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How to Navigate Remote Onboarding for Engineers


Long before the Coronavirus outbreak, our team already noticed a trend: more and more companies were becoming more comfortable with remote team members.

Whether shifting to fully remote teams, or hiring more remote employees, some companies were seeing the benefits of home-based team members across the company, even outside of the engineering world.

Then the arrival COVID-19 in the US led to nationwide closures and work-from home orders. Within weeks, tech companies completely shifted remote work.

And while this was a major transition to navigate, many companies had an additional challenge: how to onboard new employees remotely.

Most onboarding systems (except for in the progressive-thinking companies mentioned above) rely on in-person communication between team members, frequent check-ins from managers on their way to and from meetings, and "water cooler conversations" that build team familiarity and culture.

When new engineers are brought onboard remotely, these taken-for-granted experiences suddenly disappear.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to make sure your new engineers are immersed in the company culture, connect with team members, and start contributing early in their employment. It just takes creative thinking.  

The foundation and structure of engineering onboarding remains the same, whether the new hire is at company headquarters or working from home.

If you have a structure in place, use it as a guideline to build your remote onboarding program. Start there, then follow our recommendations of the top priorities fore onboarding engineers remotely.

#1 - Get the new engineer's IT up and running.

Make sure that your new hire has access to their IT, their system setup, and any other technical systems that are critical for their role. Consider what IT is essential not only from an employee standpoint, but for their particular DevBox, depending on the type of software that you're building, and anything that they need for their own system setup. They won’t be able to chat with people in the hallway about their tech needs, or check out their coworkers’ setups on break. So take the time to help them get that access to all of that on day one.

One additional note here: add your new engineer’s tech needs to their 90 day onboarding plan, and if Dev setups differ from team to team, make sure you note any of those team differences in that onboarding plan.

#2 - Have the new engineer connect with a buddy.

This is a critical part of remote onboarding. The manager should choose which team member will act as a buddy for the new hire in advance, and that buddy should plan to devote a good portion of time to supporting the new employee.

Who makes the best buddy for a new engineer? If possible, try to assign a current team member who is in the same time zone as the new hire, or at least close to the same time zone. This allows the buddy to be available during the same working hours as your new hire, giving the new engineer the opportunity to ask as many questions as they need.

Whoever you assign to be the buddy, make it clear that they should expect to answer questions from the first few days through the first few weeks of the new hire’s employment.

Remember: your remote engineer will have the same questions that your location-based employees have, without the luxury of water cooler conversations and lunch breaks to ask questions.

#3 - Give them a list of specific tasks and projects to work on.

With no water cooler conversation, your new engineer will also have a harder time finding you, the manager or other people on the team if they need direction on what to work on.

To give them some direction in their first few weeks, create a clear list of projects for them to work on and make sure those projects are calibrated to their timing.

Recognize that while projects and tasks are important, it's essential that those projects and tasks match what stage they're in. This includes their career stage (how experienced are they overall?) and their onboarding stage (how far into the process are they?).

Understanding this calibration can help you assess what they will be able to confidently handle on their own, and when they will need extra support.

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