August  31,  2020

Make it familiar, controlled, and successful.

How do you onboard employees virtually? How do you get them engaged and performing through a screen? Most of us are acquainted with the basic mechanics of virtual onboarding:

  • Welcome the new hire with something tangible like a plant, gift basket, or company-branded gear.
  • Keep each virtual onboarding session short and interactive.
  • Use strong presenters.
  • Expand the elapsed time for onboarding from one or two days to as many as 30 days.
  • Issue surveys to gauge engagement and solicit feedback for improvement.

But we think good virtual onboarding has to go deeper. When you’re onboarding employees, you’re asking them to change their behaviors—do this, in this way, to this standard. You are also hoping to reinforce their positive feelings about the organization, so they feel welcome and they are part of something great.

Science tells us that if we want behavior change to work, we should make it feel familiar, controlled, and successful.


Our brains see new things as dangerous, so change – like a new job – can create feelings of resistance. But familiarity, as mentioned in other posts, feels “safe.” You can activate those feelings of safety in your onboarding program.

Determine what makes most new employees feel great about the employer—for example, the culture, the brand, the physical environment, the great people, and the proper supports and resources. Highlight those familiar “feel good” elements in your welcome video and guest speakers. The more you remind them of what they already know and like, the better.

Use video tools that are familiar to most participants. We all know Zoom. Many of us will not be familiar with GoToMeeting or TeamViewer. Make the login to the virtual onboarding easy. First impressions matter.

Include live speakers or filmed testimonials from people who look and sound more like your new employees. If your new hires are in their 20’s and mainly Black or Brown women, they won’t connect as well to, let’s say, middle-aged White men.

Repeat certain onboarding activities throughout the program; for example, use weekly check-ins with their boss and a peer coach. Over time, these events will start to feel familiar.


Humans love to feel in control. Giving new hires the feeling of control reduces anxiety and frees their brains for learning and executive functioning. You can do this by building in structure, predictability, and choice.

Develop an onboarding timeline and share it repeatedly when meeting with the new hires. For example, if a group of new hires connects every week, show them the timeline with a “you are here” marker.

Provide new hires with the right tools: laptop, easy connectivity, digital onboarding tools, and job aids. How about a new hire portal or MS Team Site to house all this information? Include FAQs and key contact information they can have at their fingertips.

Give them some choices up front: Surface or MacAir? Flextime vs. standard business hours?

Build some flexibility into their onboarding tasks so they can exert some personal control over their schedules and not feel like their new employer is programming every minute of the day.


Winning releases dopamine, the brain’s feel-good chemical. And sharing success promotes oxytocin, the connection hormone. You can build success into your onboarding program.

Small and simple successes might be things like signing up for health benefits or getting their parking pass activated. Highlight each successful step. Consider gamification to track these successes, with a nominal reward or recognition at the end.

Handling some of their new job activities, with support of their new manager and peers, will also make them feel successful. Keep things small and simple in the beginning, so you are sure they will complete them correctly. (Failing at one of these tasks will produce the opposite effect!) Have managers give new employees coaching and feedback along the way. You could even build completion and sign-off into your gamification approach.

New hires feel more successful when they feel they are becoming part of the team. Interpersonal and social successes count too! Can’t gather at the local sports bar? How about a virtual happy hour or beer bash? Schedule some virtual team lunches or coffee breaks—the company could pay to have the meal or coffee delivered to the new hire.

The last word…

Create your company’s onboarding experience to promote feelings of familiarity. New hires will feel they’re more in control of their transition when you include choice, structure, and predictability. And they’ll feel more successful if you provoke the feel-good chemicals in their brains through small wins, feedback and rewards, and orchestrated virtual events that make them feel like they belong. It’s a different world now, but people are still the same. What we know about brain science can give your new employees a great transition to your team.