The initial days and weeks at a new job are critical for new hires to get acquainted with your company culture, meet the people they'll be working with regularly, and start to get a sense of their day-to-day responsibilities.

Typically, this is all happening in an office environment where people can engage and interact directly. But the rapid shift to fully remote work in response to the coronavirus pandemic means that—for companies that are still actively hiring—employee onboarding now has to happen virtually as well.

How do you extend a warm welcome to new hires when you can’t rely on go-to first-day activities like office tours, team introductions, and a group lunch?

If your workforce already includes remote employees, it might be fairly easy to build on your existing onboarding process. But for organizations that have never had distributed teams, welcoming new hires virtually might not feel like a smooth transition to make.

We spoke with Adam Starr, a tech recruiter at our partner Medidata Solutions, to find out what an effective virtual onboarding strategy looks like in practice. Starr has over 12 years of experience working remotely and is passionate about giving remote employees at Medidata a voice. He shared key insights around how to facilitate interpersonal connections from a distance, why it’s not enough to just replicate in-person onboarding activities, and more.


A significant portion of Medidata’s workforce has always been remote. How has that helped your team adapt quickly to our current situation?

Since I joined Medidata as a remote employee over six years ago, I and several others have been working to evolve the conversation around remote working from one of business necessity to strategic differentiator. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, we were hiring and onboarding remote employees on a very regular basis, so we had all the infrastructure in place to adapt—we just needed to scale it.

Multiple teams and a newly formed task force are supporting both new hires and existing employees transiting to remote work. We also have a monthly New Hire Orientation that is typically hosted in our New York headquarters. We’ve converted that to a virtual orientation and the feedback has been great. This format has even allowed for more senior leaders to interact with our new hires.

The core cultural support of our remote employees comes via our Remotians Business Resource Group (Remote + Medidatians = Remotians). This group is composed of passionate employees from both the U.S. and U.K. who do everything from welcoming new hires during their first week to now leading weekly video calls across multiple time zones to provide a space where all employees can drop in to discuss almost anything.


What advice would you give to someone who is virtually onboarding new employees for the first time ever?

Onboarding all employees virtually means accounting for a wide range of living situations. Trying to work with partners or children at home is just the beginning. Even experienced remote employees are seeing their work environments upended. Those creating processes and policies should be patient, inclusive, and open-minded. Unique situations will pop up and you’ll need to get a variety of perspectives before providing a recommendation or policy. This also extends to all employees at a company. Everyone will need to be more patient and forgiving. Senior leaders must set this tone and ensure direct managers are also serving as an example.


Onboarding new hires in person typically involves giving an office tour on the first day, having a team lunch, and scheduling introductory meetings in the first couple of weeks. What kind of welcome activities do you plan for remote new hires?

Virtual onboarding can and should go beyond replicating the physical format. For example, an in-person team lunch with more than four or five people can easily settle into side conversations with just the person sitting next to you. Group video calls allow for everyone to be a part of every conversation. We also have a Welcome Team and a separate weekly onboarding session just for remote employees where they get a snapshot of what remote culture is like at Medidata. This allows them to widen their internal networks beyond just our People Team and their immediate team. During this new normal, we’re expanding this initiative to all new employees.

When a new employee can make just a few high-quality connections, it sets the tone and provides them with the confidence to create new connections for themselves. That foundation allows for a more sustainable and organic approach to building relationships, which also tends to create a virtuous cycle that empowers other employees to do the same.


What do your managers and team leaders do to help set expectations and help new hires understand what their role will be within the larger team?

At Medidata, this really begins with the talent acquisition team. From the very first interaction with a candidate, we draw on our understanding of the business, the needs of the hiring manager, the dynamics of their teams, and our strong culture to paint a full picture for the candidate. In addition, our people team has produced some great content for both managers and individual contributors. What I particularly like is that everyone has access to the manager material, so individuals can help keep their managers accountable to the items that should be covered and the progress that should be made.

Our approach to performance management consists of three check-ins over the course of the year. The first is to set role-based and personal development goals. Achievement of those goals is then discussed during regular 1:1s, culminating in the second check-in where managers also work with the employee to map out the rest of their year. The 1:1s are very important because the check-ins can’t really exist in a vacuum. Regular contact between the manager and the employee is critical, especially at a company like Medidata where priorities can change very quickly.


Do you find that remote employees are more hesitant to reach out to people that they haven’t met in person before? If so, how do you help facilitate those first interactions?

Many of us are hesitant to reach out to those we don’t know; it’s not unique to remote employees. In fact, remote employees have a bit of an advantage because they’re not expected to walk over to someone’s desk. They can simply send an instant message or pick up the phone to introduce themselves. In this situation, I think a bit of anonymity helps and provides permission to take that first step.

I also like to facilitate introductions via email and encourage everyone to add actual pictures of themselves to the profiles of the different applications we use. That way, when you do get to the office or company event, there’s a greater chance of being recognized or recognizing someone else. For a remote employee, that look of recognition on someone’s face is the physical embodiment of feeling included.


Team bonding looks a little different when it’s happening virtually. What kind of activities do you organize and how do you make sure new hires feel comfortable participating?

We try to adopt “meet people where they’re at” and “come as you are” approaches, which is why we offer multiple avenues to enable employees to connect with one other. Specifically, I encourage people to turn on their webcams and keep them on. In our more informal video calls, I have a “rule” that any family members, pets, or roommates that wander into view must be introduced. It seems that this really helps people relax and feel more comfortable integrating work with their life.

Since 2015, our bread and butter has been the Jive social media platform. I really credit it with helping me build a strong and diverse internal network of work friends. We use Jive for a lot, including stuff that isn’t even business-related. Spaces on books, movies, pets, and even opportunities to buy, sell, or swap goods with fellow employees are very popular.

Now that Medidata is a part of the Dassault Systèmes family, we’ve started to take advantage of the 3DExperience platform. Slack is also a Medidatian favorite where we encourage people to create channels for just about anything (the channel for our Remotians is nearly 400 strong!). I’m also partial to #pet-idatians.


Is there anything else you think someone should know about onboarding remote employees that we haven’t covered already?

If you choose transparency, authenticity, and humanity over process, you can never lose. A new employee may complete onboarding and not remember half of what was shared, but they will remember how you made them feel. If you do it right, that feeling will stay with them and they will pass it on to the next newbies. That’s a sign of a strong company culture.