August 13th, 2020
How we make onboarding work as a distributed team (Hint: it starts before Day 1)
As a People Manager, it's my responsibility to make sure all new employees have the best onboarding experience possible. To reach that goal it takes more than reading blog posts about remote onboarding or watching webinars. Just because something works for another company doesn't mean it works for us at Rasa.
When I think about creating a great onboarding experience, I think about my own experience and what was challenging for me.
When I decided to take the job as People Manager at Rasa I was excited about the role, the product, and getting to know the team. But at the same time I was also nervous about meeting new people and getting acquainted with everything. It can be overwhelming, especially when you are moving to a new city or country. I think I can speak for a lot of people when I say the decision to stay at a company or not happens pretty quickly. It's not just whether the role described during the hiring process fits my expectation, it's also about whether I feel welcome and can connect with the team. This can be especially challenging when working in a distributed team. You are based in different time zones, dealing with different cultural backgrounds, or possibly facing technical issues without someone to turn to in person.
Before the start date
When I moved to Berlin in 2014 and started working at my first job, I remember my contract came with personal messages about how happy my new team was that I decided to join, and that made me feel welcome before I even started working. Just a few weeks ago, one of my colleagues and I were sending welcome packages (including hardware, some swag, and a personal message) to a new team member, who reported feeling "like a kid on Christmas." It's sometimes the simple things that make someone happy and reinforce my belief that onboarding shouldn't start on your first day. A personal touch makes the process special and unique. Since our team is based around the globe, it makes me happy to see that it's possible to make someone feel welcome even though they are miles away.
Even before onboarding "officially" starts, there might be things that are part of the process. When I first moved to Berlin, there were quite a few things I needed to do to get settled. To make the relocation for new Rasa employees as smooth as possible, we offer help to finding a flat, a kindergarten spot, or in some cases providing visa support. Having a work visa in your pocket doesn't mean there aren't any open questions left. There might be things that work differently from country to country or even city to city. If we are aware that someone may need help, we try our best to support them by answering questions and providing advice.
We also make sure we give new team members access to tools, our wiki, and a personal onboarding checklist in advance. That gives new employees the opportunity to try out tools and reduce technical issues on the first day - especially in a distributed team environment where onboarding sessions happen mostly via Zoom. Besides giving new employees time to get comfortable with the technology, it gives us the chance to go through the onboarding checklist, so people know what to expect in the first weeks and can review their scheduled onboarding sessions. By then, their Onboarding Buddy has reached out to help make the onboarding experience a friendly one.
Having an Onboarding Buddy program sounds simple: choose someone from the team who will support the new joiner and show them the office. When we decide which buddy to assign, we keep a few things in mind, especially because we have a team based around the globe. For example, I always make sure that the buddy is based in the same time zone. This not only helps with communication, it also ensures that the buddy is familiar with local conditions. Also, we choose someone from a different department, so new employees have the opportunity to make connections outside of their immediate team.
The way a Buddy supports a new joiner can be different, case-by-case. They might share helpful pages, introduce other team members, or explain organizational processes like how to take time off. If Buddies are based in the same city, it can also be things like pointing out restaurants near the office or explaining how the transportation system works. People at Rasa tend to be quite friendly and helpful, so there is always someone to answer questions in addition to the buddy, manager or Ops team.
Meeting the team
By the time a new hire has completed the hiring process and contract signing, they've met at least a few people at their new company. At Rasa we try to find ways to encourage people to get to know each other even before day one. Back in January, when we did our team off-site, some people joined the trip even though they wouldn't officially start until a few weeks later. It was a great opportunity for new team members to meet people who might be working from a different city or country and get to know each other in person. I'm really happy that we can offer this opportunity to new team members.
We also use tools to help employees get to know each other. We use a Slack integration called Donut bot to randomly pair two people so they can meet for a virtual coffee! Especially when working remotely, it can be hard to socialize. We try to invite all new hires to one of our offices for their onboarding session even if they will work remotely, but it's not always possible. The next best thing is to help make connections by coordinating a daily morning coffee via Zoom and inviting people to introduce themselves. We even started doing an onboarding session called "Meet the Rasa team" where I introduce people from different teams and everyone explains what their daily work looks like. Working remotely can make it difficult to create personal connections because you can't exactly meet someone in the office or for a beer after work. Having some support to meet the team definitely makes it easier to connect.
What the first weeks look like
In my own experience as a new team member, I have been through all types of onboarding sessions. Sometimes it seemed like there were a million onboarding sessions and sometimes the onboarding process was non-existent. When I joined Rasa, I was pleasantly surprised. Even though the company hadn't had a People Manager until I joined, the onboarding process had already been thought through to an extent.
When I started at Rasa, a few onboarding sessions during the first weeks stood out. On my first day, I started with a session about Rasa's values and mission, which helped me understand the culture and the work environment much better. It gave me a good understanding of the environment and how Rasa works before jumping directly into my tasks.
I also appreciate that the onboarding process at Rasa is a team effort. As People Manager, I'm responsible for creating the onboarding framework, but a lot of people from the company are involved with hosting different onboarding sessions. For example, as a new hire, I had a session with our Product Manager and another newbie where we had the chance to create our first bot and talk one on one. It was a great experience learning more about the product by trying it out instead of listening to a presentation. Especially as someone who works on the Operations team and has little interaction with the product itself on a daily basis, it was a great way to get a better understanding. And even though processes may be documented in the wiki, people at Rasa always take time to jump on a call to explain things or just to say hello and welcome you to the team.
Another thing that stands out in my own onboarding process was the founder onboarding session-where our founders took the time to go through Rasa's history and answer questions about their background, how they came up with the name Rasa, and the business model. Although Rasa has doubled in size since then, Alex and Alan still take the time to get to know everyone and explain their journey, and it's still an essential part of the onboarding process.
Challenging yourself to be exceptional
One of our company values is Challenge yourself to be exceptional, which includes the concept that there is always a next level for an idea. For the Operations team, that means asking for early feedback and finding ways to improve the onboarding process even further.
Our onboarding process should reflect the diversity of the Rasa team, as well as our varied backgrounds and work experience. For example, some employees joining Rasa may be working for an open source company for the first time. To create visibility into our open source community and contributor program, we created a Community Onboarding session. We also added a Research session to our onboarding process to talk more about how we do research at Rasa and what impact it has on our product in terms of improvements and features.
Just because the onboarding process works for now doesn't mean the onboarding process will work as well in a few weeks or months. There are always things you can improve. As People Manager, I focus on gathering insights and collecting feedback because what may look clear to me might be not easy to understand for someone new at Rasa.
For me, the onboarding process is like a mirror of the company culture. Although working in a distributed team can be challenging sometimes, I've always felt welcome at Rasa. During each onboarding session, I'm reminded how passionate Rasa employees are about their jobs and the product. That helped me recognize early on that I can stand behind Rasa's values and mission and commit to creating the best onboarding experience possible.
And the best part? Knowing that the onboarding process has had a positive impact on a new teammate.