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Remote Onboarding: A New Reality?

Onboarding
Remote

12 October, 2020

rabha Matta, Senior Product Manager at SquareTrade, recalls her recent remote onboarding and compares it to her past in-person onboarding experiences.

Problem

I used to work in large companies like Twitter or Slack where processes are neat and smooth and a small startup where not everything is structured and well documented. Therefore, I experienced vastly different onboarding processes throughout my career. However, in spite of those differences, the difference between onsite onboarding and the remote one is incomparable. This particularly applies to a PM role because a PM role is all about communication, interaction, and understanding different projects/products.
 

Actions taken

When I was working in the office, I could approach most people without a formal appointment -- over a coffee or lunch -- ask questions and learn more about things. But with the recent, abrupt shift to remote work, I encountered several problems during onboarding.
 

First off, I was not able to associate a person with a name because I have never seen them before and I was not able to communicate most effectively that way. In my previous company, people would always have their video on, which is not the case with my current company. Due to bandwidth issues, oftentimes I could only hear but not see my colleagues. Being unable to interpret their facial expressions and non-verbal cues I was more reluctant to ask questions and it was much harder for me to build rapport.
 

Then, as Covid-19 unexpectedly hit, onboarding documentation for a PM role was incomplete. If I were in the office, that wouldn’t be a problem because I could always reach out to my managers and peers and ask them questions. But now, I have to find the document -- which is often a challenge in itself -- and if I stumble upon something that needs clarification I wouldn’t know who to ask and it would require an additional effort. For example, I had a hard time going through one document and was pointed to its original author for clarification. However, that was of no use, since the document underwent multiple revisions and without talking to the current manager I was unable to understand the context. Also, online onboarding affected my ability to effectively coordinate work between multiple stakeholders. The product I am currently working on connects invoice integration of a warranty and helping a person file the claim. Also, when the claim is approved it helps integrate it with the end-partner who should repair or replace a product. As I am situated in the midst of the process, my role requires constant communication with other stakeholders to ensure the seamlessness of the process and online communication makes everything harder.
 

The same applies to my gelling with the engineering team because my requirements would be implemented by them. Working remotely and not being able to communicate directly adds to vagueness. I am constantly asking them if they have any additional questions, did they understand the requirements, do they have some blockers, etc? Naturally, a PM job involves a lot of communication with Engineering, but remote work requires overcommunication.
 

My manager addressed some of my problems by making sure that I’m always shadowing her and that I am attending all team meetings. But a negative side effect of this approach is that I have less time to spend on my actual work and work from home only adds to the stress. However, the good thing about online onboarding is that you can record all the meetings (if other people are consenting) or at least demoing sessions and listen back if unable to attend.
 

Also, remote onboarding means that I should be constantly checking in with my manager. I would Slack them, asking them to take a look at my work before we review it together later. If we were in the office, that would be just glancing over my shoulder at the screen, but now it requires a more focused effort on both sides as I try to keep my manager freshly updated and in the loop.

 

Lessons learned

  • Remote onboarding is far more demanding in terms of constant check-ins, slowed-down communication, filling the gaps in the incomplete documentation, inability to directly interact with multiple stakeholders, etc. Covid-19 unexpectedly hit and many companies were simply unprepared for remote onboarding.
  • I was the first person to join remotely in my role and this is an opportunity for me to start creating better documentation and helping any other person who will be onboarded remotely. I already compiled a list of people to get in touch with for a specific set of questions and will keep working to make it all complete.

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