Onboarding Employees in the Age of Remote

Remote changed IT hiring fast, but onboarding employees didn’t quite keep pace. Here’s insight from a company that’s been there and done with advice on how to get it right.

Alec Imperial, Senior Engineering Manager, Veeva Systems

July 31, 2023

4 Min Read
remote worker on a video conference call
insta photos via Adobe Stock

To say COVID-19 accelerated remote work is an understatement. In just three years, employees went from temporarily working at home to expecting remote and hybrid options. Add in the “Great Resignation” and talent shortages in IT, and it’s easy to see why once-resistant employers changed their tune. Those organizations need to -- and now can -- retain and compete for highly skilled pros.

Still, some critical work processes have catching up to do. In particular, the onboarding of new remote employees remains a challenge. For instance, software engineers need to be closely connected to teams and products for collaboration and development. Without someone sitting across from a new hire, physically or virtually, it’s easy for issues to go unnoticed and questions unanswered.

In 2021, our company became one of the few publicly traded companies to offer a work anywhere model. As a result, we were able to iron out remote onboarding issues that many companies are now facing. Here are some lessons learned along the way.

Questions and Answers

When we interview engineering managers, we tailor some of our technical questions specifically to gauge a candidate's mentorship skills. The reason is to get them used to the actual ones they’ll be asking of new hires when doing their own onboarding. We try to customize the questions based on the type of employee the manager will most commonly be working with. For example, a new hire coming from another company will have a very different perspective than someone arriving from college.

Hires from other companies onboard faster than college grads, but usually need translation guides. We prepare two specific types of guides for all new hires. The first contains terms we use that link to industry standards, as well as a useful description of the term. Making this connection quickly helps new hires from other companies who may have previously used a different term. This same “Lingo” guide also contains industry terms and acronyms, since not all developers will have the same background.

The second guide assumes that not all new hires program in Java. Some use JavaScript because they’re front-end developers and want to learn Java. Others might be full-stack C# developers who doesn't know Java but know JavaScript. In such cases, we’ll bring in internal language specialists for guides on how to do things in Java or JavaScript.

Cleaning up Content

We use a lot of module-based recordings when onboarding. When we revisited our processes, we looked at the content with a fresh set of eyes to ensure information was current and covered all required topics. We removed any clutter. We focused on immediate themes like setting up your own development environment and what to do in your first five days. All content was curated by importance and audience. We also developed a piece that would help new hires feel as if someone was sitting in the room with them. In it, we had three developers do a recorded walkthrough of their machine setup.

It was equally important that we made it simple for people to go back in to find information they needed. This lent itself to the creation of a wiki that has been strongly supported by employees. They constantly add detail, so it stays relevant, share ways to be more effective, and grab the attention of those being onboarded. If anyone wants to revisit a subject, they'll see the recording date, link, and a brief summary of the topic.

Still, not everyone digests information in the same way, so we provide materials in different mediums and usually hit on something that works for each person.

Monitoring Progress

It’s important that new hires start off with a strong foundation, so we monitor progress. After we bring in a new employee, we have check-ins throughout the first week to see how they're adjusting. These are focused on life at the company, how they’re feeling, and if they believe something’s missing.

The ideal is for everyone to be onboarded within the first five days of their start date. We devised this timeline from following what new hires go through. It’s based on someone being at a certain point every day. By the end of day one, they should have their HR paperwork completed and will have met their team. On day two, their development environment should be created. Days three and four see their environments finalized so they’re ready to go on day five.

In the Zone

While a work anywhere program is attractive to candidates, guardrails should be in place to bring support beyond onboarding. From a location-based footprint, we require all new hires be within two time zones of a hub. This ensures support is available within a reasonable time. Beyond that is when things can break.

New grads have some flexibility but are required to go into the office for the first year. This ensures they get valuable in-office time early in their career. They get accustomed to routines and receive immediate guidance, including over-the-shoulder support from hybrid and full-office employees. After this, they can choose to go remote, hybrid, or stay in the office. The idea is to make sure these grads feel engaged with other employees and to put a name to faces outside of Zoom sessions.

About the Author(s)

Alec Imperial

Senior Engineering Manager, Veeva Systems, Veeva Systems

Alec Imperial is senior engineering manager for Veeva Systems, the industry cloud for life sciences. With nearly 15 years in full-stack software development, he started his career as a computer programmer targeting enterprise application development. A University of California graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering, he is highly skilled with development in multiple programming languages, including Java, JavaScript, and Python.

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