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5 Virtual Onboarding Activities to Keep New Hires Engaged

Rob Warner

The times, they are a changin’. More companies are moving to remote or hybrid models and a lot of employees are looking for a change. That means more companies are experiencing an increase in remote onboarding and encountering a whole new set of challenges. Those that simply migrated their in-person playbook to the virtual setting learned quickly that it doesn’t translate so well without accounting for the inherent challenges of virtual interaction. Further, those that fail to excite their new-hires during a remote onboarding are missing a critical opportunity to engage their employees when attrition is at an all-time high. So, how do you excel at virtual onboarding and get your new-hires excited to work there? Not with endless Zoom orientation meetings and stale process overviews, that's for sure. 

Virtual Onboarding of Remote Workers is More Important Than Ever

Recruitment and hiring are difficult enough as it is. When remote work became the norm for a lot of companies during the pandemic, retention rose the ranks as one of HR's biggest challenges, as one study found that 74% of workers would quit their job if offered more flexible options elsewhere. Another study found that 30% of employees say coaching and onboarding new hires is worse than pre-COVID. Put this together and it's easy to see why getting employees excited in the first week or even the first day on the job is critical to a long term retention strategy. New-hire onboarding must go beyond orienting employees on company policies and focus on getting the employees excited about work. 

What is the process of virtual onboarding?

In a lot of ways, virtual onboarding is very similar to traditional onboarding in that, you guessed it, it happens, well, virtually. Depending on the complexity of the job and how much universal onboarding you can do before you split folks into their individual teams, it will most likely comprise a mix of the following. 

First, setting up tools and home offices should be done before an employee's first day so they are ready to hit the ground running. Depending on what perks you offer remote employees (which hopefully you're upfront about in the hiring process so there are no surprises), you will need to coordinate what physical equipment they need to set up their home workplace including a laptop, ergonomic desk and keyboard, and any other computer equipment. After that, introduce your new hires to the platforms you use to get work done: add them to any relevant Slack channels; give them their login information; and make available detailed instructions as well as support for any new teammates who are not the most technologically savvy. 

After folks have a baseline of what they'll be working with, set them up for success by teaching them company processes. How do you file expense reports? What's the protocol for sending after-hour emails? In addition to "hard and fast rules" this is a great opportunity to teach folks about company culture and help them avoid taboos that could set them back on their first days. Each team will be different with how they manage work, but setting some ground rules like when to use video chat and whether to avoid adding memes to the company-wide Slack channel are useful to cover. As a backup, have an employee handbook available to fill in all the blanks that don't get covered and for employees to reference when they're not drinking from the firehose. 

Bonus: set up a Slack channel exclusively for new hires of that class so they can ask questions to each other without feeling embarrassed in front of other coworkers. 

Getting to know the company structure and everyone's role is a great next step to start introducing them to the day-to-day functions of their new cohort. This is a great time to play the speed dating game outlined below. And, by injecting fun into the equation, you can build trust as well as knowledge.  

The final step is to get folks excited about the company vision. This is a great time to bring in the CEO or other leader who can speak to where the company is headed and why it's a great time to be working there. You can also send them company SWAG or gift cards for a virtual happy hour to cap off the onboarding. Looking for more ideas? Read on...

What should companies do differently in the virtual onboarding process?

There are many ways in which virtual onboarding will differ from its in-person counterpart (here are just a few examples). It would be narrow-minded to think that simply re-purposing your in-person onboarding to a virtual setting will be enough to get employees excited about a new role. For one, you don't have the built-in excitement of seeing a fancy new office building or getting hyped by your hiring manager as you set up your desk. Many moments that happen organically in an office setting won't happen virtually, so you must identify that emotion and find ways to inspire it in a virtual setting. Here are a few ways to compensate for some of the excitement that happens naturally in-person when planning your virtual onboarding: 

  • Get captivating, energizing presenters. Company presentations can drag on and put new hires to sleep even in person. Add Zoom to that equation and consider that possibly half of them are wearing sweatpants and you've got a recipe for day-long siestas. Company presentations have to be engaging and exciting! Get the most rambunctious members of the team to give presentations on their department. Take a survey after onboarding and give a gift card to whatever presenter got the best feedback to incentivize them to make it engaging. You can also inject games and quizzes into your onboarding to make sure folks are paying attention, but also break up the hours of presenting that naturally occurs with new hire orientations. 
  • Plan social interaction. I know, sounds fun, right? Social interaction is natural in an office setting. It has to be cultivated in a virtual environment because there are no water cooler moments, no turning to the person to your left to introduce yourself, and no first-day lunches with your boss. Break up the first day with remote team building activities like virtual speed dating, where you send new hires into breakout rooms of 2 people and they have to race through a series of prompts before the timer runs out. It's a fun way to get to know people and get new team members "on their feet."
  • Perk them up. Everyone loves donut day at the office. Consider sending new hires a gift card to their local coffee shop so they can expense coffee every day for the first week. It's a cheap way to add a little incentive to logging on early in the morning and gives each new employee a talking point during a game like Tea vs. Coffee
  • Make it fun! This. Is. A. Must. If you've read any other blog post on our site you know that we consider fun paramount to the success of interpersonal relationships at work. Lame icebreaker games and dated get-to-know-you questions produce more eye rolls than dad jokes. Spice things up by injecting games and physical challenges like 5 seconds to find something in your house that is _____ (blue, old, soft, edible, etc.). It'll get folks running around and add a little levity before you have to drone on about expense reports. 

5 Virtual Onboarding activities to keep new hires engaged

Now that you know a few ways to handle your virtual onboarding, there are a couple of ways to manufacture that fun I've been talking about incessantly throughout this whole blog post. Here are five surefire ways to spice up your virtual onboarding and get new-hires excited about work. 

1. Turn your Onboarding into a Scavenger Hunt

"Learning processes is the best part of the onboarding experience," said literally no one ever. For a lot of HR teams, there are certain rules and regulations or processes that must be covered on the first day. For other companies, workflows, tools, and other processes are a necessary part of onboarding, especially in a world where you can't as easily lean over and ask the person sitting next to you. Why not make a game out of it? Sharing internal resources like an employee handbook or intranet and then breaking folks up into teams to make them find critical information is a fun way to get employees digging through resources and writing down important details. Give a prize to the first team that completes it correctly and now you've got a competition! Virtual employees will bond over the experience and they'll retain the information better by having to write it down and share with their cohort. 

2. “Photo of your life”

This is a fun game to break up a long day of training and inject some employee engagement. Each new hire has to find a photo from their life and share a story around it. Most folks can use Facebook for this but if they're not on Facebook or they don't feel comfortable sharing a personal photo they can do a Google image search to go along with a story. Either way it'll get folks out of their work brains for a second, sharing fun stories about themselves that give insight to who they are as a person. 

3. Accept the Challenge

Another fun way to share personal, work-appropriate tidbits with one another is to break up the day into hour blocks and cycle through "favorites" that new hires can share using their virtual backgrounds. For example, from 9am-10am have everyone change their virtual background to the poster from their favorite movie. From 10am-11am change it to their favorite book. And so on, and so on. This is a great way to inspire colleagues to find similar interests and can help combat feelings of loneliness by inspiring community. 

4. Schedule Lunches with Other New Hires and Seasoned Employees

Everyone's gotta eat! And in California, if you're working more than a 6hr day it's literally the law. Why not make it part of the onboarding process? Give new hires a mix of lunches throughout their first week where they can meet some tenured folks who can get them oriented. You can do more than these, but try and cover at least these three:

  1. Leadership Buddy. The first lunch should be with their direct manager or someone who they'll be learning from directly. 
  2. Work Buddy. The next lunch should be with someone in a similar role or on the same team so they can learn from a peer how best to work with their manager and manage their workload.
  3. Culture Buddy. The last lunch should be with someone who's excited to share information with new hires and get them acquainted with company culture. 

5. End-of-Onboarding Celebration

Onboarding can take a while, and regardless of your ability to keep folks engaged, it's going to feel like they ran a marathon when all is said and done. Reward your employees by sending them a gift card for a virtual happy hour or playing a round of virtual trivia. You can include a custom round with company factoids to increase retention and justify the expense of hiring a professional host that will double as an employee engagement expert. It's a fun way to cap off the experience, add one more opportunity for virtual team building and say thank you to your new colleagues for sitting through the onboarding process. 

Model continuous learning by asking for feedback and acting on it quickly

Let's face it, a lot of us are new to virtual onboarding just the same way a lot of us are new to remote work. The best way to improve your onboarding is to ask for feedback from employees and quickly incorporate that into the next round of onboarding to see if it's effective. When asking for feedback, make sure to ask them what they felt was missing in addition to how they felt about each individual activity. That way you're constantly injecting new ideas into your process and adapting with the evolution of work. 

Make Remote Team-Building a Permanent Part of your Company Culture

Stellar retention doesn't happen with just a killer onboarding experience. In tandem with continuous learning, it's important to offer continuous opportunities for employees to engage over something outside of work. It creates stronger bonds and can ease tension when work friction arises. 

Looking for a way to incorporate remote team-building into your long term success plan? 

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