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Remote Onboarding: a Houseplant's Story



Kate Wardin discusses seven tips to foster an enjoyable and effective onboarding process for remote teams and a few add-on tips for those wishing to become skillful plant owners.


Kate Wardin has always been passionate about the people side of software development. She is currently an Engineering Manager at Netflix working remotely in Minneapolis, MN. Outside of her day job, she enjoys organizing events that enable underserved communities to develop a passion and build confidence for future careers in technology.

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Wardin: My name is Kate Wardin. I'll be talking about onboarding to a new team during a global pandemic: a houseplant's story. I want to start by telling you a story of Sig the Fig. I purchased this plant in 2019 before the pandemic hit. The greenhouse employee as we were shopping warned me several times that this was not a great fit, a great starter plant for someone like me who is new to plant ownership. In fact, they referred to figs as the Divas of the plant world. They are high maintenance and require a bit of knowledge and care to keep healthy. I was confident in my abilities and from the tips I was reading from my fellow plant mom bloggers that I was up for the challenge. Shortly after we brought fig home, I actually ended up leaving for a couple weeks in December. I was devastated when I discovered that Sig didn't make it. It turns out the combination of sitting near a drafty window in the harsh Minnesota winter mixed with no water for us almost a month was not the loving welcome that I had intended.

A Better Experience: The Monstera Deliciosa

Let's talk about a better experience, Miss Swiss, my pride and joy. After Sig passed away, I decided to take a couple months off plant parenting. The pandemic hit, of course, at that point, and like several others across the world, I needed a new hobby that didn't require leaving my house. After doing a bunch of research on what types of plants were easy to take care of, especially in my climate, I carefully selected the Swiss cheese plant. I'm happy to say that after one and a half years, she's still thriving. I learned a lot from the experience acclimating Miss Swiss into a new home. In 2020, like many others, I found myself working remotely for the first time. This experience brought many new challenges and also silver linings. For one, I was able to nurture that plant and also welcome several other plants into our home. During this experience, I had several opportunities to also hire and onboard several engineers. Also, I onboarded myself to a new organization. In reflecting back to Sig and Miss Swiss, I started really just contrasting those experiences, and also ways that I could translate those learnings to the experience of onboarding to a remote team.

Tip 1: Prepare the Onboarding Experience in Advance (Pre-Boarding)

I'm going to walk through seven tips for you to onboard a person to your remote team, along with hopefully a helpful tip with each for acclimating a house plant to its new home. Number one is to prepare that plant's environment before bringing it home. How much sun does it need? Do you have the right pots? Do you have the right place location? Are there any drafty windows or doors to avoid? Don't just bring it home and plop it in the most convenient spot, do that research on that plant and the type of environment that it prefers. On the human side, of course, preparing the onboarding experience well before that person starts working, aka pre-boarding. As soon as the offer letter is accepted, you should continue validating that person's decision to join your team and make them feel really welcome leading up to their first day.

One good idea would be to send an email about two weeks before their first day, including an itinerary for their first week so that they know what to expect. Ideally, setting up meetings already on their calendar so that they have a little bit of structure that first week. If possible, mailing a box of customized swag with their laptop and equipment, ideally early enough so that it arrives before day one, along with login details for email and how to connect with the team. Then a thoughtful reminder letter of why they were hired and why you are excited for them to join. Also, in that email, a request for them to send a quick bio so that you can welcome them to the team properly on their first day. Then perhaps also, a fun video of team members saying welcome just to show again that excitement of them joining.

How about preparing with the team? What can we do to make sure that the fellow team members are ready for that person to onboard? People just want to usually start coding right away, and so this means trying to speed up the amount of time it takes to onboard new team members. Like I said, let's mail them that laptop ideally before their first day with instructions for getting set up. As a team, you can also take this as an opportunity to do an audit of your documentation. Everything from, do we have the right access request? To, do we have our release process documented? Do we have local environment? Can we walk through how to set that up in a nice documentation? Take this opportunity again to audit the things in place and make it better before that person joins.

I know a lot of teams who save specific tasks for like onboarding tasks. Perhaps those things that are not necessarily in the critical path, or super urgent to get done that you could save for that new hire, such as bug fixes, small enhancements, maybe adding tests or upgrading a library. Again, it's just really help that person to build confidence, get familiar with the code base quickly, and also understand that full developer workflow. One thing that could work really well is to create a really repeatable onboarding task that embodies actually a mini-version of your app, or maybe a real feature that they can contribute, that, again, your team would create, so that they can get to know that full developer workflow.

Tip 2: Introducing the Person to Mentors and Key Partners

Number two is to introduce that plant to its housemates. I have a 1-year-old, so I'm teaching her, we don't pull on the leaves of Miss Swiss, or to our dog, Ralph, that it's unacceptable to use Miss Swiss as a fire hydrant. On the people side, introducing that person to key mentors and partners. Being a remote employee can be super isolating, and so it's important that we help them build relationships immediately. I'll talk now about this onboarding trio, which includes, of course, the new hire, a peer buddy, and a technical mentor. This peer buddy is the person who is really going to be accountable for that person's onboarding experience. Perhaps maybe they were the person who recently onboarded the most recent, so that they're really an expert in what's that experience of joining this team. What did they wish were different from when they onboarded? They're the go-to person for any question. They're going to block out time specifically to touch base whenever needed for the first couple months.

Then the technical mentor. A mentor is someone on that same engineering team who is going to work with the same technology as the new hire. This person is going to be more hands-on with them to perhaps help with specific technical onboarding, as opposed to that peer buddy who's going to maybe focus more on the cultural onboarding. That technical mentor is going to be, again, maybe a more seasoned engineer to help them with perhaps their first more complex feature that they pick up. This person is knowledgeable about the system, processes, domain, has also demonstrated that they can give constructive feedback and also explain complex concepts. The last thing we can do just as a team to really speed up that get to know you process is to perhaps record an interview with that new person, and then share it with the team so that they can all get to know some of those introductory questions about that person.

Tip 3: Introducing the Person to the Team's Ways of Working

Number three is introducing that plant to its new environment, or introducing the person to the team's ways of working. If we think about some of those things that in-person might be easier to pick up on, let's make sure that we explicitly communicate and write out these types of things so that the person isn't left guessing. What are those teams' core hours? That time that the people agree to be online and available to collaborate? When are those recurring meetings? Is it customary to have your video on? How do people keep each other updated on their work in progress?

Tip 4: Share As Much Context without Overwhelming

Number four, is to feed your plant to help it grow, so getting on that watering and fertilizing schedule. Or, sharing as much possible as context without overwhelming the person. Of course, we want to set up that person for success, and that means providing the right amount of context to help them get up to speed on the organization, their role, and where it fits within the organization. We don't want to overwhelm them. We already know it can be overwhelming. It can feel like you're drinking from the fire hose, as we start at a new company, especially when onboarding virtually, because it can be so easy to send hundreds of links and readings and documents with a couple clicks. Let's be really mindful and consider what topics, resources, and artifacts are going to help this person get up to speed without overwhelming them or distracting them with unnecessary detail their first week.

In my experience, I got this really nice, well-curated, prioritized reading list that contained details specific to my role. You could also set up automated emails to share key milestones and the associated reading lists, reminding that person of helpful links, what is important for them to consume when, and learn about at that specific time during their onboarding experience. Again, this is going to help to not overwhelm them on that first week. What else could this list include? The first week, it'd be helpful at a minimum to know who's who. Again, we're not going to be in an office to be able to more casually and actually get introductions. Include the names of that onboarding trio, HR business partners, the leader of that person, also a snapshot of the teams and names of the organization, and maybe the top level groups in engineering and how that person might interact with them. Then, additionally, a list of people, a recommendation of who to start meeting with in maybe that first week or the first month. Also, can you visualize the major pieces of the infrastructure that that team owns or supports? Perhaps that includes links to other doc sites or information, as well as the point of contact on a team that they can go to for questions in the future.

Also, do have a list of other memos that person should get up to speed on, whether they're high level objectives over the next couple months, tech 101, again, release processes. What are those specific things to your organization that will be good to know right away? Lastly, just a list of all those bookmark worthy links, such as team Google Drives, Slack channels, acronyms, HR systems, travel portals, code repos, project documentation. How does that team track progress? How do we communicate? What are some key milestones and goals for the next couple months? Communication is going to be of paramount importance when working remotely. We have to make sure that whenever possible, we can document decisions both verbally and written. Those water cooler chats that sometimes lead to a decision, make sure we document that really well so that other people can weigh in or ask questions asynchronously. Because that new hire isn't going to be able to simply turn around and ask someone a question. Also making sure that they know that it's ok to reach out for help, even if setting up a call requires a little bit more friction.

Tip 5: Make It Easy for them to do Their Jobs

Number five, as I learned the hard way, my plant was not set up for success sitting next to that drafty window during a brutal Minnesota winter. Making it easy for that plant to thrive in its new environment, or making it easy for that person to do their job at home. If possible, maybe you have an allowance to make sure that they can afford the equipment they need to do their best work, such as noise cancelling headphones, a second monitor, upgrading their home internet connection, or even maybe subscribing to a coworking space.

Tip 6: Setting clear Expectations

Number six is to set clear expectations. As part of my onboarding experience, I was given these really useful milestones to help me understand what my journey might look like so that I could set expectations and feel really confident that I was meeting them at that time. At the end of that onboarding experience, this person should know where and how they can access information that they need on an ongoing basis. They also should know what is expected of them. What should they be working on? How do they know that they're making the appropriate impact at that time? Also, on the lines of setting expectations, discussing team signals against some of these things that are just more difficult to pick up on if you're not sitting in an office with each other. Documenting really well those consistent boundaries and signals for each other, everyone in the team to know each other's availability. How do you signal to your team if you're available, connected, or unavailable and offline?

Also, we want to know of course that flexibility isn't a one-size-fits-all solution, so focusing on establishing expectations with that person, as an individual, providing the best options for them with the team, and of course, the organization. Making sure that people know that if you're in a different time zone, remind them that you don't have to respond immediately to those off-hours emails or communication. Of course, the results that you deliver are going to be more important than the time that you spend online.

Tip 7: Facilitate Ongoing Connection Points

We have to continue feeding that plant to help it grow, of course. This onboarding journey is going to last a lot longer when onboarding remote. There are cultural learnings, getting to know people, those interpersonal interactions that just feels a little bit slower when we're getting to know a new team and an organization virtually. I cannot speak highly enough about the Planta app. It allows you to set up each of your plants and determine which room is best to put it in your house, depending on the lighting and temperature, maybe it is outside. Then it tells you when to water, when to fertilize the plant. I highly recommend the app, Planta.

Back to that human tip. We want to make sure that we're facilitating ongoing connection points. I'll talk through some of these in detail, so those one-on-ones. That time to check in on that person. How are they managing work, home, and wellness? Where do they need help? Office hours, so perhaps engineers on the team can host office hours where they can know that they can hop on to ask any question that they have. Then also, team connection. We want to make sure that we are setting business aside and talking about topics of that team's choosing to help them get to know each other and build camaraderie. One thing my leader did was started a thread in our team channel when I joined to have my peer colleagues share a tidbit of advice for me as I was onboarding. This was a really helpful way to get to know folks and feel really welcome on the team. One-on-ones are an essential way to take a pulse on that person, make sure that they have everything they need. Week one, here are some examples of questions that you could ask. Of course, we're having one-on-ones, ideally, on a weekly basis with that individual, so here are some questions to ask for the next couple weeks.

As important as those one-on-ones, of course, we want to make sure that that person gets acclimated to the team and gets to know the team, starts to build those trusting relationships. How do we do that? A lot of it is to, again, set that work chat aside and focus on things outside of work. What are their hobbies? Can we create water cooler type channels, such as dogs, pets, for them to exchange pictures of their pets or house plants, gardening? What are those hobbies that they enjoy, and that they can connect over? Also, every Monday, I like to do a photo of my weekend thread. It just really helps to humanize our fellow colleagues and see, and connect about hobbies, and what team members are doing. Of course, these are all optional options for team members not to feel like they have to participate. Virtual games, another fun way is to start team meetings with an icebreaker question for us just to get to know each other.

I just want to note that onboarding shouldn't end after the first week, month, or of course even year. It can be an easy way just to take a pulse on that person via a survey. A survey that includes questions of things that we care about. We want to make sure that the person is confident in those tools and technologies, gives you an opportunity to establish relationships, have quality one-on-ones, no expectations of their role. Know what the goals of that team in the organization are, the short and long-term goals. Also, of course, just feeling welcomed and productive. We can take a pulse by sending surveys, and then monitoring and measuring that over time. Then, lastly, we can involve that person who just onboarded to help us improve the experience for folks who are onboarding in the future. A great way to add value is to contribute to that onboarding experience of the team.

Key Takeaway

I hope you're able to leave with some ideas for making the onboarding experience more enjoyable on your team. I also want to note that while this presentation, of course, aims to bring some joy and make a little bit of light of the situation, a lot of people are really struggling in their situation. Regardless of the tips, if you take away one thing, please just give each other grace and patience, as everyone has different levels of challenges that they are working through as a result of this pandemic.

Questions and Answers

Verma: Would you choose a different set of questions based on new hire seniority? You talk about the questions you should have. Let's touch upon that, give us more detail.

Wardin: I think it's always good to cater your questions and discussions based on what that person needs as an individual. As you're getting to know them, their seniority could come into play based on the questions that you ask. For example, perhaps it's someone who maybe it's their first role in the industry. Or probably asking questions like, can I help connect you with any mentors, or what are you interested in learning about? Of course, the learning about can be for anyone with any seniority because we want to make sure folks are constantly learning in their roles. I would say getting to, what are those fundamentals and those essentials for that person to really feel successful? That's really going to change based on their seniority, whether it's someone brand new to the industry, or just brand new to your organization who's getting acclimated to the different tools that your team uses? Yes, that is absolutely something to take into consideration.

Verma: Also implicit to seniorities, this is new. If you've worked in industry for a long time, then you're probably used to certain ways. Does that spark any thoughts? Do you do something different? If you know people are coming from a non-remote background, how do you approach that versus somebody who's been there?

Wardin: Folks who maybe remote is newer to them, or they've had several years of working co-located with a team, you could share some things that have been successful for your team, those team norms that I walked through, like here's our ways of working. Here's what's worked well for us. Here's maybe where we would love to hear your insight for where we could do better. Then maybe someone who's coming to your organization, who, again, has maybe a lot of experience working remote, invite them to help your team continue to find what that looks like, based on what's worked well for them. A lot of times we're trying to break some habits of just the symptoms of working co-located for so long. I think that is one thing, is like just being really explicit and setting those expectations, and also inviting them to help you improve your team processes too.

Verma: That's true. It's a team effort and involving them early on makes a lot of sense, just by asking questions, it seems like.

Since we are talking about tenure, a slightly related question is the time based progress. Let's say somebody did join your team, what questions do you ask them along the way, as they complete their first month, let's say three months, six months? Do you have a framework you use to set them up for success there?

Wardin: I had one slide on after one month, and then after two months, and after three months, and some of the questions after of course we get the foundations of like, I'm confident with my ecosystem. Who are the people I work with? What are our ways of working? After maybe that month or two months, like, do you have any questions or need any more context on our organizational goals, or the specific things or priorities that we're going after as a team? Now that they have that foundation and can start looking into like, how does my work tie into the bigger picture? Or after that three months like, do you have a good idea of what you can do to have a really successful career here? What does success look like to you? Or, does your experience match your expectations when you joined? You could ask that at the one-month, two-month, three-month time period. Then also like, how productive do you feel? What's getting in the way of your productivity? Do you feel welcome? Do you feel like you have an equal voice compared to the rest of your colleagues? Do you understand what's expected of your role? How are those relationships that you're working to build? I think progressing through the months after they've onboarded, to get into some of those questions to understand, how are they embedding into the organization and also starting to provide value? How confident do they feel? Do they feel like they're supported?

Verma: All this points to the preparation. As a hiring manager, bringing people into your organization, you're well prepared to set them up for success. How much should the company lean into creating a generic pre-boarding or preparation for onboarding somebody, versus how much should it rely on individual teams to do things, in your opinion?

Wardin: I think that really depends on the organization. There's always going to be a minimum of links, like, here's our company mission, company values. Those things that are going to be consistent across teams. At least 80% of that onboarding template or plan will be customized for that person, their seniority. What you think that they'll need support in. As you're learning more about them, you're going to be tweaking it. Saying, based on our conversations last week, here are some additional things that you could read, your team, that organization that they sit in. I think that's going to be a little bit more customized based on their role, at least in my experience. I think 20% of it could be, here's the company, here's our priorities for the year tech setup 101 courses, and links like that, that you could absolutely reuse.

Verma: One thing that stood out to me as you were introducing your particular situation, like you were a manager, there's a duality to it. You are onboarding as an employee, and you are then onboarding into a team also and getting to know the team. Maybe, can you point to things your team did to onboard you? In other words, what are the things you would do to onboard your boss remotely?

Wardin: My team was amazing. All of my one-on-ones for the first month, I just had a list of questions that I was asking, and they would help really onboard me, provide context. Each of them are leading somewhat like independent projects, or at least are captains for those projects. Within the first one-on-one, they would provide a recap, or like, what's going on right now, overview of the mission and what that project was aimed to accomplish. That was a wonderful thing that the team could help me as a manager get up to speed on, as well as just like a high level overview of themselves, their career, what they were looking for. As a manager, especially, those are things that I really want to do immediately is get to know my team and how I can best help them. It's the irony of like, they're helping me but I'm helping them. To me success is like, how can I help my team? Being so new I'm like, "I don't know what to do here." I think it is the accountability of the team to of course help onboard their manager when they are new. Then of course, I leaned on my peers, my colleagues, and then my leader a lot to help provide me the context of my role in my team too.

Verma: I'm going to switch to the topic of peer buddies. Let's talk about how you set up peer buddies or train them. What coaching you provide them, so that they can be really effective? Of course, in the beginning part, we were all scrambling, and we did it as we went. Do you have any suggestions how somebody could set up peer buddies for success.

Wardin: For the peer buddy role, that one, I look to someone who either onboarded most recently onto the team. Maybe even they onboarded remotely, within the last year and a half or two years, and so that they understood what were those gaps that they wish they had, so that they were really familiar with how was that experience onboarding, personally, and so that they can help that person. Also, that peer buddy, in your question about getting them ready, making sure that they're really familiar, of course, with the code base, all the tools used, because they're going to be the go-to person that that person is going to want to reach out to. Also, that they are feeling really prepared and confident to give feedback. Making sure that that person is willing and also coached to be able to practice some of that with you, perhaps, before the new hire joins. Also, that they have time carved out. They're not on a project, perhaps, like in the critical path of like, we have a deadline for this. Maybe that person, if that person is in the critical path isn't the best person for a peer buddy knowing that they'll probably be pinged throughout the day, perhaps a lot of context switching as they are really dedicated to helping that other person join the team.

Verma: The last point is actually super important. You cannot just add one more task and then make them feel like, this is maybe an aside task you have to do. It's probably a part of their main job. It's really important for them to bring somebody on board and make them feel welcome, set up for success and all that.

Wardin: Maybe it's that peer buddy is working on something that would also make sense for that onboarding activity, like, why don't you just pair up? You could do some paired programming, and that person could just observe you as you're working, if it's something that's straightforward, and he can also demonstrate various areas of code base as they're working on it, but again, isn't super time sensitive so they don't make it a stressful experience.

Verma: Make the time and space, always be aware of that.

Let's take the same peer buddy thing and talk in the context of maybe you as a manager having peer buddies, or maybe think about if your boss were to have a peer buddy, what would that look like? Does your advice change or modify in any way?

Wardin: I had a peer buddy type role, a mentor, because he, of course, wasn't on my direct team, he was a leader of another team. He had onboarded within the last six months, and so that was wonderful because he could even say, "I went through the same thing. Here's what I did." The advice was very timely. He was also still seeking to understand how the organization works. Sometimes we'd go together and say, here's something we're a little confused about, how could we clarify this for the next person? Super approachable, again, was just always available for me to reach out to, and of course, approachable and available.

Verma: With leadership positions, obviously, decision making and culture are super important, how you, for example, give direction to the team. How far do you go in terms of leaning in towards providing context or actually telling people what needs to be done? There's a continuum there. As a leader, how can peer buddies help them find that balance, that, at this company, we do things this way, and that will be the best way for your teams to take off?

Wardin: Specific to cultural callout that I did lean on my peer buddy a lot, because at Netflix we do exactly what you said. We want to lead with context and not control. There'll be some situations in which I'd say, there's a lot of chaos here. I want to apply a process or I just want to say, we should do this this way. Especially being new, I think that I should do a lot more observing, and then leaning on my peer buddy to say, "This is my gut reaction. Can you just check my thoughts and feelings and let me know if there was some type of 'handbook?' How would I go about this like the X organization way?" Or, "What would you do in this situation?" That was very helpful to have someone just to bounce ideas off of. Also, one thing that as you're onboarding folks too, have a lot of patience. Especially with remote teams, like that culture is going to be a little bit more difficult to pick up on, unless it's explicitly written out, or verbalized, or communicated. I think being really direct with the culture norms that are special and valuable to those teams, and then the organizations is going to be that much more important too, as you're helping people join that new culture.

Verma: As a peer buddy sometimes, I end up thinking of myself as providing the director's cut of whatever happens. Like a meeting happens later, you could tell the person, you noticed this happened, and this is why that is. Replaying the events and giving them more context. It can be really interesting.

Wardin: I love that because you can say, yes, I didn't want to call you out right there, but we could go through this meeting or this occurrence that I witnessed, and here's some feedback, or here's what I would have done differently, or this went really well and here's why. I like that, director's cut.

Verma: Let's talk about hiring people and onboarding people. One of the things that struck me was this effort around good onboarding starts before the onboarding. I would just take it all the way to the extreme, which is, when you advertise your open job, so maybe it even starts there. Can you speak to, like now when you go out and hire people, what signals do you start sending at the very beginning? Walk through that continuum or timeline?

Wardin: Retention starts at that hiring process, or that like posting a job, because we want people to really understand and start imagining themselves in those roles, to your point, as early as that job description. How can you bring that culture to light, so that people as they're applying for the role know like, this sounds like I would enjoy working here, or I fit in, or I would add to this culture. What barriers could they imagine that they could then ask in the interview? Or, how does this go? It could just really provide some really good context to have a lot more productive conversations throughout the recruiting process. Then, of course, the onboarding process. I think everything should be set up to make sure that it's as inclusive also as a hiring, recruiting, interviewing, onboarding process as possible. Also, so that person just knows what to expect. I don't know if that's just like a, my personality thing, but I loved being prepared for interviews too, like, here's what you can expect. Why not? I think that's so wonderful to help folks feel as prepared as possible, and welcome, and included throughout that process.

Then also, sending signals. I got a lot of really useful information just to help understand exactly what that first week would look like, so that I could mentally prepare. Like, the first day I might have quite a bit of meetings, whether it's the formal onboarding meetings with these different people. I loved being able to mentally prepare for what that week would look like, before I even had access to my calendar that first day. It just helped me lessen those nerves, and that anxiety that comes with joining a new company is just to know as much as possible what you're going to face that that first week. That can start with job postings, like, here's what it means to be on this team. You can just start to prepare, do some research.

Verma: Why not? We should go out there and let people know, what is it to work in the team explicitly? Give them examples of things you do, or even like, have you considered making videos or other artifacts available outside for candidates or potential hires to consume?

Wardin: I think that'd be so cool. Yes, if you did a demo of what your team does. Maybe it is not proprietary at all, but you could share a demo of the appy, but at least the tech stack, things like that, or just like, welcome the different members of your team. I think that would be great, in the job posting.

Verma: There's a question around Zoom. Socializing over Zoom feels really awkward, especially for new people. For people who have been in the team, you can form rapport and you're probably ok with it after some time. How do you get around that awkwardness of initial socializing over Zoom?

Wardin: I would say more one-on-ones than if you were in-person, so every week, depending on the size of your team. Also, just like the icebreaker questions. I like to do a photo of your weekend. Like this morning, we all got to see what each other did this weekend in Slack. We could talk about it. That brings up topics that you could discuss. Like, "I see you dressed up as this for Halloween, how did it go?" Stuff like that. Coming prepared with questions helps me try to get over that awkwardness of, you can't pick up on the nonverbals. Being as prepared as possible with questions, but also, just acknowledging that this isn't human nature to talk to a screen, and so just have patience and grace for each other and know that they're likely feeling the same awkwardness and that's ok, too. We don't have to make it totally natural because it's never going to be.


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Recorded at:

Aug 21, 2022