• Dina Smith

Why virtual onboarding thrives from this one simple approach


(Originally published in Fast Company. Photo: Carolyn V)


Transitioning into a new company as a leader is an exciting but notoriously challenging time. You land in your role without a network of established working relationships, with incomplete comprehension of stakeholder expectations of your new role, and a limited grasp of how to navigate your new company. On a steep learning curve and operating under a high degree of scrutiny, the pressure is on. Opinions from your staff of you and your effectiveness as a leader form quickly, and the actions you take in your first few months play a large role in whether you will succeed or fail in your new position.


To create the momentum needed to propel you and your teams to success, there are a number of tasks to perform, in order to complete a successful transition. Even in the most ideal circumstances, it’s a tall order to adjust to your role and start delivering value to your new organization.

And now, as working from home continues on a mass scale and virtual teams become increasingly common, many leaders face a process of virtual onboarding into their roles, versus the more traditional in-person process.

Onboarding virtually, especially in the midst of a global pandemic, presents two additional challenges for leaders to overcome. First, virtual communications are inferior to in-person communication when it comes to building relationships and trust, both of which are critical to effective teamwork. Second, evidence by recent surveys commissioned by the APA shows stress levels in the U.S. as related to the uncertainty of the future are at the highest levels ever reported.

Here are three strategies to help you set up your team for success and address these challenges.

DOUBLE DOWN ON BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS To be sure, achieving positive results, whether to your bottom line or other long-term goals, in your new role is critical. However, when you are onboarding, a strong, people-focused approach is just as important, especially to compensate for the limits of virtual communication.

To counteract the deficiencies of virtual communications, make concerted efforts to build interpersonal trust. Research shows that the most effective way to lead and influence is to begin with warmth rather than strength. Showing warmth will help you connect immediately with those around you, establish trust, and enable the absorption of your ideas.


Use the initial few minutes in all your 1-on-1s and meetings to connect with your team members and colleagues on a more personal level. Get updates on how people are doing and ask about their families, weekend plans, pets, hobbies. Share details about yourself and work to find common interests and similarities, which can be key to enabling easy rapport. Forging these personal bonds lays a strong foundation for effective teamwork and partnering.

Rather than waiting to return to the office to hold the traditional (and previously in-person) strategic retreat with your team, create a series of shorter virtual team sessions. Focus on deepening relationships, creating and aligning on a shared vision, and establishing a common set of principles for how the team will work.

Finally, engage your team in creating a forum to replace the proverbial watercooler moments of an in-person office environment. Whether it’s virtual happy hours, coffee breaks, or game time, it’s important to create a space for the casual and spontaneous conversations that help us build trusting relationships.

CLARIFY YOUR INTENTIONS When we converse in person, there are two simultaneous channels of communication: the content (what you say) and the body language (how you say it). In virtual communications, however, much of the “how” and emotional context gets lost. It’s critical that you counteract these inherent deficits by purposefully enhancing empathetic behaviors and clarifying intentions.

This is especially true for you as a newcomer. Your coworkers do not yet have a reference catalog of your prior behaviors and decisions; without this, it’s harder for them to draw generous assumptions and conclusions about your meaning or intentions.

Particularly when it comes to text-based communications, your best intentions can easily get lost and misinterpreted. Research has shown that people on the receiving end of a written communication tend to interpret it more negatively than the sender intended. We also overestimate the extent to which we have made our priorities clear, resulting in critical information getting easily overlooked.


Take the time to ensure that your communications are crystal clear and that you explain the “why” behind your decisions or requests. In our haste, we often communicate only the what and how, but when people understand why they’re being asked to do something, they’re far more likely to do it. Additionally, highlight the most important information and purposefully increase the positivity in your communications to override the deficits of virtual communications.

REDUCE UNCERTAINTY Uncertainty is a well-known stressor and can result in a reduced ability to make decisions, solve problems, and collaborate. In an environment rife with ambiguity, you represent yet one more element of uncertainty to the team.

From day one your staff is going to be trying to ascertain what you’re like: your working style, your hot buttons, and what delights you. While your team will discover these things over time, you can dramatically shorten the learning curve and avoid unnecessary misunderstandings and difficult conversations by creating a brief user’s manual. Sharing a user’s manual gives your team insight into you and how you work, enabling all of you to work more effectively together right from the start.

Further reduce uncertainty for your team by working collectively to define what you expect of each other and create agreements for how you will work together. Create clarity and certainty wherever you can to enable your team to be more productive and collaborative.

Following the above strategies will naturally take time. However, prioritizing relationship building, being careful and deliberate about your communications, and eliminating uncertainty are critical to successfully onboarding during this time. It’s about slowing down to go fast to set your team up for success and deliver the strong results you desire.

© 2020 Cognitas LLC