A deep dive into Levels’ month-long onboarding program

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Introduction

“You only get to onboard once” is what we tell new team members as they join Levels, and we treat the new hire experience with a high level of respect and planning as a result. We see onboarding as an opportunity to start strong and build a strong foundation for the efforts and goals that follow.

For many companies at our size (and even those larger), onboarding tends to the form of a chore rather than an opportunity. You make sure a laptop is delivered, set up some accounts as the roadblocks come up, show someone where the bathroom is, and maybe have them attend intro sessions or arrange 1:1s to learn about different teams and functions.

Going beyond the basics and building a comprehensive, self-directed program focused on teaching your company process and culture can seem both daunting to pursue and futile to prioritize in a fast-moving startup environment. Things change quickly, and it’s easier to delegate the responsibility to a hiring manager or onboarding buddy who will have the most recent lens and be able to communicate it.

In a co-located office where one can sit alongside their manager or team, observe work and culture in action, and ask questions as they come up this may work. But as companies have gone remote, these interactions have shifted to instant messaging apps where it’s tough to capture detail, be thorough, and ensure absorption and application of the concepts. These channels also introduce distractions, repetitive questions, and diminish decision-making abilities that are important to learn.

Read about how we structured our communication to minimize distraction at Levels.

As our team doubled from 20 to 40 during 2021 (and added time zones on both ends of the world), we set out to build a robust program that team members use to self-guide through their first month on our team. It’s a system that aligns with our remote-first, asynchronous culture, sets new team members up to be successful on their own, and doesn’t rely on much hand-holding. It’s gotten positive reviews from folks who have come from both small startups and established companies across industries; they’ve appreciated the level of detail and thoroughness in addition to the clear opportunity to focus and learn during this critical period.

In this article, I’ll walk through our goals and some of the onboarding steps we implemented. I’ll show you a behind-the-scenes look into our checklist, and explain how it helps get new members up and running with both high-level culture alignment and really practical details. I’ll also share some of the best practices we’ve learned to help you tailor to your needs and start building an effective remote onboarding program for your team or company.

Onboarding Program Goals

Before we get into the specifics of our program, I want to share the goals we laid out for the program. Yours may be different from ours, but be sure to define your objectives to structure and build a program congruent with how your company thinks and works.

1. Give New Team Members Company Context

This should be a table-stakes goal for any onboarding program. Though you’re bringing on team members with certain expertise and skillsets to apply, they need to understand the context of your company before they start adding more in. Without insight into the way you approach problems, what you’ve already tried, high-level company goals, and what other teams are focused on, new team members will be shooting from the hip. That’s not a good use of anyone’s time or mental energy.

Outside of the typical logistical tasks — downloading software, setting up benefits, etc. — we focus on directing new employees to the most valuable information that helps them do their jobs, and give ample time to absorb and apply those concepts.

Since we have a culture of heavy documentation, conversations we’ve had can be referenced later on. Every decision or strategic approach lives as a long-form memo in our Notion database and important meetings are memorialized with recordings. With the information already out there, our job in onboarding is to navigate new hires through it to hone in on what they need to know.

2. Train on Our Working Style

In addition to the onboarding material itself, acclimating new team members to our culture in their first few weeks is as important.

Joining Levels will be many peoples’ first time at a distributed, asynchronous company. We have unique ways of approaching work that can be disorienting for those who haven’t worked this way before. Without guidance and intention, it’s easy to continue on with old work habits, so we use onboarding as a proxy for communicating and teaching how we work. For example, our onboarding program is self-directed and gives new team members the space to practice prioritization and time management skills in a remote environment.

Even if your company has a more standard culture, this remains a useful goal to consider. Every new hire brings their own work history and habits to a team when they join a new company, and onboarding is a good opportunity to help them reset their way of working. Through onboarding, a company can guide new hires in a direction that is culturally aligned with the team’s way of working, so that new team members can succeed in their roles.

3. Share Pro Tips for Using Our Tools

Most onboarding programs give the new hire time to set up a company’s tools — downloading software, signing up for accounts, doing a short walkthrough if it’s a program they’re unfamiliar with. We wanted to take things further and help new team members make the most of each of our tools, and practice integrating them into their workflows.

This means creating in-depth guides on how to use the software that may be unfamiliar or used inconsistently across companies, like Threads (or Slack). Even with tools that are considered standard (like Google Suite), we don’t assume full competency, and we explicitly share tips on how to manage an inbox, correctly schedule a calendar event, tweak settings in a video conferencing tool, and more. In addition to guidance, we are prescriptive about preferences and settings to be set early on. Since we’ve been using these tools for a while, our team has learned best practices along the way, and we’re sure to memorialize those and explicitly share them with newer members.

We realize employees’ preferences may look different over time — for example, they may choose to go back to getting push notifications for all some tools even though we prefer them to be off for everyone. But during onboarding, we ask that they use our recommended settings (like eliminating notifications and breaking habits of feeling available) and try living with them. By sharing our tips and workflows, we hope to encourage new employees to try our way of doing things before settling into their own approach.

4. Provide Opportunities to Build Team Relationships

Building relationships and trust in a distributed environment without facetime can be tricky, and it doesn’t happen on its own. Virtual meet and greets and coffee chats as part of onboarding provide more facetime opportunities, but we want to create additional touchpoints for introduction and sharing in an effort to build deeper connections.

Our goal is to provide both personal information so everyone can learn more about each other as people, as well as information on work styles so new teammates can build strong collaborative relationships. And, of course, to make sure new employees feel welcome.

We’ve introduced a mix of asynchronous opportunities to get to know each other (such as a welcome video new hires can watch anytime) alongside some synchronous time to chat with teammates. This leads to our next goal:

5. Include Facetime to Build Rapport

We avoid meetings and other synchronous time as much as possible at Levels. If our goal is to teach new employees how we work it would stand to reason that we would avoid building facetime into the onboarding process.

We’re not purists though — we know that having some synchronous calls and videos can help new members feel supported and part of a team and get a sense of who they’ll be working with. These chats keep new employees on track, give an opportunity for casual conversation that likely wouldn’t happen in other mediums, and help us watch out for anything we might be missing in the onboarding process.

Phone and video chats can help build rapport, get to know one another’s character, and enable more efficient and contextually-informed asynchronous communication down the line.

6. Give Ample Time for Onboarding

Our final goal is the most important and is stressed throughout. There’s a norm that new hires should ramp up and start contributing. You’ve been anticipating this employee for some time and want them to make an impact; they also feel pressure to prove themselves early on.

We feel differently. We want employees to take their time. Go slow to go fast. Context and culture are centrally important to grasp, and as soon as employees start dipping their toes in the core work, onboarding becomes an afterthought. It’s tough to recover the priority from that point. When employees don’t onboard thoroughly, they don’t have all the information we’ve deemed necessary for success, and they might default to behaviors that we’ve explicitly focused on avoiding through onboarding that doesn’t align with the work culture we’re building.

Our expectation is clear — getting this onboarding process right and completing it is the primary (and perhaps sole) focus for the first 3–4 weeks on the job.

Enter: The Notion Onboarding Checklist

We built our onboarding as a syllabus-style database in Notion. We’ve created a master template that is copied and tweaked for each team member that joins.

In this checklist, you’ll find everything from tactical, basic tasks (like setting up accounts), to long-form training memos that explain our philosophies, rationales, past efforts, and current business strategies. We lay the entire program out in one place for clarity.

Sharing these onboarding tasks upfront mimics the self-directed working style that we want people to have once they start contributing. While we’re prescriptive about our expectations for day one, for week one, and for month one, there’s a lot of flexibility within that for people to manage their own schedule, work when it works best for them, and build habits that prioritize deep work and batch process small tasks.

Building our onboarding task list into Notion was an obvious choice for a few reasons. First, it’s a tool that’s embedded in our workflows and houses all our documentation. We can link to important memos, employee handbook documents, meetings notes, and more. Spending time in Notion early on also lends an opportunity to get comfortable with a tool that is at the core of our company.

Using a board like this allows for useful organization by way of tags and filters. We tag each task by expected completion time, category (admin/tools, product/education, culture/process, or role-specific), and include an estimate of how much time or level of focus they’ll take to complete. New hires can filter for quick hits, batch tasks of the same category, and visualize their progress in any way they’d like.

Even though it may look like a handful of to-dos that are asking to be checked off, each task contains objectives and details that set context and encourage absorbing and applying the content within.

Our Onboarding Program, Day by Day

Now, I’ll walk through the specifics of what we include. Not all of these tasks will apply to your company, but they should help inspire some ideas for what could be valuable to add to your process.

Before Day 1

Transparency is core to the Levels culture, and we practice this by making sure that candidates and new hires are as informed as possible through every step. We don’t hold back on information or leave it to chance.

In many senses, we start onboarding potential new hires during the interview process itself, when they’re candidates. We’re transparent throughout the interview process, sharing internal documents and meeting recordings liberally. We think this is instrumental in helping folks get a sense of how we work, and making sure they feel it’s the right fit for them when considering an offer. If they choose to join us it means that they aren’t starting with zero understanding of our working style, team members, and company strategy. They’ve already seen our docs, read our project plans, and understand our deep thinking.

Offer FAQs

When an offer is sent to a candidate, we include an in-depth Notion page to answer FAQs about the offer process. Besides saving us the back and forth of answering these questions, it creates an empowering candidate experience. We give people open access to the information they may be wondering about. Along the way, this expresses that we care about their experience, and can start building a relationship built on trust.

Guide to Joining Levels

Once an offer is signed, onboarding steps begin. Before a new hire’s first day, we send a customized guide to joining Levels. It outlines onboarding timelines, outlines the steps they’ll need to take before joining (like signing their agreements), answers more FAQs, and gives a preview of the onboarding process to come once they join. It also models how we work in Notion, moving what could be a long email chain of questions into our preferred mode of communicating, outlining information, and collaborating.

What’s covered in the guide that’s sent to new employees after they sign their offer.

When you accept a new job, you’re excited to get going and probably have questions about how to prepare for day one. Additional questions come up when working remotely, like: Do I use my own laptop or get hardware? Do I get a coworking space? How do I set up my desk? What can I expense? These are all things candidates may be hesitant to ask or don’t have a clear place to do so during the offer process itself, so we’ve tried to provide it up front here. We added an (optional) reading list for those looking to prime themselves on the topics relevant to our company and mission.

Spotlight Article

We got this next idea from another company and we quickly integrated it into our process. In the weeks leading up to their first day, each employee is connected with a freelance journalist who interviews them about their life and background and writes a feature piece that we send to the entire team on their first day (you can read a sample here).

A snippet of a spotlight article.

These articles have become a valuable touchpoint for the team to get to know new members. We often comment on each other’s articles to kick start discussions and start building meaningful relationships early on.

Internal Prep

We also do a little internal prep before day one. For starters, we get the onboarding project set up. Their manager makes a copy of the most recent template and spends some time and effort to add role-specific tasks.

Day 1

At the start of their first day, a message goes out to the entire team welcoming the new employee and linking to their spotlight article, welcome video, and onboarding checklist.

Sample welcome message.

These touches add to the standard welcome email, with the spotlight article kickstarting introductions and conversation beyond the stream of “welcome!” messages and GIFs that typically follow.

Once a new hire spends a few minutes feeling properly welcomed by teammates, they head over to their custom onboarding checklist and get started for the day on their own time. There’s no kickoff or orientation meeting with HR or a manager to attend.

Our Day 1 checklist as of February 2022.

Day one looks like a lot, but most of these are quick logistical things that may have already been tackled during pre-onboarding: setting up tools, wrapping up any HR steps, starting to review some information about how we work. Most of these tasks are self-explanatory, but there are a few I want to call out.

Schedule Manager Meetings

As mentioned before, we don’t have many recurring meetings at Levels. But for the first few weeks, we recommend regular communication between contributors and their manager and suggest that new team members set up that schedule. This gets paired with a shared Notion doc to track agenda items from the start. We also use Loom to augment sync chats and communicate through the first few days with high signal.

Schedule Group Coffee

Another task that goes against our typical no-meeting culture is to schedule a group Zoom call where everyone can have some social time with the new hire. We find this a better use of everyone’s time than meeting everyone 1-on-1, while still allowing a new hire to get to know various teammates. The new hire leads scheduling this, there’s no formal agenda, and it’s optional for everyone to join, but we usually get about a dozen people spending 30 minutes getting to know one another.

Review the Culture Handbook

Overview of what’s covered in our culture handbook.

The goal of the culture handbook is to outline the finer details of how we operate — things that might come up in passing if we were onboarding in person, but that can be harder to share in a remote environment. From the high-level philosophies that guide our work (e.g., working asynchronously) to the detail of how that plays out in practice (e.g., we don’t “throw time” on teammates’ calendars), we want to be explicit and spell out expectations from day one so new hires can start building these habits immediately. We leave little open to interpretation.

Start to Learn Our Tools

Our guide to Threads also includes videos walking new employees through the tools.

We give detailed prescriptions about how to configure settings and use the tools.

As part of day one, we want new hires to acquaint themselves with the tools we use. As mentioned above, it was important to not only get people set up on these tools but to train them on best practices. Tasks like setting up accounts for Threads and Notion include in-depth walkthroughs, videos, and guides outlining how we use those tools.

Every tool we use also has a dedicated page in our Tools database in Notion that includes a description, ownership, access details, etc.

Weeks 1–2

Weeks 1–2 checklist as of February 2022.

The next few weeks of our onboarding process really focus on giving new employees time to go deep into learning more about the Levels product, what the team has done up until this point, and where we’re hoping to go next. A few tasks to call out include:

Create an Intro for Friday Forum

Friday Forum introduction slide.

Every week we come together as a team for our Friday Forum, an (optional) hour-long overview of recent accomplishments, current priorities, and general alignment. Our entire team and network either join the meeting or watches the recording, so we make sure to include another touchpoint to introduce new team members. The new hire completes their intro slide as a task during their first week and gets it to the right place so we can do an efficient introduction during the meeting.

This is an example of a simple task — but it’s one that’s easy to relegate to a last-minute Google Slide comment with an action item instead of creating an explicit task ahead of time, with full context laid out.

Write Your User Guide

What’s covered in the user guide.

The final touchpoint for helping teammates get to know each other is the user guides. These live in our team directory and focus on an individual’s working style and preferences. This is a good chance for new employees to take time to reflect on their work habits and set new intentions if relevant. To make sure this gets done, we ask that new hires fill it out during their first few weeks and send the completed guide around to the team.

Everyone on Support

Because we’re a customer-obsessed company, we want to make sure every single employee — regardless of role — gets first-hand insight into how our community members experience our product, and what challenges they’re facing that we need to work on solving. We require every employee to join a shift with our support team during their first few weeks. These open sessions are scheduled every other week, and the full library of recordings can be accessed in Notion.

Reading Memos and Wikis

As mentioned, the bulk of the assignments in the first couple of weeks are centered around digesting as much of the important documentation and information about Levels as possible. We have a lot of documents and don’t expect new hires to read them all. We hope with the onboarding project we’ve helped narrow things down to the most important high-level information and also given new employees the tools to seek out information that would be most valuable to their role. We emphasize that employees should expect to take time to read and absorb this information, and even remind folks to take breaks and get enough sleep during these onboarding weeks so everything can sink in.

The First Assignment

An employee’s first assignment has nothing to do with their role. Instead, we ask that as they’re going through the onboarding process, they look at it with a critical eye and actively make changes to it, whether that’s fixing outdated information or adding new tasks. This helps us keep the project updated, and it helps train on our cultural value of having “short toes.” Anyone can contribute to any area of the company without fear of stepping on someone else’s toes.

Ian making updates to the onboarding project for engineering tasks as he goes through it. Everyone owns this.

Month 1

The rest of the month is dedicated to helping new hires continue to educate themselves on the world of metabolic health, as well as continue to practice our unique ways of working (for instance, by delegating routine tasks using our executive assistants, or only communicating with audio/video for a week to practice integrating Loom into their communication workflows).

Maxine announcing to the team that she is only communicating by audio and video for her third week to train the new habit.

At some point after the first couple weeks where we’ve drilled that onboarding is the only thing that matters, new team members naturally start to transition to thinking about the job they were hired for, or get looped into relevant efforts in flight.

While individual objectives are shaped in partnership with one’s manager, we’ve found one of the best tasks to tackle first is writing up a strategy memo for their role, especially if it’s in a new functional area.

This is valuable for a few reasons:

  • it provides the new team member an outlet to collect thoughts and synthesize their ideas as they go through onboarding
  • it gives the rest of the team an idea of what this person is going to be working on, and allows them to share feedback and context they might be missing
  • it gives a new team member an opportunity to practice writing and distributing their first strategy memo in Notion, a key piece of our working culture

By spending time during this onboarding and exploration phase writing the first strategic piece and collaborating with the rest of the team to refine it, new team members learn more about how we approach doing deep, meaningful work at Levels and now have a clear vision for what to start working on instead of picking up small tasks and working their way up to big picture strategy over time.

Wrapping Up: Getting Started With Your Own Onboarding Program

Your own onboarding program may look different based on the information your team needs to absorb and the tasks you think it will be valuable to help them complete. If you think creating something like this for your team would be valuable, here are a few best practices we’ve learned along the way to help you out.

Start With Documentation

If you have existing documentation, your onboarding only needs to connect the dots and point to the right spots in the right order, so we recommend building a strong documentation of culture first.

If you don’t have a documentation culture, it’s going to be harder to create a remote onboarding program like this one. You’ll find that your team members aren’t able to find the information they need on their own and end up relying on one-on-one time to get questions answered. I’d suggest using onboarding as an impetus to create documentation by writing up answers and memos as questions come up — over time, you’ll build up a repository of valuable information for new hires.

There’s No Detail Too Small

It can feel like some details are not worth mentioning when onboarding, but we’ve found the opposite approach is more helpful. Getting into granular details like the specific settings to use for a piece of software or the minutiae of how our values play out in day-to-day work ensures employees have all the information they need to succeed and reduces the number of small “stupid” questions new hires need to ask. If there’s even the smallest detail or pointer that you think is helpful, don’t hesitate to include it as a discrete task.

Record Tasks the Moment You Think of Them

Along similar lines, when you (or anyone on the team) comes across something that should be included or updated in your onboarding, take notes or fix it then and there. I made several tweaks and changes while writing this piece! It’s best to think of this as an ongoing and evergreen task as opposed to a recurring one that is done only before someone new comes on. The rolling basis makes sure that your onboarding is always up to date, and each new hire gets the best possible experience.

While we ask everyone on the team to contribute to onboarding and make changes to the process as they see fit, having a central owner to keep the structure in place also helps. This person should keep an eye open for the flow, maintain consistency, and add content as it develops across the company.

Everyone Should Reinforce These Habits

Learning the details of a new culture and building new habits takes time and practice. You shouldn’t expect that a new team member will complete onboarding fully enlightened. It’s important to build a culture where everyone feels empowered to (tastefully) reinforce approach and values, and refer back to the onboarding documents to help each other adapt and grow the company’s ways of doing things.