The secret to remote onboarding that’s hiding in plain sight

Companies that hire remote team members need to valorize collaboration right from onboarding if they’re going to build teams that feel emotionally and structurally integrated.

Most remote onboarding processes fail to build meaningful peer connections between new hires. “What could newbies possibly teach each other about how our company works,” the thinking seems to go. So instead, we expect already-overloaded managers to act as coach, feedback-giver and social support during a new hire’s first weeks. Is it any wonder fewer than 50 percent of onboarding programs are actually deemed successful?

Neglecting the power of collaborative learning was perhaps understandable in the days of in-person onboarding. But today, building connections with peers has taken on a new importance in the workplace. 

The shift to remote work has increased loneliness in the workplace by almost 70 percent, while the Great Resignation has weakened emotional connections between workers. And new hires are more likely than ever to leave a position within six months if the company doesn’t sit right with them. New hires’ expectations and needs from onboarding have changed, but most companies’ new hire processes have yet to catch up.

New hires deserve a remote onboarding experience that forges rapid emotional links with fellow onboarders, leverages collaboration to increase company loyalty, and maximizes information uptake via feedback giving, as well as getting.

As VP of people development at Animalz content marketing agency, I’ve onboarded more than 100 remote hires in the last 12 months, and our onboarding process scores 90 percent positive engagement in new hire surveys. This article will dive into the psychological principles we leverage in our new hire onboarding and suggest ways other companies can do the same.

The psychology of collaborative learning in onboarding

Collaborative learning isn’t a unified pedagogical approach. Instead, the term encompasses, “any form of learning that occurs as a result of social interaction between two or more employees when they are working together on the same task or toward the same goal […] where peers stand to benefit equally from the learning experience” (taken from Eduflow’s recent report on the state of collaborative learning in 2022).

By that definition, collaborative learning can and should be leveraged frequently in the workplace, from official training to informal problem solving. Onboarding is one of the stages of the employee lifecycle where collaborative learning can be most impactful on both improving performance and increasing team integration. Three phenomena help us understand this potential impact:

  • Social constructivism
  • Learning in heterogeneous groups
  • The power of personal connection

Let’s look at why each of these factors helps people learn more, and how the phenomena can apply to remote onboarding.

Social constructivism

Social constructivism as a theory posits that learning is inextricably bound up with social interaction. This means learning, according to social constructivists, is not just the absorption of new knowledge; rather, it’s the act of becoming assimilated into a knowledge community, a group of people who share your newly acquired knowledge. 

In this paradigm, what learners already know (their past experiences) and how they interact with others are key factors in their development. Teachers and facilitators are there to help learners actively construct knowledge.

Social constructivist Lev Vygotsky stated that social interaction, as well as assistance from “more knowledgeable others,” helps people learn more than they would be able to alone. For Vygotsky, there are three “zones” of potential learning:

  • What the learner can do by themself
  • What the learner cannot do
  • And in between these two, the zone of proximal development: what the learner can do, but only with guidance.

In the zone of proximal development, the learner needs assistance to complete a task. That assistance usually comes from a teacher or peer, acting as a guide. The guide helps the learner attain the relevant skills, until guidance is no longer needed and the task moves into the “what the learner can do by themselves” zone.

All good onboarding aims to move new hires from the outer zone (what the learner cannot do) to the inner zone (what the learner can do by themselves).

How to leverage social constructivism in remote onboarding

Introducing collaborative learning activities into remote onboarding allows us to leverage the social aspect of constructing knowledge. We can do this either by asking tenured hires to act as guides, or  asking new hires to guide each other.

  • When we leverage tenured hires as guides, we allow learners to see desired workplace behaviors in action. The new hire learns by assuming and testing those new behaviors; the tenured hire reinforces their own mastery of what they’re teaching.
  • When we ask fellow new hires to teach other onboarders something they themselves only recently learned, we speed up the retention of new information, and accelerate the process of both new hires moving through the zone of proximal development to competency.

To engage new hires in the zone of proximal development, build an onboarding structure that asks them to assume the roles of both The Guide and The Guided, alternately:

  • New hires as The Guide: Build peer review activities into each stage of remote onboarding. As soon as a new hire learns a new company process, ask them to review the work of other new hires on that process, and give feedback. This structure allows the feedback giver to become a Guide in controlled circumstances and to strengthen their own uptake of new information as they advise others.
  • New hires as The Guided: Support new hires by engineering mentorship moments with people across the team throughout onboarding. This can take the form of customized onboarding interactions with managers, who identify each individual’s zone of proximal development; or of informal touchpoints with onboarding buddies, tenured peers who act as “more knowledgeable others.”

At Animalz, we leverage social constructivism by adding peer review activities to our asynchronous onboarding, based on this onboarding template. You can read more about why we’re so focused on social onboarding here.

Heterogeneous group formation

In learning, heterogeneous grouping is the placement of learners with different abilities or knowledge levels together to optimize information uptake. Research shows groups made up of heterogeneous learners tend to perform betterthan groups formed by students with similar learning characteristics.

Educators have a rule of thumb for choosing heterogeneous or homogenous group formation: If the purpose of the group learning activity is to help struggling students reach baseline expectations, the research shows heterogeneous groups may help most. On the other hand, if the purpose is to encourage medium-ability groups to learn at high levels, homogeneous grouping is better.

Onboarding is all about getting everyone to a baseline. It’s not about excelling, it’s about meeting baseline expectations and integrating into the team. That’s why heterogeneous groups are powerful. They also help break down silos, encourage cross-department collaboration and can even support wider DEI efforts.

How to leverage heterogeneous groups in remote onboarding

Cohort onboarding naturally throws together people of different skill sets and abilities. As learning practitioners, we can capitalize on heterogeneous grouping to help new hires learn. Remote settings are no excuse for not leveraging heterogeneous groups; rather, we need to be imaginative enough to find moments of group collaboration for distributed teams.

But how do you create meaningful group formations when new hires are in different time zones, or at least not in the same room? There are a few ways you can try:

  • Peer-to-peer workshops: Ask new hires to work through a challenge as a group. At Animalz, we do this in two formats: a Values workshop, in which we ask new hires to solve hypothetical problems as a group, through the lens of our company values; and a Strategy in Action workshop, in which groups solve a customer problem in real time and present their solutions.
  • Completion of a group project or deliverable: Ask each onboarding cohort to complete a well-defined project together within a short space of time.
  • Group presentations: Ask each cohort to create a presentation for the cohort that follows them, focused on core aspects of the onboarding process.

For any activities to truly spark learning for everyone, follow Marzano, Pickering and Pollock’s advice on effective learning in groups:

  • The work must involve every member of the group.
  • Each person has a valid job to perform with a known standard of completion.
  • Each member is invested in completing the task or learning goal.
  • Each member is accountable individually and collectively.

Heterogeneous group work not only allows new hires to test their new skills in a low-risk way, but also starts to forge deep personal connections with new colleagues. That’s an aspect of remote onboarding that we’ll look at next.

The power of personal connection

So far, we’ve looked at how collaborative learning helps new hires learn new information faster and more efficiently in onboarding. But collaboration also has a secondary benefit: linking a new hire emotionally to their new team.

This feels intuitively true, but it’s also backed up by recent research in remote contexts. In 2021, Harvard Business School conducted a randomized field experiment at a large global company to uncover the impact of synchronous “virtual water coolers” between senior managers and remote interns. The data showed interns who had these 1:1 watercoolers were significantly more likely to receive offers for full-time employment, achieved higher weekly performance ratings, and had more positive attitudes toward their remote internships.

Personal connection in remote workplaces helps us feel more positive about work, and to excel in moments when we’re working asynchronously.

How to leverage personal connection in remote onboarding

Building meaningful connections is possible both asynchronously and synchronously during onboarding.

Asynchronous personal connections

Build an online discussion board into your onboarding structure, where new hires introduce themselves and share something personal at the start of onboarding. Future new hires can engage with the discussion board, creating conversation threads and getting to know onboarders in previous cohorts from day one.

New Animalz team members create moments of personal connection via an online discussion board in the first week of onboarding.

Combine this with activities such as weekly question prompts that ask team members to share something fun about themselves in an async forum such as Slack. Light-hearted questions about favorite movies, food or travel can help team members forge bonds.

Synchronous personal connections:

We run regular huddles for new hires, where anyone still in their first three months at the company can come along and chat. There’s no agenda, and a moderator guides the discussion loosely to encourage the sharing of experiences.

We also add new hires to our fortnightly watercooler chats. These 1:1 meetings randomly pair two team members for a 30-minute conversation, with only one rule to follow—don’t talk about work.

Work is social. Onboarding should be too.

Workplace collaboration and connection has become more important than ever in our increasingly remote professional lives. Creating a safe space for new hires to give feedback to others, to build emotional connections with colleagues and to take risks fearlessly, is our job as talent and learning professionals. Only by doing this can we expect to have happy, healthy team members who stay with our companies for the long haul.