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Career moves and starting a new role are challenging, and can often be unnerving with the requirement of leveling up.
Last year, I started my new role in a remote environment. This experience was a first in my career as I had only previously worked and onboarded in office settings. During that time, the co-location of my team and the in-person communications made onboarding easier to tackle. However, remotely, these notions were challenged. And if you have a negative onboarding experience, it could lead to a misunderstanding of the new role and working environment. To overcome this, I defined a framework for myself that began with adopting the remote mindset and leveraging asynchronous communications.
How do we define onboarding?
Onboarding is widely seen as being split into two distinct and complementary components:
- General onboarding. Getting familiar with the company culture, vision, mission, value, etc.
- Role-specific onboarding. Acquiring the knowledge, skills, and behaviors to master the role effectively and efficiently.
Onboarding has never been a one-size-fits-all approach and varies from role to role. But primarily, understanding the company’s culture is at its core. This understanding is usually learned through the osmosis of numerous interactions with others in the org – a proceeding that’s difficult to achieve when not in person. Engaging with a new remote team and their culture brings a plethora of information and emotions, which can be a nuanced, difficult, and gradual process. The following considerations aim to show how you can harness your own onboarding experience, and can help craft a strategy to set yourself up for success in the remote role.
Setting expectations with yourself
‘No one can hit their target with their eyes closed.’ – Paulo Coelho
With remote work, the equation changes in terms of commute and work-life separation. Crafting balance while maintaining a focus on expectations around performance, career-pathing, and growth for your new role is key. Having done quite some assessment of your new workplace’s culture, and the interesting work being done there, before accepting the offer, taking time to now set your expectations is crucial. Realizing that everyone is at a different point of the spectrum in terms of work-life balance in a remote setting, it is helpful to clarify your own expectations around what is the right balance for you.
Setting expectations with your manager
Your strengths and the value you could potentially bring to the team are the very reason you have the role. Hence, it is vital to discuss the expectations of onboarding with your manager. Often, hiring managers work with you on a launch plan. However, if your new role does not have one, you can develop one by discussing the following questions with your manager:
- What do you suggest I focus on for my first week, month, and quarter in this team?
- How can I learn more about the project(s) and services?
- Is there a team or organization ‘how-to’ document I can refer to?
- Who is my dedicated buddy for onboarding?
Communication is key
In the pre-COVID world, face-to-face interactions were much easier. However, you can still proactively reach out to team members and stakeholders to set introductory 1:1s via video call where you can learn about them and their preferred working style, and get a preliminary idea of the project(s) and services they’re involved in. This is also a great opportunity to get started on learning the technical details about the systems, projects, etc.
I recommend using these interactions as a way to understand the culture in terms of how decisions are made, the team's communication styles (need-to-know basis vs. open communication) for conveying information, and how ideas are advocated (structured vs. open brainstorming).
Working with a buddy
Depending on where you are in your career, your buddy can start as a mentor, progress to become more of a coach, and eventually, a sponsor. A dedicated buddy in your new role makes it easier to navigate the new, distributed work environment and engage in the culture. A buddy can help you understand communication dynamics within and across the teams, the company or team abbreviations and acronyms, and guide you on your tasks. Additionally, multiple weekly pairing sessions can aid in thoughtful scoping of assignments.
Your imposter syndrome may not kick in until the first week or two; it may not kick in at all. But if you are venturing out for something new, it is likely you will experience it at some point. A great tip for dealing with this is to be fearless and be curious (there are no stupid questions...). Sure, doing this is not as straightforward as if you were in person with your team, but by leveraging the asynchronous communication practices and familiarizing yourself with your new team, the projects, and the business, you’ll help yourself adopt a sense of purpose and value.
Keeping a log of these interactions is a great way to build a breadcrumb trail of information that will eventually form the bigger picture. Scheduling regular 1:1s with your team members, shadowing experienced team members on tasks, and utilizing the remote collaboration tools can help you understand your colleagues’ thought processes in describing a problem, the solution, and understand their communication styles.
Learning and contributions
You can learn a lot from working through the technical documentation and Request for Comments (RFCs) along with the codebase. In a modern-day remote workplace that operates at speed, this is vital to understanding the intent and developing sufficient context around the design principles to ensure alignment for your contributions.
The best way to learn is to do it. Nothing beats the feeling of your first commit in a new project – be it a bug fix, a small feature enhancement, or a documentation improvement. As a newly onboarded member of the team and organization, you want to be able to contribute positively in a safe and inclusive environment. By narrowing down the scope of things initially, e.g. learning x number of the product’s features, you can help yourself achieve this.
The feedback loop
In a cycle of continuous improvement, nothing triumphs feedback. Seek constructive feedback from your manager and your team on what you did well and where you could do better. Discuss the challenges you are facing and what you can do to address them.
Good feedback is a two-way conversation and is primarily written and asynchronous. Be open to sharing what you learned from the onboarding process afterwards, what could potentially be improved on for future hires, and how your team members helped you feel comfortable with the process.
Kickstarting your growth framework
After having a fair idea of the expectations and working through a launch plan, you can initiate the development of a personal growth framework as part of your onboarding. This will give a better understanding of the levels within your role and what skills you require in order to advance in your career. For example, if you have just joined an organization as a senior engineer, your growth framework could include goals such as 'understanding the technical and business tradeoffs' to achieve in your first quarter, 'help mentor newer engineers' in your subsequent ones, and so on. Incorporating these expectations in your growth framework can help transform career conversations from only discussing titles, to discussing how to achieve certain skillsets and expertise.
Owning your onboarding requires thinking in a broader sense with a tactical and strategic outlook; it involves setting expectations, emphasizing communication best practices that are suitable for remote collaborations, practicing curiosity, and feedback-based learnings for contributions. Following these processes in a remote-first environment can help you achieve success in your new role.