One of my most frustrating leadership experiences involved setting things aright after a near miss with a remote team. A business pivot meant owning and leading a critical business area notorious for its jungles of impenetrable technical debt.
This area was so important (and plagued with severe quality issues) that I also got to lead a remote customer support team; the team’s primary responsibility was to manage the never-ending deluge of customer complaints. Turning around the group and paying off the technical debt took months and is an excellent story for the near future.
My mistake was assuming that the remote team was already fully equipped with executing on required tasks. Based on this assumption, I spent several mornings clarifying expectations, documenting milestones and gaining consensus for the long-term fix strategy. I remember being excited after the remote team finally communicated that the project had been set in motion.
Barely a month later, I realized in dismay that the project was speeding towards a wreck! Where did it all go wrong? What was missing? Ahh, that was a memorable day.
While doing a blameless postmortem, I noticed that the team had not been appropriately onboarded and struggled to complete basic tasks.
This helped shape a remote ramp-up plan and turn around the team – they went from zero to hero over the year. Better still, I learnt multiple lessons that proved helpful when I had to ramp up more engineers over the covid-enforced stay-at-home period.
3 Pillars for Successful Onboarding
Successful onboarding requires 3 key ingredients:
- Technical: Getting the new hires to become productive in the technology stack and environment. I wrote about simplifying the technical onboarding with a skills matrix here.
- Social: Building relationships and forging connections amongst team members. Read more about going through the 5 development stages here.
- Organizational: Assimilating new hires into the org and imbuing norms, mores and customs. This also includes evolving org values and culture based on new hire input.
The challenge with remote Onboarding
Ramping up engineers is challenging, ramping up remote engineers is doubly challenging and ramping up remote hires in a different geographic location is triply challenging.
Multiple things make it tricky. For example, it is difficult to nurture deep relationships and connections – imagine having lunch with someone 10000 miles away. Virtual meet-ups, eh? Virtual lunches only work for contiguous timezones; such arrangements fall apart for remote locations – would you want to eat lunch while your teammate is having dinner?
It is also easy to miss subtle human cues over Teams/Zoom meetings. There is a higher propensity to misunderstand expressions, people and context.
Here are some of the techniques I have found to work quite well:
Manager and New hire
Bond by forging deep connections
It is nigh impossible to meet remote hires for a quick lunch, grab coffee with them or go for a walk. These are essential ingredients for building confidence – a fundamental requirement for high performing teams. Trusting relationships are nurtured by careful infusions of attention, time and energy.
For folks starting remotely, I try to close the gap by doing the following:
- First impressions matter: I reach out to them before their official start date to introduce myself. I also ensure everything is set up and ready to go before the first day at work.
- Relationship building starts from day 1: We start 1:1s immediately – the focus is to build an operating manual for both of us. I share my about me doc, explain the space and introduce them to onboarding buddies and the entire team. I also ask for feedback on what could be better with the process and then incorporate it.
- Regular check-ins: I have found such check-ins to be very useful since most new folks hesitate to ask for help. I tell them I plan to check in regularly to pre-empt convos; the goal is to make new hires feel welcome. Also, knowing that everyone is invested in their success and growth is reassuring. Be careful not to overwhelm new hires; finding the right balance is a tricky balancing act, and you’ll probably get it wrong a few times before finding the right touch.
Team and New hire
Have a team meeting wherein everyone introduces themselves and then shares something unique about themselves. Such discussions reveal shared interests, humanizes the team and facilitates serendipitous exchanges.
Have each team member describe themselves in authentic personal terms and share with the group.
Make a virtual group to encourage real-time discussions, spawn intra-team connections and engender light-hearted banter. Such arenas allow the team culture to experiment and establish the desired team culture.
Although chats can be noisy and distracting, they allow team members to forge direct relationships rather than intermediaries. Serendipitous events also sprout out of such places, e.g. a team member decided to share funny memes every Friday.
If multiple new hires are onboarding simultaneously, you might want to facilitate them meeting one another and sharing their experiences.
Every tribe has recognized routines, practices and values. Some examples include stand-ups, planning, retrospectives, 1:1s, quarterly team reviews etc. Setting up explicit rhythms from the start helps the team quickly establish its identity. Make sure you add remote folks to mailing lists, invite them to all meetings, also schedule meetings to occur at the best times.
Onboarding buddies help unblock new hires, facilitate integration into the team and hand-hold them through the process. He is the person all the gist and chit-chat go through; he helps the new hire navigate the informal org structure and is expected to be more available than managers who might have urgent or pressing issues disrupt them.
Onboard well to prevent future attrition. Which is cheaper? Investing 100 hours in providing a fantastic experience for your team such that they stay around versus having to spend 150 hours recruiting and then onboarding again one year from now?
Onboarding can make or mar an organization’s retention rate. Excellent onboarding leads to higher retention and productivity boosts in the long run. Invest that time and effort – it pays off.
What techniques and/or challenges have you faced while ramping up new employees?