Onboarding in Virtual Teams

We all know the importance of looking after people who have just joined our team, of guiding them through our processes, of showing them where to look for help. But often we overlook the fact that new people need our help beyond the obvious practicalities. One-one time is often lost when we go flexi or virtual.


The Newbie

During the first weeks in a new team, we feel welcome. Everyone tries to help, they offer to have lunch with us (or virtual coffee), we have endless opportunities to talk about ourselves and we don’t feel left out of conversations.

When we join a team, we’re not the only ones who are ‘new’. The whole team needs to find a new dynamic, a new pace – but sometimes we’re just expected to slot in. After the tiptoeing of the first team development phase, according to Tuckman’s Model of Group Formation, we then go into Storming.

Things start to go a little bit wrong. We’ve settled in and we’re ready to do our work. We find out that our work styles are different, that we communicate differently, that some of us enjoy small talk while others can only chat about work.


There May be Trouble Ahead…

When all team members are new, everyone is in the same boat. Disagreement might happen across the board, maybe little cliques form here and there, even you, formally in charge of the team, might allow yourself to moan every now and then (and preferably to someone in a different team).

But when the team goes into storming as a result of the addition of a new member, how does that new member experience the stage?

They might have someone they feel a bit closer to in the team, and look to them for advice or role modeling. They might watch the team leader behave in certain situations, to suss out what seems to be acceptable or not. Or they might conform and wait to go home to be themselves.


"The lack of informal communication between remote newcomers and their U.S. teammates meant that newcomers were often left out of conversations about their team’s work and inhibited their ability to establish social relationships with their teammates."

Not Seen and Not Heard: Onboarding Challenges in Newly Virtual Teams (Microsoft research, 2008)


Virtual Problems

In a virtual team, when someone is struggling to fit in, they might just withdraw. They might seek camaraderie amongst other people in their own physical location or search for others in the company’s enterprise social network with whom they feel closer.

If they work from home, a sense of isolation might creep in. Just getting on with the work is easy to do there. (This can of course, also happen in the collocated space, but it might be easier to pick up on than in a virtual setting.)

One to one conversations are of course important, whatever medium you’re using to communicate. When we join a new team, we have an idea of what it will be like to work there (even if we have no choice and have taken the job out of necessity, we’ll still have some sense of what we’re buying into). Expectations, past experiences and how we see ourselves will all influence what we expect from our new manager and our new team.

If the first few weeks in a collocated team are crucial for onboarding, in a virtual team this process might take months. After a few weeks, we don’t want to feel like a novice asking where the files are kept; we might still not know how others will react to our mistakes; we might feel shy about reaching out to those we’ve never met in person or with whom with never had a non-task related conversation.

Whose Job is it Anyway?

"In teams distributed across time zones, an informal hierarchical structure, such as a point person who takes charge of communicating with a remote team, helps to reduce miscommunication than an all-to-all communication structure."

Not Seen and Not Heard: Onboarding Challenges in Newly Virtual Teams (Microsoft research, 2008)

As we move away from “command and control”, maybe looking after the newcomer becomes central to the manager’s job. Not just to monitor their work to reassure us they were indeed the right person for the job, but to check that they continue to feel welcome. Weekly one-ones are rare in the collocated space, but they happen even less often in the virtual space. But in the virtual space, we need to plan these conversations, we can’t leave them to a chance encounter.

If regular meetings feel like they’re time-consuming, phase them out as the new person settles in, but make sure that there is always a space where a new team member can regularly bring up their concerns, their new ideas and, dare I say, their fears.

Ideally, we want to encourage the whole team to get together often, to carry out review sessions (or retrospectives) that analyse not just how we're carrying out the work but how we're working with each other. But team meetings are not always the best place to address our concerns, and so we shouldn't forget the one-ones, however uncomfortable or inconvenient they might be perceived to be.