Onboarding a new team member
A simple team exercise to help them quickly feel like part of the team
A colleague — I’ll call them Jo — has just joined one of my teams at work, and I’m writing this post to share an exercise I ran with the team to help Jo quickly feel like part of the team.
The exercise doesn’t touch the practical side of onboarding— eg getting devices or access to systems. It’s about the human side, and is a way to open up communication, setting the scene for building stronger and better individual and team relationships.
I’ve written before about how you can help other people to get to know you at work. You could combine that idea with the exercise in this article.
Of course, getting to know one another often just happens within a team, but the goal of this exercise is to accelerate what can happen naturally: to help the team get to know Jo — and Jo the team — more quickly than happens just by osmosis. Moreover, this exercise is a way to do that together, so that — rather than being patchy — all teams members have a common base level of understanding. This is the first time I’ve tried something like this as a team, and so I want to share what I learnt.
I’ll add as a bit of background/context that we’re a geographically dispersed team of 12 (now 13) people, working from different offices and homes across multiple time zones. We get together face-to-face three or four times a year, but the last time was the month before Jo joined. We did this exrcise fully online, using zoom. Here’s how we did it:
Ask your new team member to prepare
I asked Jo to think about a set of questions to help them prepare:
- What brought you into this role?
- What do you enjoy outside work?
- What motivates you?
- What are your future professional goals?
- What are your future personal goals?
- How would you describe your leadership / management style?
- How do you like to receive feedback?
- How will we know when you’re stressed?
- What do you do to handle stress?
- What are your expectations from this team?
- Where do you see the organization going? (Short-term/Long-term)
- What are the issues/challenges you see as priorities for the next 6 months?
The goal was openness/transparency, and no surprises. The ask was not for Jo to write out or polish a set of answers. Rather the purpose was to give Jo an idea of the topics we were likely cover and so help them prepare as makes them feel comfortable.
Prepare as a team without your new team member
We prepared together as a team in a short session without Jo by pulling together our collective answers to four questions:
- What do you know about [your new team member]?
- What do you want to know about [your new team member]?
- What should [your new team member] know about your team?
- What should [your new team member] be aware of in their new role?
The answers were written up and shared back with the team (but not Jo).
An alternative set of questions is here.
Plan the session
I asked four people in the team each to own one of those four topics/sets of our collective team answers. Their role on the day was to introduce that subject and lead that section of our welcome session with Jo. I asked them to use our team pre-work:
- to help them prepare, and
- to act as a prompt/reminder of what the team said previously.
The ask is for each them to share what the team came up with, and then encourage others to chime in and Jo to respond/contribute.
Identifying themes and people to lead each theme in the meeting is a means to shape the discussion and prevent the conversation going in too many directions all at once. The people leading each part of the session have to be careful not to dominate the conversation.
I scheduled a 45-minute meeting, so the team could spend ~10 minutes on each question/topic area.
How it went
I think it went well. Jo said it was “definitely useful”, and feedback from the rest of the team was also positive:
“it was a nice way to bring somebody into a team. In most cases you are just thrown into a group of people with one initial “welcome” shout out and you sit there and try to figure out the group, but this felt more like active.”
“It was a good first step — it will also be good to spend some time together in person as well. There’s only so much you can do to speed up the process — in the end, it does require Jo to simply spend time with the team.”
“Good preparation led to fruitful discussion.”
“I thought it was good…I knew Jo already, but it was a nice way to introduce them properly.”
“I liked the session, I feel like I know a bit more about [Jo] and how they see their role.”
“It was definitely worth doing.”
- There is a risk (perhaps particularly if you do this as a virtual meeting?) that it could feel a bit like an interview.
Tht’a the oppositie of the intent. The eidea is that it remains fun and informal. You want everyone to leave not only more informed but also more comfortable with each other.
So if I do this exrcise again (and, given the feedback, I think I will), I plan to make some principle explicit upfront :
- This not an interview: you’re not grilling your new team member!
- It’s a conversation, not a QnA session.
- Leave the prep to one side — eg no screen sharing — this is not a presentation — and no reading from the pre-work/notes.
- Everyone is welcome to contribute —not just the people introducing each theme.
Another exercise you could try
- Team manual : an exercise to help build empathy in teams from Emily Webber. I think of this as a more inclusive/equitable version of the ‘user manual’ tool that took off a few years ago, which I use and which some people call readmes.