Why Effectively Onboarding Remote Engineers Will Give Companies a Competitive Advantage
The Core Principles for Bringing on Fresh Engineering Talent During and After Covid
For better or worse, our jobs are an important source for meeting our needs as humans. Without places to go or people to see, the global pandemic only puts more pressure on our work life.
Long before Covid, structured onboarding proved to be directly correlated to an employee’s happiness, productivity, and ultimate success in their role. In other words, first impressions are important, and onboarding is a way for a company to show new team members that they can deliver on our social and emotional needs.
There are huge implications for business, too. Low productivity and retention are expensive, and structured onboarding processes result in a lift in both: 62% and 50%, respectively, among new hires according to one study.
With such an obvious impact on the bottom line, it’s no wonder that many companies, especially in tech, devote significant resources to onboarding new talent. Pre-Covid, companies would often fly new recruits into HQ for a week or two of onboarding activities, which might include meet-and-greets with executives, team bonding, and technical training.
Even though remote work is nothing new for software engineers, remote junior engineer roles have historically been rare because of the importance of in-person training early in one’s career. I know tech leaders who would never have hired a remote engineer unless they were very senior and had years of remote working experience.
Now, they have no choice. Tech companies growing their teams must adapt their processes and iterate fast while also remaining in line with company values. This is no easy task.
After one month working fully remote at my first role as a software engineer, I am experiencing first-hand how critical the onboarding process is to my ability to integrate with the team, understand the business and engineering organization, and make a meaningful impact.
These are the five core onboarding values that I believe will best level up practices for bringing on remote team members.
1. Lean into vulnerability
With the launch of Reed Hastings’ new book about Netflix’s trajectory, many are revisiting the company’s famous culture slides. 10+ years and 19M+ views later, this resource continues to be one of the most influential models for business leaders aiming to consciously craft their company cultures. Two of the five core Netflix principles relate to honesty and openness: At Netflix, they “share information openly, broadly, and deliberately” and “are extraordinarily candid with each other.”
Taking a page from Reed Hastings’ book, I believe that companies can accomplish a lot by embodying openness and honesty early in the onboarding process.
Particularly in a time of uncertainty, it’s important to set reasonable expectations. Remote onboarding will inherently be imperfect. It’s okay to explicitly express that to new team members.
Brené Brown’s most important teaching (and the topic of one of the most-watched TED talks of all time) centers on the power of vulnerability. Companies may be tempted to put on a polished and perfect front to new faces.
But demonstrating vulnerability is one of the most important ways companies can begin to build trust with their employees, especially in their first few days and weeks and especially during a pandemic.
2. Prioritize one-on-one connections
When presented with dozens of new team members in my first few days on the job, it felt impossible for me to form deep connections in a short few weeks only on Zoom. Although meeting new teammates is important (and discussed in #5), a new person’s energy would be better used focusing on developing just one super-strong connection.
The best part of my onboarding experience was that on day one, I received an “onboarding buddy.” (He, importantly, was not my manager.) My onboarding buddy’s sole job was to bring me up to speed on what the team was working on, answer any questions, and pair program as much as I needed.
(Even new senior engineering hires at my current company get onboarding buddies.) Although it’s a heavy resource lift for one individual, the buddy system is more efficient than dividing the task between multiple people and dragging out the process over many weeks.
3. Create structure from day one
A sudden loss of routine was one of the most striking changes to our day-to-day during quarantine. Without a daily commute or even a reason to change out of my pajama bottoms, mornings blurred into afternoons which blurred into nights.
Starting a new job felt like an exciting opportunity to create structure in my day, but I wasn’t sure how this would play out in a remote setting. In an office, help would be just a quick shout away.
Team members might even be able to visibly see if I needed assistance. None of this is possible when working from home, so regular check-ins in my first two weeks were critical.
It was also beneficial to have a clear set of expectations to keep the beginning of my time more structured. My team used a Trello board to outline a checklist of tasks to complete, people to meet, and resources to read through by the end of my first day, my first week, and first month.
4. Tee up quick wins early and often
Many companies, including Netflix, have a core value about optimizing for impact rather than perfection. (I’ve also seen this expressed as “results over process.”)
The first few days and weeks are the perfect time to share this value with a new recruit. Coming up with quick and easy wins for the new team member to complete on the first day or two demonstrates a strong commitment to productivity.
In my new role, I was able to submit my first PR (in programming, this is when you make a small change to a codebase that is reviewed and then put into the live application) in my first few days. The accomplished and productive feeling from my first week continues to fuel my daily motivation to make a difference on my team.
5. Foster community with the team at large
The workplace always provided me with an important source of community. When I moved to New York in my early 20s, I made some of my closest friends during mid-day coffee breaks and after-hours drinks with coworkers.
While starting a new job is normally an opportunity to form new connections, it feels almost impossible without the spontaneous moments in the elevator or a quick chat before a meeting begins. In our Covid reality, I believe that the onus is on the company to facilitate introductions across the team.
In my new role, I had one-on-ones with everyone on my squad (i.e. a sub-team with a few engineers, a designer, and a product manager) and the other new engineers who started around the same time as me. I also participated in the company’s Donut program, a Slack integration that randomly pairs team members from across the organization for a virtual coffee (or donut.)
These random weekly Zoom calls are the only way I meet people outside of the Product and Engineering teams. I have now met members of the sales, customer support, and marketing teams. Donut is such a simple hack, but it’s made me feel like an integral part of the company’s broader community.
As we move into the next season of the pandemic and many companies are beginning to reopen headcount, remote onboarding will inevitably become part of the new normal. With consciously designed onboarding processes, companies will be able to avoid higher turnover, lower productivity, and unhappy employees.
This is the perfect time to consciously redesign onboarding with a people-first and values-driven approach. The ultimate goal: make people feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves.