How to Make Your Onboarding Interactive for Remote Teams

Employee Experience

These are challenging times. In the wake of a global pandemic, 29% of workers in the United States are now remote. As remote work and distributed teams become the reality for millions into the foreseeable future, what can HR and People Operations leaders do to foster a sense of inclusion and belonging and improve their onboarding to create an engaging employee experience?

We spoke with Ashley Priebe Brown, Senior Onboarding Specialist at Zapier to discuss the challenges of managing remote and distributed teams and how to set up new hires for success with interactive onboarding. Zapier currently employs over 300 team members across the globe and has been able to create a consistent employee experience for all of their employees while increasing each new hire’s sense of inclusion and belonging at their growing organization.

Q&A with Ashley Priebe Brown, Senior Onboarding Specialist at Zapier

Can you describe some of the challenges you’ve faced when it comes to building a successful onboarding program?

Ashley: There are a lot of challenges when it comes to building a successful onboarding program, whether you are dealing with remote workers or not. For Zapier, our onboarding is entirely remote, with new hires starting in cohorts. Onboarding is a mix of asynchronous Sapling tasks and live sessions delivered via Zoom. Here is what I’ve found most helpful when it comes to helping our team members feel supported from day one:

1. Make your onboarding interactive: We like to break up our onboarding into chunks of different activities. For example, some onboarding activities require drawing or writing down answers; others involve reading. We really think through when it makes more sense to do interactive and hands-on activities, as well as when is the right time to hit a new hire with the right information. 

2. Rethink the volume and how much you need to communicate: Some onboarding workflows can involve over 100 steps. That can be overwhelming to a new hire, and so when you are building out your onboarding program, delivering small bits of digestible information over a longer period of time can go a long way.  

3. Consider different time zones: When you’re onboarding multiple people at the same time, consider scheduling your onboarding sessions at a time that is convenient for everyone. You want everyone to feel encouraged and like they are a part of the team. We have people working everywhere from Maine to Vietnam and we want everyone to feel included. In order to do that, when we are onboarding we encourage people to participate in Slack and asynchronous communication.

What are some tools, strategies, resources, or techniques you’ve found helpful in building the best employee experience in regards to onboarding?

Ashley: We have 4 pillars guiding our onboarding program at Zapier: (1) connect to community and culture, (2) highlight new hires’ strengths to improve the company, (3) learn through active practice, and (4) gain company-wide context. It’s our mission to have all our onboarding support these wider company goals.

So what does that look like? We don’t just assign onboarding materials as reading, we use live sessions such as Zoom calls and talk interpersonally to give new hires face time and opportunities to interact. We also use Lessonly to build self-paced lessons for each new hire. Additionally, we use Sapling as our onboarding platform and this helps us automatically deliver content and assign Zapier employees through a buddy program so they bond with a coworker who can answer private questions in a forum that isn’t public like Slack. 

What are the differences you’ve seen between building out successful onboarding programs for onsite versus distributed teams?

Ashley: It’s good to be intentional with any onboarding program, but intentionality is particularly important when building a distributed team. With onsite onboarding, you can take advantage of facetime and you can visually see how your new hires are doing. Whereas in a distributed team, you have to be deliberate in your actions to make space for people to connect to one another and reinforce the culture you’re trying to create in your workplace. When onboarding remote workers, it's helpful to check-in more often with folks to make sure they’re progressing at the right pace.

How have you created a sense of inclusivity and belonging with your onboarding program across your global team? Have you had to address any issues of cultural intelligence, and if so, how?

Ashley: Many studies and research have shown us that belonging is key to job satisfaction. So, for us at Zapier, instilling a sense of belonging and accomplishment are two key ways for us to measure a successful onboarding program. 

One way to create that sense of belonging and inclusivity in your onboarding is to have your new hires start with a crew of other people. If you approach your onboarding that way, make sure you have time for intros, bonding, and breakout sessions because we’ve seen that work really well, and you can do this all using Zoom and Slack. Crews become friends, and when we get together in person, we see people from our crews hanging out together and showing a genuine sense of pride about where they work. 

We also have a dedicated live session about bringing your whole self to work. Similar to belonging and inclusivity, studies have shown that bringing your authentic self to work makes you happier, more engaged, and more productive and we all benefit from that. At Zapier we design our onboarding prompts and questions to draw out stories about people’s strengths and what it means to them to bring their authentic self to our organization.

As far as cultural intelligence, working with people all over the world helps you recognize different mindsets. We have an unconscious bias training that we started recently and people across the board are into it and using it and seem happy about the fact that we are being proactive in helping our team members communicate with each other.

How have you helped your distributed team feel supported and like they are included in your company’s mission and vision?

Ashley: It starts before we hire the person and continues all throughout the hiring process. Our People team are screening aggressively against our five core values, including our vision and mission and that way new hires know how and why they’re getting hired and how they’re connected. 

What is an onboarding best practice that you’ve implemented that has been a gamechanger for you? Can you discuss what interactive onboarding means to you and how you measure a successful onboarding program?

Ashley: The single most important piece of advice and best practice I can advocate for is this: you need to foster a sense of connection and belonging from the beginning of your onboarding. Our live sessions are really important for establishing this. We make time for building connections between our executives and crew members, and these sessions are set up like a class. 

Adult attention spans vary from 18-30 minutes, which is why we piece out the delivery of our onboarding content and give people the opportunity to ask questions and we use Zoom breakout rooms. We also do asynchronous activities like scavenger hunts to encourage as much interactivity as possible in the ways we normally communicate.

Interactive onboarding means that participants are building on foundational knowledge to be successful in their role at the company. So we need a way to be able to measure that. In regards to measurement, we’re using surveys as well as looking at Sapling completion data to find out about how these live calls are going. Our surveys revealed more requests for more interactivity, and so it was important for us to listen and to adapt. Make sure your onboarding program is iterative and takes into consideration the feelings of your team members, and you’ll foster a sense of belonging for your team members long after onboarding is completed. 


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