Creating Psychological Safety During Remote Engineering Onboarding

with Benji Shine

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Every month, leaders working at the intersection of technical training and learning and development gather for the TechKnowCon Roundtable to explore topics top of mind for the industry.

As part of the November 2020 discussion, Benji Shine, Engineering Learning Specialist at Slack, explained how to offer engineers psychological support through the onboarding process.

Anxiety blocks learning

When starting a new job, there is often a steep learning curve. It can be a challenging time under normal circumstances, but particularly difficult when working remotely. 

At Slack, Benji’s team gleaned information from surveys to learn more about the experience new engineers were having. The results showed that they needed more psychological support from the outset. 

He added that anxiety blocks the learning process. New hires also feel the need to prove their worth, which isn’t conducive to asking questions. 

By creating psychological safety, organizations can give new hires confidence to navigate their way through the onboarding process and begin to feel like a seasoned employee. Benji shared five ways that organizations can do this effectively:

5 ways to create psychological safety 

1. Clear structure for time and tasks 

New hires are already in an unfamiliar environment when they start their job.  

Creating a clear schedule and structure around onboarding can reduce anxiety significantly and set out the expectations. 

An extremely detailed checklist of the steps involved in a session also makes it easy for engineers to get a few quick wins and helps to boost their confidence at the beginning.

When writing instructions, make them clear enough for a novice to complete. 

2. Fast and friendly technical support 

At Slack, Benji created a channel specifically for new engineers to get their questions answered.

This communication method provides new hires with fast crowd-sourced answers, and they are encouraged to ask before searching for the answer themselves.

While this isn’t the way engineers typically prefer to approach a problem, it creates community and support, unblocks onboarding, and reduces interruptions.

Benji stressed that if recruits go off on their own to find the answer, and they don’t find it quickly, their anxiety will go up, and productivity will drop. 

3. Accept heterogenous identities and skill levels

It is also crucial to make new hires feel welcomed, regardless of their identity or skill level, and make them a part of the team.  

A great way to do this is to disregard levels when setting an onboarding task. For some, it will be their first job; others will have twenty years’ experience. Set the same task for everyone, but with different levels of support. 

Teams can also focus on recruiting and nurturing a diverse range of presenters so that people can identify with experts on a topic. 

Checking the correct pronunciation of names also helps to make people feel welcomed. 

4. Explicit social onboarding

Working remotely can present challenges for social connection. It can help to create explicit opportunities for social interaction.

Encourage team members to meet up for a coffee (either in person or virtually). Teams can use Donut scheduling to formalize this process.

5. Acknowledge emotional challenges

Benji explained that we make room for emotional challenges by acknowledging them.  

It is essential to reassure new hires and acknowledge that the world is more complicated than usual. Praising vulnerability and normalizing anxiety also helps to bring psychological well-being into focus.   

He also shared the following list that employees at Slack receive to support their well-being: 

  • Above all else, take care of yourself and your family 
  • It’s ok to eat during meetings and training, or take care of other bio needs 
  • The dates on your checklist are guidelines, not a requirement
  • Onboarding meetings are a higher priority than almost all other meetings 
  • Ask if you are not sure
  • Take breaks when you need them

You can watch the full recording of Benji’s talk here and join TechKnowCon for talks on technical education in the workplace.

About TechKnowCon

TechKnowCon originated as an annual conference in 2018 to bring together peers from various companies to compare notes and share best practices about technical training, documentation, and learning in the workplace.

About TechKnowCon Roundtable

TechKnowCon Roundtable is a facilitated monthly gathering over Zoom where technical learning leaders at various companies can share best practices, ask questions, and discuss changes in the industry.

Want to be a speaker at a future TechKnowCon Roundtable? Let us know.

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Based on the TechKnowCon Roundtable hosted in November 2020, moderated by Marko Gargenta, Founder of PlusPlus, Rajon Tumbokon, Technical Training and Documentation Manager at LinkedIn, and Andrew Barrett, Learning Platform Lead at Shopify.   


Written by Sophia Wichtowska. Sophia is an educator who specializes in thought leadership, opinion pieces, and content creation for learning publications. Her work focuses on the latest research in learning theory and practice. She regularly contributes articles on workplace learning and professional development. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

Category: Ideas Author: Peach Date: November 18, 2020 4:14 am