How to Onboard Developers Remotely
HR Tips Hayley Kuhl
Developers have been requesting remote work for years and they are not alone - 99% of workers say that they would like to work remotely at least some of the time for the rest of their careers. By developing a remote onboarding process now, you’re not only getting ahead, you are likely fixing a flawed process (just 12% of respondents in a Gallup Survey stated that their company does a great job with onboarding). To help you get off on the right foot, we’ve compiled some best practices for you to implement in your own company onboardings.
Start a checklist
Most recruiters and managers start with a list of things that they will need the new developer to do, but you should start by creating a checklist for yourself. A lot of your initial processes will actually look the same, like setting up their systems, creating their accounts, sending them emails with company information, and so on. There are, however, a few things you might have to do differently - add them to your checklist if they work for you:
Start the onboarding process as soon as the candidate has signed the contract. This might be weeks out from their actual start date. The sooner your remote onboarding process can begin, the easier it will be once they officially start.
If your new hire won’t be using their own equipment, send them the computer they need for the job; ideally, it should have the necessary software already installed. Send your newbie instructions for connecting to your company VPN network, too (if need be). Here’s a how-to for Windows, and one for Mac.
Create a checklist to ensure the employee has created accounts for all of your company tools and add some deadlines.
If your resources allow it, have some introductions prepared via video (then you don’t have to spend half the day in a video call) - ideas range from a Co-Founder introduction to a screen recording of how to set up a particular tool.
To help them with social integration, include them in company wide communication channels (Slack, Teams, etc.) before they start. This will give them a chance to get a feel for the company culture beforehand.
Share a schedule of their first days working remotely to help them get into the right headspace.
Organise a mentor or buddy for the new employee and get them in touch as soon as possible. Make sure the mentor’s schedule is relatively clear, especially in the first week.
For their first week, set up 1-on-1 chats with the people in their new team - these conversations will help the new hire get to know their colleagues or help them understand the work better.
Make a list of contacts for the newbie - who should they contact for what? For example, if they have a question about holidays or sick leave, then they should contact this person in that department.
Schedule regular pair-programming with other members of the team.
Set up daily check-ins with a main point of contact - probably their mentor - via video chat, especially in the first week.
Invest in some extra tech - here’s a great list of programs trusted by distributed teams.
Prepare for the first day
According to Web Onboarding, 60% of new hires said they experienced problems or issues on the first day of the job. The first day is already overwhelming for many new employees, and is even more so when it’s experienced remotely. Your role is especially important.
Here’s an example of how you could structure your day:
- Share your screen
Your welcome onboarding will be similar to how it’s done in person. Maybe you have a powerpoint presentation about the company and culture, and you take the new hires through the different company tools - this can be easily done through screen-sharing.
- Be vulnerable
Don’t be afraid to be honest if the situation is also new for you. You’ve had to adapt to remote circumstances, and by setting expectations early on, they’ll have more understanding when things go awry.
- Set expectations
Be clear about what they can expect over the next few weeks. Walk them through the timelines.
Julie, Head of People at Animalz, says “you can use your onboarding checklist to promote independent work and responsibility in new hires”. Give your employee a list of things they need to complete in the first week, trust that it will get done and check in on the progress at the end of it. This gives an opportunity for the employee to work at their own pace, and they can also work on whatever tasks they want to in the moment. They can truly be independent and take responsibility - these two attributes are what you hired them for.
Introduce them to their buddy
You should have already set up a video call ahead of time so the new hire can meet their buddy; they don’t necessarily have to be a fellow developer. It might be wise to avoid assigning them to employees with a lot of responsibilities.
The person you assign will be the point of contact for them through the entire onboarding process, so they should be readily available to the new hire. Outlining your communication expectations for both them and the buddy is really important; this article gives some great insight into this.
Being a remote employee takes adjustment - especially when you weren’t supposed to be one, so getting them connected with the right person is key. Here’s a list of some responsibilities the buddy could take on.
Organise a team lunch
The team lunch can still happen via video. Pop it in everyone’s calendar. You can always spice it up with some fun team building activities to get the conversations rolling.
Go about it how you usually would, just don’t forget to share your screen.
For a complete 4-week onboarding schedule, we’d recommend reading about Zapier’s onboarding process for their software engineers which they’ve published here. The article outlines how one can effectively set up a developer environment, combined with some examples of projects and tasks which set their new hire up for early wins. Over at Arc they give further insights into building a remote developer onboarding.
Communicate about communication
The biggest changes you will go through are with regards to how you communicate with your employee(s), and how you can best set them up for success as they navigate this new role remotely. Ultimately you want to give the right tools to them so they can be collaborative, communicative and productive in the way you need them to be.
Ensuring early wins for remote employees will be tougher than for onsite employees, which means your process should be crystal clear. It all comes down to effective communication.
The Golden Rule
Without proper communication, your new hire might be one of the 60% whom I referenced earlier. There are two types of communication: synchronous and asynchronous. You should practise both during the onboarding process.
Synchronous communication is communication which takes place in real-time - so, conversations over the phone, in person, or through instant messaging apps. A person sends a message and expects a prompt response. During the onboarding process, synchronous communication with new hires should be encouraged. There should be a dedicated member of their team who can be on the receiving end of it.
Since this type of communication can be disruptive, it’s important the person you choose to be their buddy is willing to be contacted anytime, and the same goes for selecting a ‘contact-person’ from the team. Assure them that it won’t be forever, but highlight that it’s important for the new employee to feel wholly supported during this process (Remember, they might not have signed up for a remote gig!) Imagine how isolated they might feel. Being able to practise synchronous communication during this phase is setting them up for success, but it should not be for the long-term.
On the other hand, asynchronous communication happens without the expectation that team members need to respond immediately. It’s the kind of communication that takes place during projects through external tools like GitHub, Trello, or Notion, or even email.
It is less of a distraction which increases productivity, allows for thoughtful communication, and gives greater control over the structure of a workday. At Honeypot, some of our teams have vowed to ‘check-in’ three times a day: once in the morning to say ‘hey!’, before and after lunch, then finally when we’re checking out at the end of the working day. By checking in three times a day, we stay up to date with the team while enjoying blocks of uninterrupted focus time.
Implement whatever is best for you and your company, but don’t forget the golden rule. Make your expectations for communication clear from the beginning.
To get the most out of your remote communication, it will be necessary to level up your toolkit. Here are some great tools used for asynchronous communication:
“An online code editor for interviews, troubleshooting, teaching & more…” This is a great tool for distributed engineering teams and for new engineering hires going through the onboarding process.
A remote company who built a tool to run their remote company. Basecamp centralises all team communication.
Another one made for remote teams - specifically remote engineering teams. This tool is for retrospectives.
Similar to FunRetro. Manage your projects, conduct your retros, and see clearly who is responsible for what. It’s transparent and easy.
A collaborative whiteboarding platform. It supports agile workflows and allows for real-time collaborative work to take place.
A workplace management tool where teams can collaborate, organise and track work progress.
Consider your needs before making your decision (i.e. team size, budget and bandwidth). Most of these tools offer 30-day trial periods, so you can test which of them makes sense for your team. Refer to this GitHub page for a more comprehensive list.
Building Community and Staying Connected
As humans, we have a need to belong, but how do you create a sense of belonging when you can’t be together? This is the biggest question asked by companies who are built on remote work. Ensuring that your new hire connects with their colleagues and achieves social integration is a remote challenge, but it can be overcome.
There are many tools which can be used to ensure social connection occurs remotely, but according to David and Shane in this 15five podcast, you should have the right mindset, the right practices and ultimately the right intention. They say, “you have to create a structure to create a sense of belonging… and it comes down to rituals, behaviours and practices” (listen to the whole podcast for more ideas!).
For your new hire, it’s important they feel included and emotionally connected with their colleagues. This only goes so far with written communication. Below is a list of ideas to help ensure your new employee can connect with their colleagues:
- Set up virtual coffee with other people in the company (not just in the team). You know best who would be great for this.
- If you use Slack, utilise the ‘Donut’ feature whereby colleagues are randomly selected to have lunch together.
- Create a ‘virtual kitchen’ where people can jump into a video call and hang out during their lunch hour. Set it up twice a week and encourage your newbie to participate.
- Organise game nights - this could be Trivia, or get people to download game apps (ie. HouseParty or Heads Up).
- Icebreaker allows you to ask some questions to get to know each other a bit better - you could implement these in the beginning of the new hire’s meetings to help build emotional connection
- Introduce new hires at AllHands or company meetings. At Honeypot, we ask every new team member to prepare a slide about themselves and what they love doing. This becomes even more important when working remotely!
- Ask the rest of the team to say ‘hi’ via DM to the newbie within the first month of joining the company. That’s what would happen walking around the office, so don’t forget to mirror it in digital format!
…and find more ideas here.
There isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all’ to onboardings - every company has their individual needs, tools and processes, and you already know what will work best for you. Many of your practices will still apply - they’ll just take place over a computer screen.
For your remote onboarding to be truly successful, ensure that you set clear expectations, emphasise the importance of communication, and provide plenty of opportunities for newbies to build emotional connections with their new colleagues. See this as the unique and exciting opportunity that it is and enjoy the benefits of your newly engaged and integrated remote employees.
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