Onboarding in the Void – Expand remote teams when no one knows each other

Cy Wise
October 5, 2022
Remote working decisions

The Remote Onboarding Trifecta

Hi hello, it’s Cy! I’m back after being heads-down for a bit, working on growing absurd:joy and building Tangle. We’ve learned some lessons, and I’ve done some big thinks. So, you’ll be hearing more from me over the next few months as I wax poetic about building sustainable team cultures and remote work. Surprising no one, I’ll be talking about culture and human hearts. A lot.

For example! We just onboarded a new team member this month. We’ve done this over a dozen times in our new-normal that is growing a company remotely, but this person happened to hit something we’ve been calling The Remote Onboarding Trifecta:

  • No one on the team had ever met or worked with this person before
  • All interviewing rounds were done remotely
  • Entire onboarding was done using video chat, email, and messaging

Truly, expecting the new employee, the hiring manager, and the team to feel comfortable and confident under these circumstances is a wild ask. At its core, this an expectation for a person to integrate with an entirely unknown team, learn to navigate the culture and processes, and get work done using present-day tools which were not developed for the remote-company use-case.

Over the past four years, we’ve developed a series of processes, tools, and guidelines for both the interviewing and the onboarding of new people remotely, and even when it works, it still feels untested and new. We have gobs of experience bringing people on to a new team, but so very little translates to hiring people and getting them up to speed in a remote environment. In the absence of welcome lunches, guided break room chats, the ceremonial bestowing of the company logo mug, and studio tours, handing a new employee an org chart and a Slack invite does not immediately or naturally result in a seamless, welcoming, or comfortable introduction to a new job. Rather, it feels empty, quiet, and directionless. With limited tools and structures specifically designed for remote onboarding, for a new hire, joining a company is literally joining The Void– and The Void is terrifying for everyone.

Into the void

Enter the Void

There are two basic sets of concerns when bringing on a new employee: the manager’s concerns and the employee’s concerns. The manager is focused on setting up the employee for future success, which mostly boils down to getting the new team member self-sufficient enough to navigate the organization. This means getting them:

  • The tools they need to excel at their job
  • Introduced to the team members they will interface with
  • Up to speed on their project statuses, timelines, and future planning
  • To understand the expectations set by the company’s policies, processes, and culture

For the new employee, however, they are mostly trying to find their feet in their Brave New World. They are trying to understand the structure of the company and carve out their place in it. This means they are working on:

  • Proving their own effectiveness in their role (and often fighting that nasty chronic imposter syndrome while they are at it, NO BIG DEAL AT ALL)
  • Figuring out the company’s culture, structure, processes, and expectations
  • Navigating how collaboration works for their specific team, as well as their stakeholder teams
  • Managing that specific brand of panic that comes from trying to remember everyone’s name, role, hierarchy, and timezone

None of these tasks are about proving out anyone’s skillsets or verifying credentials. These are the soft squishy culture things. These are the things that get swallowed up by The Void.

Lurking isn't as Bad as it Sounds

Lurking isn’t as Bad as it Sounds

Have all the vid chat meet-and-greets you want, culture isn’t actually transmitted the best through direct interaction. For new employees, they are keenly aware that they are hearing the best of the company lines, and demonstrating the most upbeat and positive of the company goals. At the early stages of meeting a team, or meeting anyone by that matter, these sorts of interactions are very often performative, and do not actually contain the real, working culture of an organization. Rather, the new employee is much better able to onboard to a culture through passive interactions. Through observation, and absorption of how team members relate to each other. If you frequent forums, you might be familiar with this behavior as “lurking” but it’s an important part of joining any new community— it’s spending time learning the group’s culture and expectations before jumping in. Back in ye olde day of co-located companies, this sort of passive culture adoption was found in all sorts of ways:

  • Overhearing conversations between coworkers helps illuminate the culture of communication. Are folks competitive? Collaborative? Do they share one vision or is it a growing evolving thing? Hearing how the team talks to each other as they navigate daily topics gives insight on how a new employee might be most positively received
  • Being able to listen in on conversations also helps figure out the org chart— who works on what project— and also figure out who is more friendly. This allows new folks to feel less worried about asking for help— knowing who is more friendly makes questions feel like less of an “inconvenience” or “bother”. (Intentional use the air quotes for that pesky negative self-talk)
  • Promotes the discovery of the non-work work things that are a part of company culture, like game nights, happy hours, book clubs, and pup play dates

In remote teams, where there is no option for passive culture acquisition, all this important, juicy, culture bits get siloed into Slack DMs, emails, texts and individual video calls.

Avoiding the Void

Avoiding the Void

So what the heck do we do? How do we leverage what we know about culture acquisition and translate it into a form that can be utilized remotely? The best way is to implement tools and activities that allows new employees to get the hang of things without the pressure for them to perform or be the center of attentions. OO! I HAVE SUGGESTIONS FOR THIS!

So first of all, Tangle was designed with this explicitly in mind. Tangle’s environment volume afford individual control over audio to allow for a “Coffee Shop” like feel— crucial for absorbing the culture of a team. And features like sticky notes, and image uploads allow for a persistent, evolving space that show the living nature of an organization’s culture, complete with notes about the development of the project, and the jokes and memes the team uses on the way. But I have other suggestions too!

  • Schedule time for conference/keynote/Nintendo Direct/movie mock watch parties! This allows the team to hang out, watch something live and comment on the content.
  • Facilitate employee driven and hosted lunch and learns. This allows employees to take ownership of a knowledge area, and share that information with the team. It also presents opportunities for discussion and interaction with team members that they might not otherwise get to chat with often. Get your execs on board and let them talk about the stuff no one gets to see them think about!
  • Establish quick social chats. Random coffee chats are becoming popular in various companies and I’m a big fan. Choose a day and time for people to be randomly paired up with another team member for a breaktime chat. Pro-tip: strictly limit how long the the chats run (we do 15 minutes) so no one feels like it’s a burden on their time. If you can, disallow other meetings during that time so that’s it’s a company-backed ritual.
  • Ensure new employees have ample time not JUST to read the handbook but to also peruse some of the old Slack channels and threads (particularly the non-work ones).
  • Make sure a manager or team member is checking in with the new employee every day and make sure they have time to hang out. Some new, outgoing (generally, senior) employees will seek out 1-on-1s with the team. This can be daunting for folks who are more introverted. We can level this playing field with manager check ins or an assigned welcome buddy! This Welcomer can also offer to go with them to introduce them to other team members, akin to the office tours of old!

Crafting the Studio-Sense Experience

Crafting the Studio Sense-Experience

At the end of the day, the goal is truly to make a new employee feel safe enough in their knowledge of the company culture and its expectations. By giving an employee that safety, they unlock the ability to feel confident in creatively applying their expertise and pushing the project to new heights. The sense-experience of being a part of a team and actually connecting with their human counterparts affords the freedom to experiment and expand themselves and their role.

Thanks for hanging out with me while I chat about culture again! To learn more about Tangle or sign up for Early Access, head over to our website.

Cy Wise

By Cy Wise

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