A company’s onboarding program is an employee’s first impression and sets the tone for upcoming experiences. While a well-designed onboarding program can motivate and enable an employee to quickly contribute to the team, without intentional planning, poorly-designed programs can lead to increased turnover and reduced productivity.
For distributed teams, the stakes are higher. Onboarding is key to ensuring new employees feel connected to the company and supported by their colleagues in a remote work environment.
Amanda Qualls is the former Director of Human Resources and Head of Operations at Ballotpedia, a remote team of 75 committed to preserving and expanding knowledge about local, state, and federal politics and policies.
Ballotpedia has undergone significant changes and growth since its founding in 2006. By 2011, the organization was looking to scale but needed to develop a strategy to help new employees reach their full potential. It was clear that the absence of a formal onboarding program was not working for Ballotpedia’s remote work environment.
After working as an intern and assistant staff writer, Amanda joined the People Operations team in 2013 as the Director of Training, where she built out Ballotpedia’s onboarding program.
The main goal was to anticipate potential obstacles and barriers new employees could face and proactively remove them. Good onboarding programs recognize the employer’s responsibility to address these barriers to improve an employee’s ability to be more functional and contribute quickly.
The first step for building the virtual onboarding program involved collecting all the existing documentation and converting it into cohesive and digestible content. Managers were directly involved in building out the onboarding program from an early stage, contributing their observations and challenges.
The skeleton for the weeklong onboarding program was designed to provide foundational information as well as an introduction to editing. Although Amanda had buy-in from the whole team, for many companies, a weeklong onboarding program can be a hard sell. In Ballotpedia’s case, the team understood the impact of a strong onboarding program and the potential harm of failing to commit to one.
The onboarding program has intentionally built-in breaks to avoid Zoom fatigue. These breaks give the new employees time and space to digest the influx of information that occurs in the first few days of a new job.
Ballotpedia’s onboarding program consists of standard company-wide calls and team-specific calls. The company-wide calls provide a foundation so that all employees are on the same page, covering topics such as industry-specific jargon.
Individual teams, such as the editorial team, also have specific training calls. Hiring managers are given the flexibility to pick and choose team-specific training based on the specific role. For specialty topics, the onboarding program places more emphasis on specific 1:1 training with team members.
In the first six months, Amanda tweaked elements of the program to incorporate feedback and solidify the program’s ability to address the company’s needs.
Changes to the program occurred continuously, reflecting Ballotpedia’s nimble culture which focuses on frequently implementing feedback. Any changes made to the onboarding program stood to reflect changes in the organization.
For example, when the team migrated project tracking to Asana, the trainings were also updated to reflect the more complex way work was assigned and reviewed using the new tool.
Companies looking to build out virtual onboarding programs must be thoughtful and intentional about how company culture is conveyed and fostered.
In remote environments, company culture may not naturally translate through interactions. As a result, it is important to anticipate how teams will interact and inform new hires of company norms, such as Slack usage and etiquette.
Developing an effective onboarding program for fully distributed teams takes some time and effort, but can make a lasting difference in an employee's experience.