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Onboarding During COVID-19

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Many studios throughout the industry have varied onboarding and hiring processes, but even then, there is a loose industry standard that developers abide by. Working from home conditions have undoubtedly changed some of these onboarding processes, but has this slowed the industry down? Not at all.

Studios both at home and abroad are still taking on candidates across a plethora of roles. From marketing to programming, the industry has shown just how adaptable it can be. But how have they done it, and what has had to change to enable this?

How has the onboarding process differed during COVID-19?

“With the exception of a physical studio visit, we can carry out all aspects remotely,” says Sally Samuel, Talent Acquisition Manager atd3t. This seems to be the case across game development, as online meeting technology is allowing onboarding to carry on almost as normal during a time when other industries are struggling. "d3t have been effectively onboarding new hires throughout the lockdown period", and a lot of work has gone into ensuring that they "don’t compromise the onboarding process in any way." With candidates not able to visit studios, it has been vital that new starters feel welcome. One way to do this is making sure that there is plenty of contact with new hires before their start date. The studio has been including new starters in the “care packs sent out during lockdown. [They have been] updating candidates of any studio changes, [and are offering] extra assistance with re-location challenges,” adds Sally.

Being available to new starters is a feeling echoed by Deep Silver Dambuster, specifically their Studio Community Manager, Toby Gallagher. “Communicate, communicate, communicate. It has become so important not to assume or rely on the visual reassurance that may have come from being on-site and seeing the people and the studio physically. [We have] adapted all of our induction sessions to be virtual, created a video of the studio which lives on our intranet system, [and have] developed a presentation that introduces the tone and pillars of the project to new starters.” Deep Silver Dambuster have also extended their formal induction to go beyond just the first day. It now encompasses the whole of the first week, with regular support offered throughout.

The dependence on digital technology to fulfil the role of physical interaction can be seen throughout the industry. “The same [onboarding process] occurs, just over Microsoft Teams or Zoom. We then introduce [new starters] via text chat and later in a company meeting,” adds Joe Harford, CEO, and Founder of Airship Images.

Emma Blenkinsop, Management Assistant at Coatsink, has seen little change to her role. “From my perspective, our onboarding hasn’t changed beyond not physically meeting the person. My role deals with all of the pre-starting side of things, which was all done via email anyway (references, relocation support, payroll, HR etc). On their first day, I introduce the person on Slack, as I usually would, and all the staff welcome them.”

Were there any initial teething problems with onboarding remotely?

With the success of digital platforms, such as instant messaging and video conferencing, the games industry has been able to carry on with a largely ‘business as usual’ mentality. Project management software allows collaboration to function and be scaled as it generally would in person, and teams are able to communicate effortlessly across vast distances. But have these systems that allow remote working always been in place, or did studios experience issues?

“Touch wood, we’ve been very fortunate as we have not encountered any real issues. The first new challenge involves shipping all computer and electronic equipment to [new starters who are working remotely]. This might be dev kits, digital drawing pads, that type of thing. We’ve had new folks join us from all over Europe, so this involves its own logistical hurdles at times,” confirms Toby. Ensuring the same level of security that you would expect in a studio is difficult, especially when you need to uphold NDAs and project confidentiality across several countries. “The [work] kit arrives, and then at 08:30am on their first day the new starter will receive an email with the necessary IT links and instructions to enable them to work.”

“For the most part, onboarding remotely has gone well. We’ve adapted quickly to this new way of hiring and onboarding. There have been (mainly amusing) incidents along the way but we’ve coped well by having d3t members prepared to cover for each other if/when things go wrong,” confirms Sally. Having that organisation in place, and a degree of flexibility from the team, allows studios to overcome any unexpected hurdles. Small initial tech hurdles seem to be a theme across the industry, of “getting the right equipment, delivering it, and getting it set up with our security requirements,” says Joe.

How are candidates getting an insight into studio culture and practices?

How do you ensure a candidate is informed about their decision to join a studio if they can’t visit their new workplace? Even before lockdown, when you could travel to an office for an interview, you often got a glimpse of what working within those walls would be like. It is more important than ever to ensure that the studio is the right fit, but how have developers been managing that?

Similar to the studio tour video used by Deep Silver Dambuster, d3t offer a “‘Life at d3t’ video that is sent to every candidate that interviews with us. In the absence of being able to give them a studio tour, this is the next best thing. It shows them inside our studio and gives them a taste of our team and the kind of projects we work on,” says Sally.  This is a great way for candidates to see how the studio is laid out and lets them hear from their new colleagues about what the developer can offer. During an interview process with d3t, each interviewee meets between 3-6 people from the studio, “giving every candidate as much insight as possible into our studio’s culture.”

“New starters are given time in their first week to familiarise themselves with company policies, procedures, and information, which is all accessible via our Intranet system. It’s a very useful repository of people, social, and company information,” adds Toby. The ease of access to information, and the time to actually consume it, is allowing candidates to not become overwhelmed in the early stages of employment.

How are studios ensuring candidates are a good fit?

Ensuring that the studio is a good fit for the candidate is important, but how does this work in reverse? With hiring manager unable to see their new colleague face-to-face, decisions about their suitability for the position are being made exclusively via video calls and competency tests. How does this work, and are any more checks now in place that ensure a clash of cultures does not occur?

“This really takes place during the hiring process. A specific interview is conducted to explore this aspect…do they fit in with our studio values of Passion, Quality, and Teamwork? It’s a major factor in the selection process for us,” says Toby. Conducting a stand-alone suitability interview during the hiring process can be a great way to see how a candidate might fit in at your studio. It allows both sides to let their guards down and just have a comfortable informal conversation.

Checking someone is a good fit doesn’t stop during the interview process, it can be revisited throughout the probational period. “Communication between the candidate and line manager is crucial, also their ability to seek help in the right circumstances and honesty in their own assessment of their work,” adds Joe. A new colleague who plows on regardless, and who is reluctant to ask for help, can do more harm than good on a project. Being able to see how competently they work within a team, even when based remotely, is key to examining how well they fit within your culture.

What’s the average first day look like for a remote new starter?

Even the best-laid plans for onboarding can crumple if a new starter doesn’t know what they are doing on their first day of work. They’ll already be nervous and overwhelmed, and without physical reassurance or direction, things could spiral fast. How are studios ensuring that newly onboarded staff are made comfortable during their very first day?

“We have a ‘Day One Plan’ covering IT set-up, company induction, company paperwork, meeting the team, meeting the project etc. This is supported by a number of d3t individuals. This plan is sent to the new hire the week before they join, along with any equipment they may need and some d3t merchandise to make them feel welcome!” says Sally. Knowing what to expect is half of the battle. Sending your day one plan ahead of time to your newest starter can be a great way to put them at ease.

“Line managers contact them in the morning and spend the [first half of the day] onboarding them. They are given access to all [of our] systems and contact is made throughout the day to make sure that they are up and running. Frequent check-ins are made to ensure any issues are resolved, and they are introduced on our internal chat,” adds Joe. Constant contact and reassurance is vital in these early days, and knowing exactly who and where to turn to for support will immediately make a new employee feel that bit more comfortable.

“One of our Producers is introducing a Trello board with lots of helpful information and links to aid onboarding at a distance. It will hopefully help the new team members feel they have a good resource to refer back on,” says Emma.

What aftercare is in place for new starters who find themselves working remotely?

Now that the new team member has been introduced to the studio, and they have had a comfortable first day, how are developers enabling them to integrate and gel with their colleagues when they could feasibly be anywhere in the world?

“We have an appointed ‘social secretary’, Tracy Guy, [who is] our super friendly Studio Administrator. She regularly checks in with everyone to make sure they are okay and just has a catch-up. We also make sure that any studio updates/news is announced over our in-house team chat channels, we have a virtual pub ‘The Jolly Dambuster’ where our teams meet on a Friday afternoon, a Friday quiz, remote team building budgets (our Engineering Department has just booked a virtual comedy gig for their activity), and all sorts of other initiatives to keep people connected and their spirits high!” says Toby. Making sure that a point of contact within the business, other than just a line manager, keeps in touch with the team is a great way of showing a new starter that people within the business are looking out for them. It also gives them a contact they can reach out to for more personal concerns that they might not want to share with their manager.

Getting new staff to join in with online social and team building events is at the core of what d3t have been doing during remote onboarding. “All one-to-ones, reviews, inductions etc. that would have been carried out prior to the current WFH situation are running as usual, just remotely.  Along with this, we have a lot of online activities and events that all [of our] new starters are encouraged to join in with as much as possible.”

The continued wellbeing of the team, both new and old, is important to be mindful of throughout this whole process. Work from home suits some, but it might be difficult for others. Knowing your staff and how they are doing/feeling is important. Providing services for those less comfortable with the current norm is a great step to having a happy and healthy team. “We ran a wellbeing workshop a few weeks ago and provided staff with the opportunity to engage with a counsellor for one-on-one sessions if they felt they were struggling,” said Emma. “I’m thankful to say the vast majority of staff are doing well.”

What can we take from this?

With new ways of working, and with studios able to make the transition without encountering any major issues, the industry continues to enjoy a period of health and growth. With the demand for video game entertainment never higher, and with physical and digital sales hitting record highs around the globe, it’s positive to know the people behind the titles are keeping safe and futureproofing their projects and studios.