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Buddy System

The second major challenge with successfully onboarding a remote team member is integrating them into the culture. Culture gets shared in casual and social interactions, so co-located teams will find it easier to maintain a certain culture (whether that culture is “good” or not is unrelated—in-office and remote teams can both be healthy or toxic). New hires in a remote team will have fewer interactions to observe, and so the signals they’re collecting to understand expected cultural behaviors are more limited. Additionally, in a growing team, new people may band together, viewing the fellow new hire as the safest person to ask a potentially “dumb” question, rather than their teammate or manager. This risks sub-cultures developing as new hires onboard, further fragmenting the culture away from the overall company’s direction.

When people say that “maintaining culture when you hire remotely” is hard, this is what they mean. The default is a forking, branching culture, with each “generation” of new hires developing their own ethos; maintaining one common shared culture takes continued, focused work. David Loftesness, who has worked at Twitter and Eero, suggests a few tactics for dealing with changing culture as people onboard:

Fostering an understanding of what each team does, what their challenges are, the basic act of putting names to faces after a meaningful interaction, is a great way to sidestep factions down the road… Get new hires in a room with your veteran employees, for example, to maintain a thread to your earliest days. Encourage them to share stories, both difficult failures and energizing successes. This can give the new folks some perspective of what the old-timers went through to get the company to where it is today.

Ensuring that new hires are surrounded by veteran teammates who have an explicit mandate (and the time) to support them helps teams stay culturally cohesive as they grow. Fully remote companies Buffer and GitLab both use a “buddy system” for onboarding and building culture with new hires.

In a buddy system new hires are assigned one or more peers in addition to their line manager. Peers can act as a role buddy, to help them succeed in their role, and/or as a culture buddy, responsible for onboarding the new hire into the company culture.

importantThe job of the role buddy is to help the new hire execute their 90-day plan, not to evaluate or test them. This is important, because new hires need a safe person who they can ask questions, and an evaluative person is by definition not entirely safe. That’s why a line manager alone can’t provide this level of peer support to the new hire.

At Buffer, the role buddy is responsible for showing the new employee the ropes of their role, helping them achieve their tasks, and answering any questions. This person is usually a member of the same team and in a similar role. Ideally, they have several hours a day of timezone overlap as well. The role buddy has less work individually assigned to them and will meet regularly with the new hire’s line manager to understand how to support the new hire.

The culture buddy is another peer, and together with the new hire, follows an explicit course of cultural onboarding, meeting once a week for six weeks. The relationship officially ends after that time, but many buddy pairings remain close. The culture buddy is responsible for helping the new hire acclimate to remote work, find the schedule and set-up that works for them, explain cultural nuances like “rather than phrasing your request like that, we usually say it like this and include this information” or “in this team, that emoji is considered passive-aggressive.” They also share any helpful informal dynamics, such as “product managers here are considered on par with managers—they’re important decision-makers,” or “instead of asking someone when they’re free, we like to look at the person’s calendar and schedule an appropriate time.” These are the non-obvious, yet critical things to help new team members feel at home and be accepted.

Buffer also has explicit meetings, for an hour each week, where the team discusses the company values and any challenges that arise when living those values. New hires are asked to do a written reflection every two weeks and share that document with their culture and role buddies, as well as their manager. This helps everyone be clear and explicit about every aspect of the onboarding, how the new hire is feeling and performing, and how the company can best support them.

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