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How to Onboard Remotely

Remote
Onboarding

23 January, 2021

Chitrak Ojha
Chitrak Ojha

Director of Engineering at Twilio

Chitrak Ojha, Engineering Manager at Twilio, shares how the Covid-19 pandemics made remote onboarding the new reality and why effective communication is at the crux of any successful onboarding process.

Problem

The covid-19 pandemic profoundly impacted all aspects of our lives. The initial concerns of a smooth transition to remote work of already established teams were soon followed by the necessity to do hiring and onboarding of new people entirely remotely. As a manager, I had to ensure that the onboarding of people who joined us during Covid-19 should go as seamlessly as it would in more favorable circumstances. Most of our recent hires joined our company without meeting anyone in person, even during the interview stage.

Actions taken

Before a new hire joins our company I would meet with them and welcome them into the fold. I would also arrange for the team to meet them and organize a round of introductions. That would allow a new person to have some idea whom they will be working with and they would be able to put a face to a name. In the Covid-19 times, it only takes to set up one video call to make someone feel welcomed which is critical for long-term working success.

The onboarding is conducted by the company-based standards but when it comes to the team itself we have our own procedures. Depending on the new person’s experience they could be assigned a mentor or a buddy who they would regularly meet with. Their buddies or mentors should help them better familiarize themselves with the team, work, culture, etc., and would serve as contact points for any request/need a new hire has.

I personally like to have as much face time with a new person as possible. Considering our remote reality, I would avoid Slack or email and even for the briefest questions, I would set up for a 5-minute video chat. I would also encourage a new person to have as much face time with everyone on the team within the first month. Face time establishes a distinct personal connection that is founded on non-verbal cues and facial expressions unique to our communication as humans.

We would also host virtual hours where people would gather for a non-agenda meeting and be able to connect on a more personal level. Our new colleague could learn a great deal about other people but be also able to share their own personal stories, interests or hobbies. I would also get everyone on the team to set up a one-on-one with a new person -- irrespective if they would work on the same project -- to strengthen their connection and learn more about each others’ personal and professional goals and aspirations.

We also have a 30/60/90 day plan that lays out a course of action for the upcoming period. During their first month, a new hire should spend their time meeting as many people as possible and having one-on-ones with people outside of the team presenting themselves to the wider organization.

One of the biggest challenges with remote onboarding is that nothing can make up for the informal part of office networking and learning on the fly. An in-person (non-remote) setting would allow a new person to be in their office and listen to two people discussing a specific problem while in a remote setting, this activity would have to become more intentional. When two people would be discussing a problem in any channel of communication, they should invite anyone to join in. That way we would try to overcome the risk of siloed conversations and encourage new people to join in. We also have a public Zoom room where everyone could join and if two people would be having a discussion, everyone would be invited to join.

A new person would have to attend numerous meetings packed with problems they wouldn’t know much about. An in-person setting would enable them to ask their team members about the context and complexities over coffee or lunch, but now we have to formalize these conversations through one-on-ones and if a topic is of interest to a wider group, it should be announced in a channel. Understanding the context is perhaps the biggest challenge any new person will encounter and while it is achievable remotely it would require a more significant amount of time.

In addition, documenting some of the processes and practices that we previously shared informally and by the word of mouth required a supplemental effort and conscious focus. We introduced asynchronous discussions where a written document would serve as a starting point for a discussion that would be further documented in writing. Also, I strongly encouraged people to add all questions and clarifications directly to the document prior to the meeting and to have the whole discussion taking place in the document.

Lessons learned

  • Too many things we were taking for granted when onboarding was possible in person and we have to be conscious and call these things out as an important part of onboarding. For example, when a new person would join the team we would take them for lunch. Now we have to compensate for it with online personal interaction and allocate enough time for it. Some of these things are company-specific and each company had to understand what these are and how they could be replaced remotely.
  • Be prepared. We were ready for remote work before we went remote. Two weeks before we announced our transition we wrote a remote working agreement for the whole team. We had expectations set up and the initial version has been reiterated a couple of times after feedback from the team started to flow in. A new person should be included and be part of the process, including delivering feedback early on.
  • Even in this situation we should go with a growth mindset and constantly learn from different challenges and adjust along the way.

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