During these strange times, we are re-learning to work as teams at a distance, and this comes with challenges. But onboarding a new designer is an entirely different beast.

Lorenzo Ferronato
Lorenzo Ferronato
2nd June 2020

Being introduced to the new environment while not being in that environment can be a roller coaster of mixed feelings. It can also be revealing about a company.

As I started my role as a UX designer in full-on lockdown mode, I had the unusual experience of becoming part of Clearleft in this peculiar and unforeseen way.

Everyone has an onboarding plan, a welcome pack for the newcomer, or a number of automated rituals that are more or less effective in shortening the distance between a well-acquainted, tightly-knit team and the stranger standing in front of them.

Being no design leader, and having experienced onboardings only twice before, I wondered how many other people—designers, project managers, HR leads—are going through the same remote ordeal, on different sides of the barricade. As the remote office newbie I wanted to share some considerations that anyone preparing for virtual onboarding may learn from.

1. Be ready, possibly in style

A company is almost exactly like a person. It has its character, a voice and body language, its personality, its beliefs and values. One way or another, the company-person needs to be introduced to the newbie.

The way Clearleft does it is simple yet pretty elegant: a dedicated microsite, nicely matching the branding and website of Clearleft. Step by step, I was walked through the core and soul of Clearleft, all the way to any kind of practical information. I couldn’t really use the details about how good the coffee machine is in the office, but it’s all stuff that adds up to the understanding of where I’ll be working and what I’m getting into. Plus, it’s a reassuring fact to see the level of detail your company would go to just to welcome you onboard.

2. An organised company is an organised newbie

A place for everything, and everything in its place. The welcome website (welcsite?) pointed me towards a number of drives, folders, sheets, and documents that listed vital, important, and useful logistic things.

Clearleft prepared a specific onboarding Drive too, aligned with the microsite. This option is by far simpler than a swanky onboarding site, but it presents its own challenges: file duplication, taxonomy confusion, un-shared folders…we know the list. Asking rookie questions about where one would be able to find this file is a guaranteed chills-inducer for most companies. Lesson learned: better keep organizing tools clear and clean.

Alongside file managers, contacts and tools lists should be ready. This is a life-saver, especially when you start your first project after 3 days of being onboarded. And it’s much easier if there are etiquette and protocols next to each tool. There’s nothing that makes a newbie more anxious than being afraid of kicking his boss out of a working tool.

Tip: If you have a resource/training folder, share it immediately with the new colleague: they’ll sure be happy to access expensive books and documents while being locked up at home.

3. 1-2-1s

This is one of the tricky ones, because:

  1. nothing replaces a good ol’ chat in a coffee shop or around a pint, and
  2. that’s more video calls for the whole team.

Still, they need to happen, possibly as individual chats. The only thing worse than a video call is a video call with 29 people playing the hangouts bingo of “I didn’t quite catch that” or “Can you hear me”. What had been prepared for me was a calendar dotted with 25-minute intro calls with colleagues, with no specific order or pattern to it. That was great because it surfaced individuals rather than teams (in a place like Clearleft there is nothing like siloed teams) and because it allowed everyone to put their own twist into their job and workplace description.

Tip: Everyone I spoke to recommended I dig up a blog post or case study from Clearleft archive to get me into the mindset of the company.

4. Talking about...everything

Half of my 1-2-1s ended up being the most random and chaotic conversations I had in a formal onboarding. The calls with two of the founders ended up being longer than expected, very lightweight while talking about the company for only a third of the time. That was fine - even better. Hierarchies can be scary, even in horizontal companies. You both like typography? Speak about it for the whole time, it’s worth it.

5. Over-ask (over-communicate)

Another thing that everyone at Clearleft did was to constantly reassure me about support and, given the lockdown-remote combination, the fact that it was fine for me to raise my hand and ask, request and grab people on Slack. It might sound obvious, but during onboarding (and especially for a remote one) being constantly reminded that “It’s OK to ask” helped a lot.

6. Beware comms overload

But where to ask? Behold the labyrinth of Slack channels, groups, @here, and direct communication. I personally follow the funny-named slatiquette.com like gospel since I’ve found it. But it might not be enough for all the nuances of a company’s internal chat. Do I post it in #general or #random? If basic Slack hygiene routine is in order (and bonus: they’re explained in onboarding documents), these trivial problems won’t apply, and it will save everyone unwanted notifications and clogged channels.

7. Get thrown in the mix

Every time I’ve been onboarded I jumped straight into a project. “It must be hardcore to start working immediately”, everyone said. Well…it wasn’t. I think it’s one of the best ways to start blending with the inner functionings of a company. The first client meetings and workshops might feel daunting (and they are!), but that’s when smart onboarding and access to resources comes into play. I felt ready for the challenge, and I knew where to find what I needed to kickstart my job.

Tip: This is where precise and reasoned planning can be used to assign roles and (as mentioned before) reassure the newcomer that it’s fine to spend some time riding the bench.

It was thanks to planning that my remote onboarding experience didn’t turn out to be a nightmare. As everyone was continually checking on me, I realised that, in fact, everything was good.

Yes, there were apocalyptic encounters at the office to get my laptop and equipment (6 meters distancing and masks), but I was also greeted by a case of company brewed beer as the office was shutting. And probably the best thing about a remote onboarding: never, ever, getting a name wrong thanks to the little, underrated, but incredibly effective name at the top of every video call.