Social learning is key to the integration of new employees. Focusing on social learning elements during a remote onboarding process will ensure that new hires more quickly transform into fully functional employees.

Reaching back as far as recorded human history, there is clear evidence that humans are social beings. Early artists didn’t generally draw pictograms of one man with a spear; rather, a group of individuals might be depicted taking down a mammoth, or perhaps a collection of handprints could be found embedded on a cave wall. When those early drawings were made, social interaction was closely connected to survival. You had a much better chance of making it through the harsh realities of life as a group rather than an outlier. But a large component of survival rests upon acquiring the skills you need to make it through life—and how better to develop those skills than to learn them from your mentors, peers, and colleagues: your social group. Really, not so much has changed.

Human History
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Fast forward to more recent history, and we’ve gone from gleaning survival skills from our social group to trying to figure out the most effective means of transmitting skills to individuals new to our organizations and integrating them into our workplace cultures. We’ve gone so far as to develop an entire field—social learning theory—based on the premise that “behavior is learned from the environment through the process of observational learning.” (Albert Bandura, 1997) How can we take this premise and apply it to make the onboarding process—and more specifically, a remote onboarding process—more effective?

A successful onboarding experience focuses not only on knowledge sharing, which is indeed a crucial component, but also on the social aspects of learning. It implies introducing a new person into an already formed environment (in terms of both people and tasks) and guiding them to a sufficient level of comfort such that they feel a part of and can contribute to that environment. Let’s examine 5 social learning concepts that can be applied in a remote onboarding context to achieve that goal.

Concept #1: Observation

Learning through observation—watching someone perform a task or describe a task—is a critical element of social learning theory. In a classic onboarding experience, this might be accomplished through “shadowing” an experienced colleague, or being involved in meetings and group activities that demonstrate the desired interactions. In a remote situation, video is perhaps the most effective alternative to in-person observation. Familiarizing a new hire with company culture can be as simple as building a video library of employee interactions, or short interviews with existing employees that highlight “how we do things” in that particular organization. As tolerance for low production values has greatly increased due to regular exposure to YouTube videos and the like, this is actually a fairly low cost means of providing your new employees with an insider’s view of how the company functions and the values it holds dear. Read more about video-based best practices and tips in our free eBook.

Concept #2: Retention

Onboarding can be an overwhelming experience. There’s so much to learn, do, keep track of. How are you going to remember which papers to sign, documents to submit, compliance courses to take? For proper retention to take hold, the information must be presented in a simple and memorable way. Providing your new hires with a roadmap so they can track their progress and know exactly where they are in the process will help keep them on track.

Overwhelming new employees with a lot of processes and policies is not the best means of helping them retain the truly important information they need to get off on the right foot in the organization. Parse through your content and determine what can be conveyed in an impactful way—connecting learning to a story or personal experience will help the learning stick. Much of your content is probably more appropriate for resource learning or can be provided as performance support. Rather than teaching exactly what each policy says, teach where they can be accessed at the time of need.

Concept #3: Motivation

Providing adult learners with a rationale for learning is an excellent means of making them more receptive. Why do I need to learn this policy/procedure/task? What’s in it for me? For the organization? Most people need to know why that specific learning is useful and how it’s going to help them in their work. Providing that information will go a long way towards increasing motivation.

There’s also a plausible argument for motivation stemming from reward or consequences. Gamification can be an effective strategy in this regard. Designing a remote onboarding journey that comprises badges, leaderboards, etc., can stimulate interest, competition, and it’s just plain fun.

Concept #4: Community

Allowing some time for informal learning through personal interaction can reap untold benefits. In the pre-pandemic era, this might have been your new hire lunch, or an after-work mixer. You can still provide opportunities for this type of interaction, albeit in virtual form. Try providing “water cooler” type forums for new hires. Give them a date and time to show up, introduce themselves, and chat about their ongoing onboarding experience. Don’t worry about moderating, this should be a comfortable and relaxed occasion. This is a great opportunity for networking, exchanging tips, and simply getting to know fellow newbies. Sense of belonging is a factor when considering retention rates and is thus worth cultivating not only because you want employees to feel they’re part of a team, but also to reduce training costs over the long term.

Concept #5: Collaboration

You can’t get more social than learning with and from others. Collaboration has the twin advantages of being both an excellent means of knowledge sharing and acquisition, and a great way to network with fellow onboardees. In a remote onboarding environment, this might look like organizing “each teach” sessions whereby groups of trainees are assigned a task to research and report back on to their fellow new hires. Or perhaps a buddy system whereby new hires check in on one other at certain set intervals to chat about their progress. You can also consider pairing a seasoned employee with a new hire; the more experienced employee can point the onboardee in the right direction if they hit a roadblock.


Neglecting the social element of learning will have repercussions throughout your organization. New hires will likely not be invested in the process, and much of the learning will fall flat. Particularly during the onboarding process, social learning is key to the integration of your new employees. Focusing on social learning elements such as observation, retention, motivation, community and collaboration—and adapting them to effectively support a remote onboarding process—will ensure that new hires will more quickly transform into fully functional employees, firmly anchored in the organization.

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