Remote Onboarding: Lessons from a Summer Shoveling Manure

When most people start remote onboarding at a new workplace, they drown in new policies, people, and responsibilities. I did that in my first few weeks at Atomic this past June. But when I finished my four daily hours of drowning in code, I went outside and started my four hours of drowning in manure.

You see, when I started onboarding, I was splitting my time between Atomic Object and a small organic garden high in the Cascade Siskiyou range in Oregon. I struggled to adapt, to say the least. I’m certain I’m not alone in that struggle.

While few of us juggle manure and work, those of us remote onboarding during COVID are facing a big steaming pile of shit. Here are three things I learned from shoveling hundreds of pounds of stink that can help you ease the stress of remote onboarding.

Face It: You’ve Gotta Change How You Shovel

When I first started shoveling manure on that mountain, I threw my back out. I was mortified. Who doesn’t know how to shovel?

As I started my remote onboarding for Atomic, my anxiety spiked, and I went days without taking an easy breath (or a shower). Once again, I was so ashamed. Who doesn’t know how to work from home? How hard can it be?

In those mountains, I struggled mightily to work from home. I was three hours behind my Atomic Object colleagues and didn’t know the first thing about our project. I was profoundly out of the loop. After a few days, I realized I was “shoveling” all wrong. The way I’d expected to shovel my work (in neat nine-to-fives) was not going to work here.

Not only was I missing important meetings by trying to stay within normal hours, but I was distracted beyond belief. My friends, the dogs, and good food were much too tempting. I wasn’t “shoveling smart,” given my environment.

What I needed most to improve my work, I realized, was uninterrupted time with coworkers. So, I ground my teeth and rubbed my eyes hard to roll out of bed at 4:30 PST every morning to meet my coworkers who started at 8 EST. It sucked, but my work and life were simpler for it.

Remote Onboarding Takeaway

In these chaotic times, we have to accept that the way we imagined “shoveling” may not work anymore. Our old ways may end up throwing out our back and leaving us anxious and frazzled.

Instead of mindlessly doing what we expected to do, we need to recognize what our needs are and dynamically adapt. In Oregon, I needed focused time, and the best way to get that was to wake up ridiculously early. Your need might be exercise. Could a new treadmill help you get your steps in and transform your physical and mental health? Maybe it’s time you ask the company about your options. Is your internet slower than molasses? Maybe it’s time you poked the company about pitching in on the bill. Are you the primary caretaker? Maybe your work needs to be broken up to fit into nap times.

The point is, we need to be prepared to accept that our work may not be what we imagined. We need to be ready to get creative so we can do good work, while still meeting our own needs.

Face It: You Can’t Shovel Alone

Remember how I said I threw out my back? The next day, I did it again. After a few days of watching me hobble around, my partner let me in on a secret: I was shoveling wrong. Gently, with great care not to damage my ego, my partner helped me learn a new motion. After my first scoop of steamy manure, I felt like a new man.

Working from home can be a lonely endeavor. At Atomic, as part of our programming philosophy, we work in pairs all day. Just as I was learning how to shovel on that mountain in Oregon, my coworker “pair” was teaching me how to program. At first, watching my coworker whizz around the screen left me hopeless. In time, though, my coworker taught me their ways. After a few weeks of pairing, I wasn’t fast, but I no longer felt slow either. A whole month later, when a new team member joined, I surprised myself by teaching them a few tricks!

Remote Onboarding Takeaway

Partners make a huge difference in the remote onboarding game. They can help you catch mistakes, blow off steam, and find a laugh in these hard times. While your company may not pair program like Atomic does, pairing up with a coworker (perhaps a fellow newbie!) can help ease your way into a new job.

If that’s not an option, don’t forget your lunch break! Atomic started doing “virtual pair lunches,” which allow you to learn while meeting new people. In these unprecedented times, we need to be creative and accept that we may be doing it “wrong.” Luckily, with the help of others, we can adapt and change, saving our backs in the process.

Face It: You Need to Stop Shoveling

Upon leaving my mountain in Oregon (and thankfully, the manure) and going full-time remote development, I experienced a crushing fear of laziness. I couldn’t finish a single day feeling I’d done enough. After much thought, I realized my fear came not from laziness, but from having no standard of “enough.”

In normal times, I could look around at 5 p.m. and see that everyone else had left the office. Or I could check the snack table to see how often it’s acceptable to take a break. In the absence of these cues, I have found myself unable to let go of work. As I wind down each night, I ask myself stupid questions like, “Should I have counted that pee break towards my project time?”

The context we miss in remote onboarding can be crushing. We literally don’t know when to stop. Work is home and home is work; we can’t leave it behind. Even worse, those of us starting our careers have never not worked at home. We end up feeling burnt out and not enough all at once.

We are not alone in this. Research has found that in the era of COVID and WFH, we aren’t working less; we are working more hours and taking less vacation time. Our relaxing coffee breaks of old have turned into frantic fire extinguisher sessions. We use our lunch breaks to do laundry and wash the dishes. We find ourselves bored and lonely at night and keep the boredom at bay with more hours glued to a screen.

As a big believer in managing your environment, I’m surprised that I didn’t realize the structural problems of working from home. It wasn’t until my work and my dishes and my free time all existed in the same room that I realized my inability to get away from work is killing me. Nothing is worse than ending a long day at work only to look over and see the 56 dishes and 4 loads of laundry you neglected yesterday.

Remote Onboarding Takeaway

Right now, few of us have any separation from our work. And for a lot of us, physical separation isn’t possible. Fortunately, there are little things we can do. I’m trying to get better at closing all work-related tabs after I clock out for the day. It adds a little morning setup time, but it’s so nice to surf the web without a constant reminder of work left unfinished.

Once again, we find these tips building on one another. If you (like me) are having trouble finding ways to separate from work, remember to be creative and lean on others for help. I got some great ideas from Work-from-Home Fatigue? Change Things Up by my colleague Dan Kelch.

The Right Perspective

As more and more of us are starting remote onboarding, it’s critical that we keep in mind how hard such a thing is. To meet new people and do new work with only a screen as an interface is scary and stressful. It’s also unfamiliar for many of us, even as it happens in a familiar place. But if we can stay flexible, work together, and pay attention to our environments, we can make it easier on ourselves.

I’d love to know how you’ve changed your “shoveling” tactics, who you’ve found to help you along the way, and how you are putting the shovel down each day. Please let me know in the comments below.

  • Aidiladha says:


    • Jimmy Cerone Jimmy Cerone says:

      Hey Aidiladha! Great to hear from you! I’d love to clear anything up for you but I’m a tad confused by your question. To what are you referring to with your question, “How”? Hope I can help!

      Thanks for reading.
      Jimmy Cerone

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