When the pandemic started in 2020 many Zalando employees went into home office. It changed our working habits and many other things and Zalando published remote working guidelines to support their employees. This concentrates only on remote working, but what happens if you change companies during the pandemic?
Joining a new company and getting onboarded can be already pretty tough during normal times. Starting a new job requires you to learn new skills and build up new relations within the company. Working from home amplifies those problems by introducing virtual barriers. It's not possible to walk up to somebody and ask a question or introduce yourself to people you meet by chance in different situations.
We were recently confronted with the challenge to grow our engineering team from two persons to five persons across two months. In this article I try to describe how we tackled this challenge to make sure that the new team members get quickly onboarded and feel welcomed in this new setup.
One of the first decisions we made was to assign an onboarding buddy to each new team member. The onboarding buddy is the go to person for the new team member in case of questions or problems where support is needed, e.g. setting up the notebook. As some persons might feel uncomfortable asking unknown people for help, especially remotely, daily 1:1 sessions have been set up to discuss the current state of the onboarding, answering open questions or to provide regular feedback. As time went on, the frequency of the 1:1s decreased, because people got used to working in the team.
Providing regular feedback is the key to success during the onboarding. It’s supposed to create this continuous feedback loop to inform the new team members about how their contribution is viewed, get them used to Zalando's feedback culture and to also reflect on how the onboarding is working out and if it needs to be tweaked. To make sure we don’t forget to provide feedback, we set up monthly feedback sessions between the team and each new team member. While doing this we experimented with three different formats.
- An open round where everybody shares the feedback freely.
- The feedback is given in short 1:1 sessions between each team member.
- The team collects the feedback and presents then one summarized view to the new team member.
Overall it’s impossible to say which format is the best. It could be intimidating in the beginning to receive feedback from the whole team in an open round, but fine at a later point in time when the team knows each other better. It depends on the situation and the people and we gave our new team members the possibility to choose. As those feedback sessions were also meant for the new member to provide feedback to the team, we prepared some questions to collect the feedback.
- What do you think about the onboarding so far?
- Is there any information that you missed or would have liked to receive earlier?
- Is your workload manageable for you? Are the tasks too easy/too difficult?
- Would you like to receive more/less support?
- Is there anything you would like to work more on?
- How comfortable would you feel if all other team members fall sick and you are alone working on tasks and support requests?
The last question is probably the most important one. It asks the new team members to reflect on themself and check how confident they are about their skills already. This is an important indicator for the team to maybe put some focus on certain areas that were missed so far in the onboarding. This way we found out that we needed to become better at introducing the on-call and incident process in our team as this was completely missed.
The onboarding consists of course of some technical onboarding as well. We did the obligatory domain introduction and some introductions into our ways of working, like the sprint ceremonies. It’s important to not overwhelm the new team members in the start. Many if not most information can be also shared down the line when it’s necessary. It’s better to focus on the basics in the beginning and give time to let that sink in. But at some point the new team members need to get their hands dirty and work on some real tasks. To make the start easier, we defaulted to pair programming or even mob programming in the beginning. It was the rule that the tasks had to be done with at least two persons unless other circumstances prevented it. Pair programming while working remotely is even more important than usually. Not only because it allows for easy, “on the job” knowledge sharing, but it also allows the participants to bond and get to know each other. The pair programming was done with simple tools. The person programming was using their IDE of their choice and the screen was shared via the call so that other persons could watch the coding. Of course other tools and IDE plugins exist that try to make the whole setup even better, but in our experience it worked pretty well without them.
In our team we have a team role that rotates each day and that person takes care of incoming support requests from internal clients. Usually this requires a certain level of domain and system knowledge. We decided to onboard the new team members pretty fast to the role. On the one hand it frees up some time from the more experienced engineers and on the other hand it provides another learning opportunity for the new team members. As long as this was transparently communicated with clients, they didn’t mind that some support requests took longer than usual and the new team members made huge progress on domain knowledge in a relatively short time.
The last part of the onboarding relates to the relationships inside the team. We are not just robots coming into work, but we are humans with emotions, goals and sometimes also problems. I believe that trust is an essential ingredient for efficient teams. It allows you to speak up freely, you can make mistakes and addressing conflicts leads to constructive discussions. And during the pandemic you are missing out on a lot of opportunities to get to know your new team-mates as there are no team lunches, no short discussions at the coffee machine and no rounds of table tennis during the breaks. This can quickly start to feel like you are being left alone with your problems. Therefore we introduced a weekly “Team Bonding” session which was moderated by our producer. The producer is responsible for team processes in our team and in case you don't have such a role, any person, be it a team member, team lead or somebody outside the team, could facilitate this meeting.
Every week she came up with new ideas for the session. Sometimes we just presented to each other personal objects from our home, another time we did powerpoint karaoke or we played a game like Tabu. Some of those exercises had some goals, like improving your presentation skills, but in the end it was always about the people and getting to know them. What drives your team-mates? What kind of humour do they have? What keeps them up at night right now? Opening up really helps to create this bond and increase the trust among each other. Such exercises can of course also be done when everybody is back at the office to continue the bonding between team-mates and are not only valuable when you are working remotely.
Summing up this article, it boils down to some simple points. Take your time to do a proper onboarding and be transparent with clients and leads about possible delays for support requests or roadmaps. Remind yourself constantly about providing feedback to give guidance and prevent unpleasant surprises. And don’t forget about the personal relationships that need to be created, because they will allow you to trust each other and also feel safe while making mistakes. Following those rules is very time intensive, but it pays off in the long run and we were able to build an awesome team in just about three months that already increased the productivity compared to before. Of course there is no one-size-fits-all solution regarding the onboarding and different teams might have different needs, but this setup worked very well for us.
- Miro: Remote Onboarding Checklist
- OwlLabs: 7 Remote Employee Onboarding Tips and Checklist for Your Next New Hire
- GitLab: The guide to remote onboarding
- Hive: 16 Ways to Improve Your Remote Onboarding Experience
- Martin Fowler: On Pair Programming
- Agile Alliance: Pair Programming
- Agile Alliance: Mob Programming
- Remote Mob Programming
- PowerPoint Karaoke
- A Guide to PowerPoint Karaoke