One year later — Lessons learned from remote onboarding

Tara Ojo
Tara Ojo
Apr 29 · 6 min read

Twelve months ago, in the midst of COVID-19, lockdowns, quarantining and social distancing, I was one of many people to start a new job. I joined the FT in April last year, about a month after the first lockdown started in the UK. I’ve not yet met my team and I only know some people in the company solely by their Slack profile picture / cartoon character!

The FT like most other companies had to quickly switch to remote everything, including figuring out remote onboarding on-the-go. Time has somehow flown by, but also felt incredibly slow moving, and while compulsory remote working started out as a novelty, it has now become our new normal. After 12 months at the FT and over 12 months of remote working it seems like a good time to reflect on what I have learned through the experience…

1. Be intentional about networking and meeting new people

I always knew that working remotely would make meeting people more difficult, I wouldn’t get the impromptu moments of bumping into someone in the coffee area or sitting next to someone new in a company meeting. Onboarding at home definitely hindered my opportunities to quickly develop working relationships.

In my first few weeks, meetings were scheduled for me with each member of my new team, which was a great way to be introduced to the people I would be working with day-to-day. Continuing this momentum was difficult though, especially when the only opportunities to talk to people were in more “official” team meetings so I didn’t have much non-work chat which, let’s be honest, makes work a lot more enjoyable! Some of my interviewers also messaged to welcome me to the FT, they were the only people I knew when I started so it was nice to have them reach out during my first few days/weeks.

In my previous role I had already built relationships with work colleagues over years and I had a good handle on the work I was doing! No longer having this in a new company felt pretty isolating. But, it forced me to be extra intentional about finding ways to develop those working relationships, so I reached out to people individually when there was a non-awkward reason to do so! It definitely helps to know more people across the company.

I wasn’t the only person in the new starter boat though, there were a few initiatives that started across our group and department to give us all the opportunity to connect informally. There was already a company wide coffee roulette Slack group that randomly pairs you with someone else to have a catch-up with. This is a great chance to meet people across the business, though it was a big group for me as I mainly wanted to meet others in my department to start with. We also tried a more manual smaller version within our Customer Products group which worked well until we had logistical challenges keeping the random pairings going!

I felt the most welcomed when I was invited to a small Slack group for random chats and hype, though, this relies heavily on some friendly colleagues making the effort to include you in a group!

2. Great onboarding is massively underrated

Working from home has been a good test of the onboarding process for a lot of companies! If you don’t have many new people, you may not consider the importance your onboarding process can make to a new starter. When you’re not working remotely you can get away with a lot by just showing a new person around the office and introducing them to lots of people in the space of a few minutes. On the other hand, working remotely means trying to find the right balance between ensuring your new starter is supported and not overwhelming them with video call fatigue.

After going through the onboarding process myself I was interested in working on the FT’s onboarding process, so I started the work to do this with help from other new starters at the time. My colleague, Jenn and I ran an onboarding retro for recent starters and their buddies to get an idea of what worked and where there was still work to be done. There were lots of good things raised like the friendliness of team members, and the useful communication and proactiveness from our Tech Leadership.

On the other side we saw lots of inconsistency with each person’s onboarding experience, some people had great experiences, others didn’t get so much support. Some had been assigned a buddy, while others didn’t realise that was an option. There was also a desire for a learning plan to help get up to speed with our tech stack, tools and best practices quickly.

The retro was a great way to learn straight from the people who have recently gone through the experience. The first thing it prompted was a new process to be introduced so we could get some consistency across the group. We crowd sourced ideas and created a Trello board template for each new starter. The board has a number of cards with tasks to be completed over their first 6 months. We also created a similar one for Line Managers, Tech Leads, Delivery Managers and Buddies to collaborate on, so they can ensure they’ve got everything ready for their new starter before they join.

Four columns in Trello board: Info, To do, In progress, Done. Card in Info: “Create a copy of the board for each new starter”. Cards in To do: Intro to team, add to team mailing lists [first week]. Cards in In progress: Identify work to start on, ensure whole team is aware of new start date [pre-joining]. Cards in Done: Choose a buddy, complete new starters form [pre-joining].
Manager Onboarding Template in Trello

We’ve already had a bunch of great feedback from introducing a more formal process but still plan to address more of the feedback from the initial retro and keep iterating on this process.

3. Be kind to myself

I’ve seen many people say that remote working under normal circumstances is very different to remote working in a pandemic. I’ve only experienced the latter so I can’t comment on how true that statement is, but I can say that working during a worldwide pandemic has not been normal. I’m usually pretty organised when it comes to career development and jumping on new opportunities with the aim to grow my skills and meet my career goals. I expected to be doing the same after a few months of settling in and getting to know how things work at the FT. In hindsight, this was ridiculous thinking.

Work did become a welcome distraction from the likes of Covid, Black Lives Matter protests and SARS protests, but all these were still having an effect on my mental health and I needed to look after that. Fortunately, the FT leadership was clear that they didn’t have the same delivery expectations from us in these “unprecedented” times and we still celebrated the milestones we did achieve which was encouraging.

What I did end up doing was being more flexible with my working hours, starting later in the morning sometimes and starting earlier in the morning other days and taking some opportunities to work in my PJs, in bed. The extra wellness days the FT have provided have also been valuable for extra downtime.

Laptop showing the Financial Times homepage on a bed with a cup of tea in hand and funky red and pink nails

We’ve all had similar experiences over the last year and there is something quite humbling about us all being in the same bubble of talking on mute, talking while not on mute, children joining meetings, doorbells ringing and video call fatigue. But, it’s still been a year of learning and I’ve been grateful for that!

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