I think there’s a rule that any helpful tweet with 10k likes should be a blog post. So here’s mine.
Someone asked me today what it takes to successfully onboard someone remotely. Here's my wish list as an employee who has been onboarded 100% remote a couple of times— Justin Garrison (@rothgar) August 21, 2020
My past two on-boardings have taught me a lot about what it takes for me to feel comfortable in a new job. I owe these insights to my managers for good and bad experiences that showed me things that mattered to me and things that I thought important that turned out not to be.
I’m sharing them here to help you, as a new employee, have a better idea what to ask for, and for you, employer, give your new hire the best chance of success.
New jobs are stressful. All of this information comes after someone has decided:
- To leave a current job
- Applied to new positions
- Interviewed multiple times
- Negotiated a contract
- Told their current employer
- Said goodbye to co-workers
With that in mind empathy is key.
As the employer you probably lost someone who just went through the above experience or are growing and at risk of not meeting deadlines for product without someone who can on-board quickly and contribute to your goals.
How can you help them be sucessful? Here’s my tips.
I’m writing this from the perspective of the new hire since that’s the role I’ve played recently. Most of this advice applies to companies with at least 1000 employees.
Within a week of your start date someone, ideally your new manager, should reach out via email for a call. There are going to be some questions about day 1 expectations that should be answered before you start.
At minimum you should get a phone number to call/text when problems arise during on-boarding. This is also a great time to confirm their address for shipping equipment.
Sometimes addresses are not known until the employee fills out benefits forms (at least in the United States) and the address from their application may be old depending on how long they’ve been “in the system.”
This is the same for on-site on-boarding and even more critical for remote on-boarding. When you’re a stranger in a new place things can be hard, but it’s easy enough to ask a stranger and rely on human empathy. When you’re a stranger remotely you can’t casually reach out to strangers.
My manager 2 jobs ago handled this great
- They called asking if I had questions
- They let me know the number they were calling from was their cell and I should call any time
- They asked what was the best start time for me for recurring meetings (we were a multi-timezone team)
- They let me know what to expect for equipment, initial emails, and baseline for getting online
Getting an out of band contact number is super helpful and reassuring to have for a new hire.
The week before the new hire starts your manager should also assign an on-boarding buddy and at minimum they need to let them know their responsibilities and have them review the on-boarding documentation.
Before the new hire starts they should have all of their accounts created and their equipment should already be delivered.
I know new hires often are last minute things. I can’t tell you how many Friday afternoons I’ve been told a new person is starting Monday and needs everything set up.
This is a bad experience for everyone involved. If this keeps happening you need to figure out what it takes for your company to make hiring people and confirming their start date better for everyone involved.
If the new hire is waiting for accounts, access, or equipment on their first day or week it is likely a sign they won’t have everything they need for at least their first month.
If you are shipping them a laptop or security keys this is also a great opportunity to send them some on-boarding swag. A t-shirt, stickers, water bottle, or anything goes a long way to make someone feel welcomed.
You’ve finally made it to day 1! First thing should be a call with your manager or someone you’ve met before.
On-site onboarding is usually done with HR or an orientation team which is fine because there are other people having a shared experience, there are opportunities for casual banter, there’s signs/handbooks to read, and in person human empathy goes a long way to make people feel comfortable.
None of that works remotely.
You’re alone in your office/bedroom/kitchen and need some guidance. Even senior hires who will be more independant once settled will need to know where to get answers to questions and who to contact.
Ideally your manager will be available for immediate questions for at least 1⁄2 of the day. If your manager is not available then an on-boarding buddy who you’ve been introducted to should be readily available.
After or during your initial phone call your manager should send you an email with resources and links to read during your first week.
The email should include
- On-boarding timeline
- Important wiki spaces
- Slack channels
- Code repos or shared team drives
- Anything that will help you understand context for what the team is working on and why those priorities have been chosen
One of the links should be clear documentation about on-boarding expectations. How long it is expected you will have to get familiar with the people, processes, and social norms should be in writing not only for your benefit but for your team to be on the same page. Make sure this is written down and not verbal because the new employee will want to reference it multiple times.
Some people will be comfortable faster than expectations and some people will need longer. Both of those negotiations should happen with your manager based on the written expectations.
You need a baseline before you can negotiate changes. This is especially important if you will be on-call for critical support.
If your company has more than 100 people you also should have an internal website with an up to date org chart. Investing in making this site good will pay off huge as it frees up all new hires to find their own answers to the question “Who should I ask?”
My favorite org chart sites had the following features:
- Contact information including email and chat aliases
- Photograph of person and name pronunciation
- View of person in org chart including team, reports, and manager
- Ability to bookmark and add notes for people I’ve met or want to remember
- Tenure at the company including what percentage of the company was hired before and after them
Some optional features that can also be helpful - Person’s general location and timezone if remote or building/office location if on-site - History of employment including teams and projects they’ve worked on - Calendar availability or quick link to schedule a meeting
Some things you probably want to avoid in a company directory but will be helpful to have available at a team level - Cell number: some people may not want that information public or feel safe with it available to anyone - Birthday: this is too personal for large companies to have publicly available - Social media profiles: depending on your team this could be a great way to build trust but should up to the team to share
By the end of day one you should have all of your introduction meetings scheduled. Ideally, your manager or on-boarding buddy will schedule these and along with the invite send information about who is on the meeting.
A brief intro to introduce you and give names and roles is sufficient. You should be able to look up the rest of the information from the org chart. It’s more important that your manager introduces you to the people you will be meeting. A lot of social anxiety can go away with a trusted third party introduction.
You hopefully will have a call with your on-boarding buddy day 2 to answer new questions and let you get more context on what they do.
If work is assigned or tracked in a standard tool it would be great to have tasks created for you so you can see how work is coordinated. Your buddy should be able to explain the process and help you identify the most important work the team is currently doing.
Day 3 or 4 should have a follow-up call with your manager if you haven’t talked recently. Even with an on-boarding buddy it’s important for the first week to have regular check-ins with your manager to make sure you’re aligned with the most important things for you to do first.
At this point it’s nice to be invited to some of the undocumented areas of the culture. They’ve existed everywhere I’ve worked and come in a variety of forms.
Disney Animation had a “work room” which was a secret room where employees would unwind or celebrate.
In the digital world this often takes the form of no-management private chat rooms, out of band group chat (e.g. WhatsApp, sms), or public #YELLING channel. There needs to be space for that and personally I think within the first week is a good time to be invited.
pro-pro tip: first name it #yelling and *then* name it #ʏᴇʟʟɪɴɢ. That way when you search for "yelling" it will still show up.— Joe Beda (@jbeda) August 21, 2020
When you on-board in person it’s easy to socialize and meet people. Remotely you don’t get lunches together. There’s no common coffee room or ping pong tables. You have to be very intentional about building trust between people.
You have already been hired which means they trust your technical abilities. They trust your skills, but the best teams are built on psychological safety.
That safety can only come from trusting people’s integrity and being allowed to be vulnerable.
Humans need time to build that kind of trust, and it doesn’t come from pull requests or meetings. You’ll need to be very intentional about having time to build rapport.
On-site jobs have benefited from building this trust quickly through colocation, shared experinces (e.g. weather and traffic), and frequent hallway conversations. When you’re remote you have to make sure you still provide space and time for these conversations to happen because they won’t happen organically.
On-boarding remote isn’t incredibly different from in person but you have to be more explicit to create time for the new hire to get to know people better and you need to make sure things are written down and searchable for a new employee. I’m sorry but having a bullet point in your 80 page employee manual doesn’t count.
In person on-boarding benefits a lot from asking the same questions multiple times and meeting lots of people quickly through lunches and organic meeting spaces (e.g. coffee, cafe, bathrooms). Focus on making your information easy to search and ways you can help build trust on the team and your new hire should be able to on-board quickly.
The problems I've had on-boarding remotely are— Justin Garrison (@rothgar) August 21, 2020
- knowing what is expected of me
- figuring out social norms and process
- building trust and empathy
- understanding current WIP and context
- getting frequent feedback for how I'm doing
- finding who to ask
- remembering everything
I found a lot of great resources in replies to my thread (thank you all). Some things I don’t think would work at companies I’ve worked for but it may be worth reading to get ideas on how you would like to change on-boarding.