Virtual Water Cooler: An Engineering Team’s Solution to Remote Onboarding

By
Pathpoint
August 5, 2020

When California’s shelter in place order took effect, Pathpoint's Agent Growth and Engagement team had two engineers — one of whom who’d been at the company for less than a month.

In the coming two months, we added three more engineers of varying experience levels all working, effectively, as a distributed engineering team. Much has been written about the challenges teams and companies have faced in the surprise transition to distributed work brought on by the pandemic but, as a growing startup that had previously leaned heavily on an in-office culture, we faced the additional challenge of remotely onboarding new engineers as well.

While thankfully software engineering as a profession generally translates well, even thrives in a distributed environment, there are still challenges. For instance, we still haven’t found a suitable replacement to in-person white boarding sessions. One challenge, in particular that we’ve worked to overcome is: how do we build friendly professional rapport and trust between teammates who’ve never met in person?

To non-engineers, it’s easy to imagine software engineering as a solitary profession, a kind of mechanical widget building, but in fact a large portion of the software development cycle revolves around knowledge sharing, coordination, brainstorming, and peer review — processes which thrive on clear communication, trust, good faith, and a shared understanding of a common goal.

Without those casual interactions at lunch or around the watercooler, the Agent Growth and Engagement team’s roster of new engineers lacked that body of casual, friendly interactions that are so essential in building rapport and understanding amongst new colleagues. Why is teammate X taking so long to give feedback on that code review? Is it because they thought it was poorly done or do they just have a kid at home? Was that remark on slack passive aggressive? Or does teammate Y just have a dry sense of humor?

The many friendly interactions that make up in-person office life which once subtly provided us with the crucial context and empathy so necessary for clear communications needed to be replaced. As an experiment, the Agent Growth Engagement team instituted a tradition of friendly “question of the day” and “wednesday show-and-tells” during our morning standup (short daily status reports). I’m sure it will come as no surprise that I was a kindergarten teacher in previous professional life.

Some of our prompts included:

  • Show us a useful kitchen tool
  • Wear a t-shirt with a story
  • Share a piece of technology for which you’re nostalgic
  • “What’s your ‘take’ on astrology?”
  • Where would you like to take a vacation after the pandemic?

The best prompts are fun without being too intimate — they are personal without being prying or controversial; we are, after all, co-workers. Still, as our team has engaged with each other around these questions and the conversations they’ve spawned, we’ve been able to get a better sense, little by little, about one another’s personal lives, perspectives, and unique personal quirks in a way that (hopefully) doesn’t feel forced.

What challenges has your team faced now that they are working from home? Have you had to onboard new people? How do you try to build trust and positive working relationships while remote?