HR Guide

Shaping Onboarding for a Remote Distributed Team: P2P.org's Practical Experience

Post preview image
In this article, we want to share practical tips and recommendations based on our experience, mistakes, and successes in our journey from 35 employees in 2021 to 145 people across 37 countries in 2023.

We will discuss the challenges we encountered as our team grew and became more distributed, the valuable lessons we learned, and the practical steps we took to improve our onboarding process, making it smooth, effective, and productive for everyone.

Getting Started: Why Onboarding Matters

Before we proceed further, let's pause and consider a fundamental question:

What is the purpose of the onboarding process?

In summary, it can be distilled as follows: to establish a strong foundation for the long-term success of new employees, assist them in assimilating into the workplace culture, reaffirm their decision to accept the job offer, expedite their journey to productivity, and have a lasting impact on employee retention.

Every onboarding process follows common developmental principles throughout its lifecycle. The critical question is how effective your process is at these stages and whether the objectives of each stage are being met.

Now, let's outline each of these steps:

Each step progressively lays the foundation for integrating a new team member into processes, the cultural environment, role understanding, goals, and expectations.

The success at the start and effectiveness in the future depends on the quality of each of these steps.

Okay. The importance of onboarding is evident. But what does it have to do with distributed teams?

We won't dwell on why onboarding is generally important and how critical it is not to fail this stage. But what is the uniqueness of building the process for distributed teams?

The answer is simple:

For new remote-distributed employees, things are a bit different.

Think about it. A new remote team member often has to handle document preparation processes and thousands of paper details on their own. They can't just "go to the HR office." When (and if) this is done, they play the role of a sysadmin, trying to set up their equipment and deal with a thousand access points independently. And then, at this stage, they finally meet the team on a Zoom call but can't continue this acquaintance in the hallway or over lunch. All they have access to are avatars in Slack. In addition, they can't observe how the team behaves and what jokes they like, and it's more challenging for them to adapt.

When asking any questions, they face a delay in explanations caused by asynchronous communication. When they finally get them, it often looks like "study 150 pages of our wiki" or "Here's the instruction, figure it out." And the discouraged newcomer, hesitating to look foolish, becomes overwhelmed with information and confused. And while trying to understand the goals and expectations of their role, they often experience a lack of context. It's not a very pleasant story. But this is precisely how a new employee's experience in a distributed remote team can look if the onboarding process is not designed with the peculiarities of this environment in mind. We will share how to build it and our experience in the following sections.

Now, about our experience at P2P.org

A bit about us. We are an international company with 145 employees working from 37 countries worldwide.

Like many companies that will find our material valuable, we operate in different time zones and entirely remotely. But several challenges are unique or specific to us:

1) Geographic Diversity - We aren't just distributed; we work with people from various parts of the world.

2) Language and Cultural Aspects - We use English as the standard language for corporate communication. However, our team members come from diverse language backgrounds, including Korean, Czech, Russian, and Indian, representing both Western and Eastern cultures.

3) Rapid Growth Pace - We are an example of a rapidly growing company. From 35 employees in 2021, we grew to 100 in 2022, and now we have 145 employees in 2023. These numbers do not include our projects, which have grown with us and have become autonomous.

4) Technically Complex Domain - The crypto domain is technically challenging and unique due to the rapid evolution of technologies and industries and the constant obsolescence of knowledge.

Chapter 1: Onboarding from Ground Zero to MVP

So, how did our onboarding journey begin?

Onboarding is one of our company's most mature and refined processes, but it evolved from scratch through iterations.

It all started with the need to grow from 35 employees to 100 within just one year. We assessed our hiring capabilities and realized we were up to the task. But what about the subsequent process?

It was at ground zero.

Our only communication channel was Slack, and we didn't use any visual organizational charts or clear action guides for new team members. Imagine the bewilderment of a new team member who gained access on the first day and had to ask questions and try to navigate independently. It was like a tough scout school.

This became the catalyst for us to start developing the onboarding process.

We decided to approach its creation as if we were building any other product – by focusing on our users and conducting interviews with them.

We identified the key stages of the lifecycle by analyzing an employee's journey from the moment they accept the offer to the end of their probationary period. (Later, these were revised, leading to the list we provided at the beginning of the article, but more on that later).

1. Pre-boarding

2. The first day

3. The first working month

4. Completion of the probation period

For each of these stages, we compiled a list of pain points.

The majority of these pain points were found in pre-boarding. An unclear onboarding process, extended time frames between stages, lack of navigation, and the need to ask a thousand questions about the next steps. We focused on resolving these issues in our initial iteration.

Step 1: Creating a Step-by-Step Pre-Boarding Guide for Employees

It took us some effort to break down this part of the process into steps and define roles and responsibilities. Additionally, we spent some time creating a process board in Notion and formatting the process into a checklist for employees.

Now, the employee's journey began with access to this step-by-step guide, and for the first time, we heard positive feedback regarding our pre-boarding and navigation. Starting from document collection, signing NDAs, and ending with contract signing, our process began to function like a conveyor belt, with each function having its designated segment and SLA, whether it was HR, Legal, or Finance.

This was a significant improvement, but we knew it wasn't enough. Understanding procedures and roles is one thing, but in a distributed team, it's essential to have a unified entry point to the corporate wiki, efficient and without delays, to gain access and familiarize oneself with rituals, policies, and processes. This gave rise to a backlog of tasks for the next iteration of our onboarding development.

Step 2: Creating a Unified Company Wiki and Handbook Prototype

In this iteration, we gathered existing company documents, knowledge bases, and procedures into a handbook, dividing it into logical sections.

Now, the pre-boarding process for employees included familiarizing themselves with the handbook, where they could find schedules for team meetings, a list of benefits and the process for obtaining them, and a list of systems and their owners. Notably, it also included knowledge bases from our ecosystem.

This step allowed us to make significant progress in navigation, benefiting new employees and team leaders, as we included answers to inevitable questions in the onboarding guide.

Step 3: Scaling and Automation

So, we found ourselves at a point where we had created conditions for a reasonably smooth adaptation process. However, there was one drawback – manual processes. As you may recall, from the beginning of our story, we grew by 70 people in one year. Our newly established conveyor of processes started to malfunction under the weight of the workload.

This led us to the necessity of automation. Firstly, we identified the most time-consuming manual processes, such as handling requests for equipment and document flow.

At this stage, we could automate equipment requests by creating simple tickets for the performers. It made the process significantly more manageable. Over time, the request management system evolved into a full-fledged service desk portal. Still, at the outset, we used the most straightforward and most accessible tools, guided by one principle – the one-stop-shop service. In other words, creating employee requests through a single window with subsequent routing.

Step 4: Introduction of the People Partner Role

Now, our new employees are entering the workforce well-prepared and ready for their tasks. However, a new set of challenges emerged at this stage - building relationships and cultural integration. We were growing rapidly and couldn't keep up with building relationships and immersing our new hires in our culture. What's important is that, at this pace, we couldn't simply delegate this task to team leads and the team. They were all feeling overwhelmed.

That's when the role of People Partner emerged, responsible for the people experience from the moment an offer was accepted until the end of the probationary period (now extending throughout the employee's journey, up to the exit interview).

What improvements did the introduction of this role bring to onboarding?

  1. Accompaniment and progress monitoring at all stages of onboarding. We could immediately identify difficulties and assist.
  2. The presence of a "buddy" for safe communication. No one hesitated to ask the People Partner a thousand obvious questions.
  3. Analysis of the employee's experience through probation meetings. People Partners conducted regular 1-1 meetings with each new employee to assess the quality of their onboarding. The notes from these meetings allowed us to analyze and implement improvements based on feedback.
  4. Introduction of new employees to the entire company. The People Partner gathered information about each new team member, including their experience, hobbies, and interesting facts. On the day they joined, a Slack post would welcome them. We always knew we were hiring unique specialists and professionals, but with the introduction of celebrations for new faces, we learned how talented, vibrant, and diverse they indeed were. Team members had more reasons to build informal connections, which was a significant victory.

Chapter 2: From Process Efficiency to Business Effectiveness

Drawing parallels between creating the onboarding process and developing a product, we could say we had successfully implemented an MVP at this stage.

The process was working and delivering value.

By this point, several significant changes had taken place. Internally, we reached our headcount target (100 employees), moving from rapid expansion to the stage of structuring and establishing the company (which also meant a growth crisis).

We expanded into new hiring regions, introducing unique cultural nuances and more excellent distribution.

Externally, there were political upheavals in 22, leading to talent migration and eventually a severe industry crisis, marking the onset of the crypto winter.

These changes were so profound that they impacted the market as a whole, our team, and our approach to doing business.

Like many companies facing a bear market, we needed to focus on efficiency and business results, ensuring the company's resilience.

Therefore, we had to adapt our processes to this new reality.

Step 5: Setting the Expectations Right

So, we decided to address the pains that were affecting not only the employee experience but also the business as a whole. We made an unpleasant discovery:

goal-setting during the probationary period didn't always happen formally, promptly, in a structured manner, or transparently.

This led to the development of the goal-setting control process.

We started with simple ticket automation for tracking deadlines, ensuring that the problem wasn't technical in nature but rather related to the essence of goal-setting.

Initially, we gathered statistics on the average time it took for a new hire to receive their goals. Then, we conducted a fundamental analysis of their quality, looking for specific indicators, deadlines, and alignment with team goals.

This allowed us to train team leads and hiring managers on effective goal-setting and so somewhat jump-started the process.

We then included goal-setting with a team lead as one of the tasks in the new hire's onboarding process, making them a proactive participant. Perhaps this was the most effective component.

Over time, our goal-setting process evolved, but more on that later.

At this point, we observed a mature process with clear pre-boarding, goal-setting, quality control, and experience monitoring at all stages. This was inspiring and uplifting for us.

Step 6: Team & Culture Integration Check

As you might have guessed from the previous part, many insights about the onboarding process came from employees and team leads through Probation Meetings and probation-end feedback.

We were pretty satisfied with the process at this stage, but one aspect still required attention.

At the beginning of 2023, we introduced the company's values, integrated them into the hiring process, selected ambassadors, and recognized achievements.

For us, it became critically important to consider not only key onboarding success indicators but also the factor of cultural fit with the team and alignment with our values.

However, our process only had a 90-degree view - the employee's experience and the feedback from the team lead.

So, we turned to the 30-60-90 days practice and implemented it as follows.

Before meeting with the employee at the 30, 60, and 90-day marks, the team lead receives feedback from the team. This feedback allows them to assess employees' alignment with our values, culture, and team integration.

What did this achieve? Our view became broader, and the assessment became more timely. It's better to adjust goal-setting or cultural fit with the team at an early stage.

Chapter 3: Where We Are Now and a Glimpse into the Future

We've arrived at the concluding chapter of our story. It's time to share what our onboarding process looks like now, the successes we've achieved, and our plans for the future.

So, our current process:

Our Current Status and Future Roadmap

What have these improvements resulted in? It's time to provide insights into our current status, the metrics we are measuring, and our vision for future development.

  1. Low Early Voluntary Churn (During Probationary Period). For example, in 2023, this indicator was 0.8%.
  2. Efficient Pre-Boarding Process. Signing an NDA takes 1-2 days with an SLA of 48 hours, and the contract takes 72 hours.
  3. Reduced Time-to-Proficiency. 100% of employees complete pre-boarding by day 1, are informed about basic processes, and are ready to work. 100% of new team members have their goals set within the first 2 weeks of work.
  4. Time and Resource Savings: We've reduced the time team leads spend on adaptation and navigation.
  5. Employee Satisfaction: Over 95% of employees currently rate the process as "excellent."

Our Plans for the Future

  1. Improving the Quality and Structure of Feedback.

No matter how well the process works, feedback is always a creative and thoughtful part that requires continuous development through reflection. What message are we conveying with our feedback? What intentions do we want to share?

2. Probation Feedback as a Performance Management Component.

We want to integrate feedback on probation goals with the company's overall performance management cycle. From an employee's lifecycle perspective, onboarding is not a standalone part but the beginning of the employee journey map.

Conclusion and Takeaways

  1. Identify Your Internal Customers Groups and Who You're Striving to Deliver Key Value.

In almost all cases, these will be new employees as one group, team leaders as the second, and HR+back office as the third. In our story, we focused on the first two, but it might be different in your case.

2. Invest in Pre-Onboarding Development; These Investments Will Pay Off.

Pre-onboarding quality will determine who joins you on their first working day—someone confused and unsure of how to set up email or an informed and fully prepared professional.

3. Transparency of Goals and Expectations is the Foundation of Long-term Commitments.

We expect commitment to the cause from people, but how can we expect that if we ourselves don't know what success looks like? Show employees the company's goals, team goals, and what personal contribution you expect from them.

4. Technology Matters, but It Doesn't Replace People.

Regardless of how technologically advanced your process is, replacing human support in the first few days is challenging. The People Partner plays this crucial role in our company, but in others, it may be someone else. It's essential to understand that human support is critical at this stage.

5. Observation and Timeliness.

Resources are too valuable to discover that something went wrong after 90 days. It's crucial to monitor and promptly respond to any deviations. Monitoring goal achievement, team alignment, and alignment with values can be aided by the 30-60-90 approach.

The Overall Message?

Use an iterative process. Start with something simple, actively seek feedback, analyze, and then refine.

This strategy allows you to tailor the onboarding process to fit your team's specific needs and culture. We hope our experience and ideas will serve as a source of inspiration and guidance in your onboarding efforts, demonstrating that continuous improvement is the key to a genuinely practical and enriching onboarding experience.

Subscribe to P2P-economy

Get the latest posts delivered right to your inbox

Read more