Tips for online onboarding

by | 29.10.2020

“My first day as an intern started with: ‘We didn’t know you were starting today.’ But from day two on it got better and better.”¹

Can you imagine how the intern felt on his first day at work? How would you feel if you came to your first day of work in the new company and the supervisor was surprised that you were starting today? If there is a lack of workspace and materials? If onboarding is a first step towards offboarding? Probably not very good, is it?

The history of the intern goes back 14 years. It has become a little anecdote in the meantime. I’m sure there are many such anecdotes. Which are told with a wink and contribute to the general amusement. Unfortunately, the topic is always entertaining only after a certain distance, in the concrete situation bad onboarding is all but not exhilarating.

I have good and bad news for you. First the bad: Many organisations have to master a new challenge: Online Onboarding. Social Distancing is an imperative of the hour, which often forces the integration of new employees over the distance. And now the good news: Organisations will be able to integrate new employees better in the future, because in the challenge lies also an opportunity. An opportunity to use the situation as an impulse to question existing processes and fill them with new life.

Onboarding compact

In our section “smartpedia” you will find a lot of useful information, tips, hints and impulses for onboarding, as well as a checklist for download.

In short: Onboarding is the process of accepting and integrating new employees into a company. Usually three phases are distinguished in onboarding:

  • Preboarding is the phase from the application or the signing of the contract to the first day of work.
  • The orientation phase begins with the first working day and usually lasts for about two working weeks.
  • Integration is the phase in which the actual familiarisation takes place. It usually / probably / ends no later than the end of the probationary period.

In addition to the phases, types can also be distinguished:

  • formal,
  • social,
  • cultural and
  • specialist onboarding.

Phases and types overlap in parts. For example, formal onboarding includes organisational aspects, typically the equipping of workplaces and the provision of work equipment (telephone, laptop, or even company ID, business cards etc.) as well as their set-up (programme releases, entries in directories, access authorisations etc.). Ideally, this takes place in the preboarding phase, but often only in the orientation phase. Social onboarding addresses the exchange with colleagues, employees and superiors (and later with customers) and usually begins in the orientation phase, in some organisations even in the preboarding phase,

Here you can see a schematic representation of the overlapping of phases and types:

Overlapping of onboarding types and phases

The challenges of online onboarding

“Well, come with me. I will show you your workplace and introduce you to your colleagues. We will then take the rest of the matter together in a relaxed atmosphere and step by step.”

In this way the supervisor could, for example, “save” the situation with the intern. Following Paul Watzlawick’s axiom “You cannot not communicate”², he would signal which culture prevails in the company (mistakes are made, we keep calm and solve challenges together and step by step) and how social cooperation works (no blame is attached to the motto “Why didn’t anyone tell me that?!”, instead a simple solution to the situation through own action).

Unfortunately such a “rescue” does not work in online onboarding, or at least it is much more difficult. Problems that already occur with “on site” onboarding are intensified with online onboarding. Especially

  • getting to know each other personally and the simple, uncomplicated and often situational exchange with colleagues,
  • the orientation with regard to the togetherness, the interaction between colleagues, the atmosphere in the organisation or the work commitment,
  • the visibility and thus the assessment of body language, intention and motivation,
  • the specialist exchange with colleagues, as communication among colleagues requires much more organisational effort

is missing.

In short: challenges multiply. This applies to all areas of onboarding: formal, social, cultural and specialist “taking on board”.

Tips for online onboarding

Before I try to give some tips on online onboarding, I would like to briefly discuss the goals of employee integration. Onboarding is not a game! In a way, it is an investment protection. Companies looking for support from new employees often invest a lot of effort and expense in the search, selection and assignment of employees. In other words: they invest money. And for this money they expect something in return. In order for this consideration to be given, conditions must be met: organisational or formal, interactive or social and cultural, as well as content or specialist demands. (Online) Onboarding is not a game.

Unfortunately, there are also companies that overlook something important in employee integration: the employee. For him or her, onboarding provides the confirmation of his or her decision. He or she compares the communicated work content with the reality in the job. He/she assesses the actual corporate culture and social interaction and not the embellished version of the HR department or marketing. He/she identifies discrepancies and assesses whether a job is worthwhile for him/her in the long term.

Put simply: (Online) Onboarding works in two directions: towards the company and towards the employee.

And now to the tips for online onboarding. Basically, all tips for online onboarding are the same as for “on-site” onboarding, often with a “digital or remote adaptation”:

  • Provide the necessary working materials before the first day of work. Ideally, this should be accompanied by a note on commissioning and the telephone number of a contact person in case of queries.
  • Greet the new employee with a greeting card from the team where all team members have signed. If it suits the company culture, e.g. if you also celebrate birthdays or successes, send a bouquet of flowers or a bar of chocolate. Most people are happy to receive such gifts and feel welcome.
  • Arrange in advance for a telephone call between the new employee and the supervisor for the first day of work (at a time customary in the company, such as 9:00 a.m.) and a second thirty minutes later with a specific contact person for the next few weeks (ideally, you should choose a colleague as a buddy who is an open-minded person, who has experience in the company, who has an integrative effect and who is keen to take on this task).
  • Communicate expectations and a plan for integration. And be sure to ask about the new employee’s expectations and try to fulfil them – if possible and sensible. (By the way, you should also do this with each employee outside of the induction period).
  • Integrate the new employee right from the start. Let him or her take part in meetings, even if he or she can contribute little or perhaps nothing at all. Give him/her the opportunity to participate. He/she may have experience that the team lacks, or he/she may have a fresh view of a situation that the existing members cannot (no longer) see.
  • Set up a chat to enable a continuous, direct exchange between the team without much organisational overhead.
  • Provide replacements for missing meetings in the coffee kitchen or joint lunches. Set up a video chat once a week to have an online coffee together and arrange to meet as a team for an online lunch.

As experiences with video chats in companies vary greatly (topic: trust and activation of the camera), I would not like to give a general tip for continuous use at this point. But: not only challenges increase when online onboarding, but also reservations, fears and problems.

The tips mentioned all refer to formal, social or cultural online onboarding. But how can specialist knowledge be built up and expanded?

Tips for specialist online onboarding

Specialist online onboarding is the biggest challenge facing companies when integrating new employees. Flowers are nice, but they do not replace a company-specific, specialist onboarding. Moreover, general advice is difficult to give, because the level of expertise depends strongly on the task and the previous knowledge of the employee. Here is an example:

A company hires two software vendors. Salesperson A is 48 years old and a “professional”. Salesperson B is 27 years young and a “beginner”. Both salespersons are to sell software X in a defined postcode area. Sales professional A already knows the usual terms of the industry. He is familiar with typical company requirements and contacting potential customers is easy for him, as he has done this thousands of times and has access to a network of contacts. Newcomer B does not have this knowledge. He has no network and the terms of the industry are still foreign to him.

Both salespeople can use existing tutorials or e-learning offers for familiarisation. Both can study presentations, participate in webinars or training courses. And both can learn how to use the software. Nevertheless, there will be a big difference between the two new Software X salespeople. The sales professional knows what to look out for. He is trained to recognise sales arguments. He can more easily identify differences to competing products in order to use them for his presentations. The beginner, on the other hand, does not know how to give a presentation at all. It is difficult for him to establish contact, because he has not yet tried to telephone potential customers in a professional context. And he also has no experience when it comes to processing rejections or setbacks.

From this example some tips for specialist online onboarding can be derived:

  • People are individual. Even if they perform similar activities, they have different knowledge and skills. This means that specialist onboarding must be carried out individually, at least in part. This individual share has to be determined together and recorded in the familiarisation plan.
  • Communication is an essential factor. If the buddy has the appropriate specialist knowledge, he or she can act as the primary contact person and, if necessary, as a trainer on the job. If his or her focus is more on the social and cultural aspects of integration, a second buddy could act as professional support.
  • Continue to develop the integration or familiarisation process together with the new colleagues. Therefore ask for feedback. And also give feedback. Communicate expectations and ask about the expectations of the new employees.
  • Of course, communication and feedback can be institutionalised, but in practice, a certain amount of tact and sensitivity can also work small miracles. A supervisor who openly and honestly inquires about the new employee’s well-being over the phone, or a team colleague who actively offers his or her help on a topic in a video chat, are important signs of an emerging sense of togetherness.

And one last tip: Put yourself in the new employee’s shoes. What would you wish for in his or her place? What would you need to do the job? How could the communication and subsequently the specialist training be made as simple and meaningful as possible? If you find answers to these questions, then take advantage of the opportunity that online onboarding offers you. And if you can’t answer the questions right away, keep them in mind. Answers also arise from a situation. And: just ask the new employee, because he or she knows exactly what is needed and what his or her demands are.


Online onboarding is a major challenge for many organisations. One could almost speak of onboarding with an amplifier, because weaknesses in the integration of new employees, unproductive times, idle time, lack of coordination, lack of support – at least for the new employee – become apparent relatively quickly. Of course it is easy to give tips and write about opportunities, but their implementation is often costly, time-consuming and employee-intensive. In addition, there are technical challenges that I have not dealt with in this article. Nor did I address questions about who in a company designs and drives the online onboarding process with different measures for different employee profiles.

It remains to be noted: Online onboarding is also a combination of formal, social, cultural and specialist aspects. It is a measure that protects an investment and has an impact on the company AND the employee. It is the basis for further cooperation. Without this basis, successful cooperation is hard to imagine. But the hope remains, after all things went better for the intern from the second day on. 😉


Notes (in German):

[1] Quote of Daniel Herrmann on Twitter
[2] Axioms of Paul Watzlawick

Michael Schenkel has publish additional posts in the t2informatik Blog, including

t2informatik Blog: The sports metaphor as motivator

The sports metaphor as motivator

t2informatik Blog: A buzzword is a buzzword

A buzzword is a buzzword

t2informatik Blog: The organisational rebel – after all, a good idea?

The organisational rebel – after all, a good idea?

Michael Schenkel
Michael Schenkel

Head of Marketing, t2informatik GmbH

Michael Schenkel has a heart for marketing - so it is fitting that he is responsible for marketing at t2informatik. He likes to blog, likes a change of perspective and tries to offer useful information - e.g. here in the blog - at a time when there is a lot of talk about people's decreasing attention span. If you feel like it, arrange to meet him for a coffee and a piece of cake; he will certainly look forward to it!​