How to onboard new engineers remotely

Getting the onboarding process right is crucial for both the new employee and the larger engineering team. It has ramifications for team members’ short-and-long-term productivity, job satisfaction and retention. But onboarding can also be tricky, even in an office setting. When the entire team is working remotely, it can be even more challenging to both build a cohesive team as well as provide the new engineers with the information and tools they need to be productive.

The challenges

When joining a new organization, there’s a certain amount of time that people spend trying to understand organizational dynamics. This is about more than just understanding office politics: We all have strengths and weaknesses, both technically and interpersonally. Job titles don’t generally reflect the full breadth of our knowledge, so every ‘developer’ will have a slightly different set of skills.

Figuring out the right person to ask different questions is a part of the process of joining a new organization, but it can be dramatically more challenging to understand the subtleties of colleagues’ knowledge when you’re not in the same physical space and aren’t communicating as much as a result. In the absence of complete documentation, this can be a major challenge, because many questions a new hire has are organization-specific rather than something he or she could find on Google.

At the same time, understanding the technical system is also more challenging in a remote environment. Part of the onboarding process at most companies involves whiteboarding the entire system so that new hires understand it. When done in person, these are usually dynamic sessions in which everyone asks a lot of questions. There are many whiteboarding applications that try to create the same experience for virtual teams, but in my experience remote whiteboarding sessions are more like lectures, with all the questions at the end. Even with the current remote collaboration technology available, in-person whiteboarding sessions seem clearly preferable and result in more robust information for the new team members.

Lastly, both new hires and team leaders have a tougher time seeing how successful the onboarding process is going. It’s easier to see if someone looks confused or lost when that person is sitting next to you; it’s easier to check in frequently when everyone takes coffee breaks together. For the new team members, it’s easier to get feedback on your initial performance—and make adjustments in how you’re working if needed—when everyone is in the same space.

Yet clearly it’s possible to successfully onboard new team members remotely. Here are some best practices for remote onboarding that’s as smooth as possible.

Best practices

As teams move to all-remote work, one of the most important considerations is replacing the informal communications channels that exist in any workplace with more formal procedures. People will also naturally ask fewer questions and try to figure things out on their own when they’re working remotely. That’s not necessarily bad, but organizations need to have the information and tools in place to help them do so successfully.

Check the instructions. You should have written instructions for onboarding tasks like how to set up the company laptop / company email, and those instructions should be verified periodically. As a manager, you should try to follow the instructions yourself and see if there are places that need to be clarified or updated.

Keep documentation up to date. Accurate, up-to-date docs are crucial to allowing team members, new or otherwise, to self-serve successfully. In an all-remote environment, documentation is even more important than otherwise, and teams should prioritize keeping them as clear, relevant and easy to find as possible.

Organize remote social events. Social events are a big part of the onboarding process, but are admittedly hard to replicate in an all-remote environment. Setting up happy hours of Zoom or other remote events gives team members a way to get to know each other. Remote social events can also be one-on-one or among small teams, a way to check in with new hires more informally.

How effx helps

Documentation is crucial to success as a remote team, both at the onboarding stage and throughout the team’s lifecycle. Having the documentation isn’t enough, either — it has to be easily accessible and up to date. Successful onboarding requires efficiently transferring organizational knowledge to new team members, and in a remote setting most of the knowledge transfer has to happen with documentation.

An automated service catalogue like effx helps ensure that documentation is updated regularly and easy to find. The service catalogue itself is an essential part of the onboarding documentation, because it gives new team members an easy way to understand dependencies in the system as well as to see who to contact when there’s an issue with a service, and how to reach out.

Are you curious how effx could help you organize documentation and provide better information in one place? Sign up for a demo below.

William Li

William Li

just a regular guy. software engineer @ effx. previously @airbnb, @banjo.
SF Bay Area