How to nail remote developer onboarding

Peter Simic
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13 minutes
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Onboarding
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New research indicates that almost everyone (97% of people) would like to work remotely, at least in some capacity. So, the time to jump on the remote work bandwagon is now.

GitLab, Dropbox, and Toptal are just some examples of successful tech companies operating entirely remotely, and there are many more.

However, it’s worth noting that the remote environment comes with a set of challenges. Onboarding is one of them.

You only get one chance to make a first impression on a new developer, so you have to design your remote onboarding plan carefully.

If you want to nail the experience and introduce the new engineer to the company in the best way possible, this article will assist you on the way.

Gauge your new hire’s remote work experience

The key to remote developer onboarding is preparation. Documentation, equipment, workflows; everything should be taken care of in advance.

However, to successfully determine the course of onboarding, the first step is to gauge how experienced the new hire is in remote work.

With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing workers out of offices into makeshift at-home workstations, many developers have had a chance to experience remote work.

Still, it’s a good idea to directly ask the new hire to describe their previous experiences so that you can create a more accurate onboarding plan.

In other words, this initial stage is about identifying aspects of work the new hire may have struggled with. 

According to Pew Research, most employees have found remote work easy, but it’s still helpful to check in with the new hire to be sure.

For instance, when Tigran Hakobyan started working as a software engineer at Buffer, it took him some time to warm up to remote work.

He faced challenges regarding time management, work structure, and communication. Buffer was aware of such problems, so they led new hires through a 45-day boot camp.

By the end of the boot camp, Hakobyan got used to remote work and gained control of his time.

You could take an approach similar to Buffer’s. Try to be aware that not everybody has the same starting point in working remotely, and plan for a period of adjustment.

If the employee is new to remote work, you’ll have to spend more time introducing them to the tools you use in day-to-day operations. 

In case you’ve hired an experienced remote worker, you can go straight ahead to social onboarding, company onboarding, and project onboarding.

Either way, the beginning of the onboarding process will vary according to the new hire’s experience.

Before they start working on actual projects, make sure your new devs know how to balance work and personal life—this can get challenging when everything’s done in one location. 

Bug and crash reporting tool for your mobile app.

You don’t want them working from 8 AM to 9 PM, as Hakobyan did at one point.

Make sure you walk them through how your company handles:

  • Time management
  • Synchronous communication
  • Asynchronous communication
  • Staying healthy

These elements are a prerequisite for doing any serious project work. There’s time for online code reviews and other programming-related activities later; the first step should be showing the new employee how to manage their daily activities.

We’ve mentioned quite a few topics you should talk to your new hire about, so you may be wondering how to keep track of them all.

Don’t worry; it can be done. Please let us introduce you to the magic of checklists.

Establish a remote onboarding checklist

Checklists are an indispensable tool for all types of onboarding, especially the remote kind. They help you take care of all the crucial hiring steps while also serving as a progress bar.

Hiring new employees can get exhausting, no matter how many times you’ve done it. Just when you think you’re done with administrative tasks, there’s another form to fill in.

It gets even more complicated when you get to the real onboarding.

Have I shared access to the company code repository? Do they have a culture buddy? 

These are just some of the questions likely going through your head during the first day of welcoming a new dev to the company.

With a remote onboarding checklist, you’ll be able to monitor the onboarding process. Here’s an example of one provided by Slite.

Source: Slite

A checklist like this one can help you prepare for the developer’s first day. Make sure to also prepare items to cover during the following onboarding stages as well.

Planning all the details that much ahead may sound intimidating, but staying organized is vital, even more so in a remote environment. You should keep in mind that a new dev doesn’t know what to expect when they join the company.

As opposed to physical offices, their co-workers will probably not ask them if they’ve already been instructed how to connect to the company’s VPN, and the new hire may not even know they were supposed to be.

So, out of sight, out of mind shouldn’t be an excuse for skipping vital onboarding steps. Checklists help you stay organized, which also translates to how the new hire perceives your company.

A smooth onboarding experience will reinforce your image as a coordinated employer, increasing the likelihood of the new employee staying with your company longer by a staggering 82 percent.

Source: Shake

An additional great thing about checklists is that they are infinitely modifiable.

If you notice an element missing after onboarding one developer, you can expand the checklist and use the improved version for the next dev.

Lather, rinse, repeat—and soon you’ll have a perfectly efficient onboarding checklist in place. You can use it time after time to provide a consistent, unified hiring experience.

Since onboarding is a process consisting of several stages, it may not be easy to come up with what to include into the checklist immediately. 

If you want to ensure you haven’t forgotten to add any vital elements, you might want to check out our complete developer onboarding checklist.

Get your project documentation up to date

Outdated or lacking project documentation can jeopardize your developer’s progress, and, consequently, the product, relationship with the client, and company at large.

To be on the safe side, make sure you always keep the documentation up to date.

Different types of developers need access to different data to do their jobs.

For instance, a backend developer needs to be able to access the database and staging and production backend environments, while a mobile dev doesn’t.

Depending on the role you’re onboarding, you’ll have to research and prepare all technical documents, bases, and tools to be used, and ensure they’re updated before sharing the access with the new developer.

This can include source code information, sample data, API keys, test suites, and more.

You can use an overview of software documentation provided by Prototypr to see what technical documentation you should prepare for each product and how it fits the software documentation context.

Source: Prototypr

As you can see, software documentation also includes process documentation, which is no less important for building products successfully.

To help your developers organize their work efficiently, you should also walk them through process documentation during the onboarding.

If you let them in on plans and estimates early on, they’ll have a frame of reference to appraise task or project progress.

Remember that project management and coding practices change every so often. 

You should, therefore, always provide new hires with the latest, updated versions of process documentation.

A new dev can think the deadline is only a week later than it is, and that could be enough to disrupt the planned product delivery date.

So, to avoid security and timing issues, make sure every bit of your technical, system, and process documentation is always up-to-the-minute.

Since there’s no direct supervision in a remote work environment, there’s an increased chance for uncertainties and possible errors.

You can use the onboarding process to familiarize the new hire with your standards, practices, and project documentation from the start.

Immerse new developers into the team early on

Remote work doesn’t have to immediately mean isolation; communication tools will help the new developer feel like part of the team. However, you should be the one to make the first step in introducing the new hire to the team.

New trends in the ways people work have taught us that remote work can be just as effective as the traditional office model. Developers can write code, attend meetings, and send reports from home—no problems there.

However, the social aspect of work is a bit harder to replicate without in-person contact.

In a remote setting, you can’t count on spontaneous canteen conversations to connect two employees from the same team, much less from different departments. 

Unfortunately, 80% of remote workers feel left out from the groups within the company.

On the bright side, companies are aware of the importance of retaining top talent, so they’ve started directing their efforts to make remote employees feel included in the company culture.

Source: Shake

A surefire way to make your remote developers feel included is to immerse them into the team early on. When they establish initial contact with their colleagues, all future communication will go smoother.

Since it isn’t easy to assess whether your new hire is an introvert or an extrovert, it would be helpful if you were the one introducing the new hire, rather than asking them to break the ice, as the following example shows.

The team in the image got notified there’s a new backend member, and they all took time to write a personalized welcome message.

Source: Doist

Another great thing about this example is that each employee mentioned their role, helping the new dev learn about the company and team structure.

CTO of the AI platform 6sense emphasizes the importance of the existing team initiating successful communication.

“Remote developers can sometimes be introverted. With onboarding, it’s critical to set an example with your own social skills to show a new hire how to engage with the entire team.”

He also advises assigning the new remote dev a mentor. That’s a smart move, and here’s why.

Company handbooks will only get you so far in demonstrating company culture. The new dev will get a more accurate understanding of the company by active participation.

That’s easier said than done; you can’t assign the new dev a task on the first day at the company and expect them to understand the workflow.

A better option is to assign the new remote developer a mentor during the onboarding. That way, you can give them smaller tasks immediately, knowing they’ll have guidance while they’re still adjusting.

All in all, remote workers will feel better and achieve better results if they have the support of the team. 

The onboarding process is an excellent opportunity to connect them with the team from the get-go, guaranteeing the new hire’s understanding of company culture and work processes.

Overcommunicate at all times

Assumptions and misunderstandings can run any business into the ground. If you want yours to keep thriving, you should communicate all important details to your new hires, removing any uncertainties they may have.

After a new developer joins the company and takes on their first task, they are bound to have questions, regardless of how thorough your knowledge bases or handbooks are.

Since workers claim that 86% of workplace failures stem from lack of collaboration or ineffective communication, it’s vital that you encourage new team members to ask questions and do your best to answer them.

Of course, the primary purpose of developer onboarding is to enable the dev to become an independent coder that contributes to the company. 

But before they get familiar with your internal processes, let them know they can approach their mentor or other team members with any questions they may have.

Source: Shake

You shouldn’t let the developer be the only active party in the process, though.

The onboarding process usually includes one-on-one meetings with the mentor or one of the technical roles. You can take these meetings as an opportunity to ask the developer questions about their experience at the company so far.

New remote hires may feel awkward voicing their concerns in Slack chat, so video meetings are your best shot at gauging their honest opinion.

Meetings also allow you to identify if there are some technical aspects of work that could have been communicated better during the onboarding.

For instance, if the new dev has spent several days building a feature from scratch, and there’s an existing library the team uses, that means the communication has not been the most effective and could do with some polishing.

Finally, you should make sure not to cross the fine line between constant communication and micromanagement.

In a remote environment, you can’t always supervise the new developer.

Therefore, you may feel tempted to constantly remind them of the rules and guidelines or ask for updates too frequently—all with the aim of preserving the quality of the code.

However, you should remember that successful communication also includes knowing when not to say anything.

If you’ve guided the developer through the onboarding process and assigned them a mentor, there’s no reason to micromanage their every step.

Conclusion

The fact you’re hiring developers remotely shouldn’t prevent you from nailing the onboarding process.

If you prepare onboarding checklists and all necessary documentation in advance, you’ll be able to devote more time to the cultural aspect of onboarding.

We know how important it is to explain all technical procedures to new developers, and we encourage you to do so. However, you shouldn’t forget about communication and nurturing the feeling of belonging.

So, make sure your remote developer onboarding covers both technical and cultural aspects. That way, you’ll create a thorough, motivating onboarding experience for your new dev.

About Shake

Shake is a bug and crash reporting tool for mobile apps. It was founded in 2019 with the mission to help app developers spend less time on debugging and manual overhead — and growing daily since thanks to a small and dedicated team of geeks based in the EU.

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