How this fully remote company makes onboarding “as self-service as possible”

At GitLab, onboarding is as organized as a tactical military mission.
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Dianna “Mick” McDougall

· 5 min read

There are many approaches to onboarding a new employee—from the meticulously structured strategy to “Go find an open desk somewhere”—which means there are many different ways onboarding can, without care, fall short. To better understand different onboarding strategies, HR Brew is asking organizations to talk us through their onboarding process.

The first thing to know about GitLab is that it’s not the type of company that skimps on the details. Kyle Wiebers, manager of engineering productivity at the open-source software development operations platform, smiled on our recent video call when he mentioned the 2,000+-page employee handbook.

“Our handbook is quite the resource,” Wiebers said.

Devin Rogozinski, GitLab’s senior director of talent, brand, and engagement, calls the onboarding documentation a “roadmap” with everything an employee needs “all in one place that you can go back to and reference over time.”

As far as roadmaps go, it’s less like directions you’d get from a parent (“turn right at the tall building”), and more like the guidance you’d expect from a sophisticated GPS. As a fully remote company with over 1,500 geographically distributed employees, Rogozonski said that the detail is by design; GitLab needs to “document a bit more.”

There is no guarantee that a new hire will live in the same location or even the same timezone as their manager or onboarding buddy (an employee assigned to help the new hire acclimate to GitLab). For onboarding to run smoothly, Rogozinski said the process must be “as self-service as possible, while at the same time making sure there’s support if questions come up.”

In practice, Rogozonski admitted that it’s a hard balance to strike—if employees spend too much time reading documents, the company could seem “less welcoming” than others.

Check, check, check…check…check

When Nick Veenhof, GitLab’s new director of contributor success, logged on for his first day of work, he opened his onboarding issue (a project within GitLab) to find 337 onboarding “checkboxes” to complete. Veenhof said they were mostly little things, like filling in his résumé or applying for LinkedIn Premium, but the sheer number of tasks was “a little overwhelming.”

Veenhof said the metrics for onboarding were clear—he knew what to accomplish each week of onboarding—but said that because he was eager “to make an impact” at the company, he rushed through training. Veenhof watched videos at 1.5 speed, churning through content despite colleagues urging him to take his time; he said coworkers told him to expect to spend “three to four weeks” just on onboarding materials.

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“I think what is hard is that there’s nobody next to you that says, ‘Slow down. It’s fine.’ That literally sees that maybe you shouldn’t watch that video at 1.5 [speed]. It’s just that eagerness to go forward,” Veenhof said.

Rogozinski said by email that completing onboarding materials isn’t mutually exclusive with creating impact.

“Exploring different aspects of the company and their role is often the catalyst for new joiners to start making contributions to projects and tasks as they discover opportunities to contribute and continue onboarding through the first 90 days,” Rogozinski said.

Stay human

Wiebers wanted to be an onboarding buddy to help soothe some of the anxiety that comes with remote work. One way he does so is by helping new hires identify coworkers related to their role, and encouraging them to meet their teammates in coffee chats.

The purpose, according to Wiebers, is to “get to know [colleagues] and start to establish that social bond.” Wiebers said he usually recommends that new hires schedule about five chats—Veenhof, who Wiebers called a “social guy,” had scheduled 23.

For new hires who are a bit shyer about meeting one-on-one, Wiebers said there are Slack groups.

“We have a new team hires channel in Slack where people introduce themselves and talk about things they’re interested in,” Wiebers said. Veenhof said other groups revolve around telling dad jokes or writing in all caps just…’cause.

Keep on keeping on

Rogozinski said the “onboarding process is always in iteration,” in part because it’s relatively easy to go into the handbook and update materials to stay current. Veenhof experienced this firsthand when, in one of his initial onboarding tasks, he was assigned to review the employee handbook and suggest five changes.

Wiebers said this “Boy Scout mentality” of improving onboarding for the next cohort of new hires motivates him to continue being a buddy.

“I’ve had onboarding experiences at other companies where you’re reading documentation that is 10 years old from the point in time when you’re joining the team. And that first impression was….that was 10 years ago, that’s still on my mind,” Wiebers said. “That doesn’t happen here. And that’s one of the things that gets me really excited about supporting the onboarding process.”—SV

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Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.