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The surprising science of successful remote onboarding

Written by Liz Fosslien

People who onboard remotely are at higher risk for isolation, impostor syndrome, and overwhelm. But great onboarding experiences are still possible — and crucial for companies to get right. 

What does the latest research say about making onboarding better? Our CEO Laszlo Bock joined Humu People Scientist Leslie Caputo and Data Scientist Mark Freeman on a recent webinar to find out.

Laszlo Bock (LB): Leslie, can you share a little bit about why onboarding might be especially anxiety-inducing for employees when most or all of their team is remote? 

Leslie Caputo (LC): There are a couple reasons why it’s such a unique challenge. First, the lack of physical transition. Transitions are extremely helpful when it comes to navigating a life change.

Think about all the rituals that happen when kids go back to school: they shop for new clothing, they get new school supplies. The same thing happens when you start a new job and go into a new workspace. Right now, many people are leaving a job on a Friday and showing up at a brand new job on Monday. Yet they’re in the same space and at the same desk, so it’s hard to make that mental leap. 

There’s also the fear of being invisible. People have spent years building a reputation at a company and now they need to start from scratch. It’s anxiety-provoking for people who are new and trying to prove themselves, but no one can actually see the work they’re doing.

And then there’s imposter syndrome: the fear we all experience at some point, that we landed in our roles through luck and we’re not actually worthy of them. It’s particularly salient when a lot of new hires might have been laid off from their previous company. That’s why companies need to help people get up to speed as fast as possible — but also make them feel part of the social fabric of the team.

LB: Mark, you joined Humu a few months ago. What were you excited or worried about before you started? 

Mark Freeman (MF): As one of the many people laid off at the beginning of the pandemic, I was eager to be successful in my new job. Since it was my first time onboarding remotely, I did worry about feeling invisible. I wondered, “How will I connect with people if I can’t meet them for lunch or by chance?”

That fear disappeared after the first day. People at Humu were pinging me on Slack and email, saying “Hey, we’re so excited to have you!” so I felt connected right away. 

LB: What does science say about why these kinds of interventions are effective, versus the traditional classroom-style, one-size-fits-all onboarding? 

LC: There’s a great study that compared two different onboarding styles at a company. For one group, the onboarding process focused on organizational identity, with sessions about company mission and a high-performer explaining what made them successful. After the training, the new hires got fleece jackets with the company’s logo on the arm. 

With the other group, the company focused more on building individual identity for new hires. The new employees had a problem-solving exercise where they discussed what their strengths were and then talked about how they might bring those strengths into their new roles. They also got a fleece jacket, but it had their name on the arm. And then there was a third group, who went through the conventional onboarding process.

The results show that socialization focused on the individual identity leads to greater customer satisfaction and over 33% greater retention during the first six months. They found similar effects on performance, collaboration, and innovation. You can’t underestimate the psychological component.

LB: How can leaders actually know if their onboarding process is working or not? 

LC: It’s crucial that leaders proactively ask questions, since they won’t have the typical visual cues — like seeing a new employee grabbing lunch with colleagues or looking lost and alone at their desk. Ask your people: “Do you have everything you need to be successful?”

Then, use 30-60-90 day plans to check in with new hires. Ask yourself, is this employee connecting the dots to the larger strategy? Are they building relationships with people on other teams? How can I facilitate that? 

MF: My manager often asks me about any pain points I have with working remotely. From day one I knew that she wanted feedback, and that it was okay to ask for help. 

LB: What’s one action teams can take this week to boost creativity and connection? 

LC: Manufacture an opportunity for the team to come together and solve a problem. Then, take the time to actually debrief and talk about the unique strengths that everyone brought to the table. Help people think, “Okay, now I know what skills my teammates have that we can draw on in the future.” 

The goal isn’t really to solve the problem — it’s to have the debrief. It’s so people see each other not just as jobs, but as a unique mix of talents and skills.

MF: I’d encourage employees to reach out and have meetings with someone outside their team. Ask them, “How can my role best support you and your team?” You’ll gain a new perspective on your role, and help drive value in unexpected ways.


Ready to support your new hires (and your entire team) with personalized coaching? Send a note to hello@humu.com.