Efficient remote engineering onboarding done in 6 months

Nicolas Cava
Nicolas Cava

Nicolas Cava

13 minutes read— Edited on Nov 4th, 2022
Efficient remote engineering onboarding done in 6 months
Picture by Brooke Cagle

When hiring in remote engineering teams, having a cohesive plan for onboarding new hires sets a great start and gives all the information they need to perform well. It also increases retention and builds you an excellent reputation as a company externally, helping you attract talent.

The first months when joining a new team is a period of uncertainty for the new hires. It is not always easy to grasp as you won't probably remember what it was when you started. Onboarding into a system is hard enough without counting on layers of complexity in the processes and product accumulated through the years that will work against you.

Especially while working remotely, loneliness is a real issue when left unchecked. It is fundamental to be more intentional about building relationships and consider them strategic for the business. Collaborating in async is powerful but hard to get right, particularly for onboarding new people.

Having new hires also create a dynamic you can leverage. With fresh eyes, these individuals are ideally positioned to point out missing features or areas for improvement in your processes, documentation, or product.

You have to empower new team members to think remotely as well. Remote onboarding relies heavily on documentation, anticipating the needs of new people joining, and putting efforts into continuously improving processes through feedback.

Design an onboarding plan

Onboarding takes time. Count up to 6 months on average to reach the full potential of your new hires as they join a new organization. To achieve it, I use a structured plan composed of a pre-start process and then a 6 month-long plan in 4 phases: one week, one month, 3 months, and 6 months.

It is crucial to mark milestones as new hires will go through different levels of expertise in the business. It's vital to pivot them into new responsibilities and challenges after each step to cover all aspects of their role.

When they reach a milestone, make sure to have a video check with them to talk about the next phase and write down action items that were not considered in your initial plan as you discover them. Provide a backup in case you are not available because of time off.

Pre-start

The pre-start period includes the period between employment contract signatures and the first day of your new hires.

Set up their environment and technology before the start date:

  • Send laptops.
  • Prepare permissions for the first day.
  • Have an open channel for new hires to ask questions.
  • Organize an IT onboarding immediately as they start.

A nice touch is also to send welcome packages with swags in addition to laptops. Everyone loves swags.

Start an email thread with their buddy and another critical person like their future functional tech lead (if you have one) to welcome the new hires one week before their first day. Use this thread as a channel for any questions they may have.

New hires often feel Impostor Syndrome when starting a new role. Send all upfront information to them so they can be reassured about expectations and have visibility on the plan. Send them their welcome letters as dedicated handbooks to cover their first 6 months with a clear plan. Many new hires ask for more information before starting to decrease the unknowns. Be proactive about it.

First week

The first week focuses on general onboarding:

  • Company history, mission, culture, and values.
  • General information: HR processes, how to submit expenses, or information on benefits.
  • Product orientation from product managers or sales to share what the company sells to its customers and how.

Then, new hires join a dedicated engineering onboarding about:

  • Engineering sub-culture.
  • Specialized tools, systems, and processes for Engineering. Think files versioning, continuous deployment pipelines, or production monitoring.
  • Software architecture and infrastructure.

Their first goal is to open a pull request in the first week and make a small change. The sooner new team members can contribute, the sooner they will feel included in the group. Use it as a KPI for every new hire to understand if you plan your first week efficiently, if systems are simple enough to get started quickly, and if the necessary knowledge is appropriately documented and accessible.

First month

When reaching the first month, new hires should have contributed several times to the product and the documentation. It is pivotal as they will feel ready to be more ambitious and work on more impactful projects.

Use this milestone to organize a conversation with the new hires and your senior team members to evaluate what can be the next steps. It is also time to discuss personal goals and career development at this step, even if you should have an idea from conversations you had during the hiring process.

3 months

After 3 months, you can reflect on their contributions and growth since they started. It is also crucial to evaluate alignment with your company values. You have enough data points and feedback to realign new hires with the business or identify key elements to improve on. If the misalignment is too dense to be solved, it's time to consider ending the collaboration and reflect on why you ended up in this situation, so you don't reproduce the same issue next time.

The next goal between now and the end of the onboarding process can be to own broader roles like being on-call for production issues, deploying services autonomously, or championing feature developments.

6 months

When 6 months pass, onboarding is officially done, and your new hires should be fully productive and at their peak potential. Their contributions were demonstrated many times through minor improvements and long highly-valuable projects. They also embraced new responsibilities and invested in improving the documentation or team processes. They may now also be able to onboard new hires, in turn, as any member of your teams.

Do not forget to take the time to celebrate this achievement.

Assign an onboarding buddy

Identify and appoint dedicated onboarding buddies to your new team members. This informal mentor must be different from you so that the new employee feels comfortable asking any question.

Any new employee will and should have endless questions; the last thing you want is to have them feel uncertain about who to ask. The onboarding buddy will proactively reach out to the new employee before the first day and establish themselves as their go-to person.

Partnering with a buddy is a great way to create a special relationship with an insider.

Create a community of new hires

The lack of feeling of being part of a community is one of the most shared issues in remote. While you should work on solving it at scale, you can amplify the sense of community for new hires by forming a temporary squad between them. Onboarding in groups is also a great way to minimize the effort and redundancies of onboarding and training.

Eventually, this community will create opportunities by crossing the networks between people and boosting the chances to meet with others while extending their network.

Also, new hires often feel Impostor Syndrome because everything is new. Learning that others feel the same way will help to go through it and build confidence as they understand they are not alone.

Persist knowledge

For individuals to be autonomous, knowledge must be openly documented and available anytime. Asynchronous work has no official working hours, so you can't always rely on others to help you. One way to solve it is to persist tribal knowledge into documentation, making it accessible whenever you need to consume it.

A significant part of onboarding is around logistical questions:

  • What tools should I use?
  • What are the best channels or people to find answers to X?
  • How do I sign up for benefits?

The best way to answer these is to write a company handbook describing your organization's processes, conventions, culture, products, and everything you can think of. It acts as a source of truth that people can refer to instead of deducing something by linking pieces of knowledge through multiple mediums. It must be centralized in one place and be highly discoverable through a powerful search engine. Your real-time messaging app is not the place to persist knowledge, even if it is better than locking information into an email thread.

Leverage the momentum of having new hires identify gaps in documentation and motivate them to suggest changes. They are ideally positioned to point out gaps as you iterate on the documentation.

Give new hires small tasks to get started

I learned that working on small and easy tasks for one month is the most straightforward way for new team members to get started and quickly dig into a product. They are also a way to expose new hires to the extended team and stakeholders instead of focusing on a long project that requires long periods of deep work. It also helps to build confidence and ease.

Examples of tasks can be:

  • Small bugs which can be solved in 3 days.
  • Long overdue improvements that nobody ever has time to build.
  • Small and highly-valuable minor feature.

By doing so, they get exposed to many system parts in a short period. Usually, one month is enough, but sometimes you may want to extend it depending on the results of your current priorities. It may also depend on the individual's personality and strengths. Some people are energized and talented at quick problem-solving and love these types of work.

However, ensure not to lock individuals into keeping the lights on, especially if they prefer feature development work. You don't want to damage their morale and restraint their growth by not providing what you sold them during the hiring process.

Maintain alignment with the business

New hires must first comprehend their strengths, weaknesses, and personalities. They probably have a good idea already but being in a new organization challenge these against their new reality. To succeed, they must focus on their strengths while keeping weaknesses in check. Work with them to progressively find their Zone of Genius in their new organization.

To be aligned, people must understand company values and missions. Organize sessions between all new hires during the first week of onboarding to introduce and converse about company values. It is also an exciting opportunity to envision how the culture will evolve from the influence of the new hires.

Invite your new hires to participate in all-hands. All-hands are regular meetings to which all employees are invited. They are a clever way to see how the culture expresses itself through the talks from leadership. New hires live a truly unique experience, and it's a direct way to see the dynamic between all employees. You may consider asking your new hires to prepare and share a fun fact from their personal history and a brief introduction.

Encouraging informal moments should also be a priority. Ultimately, these little exchanges are what create a strong culture. There are no casual talks around the coffee machine remotely. Therefore, it is required to organize chance meetings proactively.

Some examples of informal moments:

  • Virtual activities
  • Team lunches
  • Lunch-and-learn
  • Coffee times

Finally, describe how the company's culture applies to real things. Pick some examples and explain them well to illustrate your point. Culture is sometimes seen as an abstract concept but must translate into everything we do.

Culture can be applied to:

  • How quality is measured and defined in product development or documentation.
  • How the business sees customer relationships.
  • How collaboration is done on a multi-teams project.
  • How you approach employee benefits and manage time offs or sick leaves.

Build a welcoming environment

When hiring for remote teams, give absolute trust from day 1 to your new team members.

Trusting people lead them to demonstrate the following:

  • Self-discipline
  • Autonomy
  • Accountability

These are critical traits to perform remotely. Trust will also help you delegate authority, so the number of people involved in decisions stays limited. For your new hires to contribute and grow, give them your total trust. No questions asked.

It is also fundamental to have a blameless environment. It creates a safe space where individuals are welcome to experiment and fail if necessary. It happens a lot during onboarding. Failures are required to learn, so people must be confident that leadership is open to trying even if a successful outcome is not ensured.

A welcoming environment is also an accessible and simple one. Complexity in how you operate and how you design products and systems are big influencers on inefficient onboarding. Simple is hard but highly valuable. It will pay off in every part of your organization.

Supporting diversity is also crucial to this model, as people learn differently.

Individuals can learn by:

  • Seeing
  • Hearing
  • Reading and writing
  • Doing

The onboarding process must provide options for all brain types. In remote, onboarding can be as high-touch or low-touch as we wish. If you prefer visual learning, you can engage in a series of video calls and screen share sessions to walk through each element. If you prefer self-learning, you may most benefit from well-written documentation.

Finally, commit to transparency. It gives new team members access to broad visibility about what is going on in the organization. You may want to try the build in public approach at the organizational level to maximize it.

Set clear expectations

Set clear expectations and connect individual roles to the broader organizational mission, vision, and goals. New hires should recognize how their responsibilities fit into the overall strategy and how they can make the business successful. When an individual joins the team, share essential communications and presentations done by leadership on the direction and goals of the company so they can place their work into this perspective.

Clear responsibilities and expected outcomes are critical to helping people prioritize and sequence their tasks. By doing so, they can achieve complete alignment with the business. They create a strong foundation while building momentum for their future success.

Write down the expectations of each role in the documentation and make them refer to it when something is not clear enough. Encourage them to write everything that was not clear enough to improve it for the next hiring process.

Never stop giving feedback

Critical feedback (and positive ones) are decisive for adjusting behaviors and tuning performance regularly. It's common for new hires to be sometimes misaligned with their team in the first months. Feedback helps them recenter focus if they deviate too much from priorities.

The best way to share feedback is to open as many feedback loops as possible.

Feedback loops can be:

  • Having 1:1s with you and with senior engineers.
  • Getting comments during pull request reviews.
  • Exposing their work publicly to trigger organic conversations.

These are as many opportunities to be coached. As their manager, write down notes once you see an opportunity for improvement from your new hires. Furthermore, leverage your senior engineers to get a more technical perspective on their progress, as you may not be as exposed to their technical performance. Close the loop by asking for regular feedback on the onboarding experience, and be sure to act on that feedback.

Make sure to allocate time to coach your seniors and not only measure them by how they perform individually. If not, they prefer to focus on feature development instead of coaching new team members. To go further, find opportunities for new hires to get a mentor. The company can support this initiative by implementing an internal mentorship program.

Motivate the new hires to expose themselves to others depending on their tolerance to exposure. It will make them accountable for what they try to achieve instead of hiding behind anonymity. Every work in public organically triggers a feedback loop from peers, enabling them to grow and adapt quickly. In remote, it is crucial to expose yourself actively, as there are fewer opportunities for people to discover your work if you don't.

Finally, make explicit the best channels for asking questions and finding what they need, especially if they work asynchronously from another time zone. The company can also support personal growth by letting people spend on training material or travel to conferences.

Ask them to shadow colleagues

Shadowing colleagues is an excellent opportunity to learn directly from the field quickly.

Identify opportunities for them to shadow their colleagues:

  • Monitor alerts investigation.
  • Manual deployment process.
  • Bug investigation and peer problem-solving.
  • Any specialized process you can think of.

Vocal channels are the best channel for shadowing. Never enforce videos but especially not here. You don't want people to get distracted and stressed by looking good at the camera.

It may be worthwhile to set up a “shadow week” in which new hires attend a wide variety of team and stakeholder group meetings, even those that may feel less directly relevant to their core responsibilities.

Help them build relationships

In remote, it is crucial to be more intentional in building relationships, as we have fewer opportunities to meet and talk to people. You can't rely as much on the organic and spontaneous relationship-building in hallways, over lunches, and at office events. That's why it's best to be proactive about setting up a mix of formal and informal interactions between the new hire and other individuals. Motivate them to set 1:1s with their teammates and extended team (stakeholders and product managers, for example). Write down a list of key people to talk to in their welcome letters.

Ask them to write a letter to introduce themselves to show authenticity. There is no need to enter personal details if they are unwilling to. Encourage team members to set up a mix of formal conversations to cover rules, responsibilities, and business objectives and shorter, informal interactions over coffee, lunch, or debriefing on a recent project.

Help them recognize team dynamics to build a broader network. Research shows that it's more powerful to have a vast network than a deep network, especially as one becomes increasingly senior in an organization. Invite them to join informal channels about their topics of interest like #gaming, #cooking, or #parents. Exchanging something they are passionate about is a powerful medium to connect with people.

Finally, encourage them to build in public. Exposing themselves will help them be discovered and trusted. People will also see the value they deliver tangibly. That's how they start earning respect.

A solid onboarding process is strategic

If there is something I can recall from past companies I worked on is how pleasant or bad my onboarding experience was. As the first impression you get from a company, it leaves a permanent footprint in your mind.

We saw that having a solid onboarding process brings long-term benefits:

Onboarding is an investment in the long-term success of new hires and, consequently, in the company itself. Studies show that 87% of team members are less likely to leave a company when they feel engaged—investing in onboarding report 54% more productivity from new hires.

Onboarding also gives experimented employees opportunities to coach new team members making them grow. My teams love onboarding new hires and always ask me to contribute. They also get excited as bringing new people in generates a new growth dynamic.

A 6-month onboarding plan is not too expensive as it takes time to be fully at ease in a new company. However, people can contribute fast even if they don't have complete knowledge of the product.

Retention is challenging in engineering, so make sure to go fast on the onboarding, as you may not afford to wait too long for people to feel they create value and contribute. My new hires contribute very fast, frequently in their first week. They dedicate their time to easy but valuable tasks before pivoting to highly-impactful and strategic projects after their first month.

Onboarding creates fantastic opportunities for everyone involved. Leverage the momentum to build stronger teams.

Let's discuss building better companies.

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