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Please turn your cameras on: Remote onboarding of software developers during a pandemic

This week’s paper discusses the challenges of remotely onboarding new developers at Microsoft.

Face-masked pirate with a selfie stick boards a ship
Who says onboardings have to be boring?

A developer who joins a new team needs to become familiar with the project, its source code, and their team. This happens during onboarding, which is when the new developer tries to learn as much as they can.

Why it matters

The onboarding process is and prone to error, but sadly also very necessary. Much research has gone into ways to optimise this process using techniques like pair programming or by assigning a mentor to new hires.

Unfortunately, many of the traditional solutions for onboarding processes don’t work for remote onboardings. A few studies have tried to describe best practices for remote onboarding which would be useful under normal circumstances, but not during the current pandemic, as:

  • employees cannot travel to the office, meaning that opportunities to form a social connection with the team are limited;

  • people with children have to juggle homeschooling in addition to completing their work for the company;

  • people do not usually experience trauma while working in traditional remote work.

How the study was conducted

A survey was conducted among 267 newly hired full-time software developers at Microsoft in order to learn more about…

  • the challenges that they encountered during their onboarding process;
  • what teams do to onboard new hires;
  • how team members interact with new hires;
  • the extent at which new hires feel socially connected to their team.

All respondents were new hires who started between January and June 2020, which was in the earlier phases of the pandemic.

What discoveries were made

Survey respondents mention six common onboarding challenges:

  • Communication and collaboration: working from home makes it harder to communicate often.

  • Asking for help: new hires feel hesitant to “disturb” their new colleagues with numerous questions, since there are no ways to run into them naturally. Some also feel that emails and chats do not provide enough clarity, especially for technical questions.

  • Building team connections: new hires feel isolated from the rest of the team, especially when not everyone in the team uses their camera in video calls.

  • Finding documentation: documentation is often missing or outdated. Sometimes the documentation exists, but is hard to find. New hires also find it hard to deal with excessive amounts of information that are spread out in multiple locations.

  • Technical issues: anything from setting up a development environment to dealing with Bitlocker and computer restarts.

  • Hardware and permissions: hardware is not always shipped timely to new hires, and some software might not be easily accessible from home.

Teams try to mitigate these challenges in several ways, by:

  • having the manager organise daily 1:1 meetings with the new hire;

  • constantly checking with the new hire to ensure they are not blocked on a task;

  • holding social virtual events, which can range from casual reoccurring meetings or playing online games;

  • assigning onboarding buddies to new hires, who guide them through the onboarding process.

Nevertheless, most communication between new hires and their teams is formal, work-related and relatively short: reportedly about 70% of communication lasts less than 30 minutes.

Hires generally try to make the best of it. Many are enthusiastic about team bonding activities. Some actively try to reach out to random team members or discuss informal topics in 1:1 discussions, although there are also those who find it very hard to stay connected with their team.

Recommendations

Based on insights gained from the survey and some additional interviews, the authors have come up with 10 recommendations for remote onboarding.

Promote communication and asking for help

New hires report not knowing when and how to communicate with their team. The authors therefore recommend that new hires are provided guidance and “best practices” that help them ask questions when they arise.

Encourage teams to turn cameras on

Team members should turn their cameras on during video calls, as this makes it easier for new hires to understand the dynamics of the team, and helps them bond and form connections with their team members.

Schedule 1:1 meetings

New hires desire short but frequent 1:1 meetings with team members throughout the week, which gives them ample opportunity to ask questions and makes them feel more comfortable asking for future help.

Managers should also have formalised and short daily meetings with new hires to ensure that they are not blocked on tasks. In larger organisations, a manager might also want to facilitate a meeting with . This helps to better understand the company’s strategy, organisation, and culture.

Provide information about the organisation

A good understanding of the company’s organisation and its broader context helps new hires understand their own role and that of their team. Such information should therefore be provided as early as possible.

Emphasise team building

New hires wish to have stronger social connections with their team. In addition to the benefits mentioned above, strong social connections also have positive effects on job satisfaction and productivity.

Assign an onboarding buddy

Onboarding buddies can help a new hire find the things they need, connect with others within the company, and answer their questions.

The authors recommend that this onboarding buddy does not come from the same team. This helps the new hire build a network outside their own team, makes it possible for them to discuss career growth, and any problems that may arise during the onboarding process.

Assign an onboarding technical mentor

Furthermore, the new hire should also have an onboarding technical mentor. This should be a direct team member who is intimately familiar with the low-level details of the work and who can answer specific detailed questions. This mentor should be available to assist and respond promptly.

Support multiple onboarding speeds

Different people have different needs: someone who is fresh out of college may need more time for onboarding than a software developer with several years of experience. The onboarding process should therefore not be one-size-fits-all.

Assign a simple first task

A new hire’s first task can feel daunting, as there is much to learn. Assigning a simple first task allows new hires to quickly go through the complete software development workflow, which may make it easier for them to follow discussions during technical meetings.

Provide up-to-date documentation

Documentation is a very handy tool for remote workers, especially as experts are not always directly available. The documentation should obviously exist and be up to date.

It is also important to recognise that documentation can be overwhelming and hard to understand without the right context.

Finally, the authors recommend that new hires are given access to documentation about workflows, so that they can understand the team's day-to-day language.

Summary

  1. Use both formal and informal communication to make it easier for new hires to ask questions when they arise

  2. Assign an organisational onboarding buddy and a technical onboarding buddy to new hires

  3. Don’t forget to inform new hires about the organisation and its context, and their team’s workflows

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