How to design a virtual onboarding event for newcomers?

Feb 16, 2021 | virtual events, virtual learning, virtual teams

Written by



Founder #virtualspacehero

Sveta Buko

Sveta Buko


Katja Keischnigg

Katja Keischnigg

Content Marketing

? Become a #virtualspacehero! ?

The year 2020 challenged all of us as we had to move from one day to the other – with more or less experience – to remote work / remote training / a remote learning environment. Students also found themselves suddenly in a 100% virtual learning environment, many of them being abroad on an exchange semester. This year, most of the universities continue to focus on virtual exchange semesters, but not many have understood the importance of a proper virtual team building to onboard the students. Universities should strive to make virtual onboarding seamless, dynamic and informative – but, this is not easy.

The following blog post gives an overview about how we designed and facilitated a virtual team building event to onboard the virtual exchange students for the IMC Fachhochschule Krems. The IMC University of Applied Sciences Krems is an Austrian university that offers majors in health, life sciences, business and digitalisation and engineering. Specifically, the following points will be elaborated on:

? Why is virtual team building and onboarding so important?
? What elements are important for virtual team building and onboarding?
? Building Engagement and Connections within the context of Internationalization at Home 
? How to connect learning and fun? The role of the facilitator and producer

Why is virtual team building and onboarding so important?

For many students going abroad is generally a fantastic experience even though it might be also a bit scary. A semester abroad provides students with the possibilities to get to know other cultures, meet new people from across the globe and step out of their comfort zone. A virtual exchange semester might not provide the students with the cultural on-site experience, of course not, but still there are many ways on how a virtual exchange semester can help students to develop their cross-cultural communication skills, self-awareness and of course broaden their global network. But, often lecturers forget about “the incomings”, sometimes we do not properly consider on how to include them into a cohort of students who have been studying together maybe for some semesters already. This might lead to frustration, reason why virtual onboarding for virtual exchange students is of utmost importance.

Virtual onboarding should never be a “one-and-done” video session or even phone call. As a university we need to conduct multiple, interactive video sessions that provide an overview of the university, and its programs and services, maybe incorporate meetings with lecturers, staff, other students and if a buddy system is in place – of course with the buddy. Very often these events are organised by international offices along with a cultural program for the students. Create a structured calendar of activities where the students have the chance to get to know each other. 

Not surprisingly, using video is critical to virtual onboarding processes. Still, be aware that your students/participants might be connecting from places where they might not have a bandwidth strong enough for a good video connection or might feel uncomfortable showing what they have in the background. Therefore, be receptive of your students’ situation. Check out a great article with several insights on “How to organise a virtual event: main aspects to consider” here.

What elements are important for virtual team building and onboarding?

A virtual onboarding process can include scheduled sessions, sucha s virtual Q&A sessions, one-on-one meetings with the international office and onboarding buddy and a virtual happy hour/lunch/coffee break to get to know other internationals better (e.g. regular hours organised in kumospace,, or any other tool). We designed a 3 hour virtual team building for the incoming students using the following elements and tools:

? Zoom as our video conference system
?️ as our engagement and polling tool / put here our word clouds as visual
?️ Google slides for collaboration in small teams
? Kumospace as a way to stimulate virtual socialization after the event
? LinkedIn as a platform for social and professional connection and networking. We also encouraged our students to consider the importance of the professional network they are creating and therefore used the following LinkedIn post  to connect them.

Often the best choice is to go with shorter events spread over a week or several weeks, rather than having a one-or two day long virtual event which can be very exhausting. Your onboarding should definitely include regular check-ins and touch points to make sure your international students don’t feel forgotten or overlooked.

Building Engagement and Connections within the context of Internationalization at Home 

Onboarding should be interactive to keep your students engaged and connected. Besides, the social side of onboarding is super important. Coach your lecturers to come up with creative ways to support your students to connect well.

We were using the breakout room functionality in multiple ways to keep the students engaged. We can’t retain information if we are sitting for too long. We extensively utilized the functionality within Zoom, such as creating breakout sessions, polling on some of the sessions and engaging on chat. This is where we have seen the most engagement and where students  are having fun and connecting.

In our case we opted for creating always different breakout rooms so as to maximise the number of interaction among the students. In other settings we might also always use the same breakout room configuration to allow for deeper bonds between the participants.

Some of the tactics that we like to use for maximizing engagement and social connection during these events are:

Encouraging the use of the chat: Students that are not able to, or do not want to participate on camera, will feel included and be more likely to engage and participate.
?️ Telling the participants to rename themselves: This is a great way to engage them right at the beginning of the event. Furthermore it is a possibility to already make similarities visible. It could for example include the country they are connecting from (e.g.Barbara/Austria), the region/city (e.g. Sveta/Gorizia) or the department that they work in (e.g. Katja/Marketing).
? Using objects / props: Is really helpful to get the participants to focus on the event and on the screen again as well as just making them smile.
? Asking for non-verbal reactions: Virtual (e.g. reactions function in Zoom) or a “real” (e.g. thumbs up into the camera) reaction might resonate more with some participants than having to answer verbally. Could be used when asking if instructions were clear for example.
?️ Setting up breakout rooms for connections: Working together in small teams might contribute to the students feeling more comfortable with each other which can lead to more engagement and on camera participation. 
? Music / DJ: Having a DJ set a positive mood when the event starts creates a more friendly and interesting environment. The tension that might be created while waiting for all the participants to join, is immediately taken away. Everybody will feel more comfortable and be more likely to actively contribute. 
? Make it a magic show connected to culture: If a part of the theoretical input is connected to something so magical as a real magician as we often have it in our events, all eyes and ears will be exactly where you want to have them.
? Engaging via email before the event and also afterwards: Preparing the participating students and involved stuff,will ensure a smooth course of the event and get everybody excited for it. Asking for feedback after the event can help to make your future events even better. It is also the best way to get pictures that were eventually taken during the event or other needed content.

How to connect learning and fun? The role of the facilitator and producer

Keeping participants engaged in the virtual space is a lot of work, therefore a thoroughly planned interaction design, a techy producer and super animated facilitators are of utmost importance.

“I am about twice as animated when facilitating virtually compared to an in-presence setting. Nonverbal communication, my digital body language, how I am using facial expressions and looking at the camera, calling out people by name are essential strategies for me.” (Barbara Covarrubias Venegas)

At #virtualspacehero productions we always aim at designing and facilitating EXTRAordinary and memorable events, reason why we always work in tandem with a producer and main facilitator or even co-facilitator to ensure a flawless participants experience. The producer focuses on technology (creating the breakout rooms, trouble-shooting, all things tech), whilst the facilitator can totally stay focused on content and connection. 

To keep participants engaged, we recommend you to use the following frequently :

  • ask participants to use the chat function
  • ask for signals (raise your hand, non-verbal reactions, asking for energy levels…)
  • use something interactive or engaging (the latest) every 20 minutes (breakout room activities where your participants discuss a question for five to eight minutes with other onboarders
  • having two facilitators also help to keep attention high
  • Nurture opportunities to connect with one another

Our virtual on-boarding content was rooted in the key topics: addressing challenges and drivers for working/studying online; virtual collaboration strategies/techniques/tools; time management and project management tips for the online space; engagement impact and management of attitudes.  Content delivery was mixed with the interactive assignments where students had to discuss questions in the small virtual teams, come up with solutions and present team insights to the rest of the intercultural teams.

Conclusion: Now is not the time to abandon onboarding:
it’s time to ? double our efforts ?

First impressions are everything. How you welcome your exchange students and usher them into your university will have an enormous impact on how engaged they are and how quickly they reach their full learning potential. Virtual onboarding is a new practice for most universities. Universities that nail virtual onboarding will have better engagement, retention, and satisfaction among their students. And there’s almost nothing that will turn students into enthusiastic university ambassadors as much as seeing your international team putting in an extra effort to make them feel welcomed and valued.

And at the end your participants will leave with the following feelings

? A huge thanks to
IMC Fachhochschule Krems ?

Are you planning to organise an EXTRAordinary and memorable virtual event? Well then, get in touch with us! We are looking forward to hearing from you!

We’ve experimented with many options and formats, we design and produce EXTRAordinary and memorable virtual event, offering event moderation, live streaming support, moderators for small group activities, visual artists, musicians, video creation, event photography, personal trainers for stretching exercises during the breaks and of course DJ #virtualspacehero – without losing the impact of your message!


Persuasion is the centerpiece of business, training, teaching and event activities. We want to convince customers to buy our company’s products or services, employees and colleagues to go along with a new strategic plan or reorganization, investors to buy (or not to sell) our stock, and engage our learners in our training. But, too often we get lost in boring presentations with too many PowerPoint slides, dry memos, and hyperbolic missives from the corporate communications department (Fryer 2003).

This blog article summarises the main points from a LinkedIn Live with Charles-Louis de Maere (Explorer at Exploration Labs SRL) and Barbara Covarrubias Venegas (Founder #virtualspacehero).

Charles-Louis de Maere

Charles-Louis de Maere

Explorer at Exploration Labs SRL

Table of contents

What is a story or a fairytale? What essential elements do we need to consider? What makes a good story?

A story is the telling of a true or fictional event, in a way that the listener experiences or learns something just by the fact of hearing the story. A story gives information, experience, attitude or a point of view. And like all stories, fairy tales are meant to entertain. Some of them have a good or an evil character, others use dragons or monsters, but not all the stories follow these patterns. Their main purpose is to give morals in a way the audience will remember.

"Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten."  Neil Gaiman

? Think about the context
When picking stories for a workshop, first consider who you are talking to, and what you want to address with them. Once you have this clear, it is important to choose a story that is related to that topic and that people can associate with.

? It is not necessary to reinvent the wheel
Using existing stories is much easier than creating a new one. There are people that have been writing stories for decades and there's loads of wisdom to be learned in their stories. When choosing the story, make sure it is short enough so you can handle it and the story is clear enough for your participants to work on it.

? Consider Cultural Exchange
In our workshops we might find people joining from different parts of the world, and when picking stories or fairy tales there is a cultural element that we also have to be aware of. Stories have to be carefully selected, some of them could convey stereotypes and misconceptions, and depending on your cultural background stories could even have a different meaning. However, if we take a step back and take a deeper intention, there's a shared understanding that can be very interesting when applied in our training. Interact with your audience around the same story and ask them to go through what the story meant for them. Sharing deep thoughts and then analysing how that relates to someone coming from a completely different culture, can be an impactful experience for your workshop!

 “It's an interesting step into inclusion if we start sharing a story, to see how the story resonates with your participants from different cultural backgrounds, to see what they make out of it”.  Charles-Louis de Maere


Beyond Cinderella and Arielle, what fairytales can we use in our training?

If we tell you about The Three Little Pigs or Little Red Riding Hood, you probably have already heard of them, and we can trigger some themes behind these stories. It is easier to talk about topics you want to address through stories (e.g. communication, hierarchy, conflicts…) rather than talking about these different themes directly. You can either make your participants extract a learning concept from your story, or propose one. Here are a few suggestions about stories and themes you could use in your virtual training:

?“The Emperor's New Clothes” - Hans Christian Andersen
Themes that can be discussed:
- Why is it hard for people to tell the truth, and why are we afraid of doing so? What role does hierarchy play?
- Why do people lie to make a good impression on others? Why do people tend to repeat rumours even if these are not true?
- What type of mask do you carry, if you know things aren’t true but you don’t dare to say it? 

? “The Three languages” - The Brothers Grimm 
This story could be used to talk about:
- What is useful learning?
- How do we measure the impact of learning? 

? “The Snail and the Rosebush” - Hans Christian Andersen
Could be great to debate about:
- How do people deal with their own situations?
- Are we aware of the impact we can make with our actions?
- Do we give the best of us? What have you done for your inner development?

How can we learn to tell stories and use fairytales?

When working in the virtual space sometimes we are stuck in keeping our learners engaged, and using stories for this particular learning setting is a great way for having our audience involved with the topic we want to discuss. Charles-Louis de Maere has been using stories for loads of virtual workshops with a tremendous engagement from people all over the world. He believes that stories connect one another because we get through stories to emotions, and we cannot agree more!

? Run it in a space that you trust
If it is the first time you include a story in your training you might say “I am not ready for this”, but you can start with a small group to see how you feel with storytelling and how your learners interact with your stories. There's no need to go with a big group at first!

? Take a story you know, an existing one, and a short one.
Pick a story that you can relate to and “easily” match with the topic you want to deal with during the workshop. The most important thing when using storytelling is to use something that people can relate to. For example, you have noticed that the people you are working with do not always tell the truth, and you want to discuss that usually the reason is because they are scared. Therefore, “The Emperor's New Clothes'' story might be a good fit to present this subject.

? Plan how to work around with the story
Once you have the story chosen, you can then either ask them to read it ahead of the workshop (if the story is long), read it yourself to the group or you can organise a reading session, e.g. in breakout rooms. This depends on how long the story is and what your objectives are.

? Prepare questions and exercises
We want the group to be engaged and participative during the session, and having questions and exercises prepared in advance will help you to interact with them and relate better to the story.

? Ask the right questions. Sometimes as trainers and facilitators, we ask too complex questions. Ask questions where your participants need to take a different perspective than their own. If you are using “The Emperor's New Clothes” for example, some questions you could ask are: “Which character do you feel the closest to?”, “Do you feel you are like the Emperor? Do you consider that you are more like the child of the story, that is always calling out the truth? Or do you relate more to the Minister, who got into a situation where he could not escape?”.

? Make your participants work together. Another good exercise where the learners can connect with each other is to ask them to find the moment of the story where they see the tipping point. You can then propose to them to work out another ending, or a different way of handling that situation.

If you have an online workshop, consider moving attendees into small groups in breakout rooms, or working on a reflection activity by themselves to then pick it up in a debriefing session to relate it to the context. Learn How can we create interaction with breakout rooms in our virtual live sessions?  in this #virtualspacehero blog post.

Why is persuasion so difficult, and what can you do to set people on fire?

Persuasion is about making your argument successful in a confident and knowledgeable way, and this could be difficult when the person you are trying to persuade does not agree with the logic you are using to convince them. If you need to make an argument about a topic about which you feel very passionate about, don’t use rhetoric. Tell a story instead. Sometimes people are using stories only because it is en vogue. However if the story does not share elements with the context and is not related to the topic to be addressed, then there´s no point in using a story. We want our participants to remember both the story and the context! Here are a few suggestions:

? Read more fairy tales
You usually read fairy tales for your enjoyment but you can also  reflect on them. After reading these stories, people usually empathize with them and continue thinking about it for a longer while, which could be a great exercise for you to also discover the topics you want to address in your training.

“Those that are in the learning and development space and are reading for children, for another adult, or are reading simply for their own joy, we see these stories from a totally different angle. There is another light on the fairytales we read.” Barbara Covarrubias Venegas.

? Stories can be inclusive and engaging
The simplicity goes back to the stories. Stories allow us to talk about complex matters, using a simple structure that everyone understands. Once we start using complex words, we all have different understandings of it, but if we put it in a narrative it can create a common understanding. 

? Use your creativity
When we switched to the virtual space, many left behind all the things we were using in a normal training in presence context. Use the whole virtual space that you have: Think about playing with the visuals including objects, pictures, drawings and even sound effects on our virtual training sessions. Read here more about How to use objects/props in your virtual training?

? Let the others discover it on their own
If you tell a story and then tell your audience immediately what the learning points are, what's the point of it? Invite others to put their thoughts and their perspectives and then you can work from there to have a very powerful session.

 “The one who does the talking, does the learning”  Jen York-Barr

? Be open and learn from your sessions
As facilitators and learning designers, it is an advantage to be curious and have the courage of not knowing what is going to happen in your workshops. It is a good opportunity to learn from the discussions, as they can go in a completely different direction than you might have thought. 

? Understand that it can go wrong
Even if you selected a story carefully, it could still not work out, and it is all right as long as we have that conversation and we use that opportunity to discuss it. Stories have been written in a certain different historical context that is not the one we have today, there were some other truths. If you see something is not working, you can always try something else!


WE ARE CURIOUS! What was your favourite fairy tale
Share with us what was your favorite story when you were child or now as an adult! We would love to hear which stories you are thinking of including in your next workshop or training.

? Resources?

Bronwyn Fryer (2003): Storytelling That Moves People, HBR Magazine
Covarrubias Venegas, Barbara (2020): How to use objects/props in your virtual training?
Covarrubias Venegas, Barbara/Keischnigg, Katja (2021): How can we create interaction with breakout rooms in our virtual live sessions? 

?  If you want to rewatch the LinkedIn live, you can find it on our #virtualspacehero YouTube channel ?

?  Listen to our Podcast on the go ?


Whether it’s an online meeting, a presentation via webinar, or live online training, engagement is the main question on everyone’s mind. Will it be worth my time to attend or will it be an opportunity to check email instead? Interaction is the answer to successful engagement and using the features of the platform is the answer to interaction. However, the features alone do not engage the participants. It is what you choose to do with those features that will make the difference in your next virtual training, webinar, or meeting.

This blog article sums up the main points from a LinkedIn Live talk about interaction and engagement Kassy LaBorie (Virtual Classroom Master Trainer | Blog Virtual Hero Trainer Tips) and Barbara Covarrubias Venegas (Founder #virtualspacehero). 

Kassy LaBorie

Kassy LaBorie

Virtual Classroom Master Trainer

Table of contents

What elements should be considered when you plan your virtual training sessions?

Way too often in the virtual space, the focus lies on the task hand, rather than on the people that have to complete it and their surroundings. Some of the aspects that are often forgotten about or ignored but can make a huge difference in the quality of your virtual training will be listed and explained below.

? Have a clear objective. The used activities and interactions should help the participants reach an objective set at the beginning of the planning process. Of course, this objective is different for every session. It might be better teamwork or better knowledge about a certain software or process. Once the objective is set, the activities that will ensure that it will be reached can be chosen.
? Allow the training to be about the participants. Virtual training sessions are about so much more than smiling on camera or sharing your screen and nice slides. They are about getting the participants engaged and helping them to learn what they need to learn. Truly getting people engaged in a virtual training will only work by involving them as much as possible, letting them work by themselves, and asking them questions.? Set expectations about how to be in the virtual space. Many have been thrown into the cold water during the pandemic when it comes to working virtually. Meaning that many have not learned the proper “etiquette” of the virtual space yet.

“The way we were thrown into the virtual space because of the pandemic certainly did not bring out our best behavior. For example, we are used to being muted all the time, and if participants are asked to unmute themselves, you sometimes  can even see them taking calls or talking to someone in the background.” (Barbara Covarrubias Venegas)

Therefore, it is important to communicate certain expectations to the participants before the virtual training. Specifically, the following points should be included:

  • How are the participants expected to set up their environment? 
  • In what way will the communication with the group take place? e.g. verbally (headphones and a working microphone might be needed), or in a written form
  • Technology set-up: e.g. proper audio settings and internet connections, so other participants are not disturbed, etc.
  • General behavior expectations: e.g. no phone calls are to be taken, etc., participants are invited to be active via chat or audio etc..

For example, before the first session of a #virtualspacehero events our participants receive the following mail with instructions. Besides, we often attach a short video explaining the platform so that all participants feel onboarded from a technological point of view.


In #virtualspacehero events you will be engaging in live conversations with real human beings. Expect to be heard and seen throughout. As with any remote meeting, each participant brings part of the meeting space with them. Please help yourself and others by ensuring you:

? Participate from a quiet place.
? Have a stable broadband internet connection. Optimum bandwidth, i.e. internet speed on your side will be at least 10 Mbps download / upload. You can measure it using
? Use a headset.
? Turn your video camera on (if possible!).

To optimise your set-up, follow these suggestions on how to have a great video conferencing setup.  Join on a laptop or desktop. The workshops are immersive and experiential; you will have a better experience if you can interact with a variety of tools easily.

What else do we need? ONLY your positive ENERGY ? and positive vibes ?, which is the most important!


? Let the (adult) participants work and give them enough time to do so. Particularly, when working with adults, there is no need to spell out absolutely everything for them. They will have their opinions, stories, and experiences about most topics, and including them in the training will make it way more interactive and memorable. Also, when working with a new software the participants should actually work with it and not just read instructions from a PowerPoint presentation. Training is there, so what needs to be done in the daily work-life once the training is over can be practiced.  However, this approach takes much longer than the frontal presentation, which needs to be considered when designing the time frame for the training.
? Keep it simple. There are so many great interactive tools that can bring a lot of fun and effectiveness into the training. Despite the vast offer, it has to be remembered that including too many different platforms or tools can just be very overwhelming for participants that are not used to it. Ultimately it might even get in the way of the process or the final goal of the training. The goal is the learning and not the tool!

? Want to know more about how to create Spectacular Live Online Training?

What features are essential to give a trainer the best chance of connecting and creating connections?

“I do not think that it is difficult to connect in the virtual space. I think that people are making it difficult by not paying attention to more than just a lecture and smiling at the camera. The bar in terms of behavior was way too low for way too long. My mission is to raise this bar and have people do better.”  (Kassy LaBorie)

Very often, everybody is expected to be “muted” when they enter a virtual meeting room. Because of that, it is often overseen what a powerful way of creating engagement and connection the mute/unmute button can be. 

? Creating a more participant-centered training approach also means granting them the power to decide for themselves when it is appropriate for them to be muted or unmuted. This, of course, also depends on the size of the group. A group with 200 participants cannot have all microphones on at all times. In a small group, however, this is possible and can contribute to a successful outcome, as people learn while contributing. And inherently people are less active in joining the conversation if they have to be on mute.

Another easy and fun way of creating connections with and between participants are so-called ice-breakers at the beginning of the training or during a break. Three ideas can be found here:

?️ Prepare a slide with 3-5 different pictures (e.g. different animals or flowers) and ask the participants which one of the images describes them or their current situation best and why. Then have everyone turn on their camera and microphone and one after the other answers. In that manner, everyone can get to know each other a little without any performance pressure.

? The above-mentioned exercise also works with asking the participants to take an object from anywhere close to them at that moment. This can also be used to debrief at the end of a session: look for an object and describe how that object relates to one learning/key takeaway.

? Even theoretical knowledge about a website or software can be acquired in a fun way! Prepare theoretical questions that relate to the knowledge that needs to be acquired, as well as some fun ones in between. Then let the participants go to the website or browse the software and find the answers themselves.  They can either do that alone or in small groups. Dividing them into groups can increase the fun and teamwork even more as the “treasure hunt” can be turned into a little competition between the different groups.

? Want to know “How you can create interaction with breakout rooms?"

What techniques can we use to drive engagement, interaction, and learning in our virtual sessions?

There is one simple golden rule in regards to driving engagement: TRANSFORM your in-presence activities to best fit for the virtual space. Conversion is not enough! Here are some starting points that you should consider during your planning process and the facilitation:

? Listen to the participants
? Ask relevant questions
? Participants should be able to feel good on camera (at the beginning or before the meeting give them some tips about camera settings, positioning themselves, etc.)
? Give the participants opportunities to actively participate
? Use all available features as much as possible without overwhelming the participants (e.g. chat, annotation tool, raised hand/green tick function,.....)
? Encourage people to speak and answer instead of you as a trainer saying everything first

“The person doing the talking is often the person doing the learning.” Jen York-Barr

Sometimes it seems like we have already accepted that the same level of interaction and engagement as in real-life training sessions cannot be reached in the virtual space. That is by no means true! Become a #virtualspacehero and learn how to make your virtual training sessions as interactive as possible. ??

? Want to know “How to shape meaningful interactions?"

? Resources?

Covarrubias Venegas, Barbara (2020): How to use objects/props in your virtual training?
Covarrubias Venegas, Barbara/Keischnigg, Katja (2021): How can we create interaction with breakout rooms in our virtual live sessions? 
Abril Canale & Barbara Covarrubias Venegas (2021): How to design online courses to bring learning journeys alive?
Abril Canale & Barbara Covarrubias Venegas (2021): How can we use stories and fairytales in our training

?  If you want to rewatch the LinkedIn live, you can find it on our #virtualspacehero YouTube channel ?

?  Listen to this episode on the go ?

Follow us and join the conversation on your preferred channel!


Become a ? #virtualspacehero

Continue reading our articles

How to master hybrid meetings?

How to master hybrid meetings?

The day will come when we will again be able to decide freely how and where to hold a meeting. But one thing is already clear: in presence meetings will be much less frequent. Instead, we will get used to mixtures of remote and face-to-face. Read here how to master hybrid meetings.

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