Remote onboarding at Picnic

Willem Evers 28 Jan, 2021 16 - 8 min read
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Picnic is the fastest growing online supermarket in the world. To enable this growth while giving our customers an unmatched experience, we have to tackle very complex challenges on a daily basis. You can only do this with a talented and engaged team.

Over the years Picnic has learned how to build such a team, setting up a powerful recruitment process. After a new developer is recruited, the HR and product teams work closely together in order to make sure the new joiner feels at home and can hit the ground running. Through constant learning, Picnic has gradually mastered this craft.

And then COVID-19 happened. While the world slowed down, Picnic had to speed up. The food industry was marked crucial by both the Dutch and German governments. We started collaborating with municipalities and hospitals to make sure the most vulnerable groups received fresh groceries avoiding possible exposure at regular grocery stores.

Scaling up, and adding extra services requires talented employees. To keep growing we could not slow down recruitment. Therefore we decided to move quickly and create a fully digital hiring process.

Hiring someone is one thing, making sure that person lands and becomes successful at Picnic is another. Lacking our typical onboarding, we had to rethink how we integrate raw talent into the Picnic family.

In this article, we would like to share how we achieved that, and what insights we gained along the way. Most of these insights will still be relevant long after the world has gone back to its normal ways.

How Picnic used to do onboarding

Let’s start by looking at our pre-corona onboarding process. During the new joiner’s first week, everything is focused on getting to know the company and its values. Picnic has a unique business model, with full vertical integration. Almost all the software is developed in-house. To develop such a complex system while moving fast requires a good knowledge of the business and the operations. But first and foremost, it requires great teamwork across the company. We ensure that the new developer has the right tools at his disposal in four ways:

1. The Deep dive, presentations by key teams
The key business teams give presentations about what they do, how they do it, and who is responsible for what. This gives the new joiner a broad overview of the business and its goals. As a new joiner, you now also know who to turn to with questions on specific topics.

2. Tech 101, get to know the Picnic Tech ecosystem
To give a full high-level view of what’s going on in the tech team, we’ve introduced a Tech Team 101 session in which we present how our product teams support vital operations in Picnic. We connect the dots between the work that each tech team does and the businesses they support. Here we also discuss cross-team (and cross-technology) guidelines, e.g how do we do code reviews, what the trendiest ongoing projects are, etc.

3. Coffee chats, personal meetings with your direct colleaguesIn a new job you spend most of your time with your direct colleagues. It’s crucial to get to know each other and identify what makes the other person tick. Also, this is an ideal time to ask questions. This could be about the product, the technologies being used, the organization or the Friday afternoon drinks. We try to invest a lot of time and effort in these personal chats.

4. Go-time, getting your hands dirty in operationsDefinitely the coolest step. For one week you partake in all the important operational tasks that help us deliver an unmatched service to our customers. These activities include: Answering calls and WhatsApp messages from our customers in the CS team, picking orders in our fulfillment center, and finally a ride-along delivering groceries to happy customers. Spending time on these tasks helps you understand the complexity and interconnectedness of all the different parts of the company.

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Working in the warehouse is an important part of every onboarding.

New joiners go through this process as a group. This allows them to connect with new people from all over the world. This group helps each other settle in Amsterdam, and close friendships are often forged.

Apart from your “class of new joiners”, you will also get a buddy that has been with the company for a bit longer. You can turn to this buddy with any questions you may have, which might be totally unrelated to work. Your buddy is also the person that helps techies settle in. That includes introducing you to the teams, helping you set up your devices as well as adding you to the best meme and hobby channels in slack!

After this first week, most developers will generally start their tech-safari. Over the course of a couple of weeks, a developer joins different teams. They will experience the ways different teams work and get to take a look at the cool different technologies Picnic uses.

This process works for Picnic because it provides the right context, helps to get to know the relevant teams and people quickly, and makes the new recruit get excited for the problems we are working on.

Reality check
Most of these processes and interactions can’t take place any more. The entire company is working from home. At our operational locations we have a restricted access policy, as it is crucial to keep the food supply going.

A large share of Picnic’s users is in the risk-group (our app is very popular with elderly people) so we do everything we can to minimize chances of contagion.

So how do we recreate this journey of learning, having fun, and meeting new teammates that fuels this success story of Picnic? How can we design a fully remote onboarding process that is just as powerful?

We have decided to keep the crucial and truly Picnic parts while streamlining the other processes that are less fun. When we were taking a very critical look at the latter category, we found that some things were organized a bit sketchy and could only be explained by a lot of casual conversation and questions from the new joiner (institutional knowledge).

This meant we improved our README.md’s, doubled down on keeping clear meeting notes with action points, and documented which Slack channels we use for what purpose. By doing so, we found that we were greatly improving not only the onboarding experience of new team members but also the work experience of the rest of the teamTaking an outsider’s look at your own processes opens your eyes to potential improvements.

These process improvements are great but it’s not what onboarding is truly about. We still needed to get the new joiners excited, equipped with the right knowledge to be successful. And we needed to do this the Picnic style.

To get new joiners excited, we made a selection of relevant documents such as company and team roadmaps. Because these can be a bit dry, we decided to start with a kick-ass product demo. This helped the new developers learn about the product and also served as a nice way to get to know your teammates and see the work they are proud of.

We also doubled down on social activities. We organized remote Friday afternoon drinks, product demos in which all teams get to brag about what they build and even an all-out pub quiz.

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Our first remote pub quiz!

One of the things that was the hardest to mimic, was helping out in the operations. We accepted that this was impossible, and instead presented it as something new joiners can look forward to after the lockdown is lifted.

But we decided to give them a sneak peek anyway. To get a good feeling of what is going on at the work floor, we set up video-calls with our hub managers and runners. This allowed both sides to get acquainted and ask any possible questions.

New developer: “Now the product suddenly makes sense to me!”

Although it would be a stretch to say the onboarding process is finished and we nailed it, we do feel like we made big steps in making our new colleagues feel at home. Before we knew it our freshly joined developer was making jokes and writing code as if he had been with us for a long time.

Principles of successful remote onboarding
(and successful teams in general)
Based on our experience we have identified 6 key principles for successful onboarding.

1. Share the vision
Let’s face it, it’s much harder to get excited about the code you are working on when sitting at your own kitchen table than when you are at our fancy office with lots of cool people around. The veterans in the company know why they are doing it and keep pushing on, but a new joiner might need more attention. In most teams both the Product Manager and the Tech Lead take out a considerable amount of time to explain the product, the technology and the vision for the next 6–12 months.

2. Provide the context
It’s virtually impossible to understand all of the workflows and lingo if you don’t know our business. Therefore it’s extremely important to provide the new developer with the right context. We have done so by walking them through our flows and also by setting up calls with people directly on the work floor.

3. Get personal
Nobody likes to work with strangers. Our team made a point of getting to know each other. The concrete action we took to support this, was making standups longer allowing for personal chitchat in the beginning of the day. Also, Picnic started coffee chats company-wide. When you are out of energy you can hop in one of the coffee chat rooms and meet a colleague, the same way you would at the physical coffee machine at the office.

4. Be social
Work is a social activity, where you try to accomplish things with a group of people. Having great social connections helps to discuss problems or collectively put your heads down for that big release. When work and onboarding move online it’s crucial to keep that social part. We did this by longer standups, pub quizzes, personal calls, and lots of memes.

5. Streamline and document processes and ways of working
A new developer joining your team is an excellent moment to reflect on your processes. It makes more sense to improve the process than trying to explain something that wasn’t right in the first place. When you are making decisions on how to improve your processes, write them down. This will give you clear documentation on what it is that you do, and why you do it like that.

6. Overcommunicate
All of the principles mentioned above are very dependent on great communication. We noticed that a lot of communication was still implicit and made a point of making everything as explicit as possible. This might seem a bit silly at first, but once you get in the habit you notice that everyone is much more aware of the things the rest of the team is working on.

The new onboarding process is just one of the ways our team and Picnic in general is setting itself up for success in these turbulent times. If you’d like to give the process a try, don’t hesitate to apply for a position. I hope to see you soon (virtually)!

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