Coming back from parental leave and getting up to speed with a new team is harder than I expected thanks to remote work. I knew before that it couldn’t be an easy situation for people trying to learn something new and onboard while there is no one around them, but it took going through the experience myself to really understand just what a challenge it is. Without the ability to walk around and ask questions, it’s really so much harder to understand what’s going on and become productive.
As a manager, it might be even harder to get up to speed while working from home. Granted, I wouldn’t trade the ability and flexibility of it, especially combined with safety in this time, but it’s certainly easier to get to know a team and learn a domain when you are actually around people. Video calls and remote 1:1s can help, but they can’t replace the ability to just walk over to someone and talk to them. Also absent is the ability to check in on people and read cues on how they are doing which arise naturally throughout the day when actually together. Now, in order to check in on my team, I have to rely on scheduled one on ones and the occasional meeting.
I’ve had several new team members join my team during COVID, and I thought I understood just how hard it must be for them in trying to onboard remotely. You can read documents and join meetings, but there is no replacement for actually being together. Software code can be read, but it’s really only through talking to the rest of the team that it’s possible to learn why things were done a certain way and why decisions were made. It’s also far harder to pick up on team culture and operating practices without living in them for a full day.
There are plenty of other challenges in operating remotely, and these just compound the difficulty in coming up to speed on a new team. The difficulty in keeping a boundary between work and home life is even harder when there is pressure to spend more time to become productive. It’s also easier to context switch from work during the day with numerous home chores and activities, taking away time and the ability to focus on the ramp up. Every time I need to cook or wash dishes, I get pulled out of the ability to actually focus on learning.
I’ve found a few things which can help though. While there is no replacement for the ability to manage by walking around and checking in on team members, establishing some dedicated time just to ask how things are going and talk about things outside of work can help establish some rapport. Since everyone is used to communicating somewhat asynchronously and virtually anyway, asking questions over Slack can actually help. Instead of saving them up for one on ones, I’ve found it’s best to get them out in real-time before the context is lost, and so that they don’t end up taking up the entire scheduled time for one on ones which can be used for better topics. I still haven’t found a great way to get these out in close to real time without completely randomizing people, but I’ve found the benefit of these conversations to outweigh that negative.
Another important mechanism I found was setting up and blocking out time for ramp up activities. If I don’t block an hour or more each day, there is too much context switching between meetings otherwise and I can never effectively get into the flow of learning. During this time I actually enable do not disturb mode on my laptop and phone so I’m not getting distracted from the onboarding activities. For me, if emails and messages come in while I’m reading something, at best I get momentarily distracted and break my focus, and at worst end up feeling the need to triage them immediately. Maybe some people can manage those notifications effectively, but I’ve come to realize for most people, we really can’t, even if we think we are.
I’ve also found it difficult to figure out the right balance of meetings during this time. On the one hand, having free time to review documents and have ad-hoc conversations can help with ramp up, but on the other, actually hearing and participating in discussions can add more knowledge and facilitate learning more than reading a document ever can. In general, I’ve tried to join as many different meetings as I can, just to listen in and learn as much as possible, even if most of it goes over my head. I figure drinking from the firehose at least gives some information, even when most of it flies by.
In the end though, there is no magic way to make remote onboarding work just as easily as actually be in there in person with people. But with the pandemic getting worse and no plan in sight, it looks like we’re all going to have to find ways to make it work. For me, it was a strong indicator of just how hard it can be for new team members especially, and how much a little bit of help from others can mean. It may take a little extra effort, but with some help and some mechanisms in place, we can find ways to learn and effectively onboard to a new team.