A person holding an open laptop, being guided by their virtual onboarding coach

Tina Luo started the interview process 7,500 miles from her new job. She finished it a month later – in a strange city and a new country, on the opposite side of the planet. But that’s far from the most exceptional part of her recruitment. Two months after starting her role as a developer at Atlassian, Luo still hadn’t met a single one of her colleagues.

“I was hired in August and moved from Los Angeles to Sydney to take this job, but because of the pandemic, everything was virtual,” says Luo. “I did a series of remote interviews and then after I got the job, I did remote orientation and remote onboarding; I didn’t meet a single person from my team throughout the entire process.”

Tina is far from an isolated example. In fact, she’s one of more than 1,200 Atlassians who have now been onboarded virtually. 

“It was a bit overwhelming at first,” says Luo. “There was a lot of information to learn and it was difficult to get a handle on everything without people sitting near you in an office, who you could easily ask for help. But there were a couple of things my manager did which made it a lot easier: setting up private one-on-one Zoom chats for me with everyone in our team for instance, and also introducing an online buddy system, which was just brilliant. For the first two or three weeks on the job, my buddy made all the difference.” 

With so many new hires going through the virtual process – and more than 25% of Atlassians now having never set foot in an Atlassian office – we decided to take a closer look at the remote onboarding process to identify the strategies that worked and the lessons that have been learnt. 

Building connections 30 days in advance

Tina’s manager in Sydney, Ky Pham, has been with Atlassian for nearly six years, so had plenty of experience to lean into when adapting the onboarding process to suit these extraordinary times.

“The secret to successful onboarding in the current environment is simply to prepare and plan more,” says Pham. “Instead of just meeting people on day one, we’re actively pre-onboarding now. A month before people start, we’ll reach out to them via Linkedin or their personal emails to make them feel welcome. We’ll help them with any early preparation, as well as answer any questions and assign them a more experienced member of staff – a ‘buddy’ or ‘coach’ – to assist them. That not only smooths the onboarding process, it also helps with the coach’s own career development too.”

Human Resources experts agree that line managers have a more critical role to play when it comes to virtual onboarding. Robert Ordever, managing director of workplace experts OC Tanner, describes a shift away from traditional leadership, towards a more modern, “connected” approach when it comes to staff integration. 

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“Doing everything remotely means we have to completely rethink our approach, to unlearn old recruitment cues like firm handshakes and eye contact, and relearn new ones,” says Ordever, a former head of HR at both Harrods and Premier League football team Fulham. “Leadership in a remote environment is all about empathy and connection. It’s about connecting new starters to the right information, the right colleagues and the right support.”

So how exactly do bosses – and businesses in general – go about doing this in the best way? We asked Atlassian’s finest to list the golden rules of virtual onboarding. 

Our best practices for virtual onboarding

1. Make sure hardware isn’t hard

“Your first step is to get a laptop into the hands of your new starters – and that can be easier said than done,” says Adam Flores, Atlassian’s Workplace Productivity Manager. When Atlassian offices closed due to COVID, Flores had to improvise new ways of working.

“Early solutions for us included turning my guest bedroom into a post office, with about 80 laptops shoved under the bed or behind the winter coats in the closet,” he says. “But after a while, we found a trusted supplier who could manage our inventory from their warehouse, so they now send out laptops directly to each new hire. And my guest room is habitable again.”

2. Give people a guide

It sounds obvious, but if you’re asking people to find their way alone, they’ll need proper guidance to ensure they don’t get lost. “There were already a small group of Atlassians who were working remotely before 2020, so we took the pre-existing guide we had for them and fleshed it out into an entirely self-paced onboarding experience,” says Flores. “It centers on a 30-page PDF document that walks them step-by-step through the process of setting up their own computer, then things become a lot easier once they’re inside the systems.” 

3. Notify your IT team: “Tag, you’re IT”

“With remote onboarding, your IT team suddenly becomes the face of your company,” says Flores. “They’re going to be the first point of contact and the people your new hires interact with most over the course of the first week, so you have to ensure your IT team is ready and prepared for that, particularly in terms of the type of questions they will be asked.”   

4. Overcommunicate

“The key to successful remote onboarding is intentional communication,” says Nicki Bellington, Atlassian’s Talent Lead for Onboarding. “Think of it like a recipe, and imagine a voiceover giving you the specific instructions you need in order to make it. There’s no such thing as too much detail or too much communication. You have to remember that some new hires won’t have used tools like Slack or Confluence before – and some won’t even have used a Mac.”     

5. Avoid cognitive overload

Zoom fatigue is real, so you need to be careful not to overload new hires in their first few days,” says Bellington. “Instead, set a limit on Zoom time and use it to focus on the critical information people actually need to begin with. Then, use Slack to fill in the gaps around it. Remember – it’s all about the right information at the right time. If it’s not something they need to know in the first day or two, it can wait.”

6. Lean on your buddies

“We’re experimenting with a new Slack bolt-on called Donut,” says Bellington. “It connects new starters with old timers, and randomly pairs you with somebody new every two weeks, so you get to know different people throughout the organization while they help you learn the ropes. Initial response has been very positive.”

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7. Manage the managers

“We realized pretty quickly that we had to create resources for our managers, too, because they weren’t used to the remote onboarding of staff, either,” says Bellington. “As a result, we created a manager’s guidebook, so our team leaders knew exactly how to direct their people and how to answer questions during the onboarding process. That way, the managers are the ones who set the tone and it all flows from there.”

8. Be intentional about team connections

“Making people feel welcome is so important – and you need to make a conscious concerted effort to do so if they are starting remotely,” says Flores. “In my team, we have group huddles every morning in new hires’ first weeks, where we explain what our days look like, what our targets are and how we are going about them. Then, once a week, we have a social gathering of some kind to reinforce team bonds too – like costume parties, trivia or guess the song.”

9. Get everyone on the same page

“We set up a shared playbook to help teams work more efficiently together,” says Bellington. Atlassian’s Team Playbook contains free workshops and resources to help teams communicate, overcome roadblocks, and boost creativity. “Within that is a ‘user manual’ for each team member, where they can fill out things like ‘how I work,’ ‘what I like,’ ‘things that annoy me,’ and so on. That way, new staff can get to know their colleagues more quickly, even without office interaction.”

It’s like any relationship,” Bellington adds. “You need to know how to feed and water and care for it if you want it to grow strong. And that, ultimately, is what we’re aiming for.” 

Our definitive, road-tested virtual onboarding checklist