but productive conversations can only occur when everyone uses the same language.

Similarly, you want your new team members to learn the “language” of your team—the tools and processes you use to collaborate and perform work day in and day out. Once new team members know those, they’ll be able to contribute to the overall team “conversation” by expressing their individual skills in a way that adds value to the rest of your team.

To this end, your remote employee onboarding checklist should accomplish three things:

  • ensure full sign-up with the tools and accounts you use
  • introduce best practices for collaboration, socialization, and productivity within those tools
  • check that all parts of onboarding have been planned and organized

Let’s take a look at what each of these implies and what it may look like in greater detail.

Ensure that new hires have signed up for all tools and accounts

When our team at Animalz numbered just a handful of people, and our processes were fairly rudimentary, we used to send new hires account invitations to all our tools followed by a note in our welcome email saying, “please sign up for all of your accounts, using the invitations we’ve sent you.”

As our team grows, however, so do the number of the tools and processes we use and the errors we encountered during onboarding. Someone would inevitably skip a step somewhere, or an invitation wouldn’t go out correctly, and two weeks into onboarding I’d realize a new team member didn’t have access to a crucial tool or communication line.

That kind of oversight isn’t just bad for collaboration, it’s also bad for the new hire’s employee experience. No one likes to feel like they’ve failed or missed something in their first days at a new job—even if the error wasn’t theirs. On the flip side, reaffirming to new hires they’re doing everything they’re supposed to be doing – and doing it correctly – can boost new their confidence, engagement, and productivity with the team.

A detailed onboarding checklist that sets out all tools and accounts into separate tasks can help prevent these errors and avoid early failures. For more complicated accounts and processes, you can even include subtasks to make everything as clear as possible.

Here’s a sample of what this aspect of your onboarding checklist may look like:

  • Signed up to G-suite
  • Signed up to Slack and added a photo or other avatar to the account
  • Signed up to Tettra
  • Singed up to 1password
  • Signed up to Lattice, completed your employee profile, and uploaded a photo of yourself

Once you have all the sign-up steps laid out in this way, it’s easy to check in with new team members and sync up on setup using their checklist. And new remote hires can work independently on all their account setup without having to wait for you to tell them what to do and without wondering whether they’ve done everything or not.

Introduce best practices for each tool

In addition to clarifying all the sign-up steps, you can also leverage your onboarding checklist to introduce best practices for each tool to help new hires start understanding your team’s protocols for:

  • collaboration
  • socialization
  • productivity

Adding best practices to your onboarding checklist adds context to how you use each account and helps new hires acclimate faster.

Here’s what our onboarding checklist from above looks like after adding best practices to the mix:

  • Signed up to G-suite
    • Opened up your G-calendar to replied YES to this week’s meetings
    • Tip: always keep G-cal open in a tab so you get reminders for customer and team meetings
  • Signed up to Slack
    • Added a photo or avatar to your slack account
    • Created a bitmoji
    • Said hi to the team with your bitmoji in #general
  • Signed up to Tettra
    • Searched for at least one term (try “onboarding”) to access some of our resources
  • Signed up to 1password
    • Saved your account key in a safe place. Note that only you have this key and will need it if you ever get locked out of your account.
    • Installed the 1password extension on your browser
  • Signed up to Lattice
    • Complete your employee profile
    • Uploaded a photo of yourself

Let’s look at the three areas where we’ve added best-practice tips above to explain how they help onboard new hires to aspects of team collaboration, communication, and productivity,

Collaboration: The G-Suite tips focus on team collaboration best practices. Marking attendance on calendar invitations and keeping the G-calendar open for reminders is not just a courtesy but a crucial aspect of collaborating remotely. Using the G-calendar in this way ensures that everyone on the team is on the same page regarding meetings without having to send clarifying messages or reminders back and forth.

Communication: The notes for Slack address communication and general team culture. Our team likes using bitmojis to add color to everyday conversations, and it’s important to let new hires know how they can get in on the action from day one. It may seem like a silly thing at first, but facilitating social connections and ensuring that new hires don’t feel left out is essential for their acclimation to the team. Ever more so for remote teams, where opportunities for socialization don’t arise as naturally as they do in a co-located office.

Productivity: Finally, the 1password tip addresses productivity. Installing the browser extension for this app and making sure they save their account key somewhere safe aren’t pet peeves or micromanagement tasks. They ensure that new hires can access all team properties and work productively and independently at all times. Wasting time on finding credentials for accounts and waiting for an administrator (who may live in a different time zone) to reset their account is not only unproductive but also frustrating.

Introducing best practices for each tool on your onboarding checklist is far more effective than having new hires read a general “Best Practices” document. Theoretical advice given in bulk and out of context is quickly forgotten. Practical tasks introduced in the right context during onboarding make things stick and help build a good structure.

Check the status of all onboarding tasks and components

Signing up for accounts is just one part of onboarding. As the onboarding manager, you need to make sure that other self-directed components of onboarding and steps involving other stakeholders are completed successfully.

Using the onboarding checklist to this end will save you from the trouble and headache of constantly following up with various (busy) team members and playing intermediary to onboarding planning and communications.

In addition to the tools section and set-up sections, your onboarding checklist can also itemize each component of your onboarding program, like the sample excerpt below.

Meetings:

  • Received invitation to weekly check-in with your team manager (@-name)
  • Received invitation to monthly all-hands
  • Received invitation from your editor (@-name) to discuss your first assignment
  • Received invitation to bi-weekly watercooler chat
  • Received 4 invitations to orientation meetings with
    • Values with @-name
    • Career Growth with @-name
    • Quality with @-name
    • Customer Operations with @-name

Resources & Guidance:

  • Met your onboarding buddy (@-name) and set up regular check-ins
  • Bookmarked the Onboarding Handbook for easy reference
    • Read the Benefits Guide
    • Read the Time-off Guide
    • Read the Communication Guide

Including all components of the onboarding program on your checklist serves a double purpose: it lets new team members know what to expect and functions as a reminder for other team members you tag on the list (in the “@-name” references) to do their part.

With this part of the list in place, you can easily check whether all aspects of onboarding are being completed. And if anything’s missing, you have the structure and context in place for sending follow-up notifications to the appropriate stakeholders.

Using Your Onboarding Checklist to Introduce Flexibility for Async Collaboration

Remote work by nature requires a lot more flexibility than working with a team in the same office. That’s not to say that in remote work deadlines are loose and processes undefined. In fact, remote work demands clearer deadlines, better processes, and greater responsibility than co-located work. When you have team members working in different time zones and on different schedules, you need good processes, so that work can stretch over space and time without hiccups or delays.

To achieve this flexibility, your remote employee onboarding checklist should:

  • promote independent work and responsibility
  • open conversations
  • build asynchronous collaboration habits

Let’s look at how you can accomplish each of these objectives in further detail below.

Promote independent work and responsibility

Most of your remote employee onboarding checklist won’t get completed on day one. Not just because the list will be long, but also because that’s not its purpose. New team members should do more (and more exciting things) on their first day than sign up for a million accounts and read a stack of resource documents that they’re likely to forget.

Rather than turning it into a laundry list of day-one tasks, you can use your onboarding checklist to promote independent work and responsibility in new hires. To achieve this we’ve separated out a short day-one section on our onboarding checklist (which includes signing up to Gmail and slack—our virtual office), and added an introduction section, clarifying expectations. Here’s an excerpt:

“Use this checklist during your first week to get set up with accounts, policies, and processes at Animalz. Once you completed the day-one section, there’s no specific order or timeline you should follow for the rest of the list. Some people like to work from top to bottom in the first couple of days, while others prefer to dip into tasks throughout the week based on the tools, processes, and policies they encounter in the rest of onboarding.

I’ll be checking in with you throughout the week and on Friday to review progress and answer any questions you may have. As long as you work your way through the list by the end of Friday, you’ll be all set up for week two and beyond!”

By trusting team members to figure out what best works for them from day one, we set the tone of the long-term work we’ll be doing together. Trying to micromanage everyone into the same onboarding schedule would be impossible, and the time zone issue alone makes onboarding schedules very different from person to person—even when they’re going through onboarding together.

When you set clear expectations and deadlines (“complete the list by Friday) and let team members find their own flow to achieve those goals, you promote the two main elements to function remotely as a team: working independently and responsibly.

Open up conversations

We don’t often think of checklists as conversation starters, but in this case, you should. A checklist isn’t just a tool for ensuring that things get done, but also a way to introduce your team’s culture to new hires.

In the introduction to the checklist I’ve shared above, I let people know I’ll be checking in to answer their questions. And on the first day when I walk them through the onboarding checklist, I show them how to add questions by tagging me in comments on relevant sections. And people do ask questions on various different things:

  • what watercoolers are and how they work
  • how our all-hands work, or what is an all-hands
  • problems with sign-ups or missing invitations
  • how our team is structured and what each role is
  • how they can ask for time off

While we try to give resources answering the most frequently asked questions in the onboarding checklist (in the Resources & Guidance section of the list we shared above), it’s impossible to give answers to all possible questions beforehand. A lot of the specific questions that come up depend on each person’s previous experience.

Instead of worrying about answering everything for every person throughout the checklist, use your checklist as a conversation starter. You can then use these questions as jumping-off points to dive deeper into your team’s processes and culture, based on the concerns and interests each person has. Take them as opportunities to introduce new hires to other people on the team who can best answer their questions.

Promote asyncronous work habits

The most important principle for all remote work is asyncronous collaboration. You can’t have a team work together over space and time if you don’t build process and create habits that promote and support async collaboration. And your onboarding checklist is the perfect place to start this training.

Without a strict order or timeline for completing tasks and with conversations around tasks and processes that can stretch out over the entire first week, new hires start to get a good feel for the async flow of communications on the team.

No one will be sitting in the desk next to them during all work hours to answer their questions immediately or check their work or tell them what to do next. And that’s fine because more often than not, there are a lot of other things people can be doing, reading, or brushing up on while waiting. It’s important for team members to learn how to build both autonomy and flexibility into their schedules so they can be happy and productive in their workday.

The remote employee onboarding checklist offers a low-pressure context for new hires to grapple with async principles without the stress that their first work assignment can bring. Once they learn to work this way through the onboarding checklist, it’s easy to transfer these principles to the rest of their work too.

Building Your Remote Employee Onboarding Checklist

No two remote employee onboarding checklists will look the same. Because no two companies or cultures are exactly the same. But all good remote employee onboarding checklists are built strategically to promote both structure and flexibility.

Rather than looking at your checklist as a conglomeration of tasks that need to get done, start thinking of it as a lever to help teach new hires the most important principles for succeeding on your team. When new hires start learning the structure of your process and begin exercising flexibility from day one, they’ll be on a fast-track to success and productivity with your team.