Successful remote onboarding in any business climate

Successful onboarding is challenging when it’s done in person. It becomes exponentially more difficult when the new teammate is remote.

Successful remote onboarding requires a structured approach. We’ve created a recipe that works at Surge and Catalyte that has helped us grow from 40 people to more than 700 in six offices, with a network of hundreds of fully remote software engineers. Our contractors routinely onboard and roll off from projects as remote technical specialists. Having proven remote onboarding strategies helps increase the rate of initial productivity in any business environment, allows engineers to focus on building software, enables HR pros to find the next great hire and provides critical momentum throughout your business. Here are some ways to reap the benefits.

Find your north star

A new remote employee needs a North Star – an ultimate, measurable goal or outcome – to pursue and a clear understanding of what to do next. Without this, they will flail. This slows their ramp-up to value delivery and creates additional work for your team.

The buddy system

Pair your new remote hire with an onboarding buddy. This person will be their primary ally in navigating the onboarding process and getting up to speed with project requirements and team norms. Give this pair a specific measurable goal to reach that goes beyond just checking HR tasks off of a list. This may be building and successfully delivering/demonstrating a new feature, or it may even be getting your first lines of code into production. Celebrate when they achieve this first tangible piece of value.

A little nudge

Facilitate initial positive social interaction and relationship-building. Send a note to the team, copying the new teammate, that announces who they are, their role and what team they’re joining. Include a bio with professional and personal information. Humanize them.

Start talking

Have structured introductory conversations between the new hire/contractor and key people across your company. Topics to cover include the basics – background, role, why they joined – and more business-oriented – new hire expectations, preferred methods of communication, when and how to leverage their skills and position, tips on how to be successful and pitfalls to avoid.

Checklist, please

Provide the new teammate an onboarding checklist. This should include specific tasks in a few categories:
  • Basic hygiene: HR stuff, benefit enrollment (if applicable), time-keeping and project tracking, etc.
  • Technical setup: Laptop, email, credentials and permissions, Slack channels, network and VPN, data/code repositories
  • Team and colleague introductions: Contact information, scheduling one-on-one introductory conversations
  • Invites to recurring meetings and events: Daily stand-up, backlog refinement, sprint planning
  • Operational domain and working norms: Definition of done, expectations and processes around the build/deploy pipeline, coding standards, pull request process, team working agreements
Listing these tasks with links to supporting documentation and resources provides a roadmap for success by:
  • Alleviating anxiety and creating a positive initial experience for the new hire
  • Enabling self-directed action and progress
  • Easing the burden on fellow teammates who should focus on and prioritize their own sprint deliverables
  • Providing a clear feedback loop and progress status to the hiring manager or team lead
  • Allowing new hire to get some early wins and positive reinforcement

Refine the process

Set the expectation with the new hire/contractor that they will help refine the onboarding process. Have them capture thoughts on their own experience – what went well, what was clunky or challenging, what would create a better experience for those that come after them. Capture these reactions on a daily basis, clean them up at the end of each week and present them with recommendations back to your organization when the process is complete. Take action and iterate. Before you know it, this closed-loop will harness the collective energy and enthusiasm of your new hires/contractors to refine your onboarding process into a consistent, repeatable and self-sustaining thing of beauty.
– David Bernal, vice president and managing director

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