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Boosting your virtual onboarding

In the early days of the pandemic most organizations (including ours) had to scramble to develop a virtual onboarding program, here's what we've learned since.

Published on

October 13, 2022


We’ve come a long way since those early days of the pandemic when most organizations (including ours) had to scramble to develop a virtual onboarding program to welcome and train new hires at a distance. There were some hiccups along the way, but today, as a remote-first organization with team members nationwide, we hire and onboard everyone remotely through our Academy, a robust, three-week, cohort-based virtual program that starts before the new hire is even in their seat.

At first, we were noticing that new hires found it hard to retain information, had some gaps in their learning and weren’t feeling connected to the company as a whole. Today, through a tightly scheduled mix of instructor-led sessions, videos and independent work, we ensure new team members feel connected and confident in their roles.

Here are our top tips and lessons learned for pre-onboarding, onboarding and post-onboarding.

Pre-onboarding tips

To help new hires feel connected well before they even set foot in the (virtual or real) door, we start our onboarding program right after the offer letter is signed. Here are three tips to up your pre-onboarding program:

  1. Send a welcome package: We send a colourful, engaging online package that highlights our company culture, values and team members. It includes videos from our CEO and team members that help the new hire feel welcome and excited about their choice to join our team.
  2. Call each new hire: In the week before new hires start, our Manager, Onboarding Experience, Alex Douville, calls each one to introduce herself, welcome them to the company, confirm the correct pronunciation of their name and explain what to expect in their onboarding. This one call can make all the difference – It removes some of the unknowns and jitters associated with starting a new job.
  3. Prep the trainers: We share with our trainers a summary of each new hire in the Academy, including name pronunciation, title & team they are joining, as well as a mini bio, so they’re up to speed with all the hires they’re training.

Onboarding tips

For us, week 1 is about inspiring new hires around our company vision, ensuring everyone understands how their role connects to the bigger picture and getting them excited about starting their job. Our most popular sessions in week 1 include:

  1. Virtual coffee date with our CEO, Kathryn Tremblay: This is the highlight of our new team members’ first week with us! During these small, informal chats, Kathryn gets to know each new hire, talks about our vision for the company, and sometimes addresses current issues to get people thinking about the big picture. She also does a follow-up coffee chat four weeks after the onboarding program ends. Tip: This is an easy way to make new hires feel special. If you have a CEO, President or senior executive who is open to getting involved, it makes a huge difference.
  2. Informal, morning coffee chats – These unstructured, morning coffee chats offer time to have casual conversations about our guiding principles, how the company works, our communications channels, etc. They offer a small break from job-related training.
  3. Share the big picture – We schedule meetings with a senior leader who offers a high-level overview of our strategic plan for the year, what we’re out to achieve and any critical issues we’re facing. These meetings help new hires feel inspired and understand how their role connects to the broader vision.

Virtual onboarding tips

Our three-week onboarding Academy has evolved over time. Here’s a snapshot of the feedback we’ve received, and how we’ve addressed it: 

  1. Too much Zoom – We can all identify with Zoom fatigue. We heard from our new hires that they found all the cameras-on sessions tiring. Here’s how we addressed this feedback:
  2. Include more video-based content, rather than all instructor-led sessions.
  3. Build in time for independent learning.
  4. Shorten onboarding days to 9-4 and shorten the schedule to Monday–Thursday, so new hires can connect with their teams on Fridays.
  5. Encourage new hires to go for a walk and listen to some of the content rather than sitting at their desks and watching the videos.
  6. Schedule intentional wellness breaks rather than back-to-back meetings.
  7. Outdated video content – Our new hires respond better to video content that is engaging, effective and current, which can be challenging when developing your own videos in an ever-changing world. Here’s how we keep it fresh: We're exploring an authoring tool called Articulate that allows us to create more engaging self-directed learning pages
  8. Role clarity – We recognized that some people weren't clear about their roles and responsibilities. Here are two new roles we created:
    • Clarify who is the Skills Coach and who is the Connector.
    The Skills Coach shadows the new hire through all tasks and provides in-the-moment feedback to them. Regardless of whether your organization is remote or onsite, having someone dedicated to shadowing a new hire provides meaningful coaching from the start, helping them build good habits from day 1. This person is also someone the new hire can turn to at any time, post-onboarding. Building connections in a remote-first environment is challenging and something we’re still working on.  
    The “Connector” helps new hires build connections company-wide, rather than just in their cohort, making them feel more comfortable and at home. The Connector schedules meet-and-greets, and ensures they’re invited to events and team meet-ups, so everyone has an opportunity to get to know them. This person is also someone the new hire can turn to at any time, post-onboarding. 
  9. Feeling disconnected at the start - In a recent survey, we asked our entire team, “Do you have a close friend at work?” The only people who said ‘no’ were very new hires, so we’ve thought of ways to address this issue (in addition to creating our “Connector” role): We incorporate icebreaker questions and virtual team events into our onboarding schedule.
  10. We organize cohort-based learning to help new hires make connections more easily throughout the company.
  11. We make space for new hires to have conversations in the Academy without a trainer, so they can speak more freely.

Post-onboarding tips

One of the key questions with virtual onboarding is whether the new hires are retaining the information they learned. The post-onboarding phase is key because it enables adult learners to put into practice what they’ve learned, especially since there’s only so much you can absorb at a given time. In the weeks post-onboarding, we build upon the foundation we laid during the Academy and fill in any gaps we notice. Here are a few things we’re doing during and post-onboarding to check in with our new hires.  

  1. Surveying – We send surveys at the end of Week 1 and Week 3 asking for feedback on the learning experience. Doing so gives us a quick pulse on learning gaps, learning styles and overall progression.
  2. Knowledge assessments – We used to do our knowledge assessments as a 1:1 quiz, but who wants to do a quiz on a Friday after a long week? We decided to gamify our Knowledge Assessments by using two interactive, online tools: Kahoot & TriviaMaker. They offer a fun way to get everyone involved while allowing the trainer to pause and recap whenever they see that content wasn’t retained.
  3. Observing behaviours post-training – Leaders & Skills Coaches spend time shadowing our new hires after the Academy to observe their behaviours and ensure they are building good habits. As a remote-first company, we have to be intentional about job shadowing because we can’t pop by someone’s desk to check in on them like we used to.
  4. Simulation Day – A few months post-Academy, we run a full-day session where we simulate a real recruitment process. We have colleagues acting out the roles of clients and candidates, and we throw obstacles at the new hire throughout the process. Everyone loves participating in this day and walks away with much more confidence because they quickly realize how much they actually know.

If you have any questions about virtual onboarding, please give us a shout:

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