How to Integrate New Corporate Directors Online

The coronavirus may have ended the office era. Even though governments allowed businesses to reopen, few workers have returned to offices. It is not clear how many will ever return. Tech giant Facebook, for example, plans to shift up to half of employee to remote work arrangements. Adjusting to this new normal requires firms to revisit and revise many practices and processes.

One of the most essential processes in corporate life is “onboarding” new directors: preparing them for their role at the company through a strategic process. Some analysts have even asked whether it is possible to onboard directors now. Yes, it is. In a new article, we describe how firms can adapt best practices in onboarding to the online context.

A. Onboarding Best Practices

Onboarding a new leader can never be “one-size-fits-all,” but there are general goals that organizations share.

Figure 1. Typical Onboarding Goals and Means to Achieve Them

A.1 Inform

Information is a broad term covering subjects ranging from the financial and organizational structure of the company to interoffice politics and group dynamics amongst the board. Different sorts of information must be conveyed in different ways.

A.1.1 Deliver Data

Provide organizational charts, financial reports, company charter and bylaws, codes of ethics and conduct, strategic plans, other key company documents. A comprehensive package of documents can convey much of the tangible information about an organization.

A.1.2 Tailor Information

Discuss legal, fundraising, ethical, and advocacy responsibilities of the board matters for which the new director is responsible. Deliver specific information through a meeting with the executive team and senior board members.

A.1.3 Convey Norms

Informal information, such as who’s who and unspoken rules, are communicated in subtle ways, such as over coffee or happy hour drinks. Norms can also be demonstrated by setting the appropriate tone in meetings and other communications.

A.2 Socialize

New directors must understand the organization’s culture and values. Organizers should deliberately incorporate socializing into the onboarding.

A.2.1 Set the tone

Clearly identify the organization’s code of ethics and general character, in word and action. This helps board members understand and absorb the organization’s values.

A.2.2 Create Mentors

Establish formal mentoring relationships or encourage informal communications with more experienced, knowledgeable board members to expedite the acclimation of the incoming director to the organization’s culture.

A.2.3 Meet Key Players

Schedule formal meetings between members of the executive team and organizational leaders. Directors should quickly learn who is responsible for what.

A.3 Motivate

Motivating directors through means besides financial compensation is essential in in the non-profit context. Motivational techniques can also provide incentives to for-profit directors, especially in corporations with a social purpose.

A.3.1 Establish Mission

Onboarding organizers must ensure that new directors know how their work contributes to the organization’s mission. Involve new directors in programs and activities that highlight the mission’s place in the organization’s day-to-day operations.

A.3.2 Set Goals

Setting goals motivates employees by giving direction and providing challenge. Encourage the directors to define and declare high but achievable expectations for the group.

A.3.3 Foster Autonomy

Creating a culture of trust motivates directors to be vulnerable and set ambitious personal goals that play to their strengths.

B. Online Onboarding

Organizations must be strategic when moving onboarding online. Delivery of formal information (facts and figures) can be more efficient online, whereas informal information (e.g., group dynamics) is harder to convey in a virtual meeting. Socialization occurs more naturally in face-to-face meetings, but it must be deliberately constructed online. Motivation occurs naturally in a community of trust, so organizers should strategically incorporate motivation into online onboarding.

Figure 2. Online onboarding requires new strategies that accomplish traditional goals.

B.1 Flipped Onboarding

Incoming board members should receive information ahead of time. The “flipped classroom” presents information online before class, freeing up class time for more engaging tasks. Likewise, flipped onboarding generates efficiencies and enhances learning for new directors.

B.1.1 Setup a Virtual Data Room (VDR)

Create a Virtual Data Room (VDR) to convey and secure digital information more efficiently than old-school three-ring binders can. A VDR is a space where digital files are easily organized and stored. Data rooms are more secure, more affordable, and easier to create than a towering stack of paper. Ask directors to review the VDR in advance of the onboarding program.

B.1.2 Tailor VDR Content

Create personalized video training and other custom content that introduces each incoming director to the onboarding environment and the organization. Provide director guidance on what to review carefully and what to skim or use for reference.

B.1.3 Engage With Activities

Avoid boring online meetings by designing learning activities for new directors. Create simulations that resemble common tasks so directors learn by doing.

B.2 Socially Distant Socialization

In-person onboarding retreats offer many opportunities for board members and corporate executives to meet each other. These social interactions are not as easy to cultivate online.

B.2.1 Host Plenary Sessions

Plenary sessions can set the tone and demonstrate what the organization values. Highlight positive attributes, skills, and interests of new directors to help them find common ground and establish their individual roles.

B.2.2 Break Out Groups

Break up large meetings into smaller groups. Seeing one another is an important aspect of socializing new team members, and this is lost when the group exceed 10 members.

B.2.3 Discuss Hot Topics

The CEO or chair should raise an issue that currently and substantially affects the corporation, then ask the new board members to discuss it. The hot topic socializes members as to what the organization deems important. Discussing hot topics can also model vulnerability and build trust. This also shows how the organization’s mission affects society, which motivates board members to accomplish the mission.

B.3 Motivation Online

Motivating directors is more challenging without the comradery of in person meetings. But by creating shared experiences and showing directors how their online work makes an impact on the real world will enhance their productivity and performance.

B.3.1 Build an Online Team

Feeling like part of a team increases motivation to accomplish challenging tasks. Get creative about creating a team environment. For example, mail an onboarding welcome box containing corporate swag to new directors. Invite them to don matching polo shirts, hoist engraved glasses, and join in a virtual toast. Invite small groups of board members into break-out rooms to discuss a topic related to their board function while having a drink “together.” Create a sense of togetherness even while working apart.

B.3.2 Plan Asynchronously

Online onboarding creates opportunities to have meetings and interactions even when people cannot be in the same place at the same time. Asynchronous meetings—where participants communicate through a platform on their own time—can be more efficient and productive. In fact, unnecessary live meetings cost U.S. businesses about $37 billion annually in lost productivity. Questions about what the organization should do can be discussed over apps like Slack, Soapbox, or Trello. Asynchronous goal-setting gives directors time to think about questions and research answers. This can be more productive than making major decisions in real time.

B.3.3 Promote Trust

Team members rely on each other to achieve goals when the organization has an environment of trust. Building trust requires showing vulnerability, which can be hard to do online, where you cannot easily see other’s reactions. Set a tone of vulnerability and trust by engaging in challenging discussions as you close the meeting. Hot topics are a great way to achieve this.


Onboarding organizers in the COVID-19 era must adapt and deal with a process of trial and error. By thinking creatively, onboarding organizers can begin to shape a comprehensive online onboarding program that works for their organization – one which can be even more effective than a traditional onboarding program.

This post comes to us from Seth C. Oranburg, a professor at Duquesne University School of Law, and Benjamin P. Kahn, a JD candidate at the school. It is based on their recent article, “Online Onboarding: Corporate Governance Training in the COVID-19 Era,” available here.