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    How We Tackled Remote Working’s Biggest Test: Onboarding

    MediaMonks' Thomas Dohm & Joris Knetsch talk about the challenges of hiring, training, and instilling a sense of belonging to a team – entirely remotely

    By Thomas Dohm & Joris Knetsch - Jun 26, 2020
    How We Tackled Remote Working’s Biggest Test: Onboarding

    MediaMonks' team onboarding

    As lockdowns ease around the world, many organizations are taking stock of how well working remotely has worked for their teams thus far and assessing what practices, habits, and workstreams they’ll continue making in the future.

    As a team of digital natives, we are well versed at making a smooth transition from the office to a strictly digital work environment, but that doesn’t necessarily apply to people that are completely new to our company.

    In fact, in a climate of uncertainty and when many industries ground to a halt, we have had multiple teams starting that were completely new to the company. They all went through the hiring, training, and even the cultural parts of “belonging to a team” entirely remotely.

    In the pre-COVID world, our physical space has always been the backbone of our collaboration. It’s the place where we create, work hard to make deadlines but also where friendships are formed and work culture is forged.

    What about teams that have never spent time in it? What have they learned about each other and the ways that they connect and work together? How does it blend in with the pre-existing culture, ways of working, the written as well as unwritten hopes?

    Onboarding Goes Online

    This poses difficulties with onboarding in particular, as we’ve been fortunate enough to hire new team members both right before and during the Circuit Breaker period.

    Sure, there are the logistical constraints in setting up new (or even existing) hires with the tools that they need to work: things like laptops, drawing tablets, monitors, and more. But there’s also the interesting challenge of supporting new team members socially and emotionally in a time of increased isolation.

    Without small moments of spontaneity enjoyed in the office, how do you create that sense of culture and bond with a new hire?

    The consensus from asking the people that have joined us more recently in Singapore is that we’ve mastered the remote onboarding exercise: before they join, each of them are asked to put together a short video where they offer a glimpse on who they are, and how they’re set up. Then, we digitally walk them through our values, and our craft. They are also typically assigned a buddy that shows them around more informally as they get up to speed–serving as an instant friend on day one, much like a college roommate would.

    Lots of Slack channels are created virtually for people who share the same interests, and we noticed that engaging there seemed to be a strong ingredient for true integration. Rather than build and enforce entirely new workstreams, we let people gravitate toward the spaces that worked best for them.

    In weighing our options and considering what a return to the office will look like, we’ll take many learnings from this experience.

    Virtualizing these social moments has been critical to building this shared sense of community. One of our recent hires, illustrator Lynne Goh, had the chance of working in the office briefly before the Circuit Breaker period.

    She told us that observing office and lunchtime chatter helped her learn more about the people she worked with. “We’re not used to intentionally creating time for that, and I feel I take that for granted,” she told us. “So it requires more effort from me to keep up with and maintain those.”

    Meanwhile, another member of our team has been abroad in Hong Kong, where he has worked remotely for three years. Ironically, despite now being back in Singapore, he has never once set foot inside our office. Not much has changed in his workflow since his move, which says a lot to our ability to remain productive from afar. But what does that say about how we have adapted the office culture?

    Creating Moments of (Virtual) Serendipity

    Our impression is that a lot of the productivity tools that exist at the moment (chat, videoconferences, etc.) are very transactional. They’re great for getting things done, but they’re probably not the right tools to connect, ideate, or create. Meeting and brainstorming in person generates a lot of that “creative friction” that allows us to crack a brief faster and better.

    Sometimes, some of our most original ideas come through a mundane chat at the coffee machine–a concept I have heard being called “accidental innovation.” Having a common space to work also allows us to create bonds, and it’s just not clear at the moment how much some of us are just dragging off existing bonds built pre-Circuit Breaker, or if it’s possible to build a bond just as robust if done completely remotely.

    Virtualizing these social moments has been critical to building this shared sense of community.

    In response, we’ve turned many of our rituals into digital initiatives: our Friday barbecues are now done remotely, we’ve set up spontaneous coffee breaks with Donut, we’ve built tools to make our interactions more fun, and we host online games that are personalized to our team culture. Each offers an opportunity to get to know one another better in different ways.

    We’ve done the same for our monthly Show & Tell, which puts the spotlight on some of our teammates as they share some aspect of their work they care most about. Even our office band still jams digitally. Among our other offices around the globe, we’ve participated in beer time radio, a hilarious 17-hour relay from Sydney to San Francisco.

    It’s probably a bit too early to tell where we are headed ourselves as a group, with news of Singapore entering Phase 2 of reopening, which includes a return to the office. It has us all asking, yet again: now what? There are three likely options: you can try to go back to as close to normal as you can, stick with a remote model (like Facebook and Twitter are offering), or a hybrid approach that provides more flexibility to work from home while keeping the office available as a place to meet, regroup and brainstorm.

    In weighing our options and considering what a return to the office will look like, we’ll take many learnings from this experience.

    The idea for pairing new hires with a buddy, for example, originally came out of pre-COVID concerns that opening a second office would create a barrier between teams. With everyone scattered in the Circuit Breaker period, we were able to test the idea’s efficacy to an extreme–and it paid off.

    The need to keep the culture alive will ease once people return to the office, but it won’t go away completely: some may choose to stay at home longer, or permanently. But as we are slowly coming out of it, the Circuit Breaker period did serve as a great global experiment to force a reflection on how we build culture, on what attracts and retains talent, and how we remain at the forefront when it comes to the way we work together.

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