A Welcome Well Done: Onboarding Insights from Week One with DLCS


IBM Systems Journal 39:3&4 ©2000

CBA/Omojola, Post, Hancher, Maguire, Pappu, Schöner, Russo, Gershenfeld

From Philipp & Katherine: Onboarding into a new job can feel overwhelming and confusing. Never more so than during Covid-19. Typically new employees are handed thick folders of photocopied documents: the reimbursement policy, the (invariably outdated) org chart, the mission statement. They are given the basic set of information that is needed to navigate their new job, supposedly. But these documents don’t really capture how organizations work, how people talk to each other, or if it’s ok to email after hours (or not). Those are things we pick up by observing, and by asking questions, which is much easier when there are opportunities for informal conversations. A good onboarding process covers not only the required content, but it creates the connections that make it possible to feel like part of a team. We recently added a new member to our team, and she wrote a great post about the experience. We are sharing it here, because we think onboarding can be a powerful tool towards building healthy organizational cultures and we would love to start a conversation about how to do it well. Over to Michelle—and welcome to the team  ;-)


Our current, awkward global situation (a.k.a. life-threatening crisis) has given me a wormhole through which I can rejoin the Media Lab, my intellectual home that I reluctantly left about 17.5 years ago. A few onboarding processes and tools have made my travels through that portal a little easier during my first week with the Digital Learning + Collaboration Studio or DLCS (which Avery Normandin and I, inspired by a quip from Dan Novy, read as “delicious”).

What and How

It’s more than a little weird to be starting a new job without leaving my house. Luckily for a newcomer like me, my group cares deeply about not just what we do and know, but how we do and know it, and that has eased my transition. This insight comes from a conversation with our group’s admin, Lori Ledford, who shared with me her theory that the group cares about the onboarding process because they conduct research on how people learn things. At heart, every good workplace is a learning environment, where we all teach one another, for better or worse, until we graduate onto other projects.

As one might expect of a group with the word “learning” in its name, I’m surrounded by epistemologists who turn their curious eyes on the workplace itself. Epistemologists study how we know what we know. (Note that DLCS’s ancestry includes the Epistemology & Learning group, so my use of the word is a nod to the history of the Media Lab.) My colleagues have documented how they know what they know. At a time when we’re not working face-to-face, unable to lean over to our desk neighbor for a quick answer or just to keep our ears open to absorb a new group’s common knowledge, being really explicit about how we as members of the Lab know what we know—and where to find things—is especially helpful. 

So my group wrote it down. They wrote it ALL down.

The List

I felt particularly welcomed by a tool that the group has used for a while: an onboarding template. It ensures that each new member of the group has gone through all the detailed steps to have access to the institutional knowledge the group shares. Providing such a thorough list welcomes new members with warmth and hospitality, and makes it less possible for a group to overlook a critical step that has unintentionally locked a new member out of its day-to-day operations. Arriving to a tidy, comprehensive list is like getting a hand-written note of local activities from a friendly innkeeper, who also placed a delicious chocolate mint on your freshly laundered pillowcase. “Aah! I could stay here a while,” I thought as I worked through the tasks my new colleagues had assembled.

Take a look at DLCS’s comprehensive template (accessible to all as as a Google doc, and also to the Media Lab community in its original form of Dropbox Paper) which we encourage you to adapt to your own group. We update it based on what’s appropriate for each new team member, and the best part is the final assignment at the bottom of the page: 

[ ] Improve the onboarding checklist template to be ready for our next hire.

The list has contingencies. For example, one needs an account before getting access to institute-wide licenses to software like Zoom and LastPass. I am tempted to structure this as a giant flowchart, but on the other hand I guess that each person’s experience will be unique, and I don’t want to dictate the learning path too much.

After signing up for different accounts and services, I began to lose track of all the different platforms and software we use and how to access each one. So I started a table in a new doc, the DLCS Software Tools Overview, with these properties listed for each platform:

  • Log in using 
  • How / why / who on the team uses it
  • Link(s) / Where to find it

For example: 

There are a few things I won’t experience now that can only happen in person, like adding myself to some kind of portrait gallery wall or connecting to WiFi and printers. We’re trying to craft parallel experiences in the digital world to replace the best parts of those for now. If your group wants to put together an onboarding doc, you might want to identify the basic creature comforts that would make new colleagues’ arrival easier and list those. 

Some items on the onboarding list can happen before new hires begin, like securing a computer for them to use, requesting accounts from MIT and ML staff, or suggesting they prepare bios and their favorite portraits to be posted on the Media Lab People page, for example.

Human User Guides

There’s the public bio and then there’s the more important private bio. For the latter we use our Human User Guides, a concept from the Sloan Executive MBA program. The name says it all: We Homo sapiens are squishy, bio-based meat machines, but deep inside we are governed by a unique combination of rules. DLCS makes this explicit by asking each person to fill out six areas of a Human User Guide. Evidently I am the first to have been lazy enough to abbreviate this as “HUG”, but a hug is just what this document is: an embrace of who you are, warts and all, as you arrive:

The purpose of this guide is to give your team and colleagues insight on how you like to work / communicate / interact. Your User Guide allows you to critically reflect on how you communicate, what you value, how you lead, give/receive feedback, and those unique quirks that anyone working with you needs to know. 

What specifically can you find in a DLCS Human User Guide? 

  • Values / Leadership: What do I value in working relationships?

    How do I lead/coach people to do their best work?
  • Personal Communication: How do I like to communicate (e.g. style, channel, frequency, time zone)? What is my standard response time?

  • Feedback Process: How do I like to give feedback? How do I like to receive feedback?

  • Conflict Management: What is my process for handling conflicts? How do I like to hear when mistakes happen?

  • Personality: What quirks or idiosyncrasies should you know about me? What is a misconception that people have about me?

  • Goals: What interpersonal skills do I need to improve? How can you help me throughout my time here? What is a strength of mine that I can share with you?

Of course, a lot of us could write several pages, perhaps volumes, to answer any of these questions. The template limits your responses to less than a sixth of a page, so the risk of TMI is LOW. 

Our form also asks us to give a snapshot percent breakdown between three aspects of most any role: process, people, and product. Do you prefer one a little or a lot? Distribute the three parts of 100% accordingly. At the top there are spaces to share your enneagram and MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator), if you’re into those kinds of things. Some members of the group are. Others aren’t. And that’s ok. 

Now you may be the type of person who rankles at this level of self-examination, self-knowledge, self-description, and self-disclosure. Who isn’t? These are hard questions to answer! The reward for this introspection, however, was access to the equally honest guides of all my teammates, and a great starting point for each one-on-one (see next section). The HUG is framed not as a “gotcha”, but as “I got your back.” By sharing our strengths and foibles from the get-go, we can frame how we interact and navigate conflict. And truly, what could be more deliciously nerdy —and ML-appropriate— than writing a user guide for yourself? I also found it so valuable to have a character-limited field to share just enough with my new team, as it forced me to focus on the most important information. 

Finally, the document is dated, and we expect that we will revisit our Human User Guide as we make system updates to ourselves. Our communication preferences, for example, may shift as our personal or professional lives morph, and we’ll want to make sure the details are accurate before the next hire arrives.


The Human User Guide does not live in isolation. Rather, it begins a conversation with each member of the team. We read one another’s guides to prepare for our first half-hour one-on-ones. The one-on-ones are a key part of my onboarding process: a first meeting with every member of the team, just the two of us chatting and getting to know each other. When we’re not in lockdown, it happens over a warm beverage. Often these are get-to-know-you sessions where we have free rein to ask background questions and find out more about how we each got to DLCS. The guides help us find commonalities and topics for clarification or possible deeper dives.

Sharing Calendars

How do we find a common time for these one-on-ones, especially with some very time-constrained colleagues? Shared calendars, of course! These are a critical tool for rapid inclusion. Our group, with its very open culture, uses correspondingly transparent settings for calendar visibility:

It’s a little non-intuitive to invite people to your calendar. Then they have to invite you to see theirs in return.

We also believe in not overworking our team to the point of exhaustion, so we use the “Working Hours” feature of Google Calendar which grays out time outside of our normal working hours, and discourages scheduling meetings in that precious off-time. 

As existing members of the team, it’s important to look at all your standing meetings and invite new hires to any where a sense of community and continuity is maintained. We have daily check-ins and every 6 weeks we  launch a sprint (I arrived just as we were finishing the last one). We also have a more informal weekly lunch where we play games while we eat, each from our own home office during lockdown. That last one’s been a great way for us to bond quickly.

Back through Slack

Going on a new adventure often includes having to get the lay of the land and learning a new language. Similarly, I’ve been awkwardly stumbling back through Slack figuring out the culture of my new group by exploring its history: conversations and documents, to get a feel for how people interact. Inviting your new hires to Slack groups and mailing lists will help them be a fly on the wall and get a sense of the biorhythm of the group as they adjust to a culture that is as comfortable as the air to you and possibly foreign to them. One thing I noticed as I traveled Slack in time is that we started naming threads within channels and tagging them [Thread] so that they are easier to find. 

We have one channel “dlcs-dailys” on which every morning each of us answers a Question of the Day (QOTD) and appreciate each other’s answers. Recent prompts include:

  • This week's theme is Choose Your Own Adventure. Today, you'll choose between fighting one of two fantastical beasts: scylla and charybdis. Which will you take on, and why?
  • Would you rather fly free anywhere at any time or eat free anywhere at any time?
  • If you could have ONE drink named after you at Dunkin Donuts (or Starbucks, if you don’t know DD), what would it be?

As you might expect, I have learned so much about my colleagues in what they’ve answered and how. 

Slack has the advantage of having a historical record of conversations, which is harder to share in other platforms. For more acculturation, new ML community members might also take a look at ML Insider and consider adding themselves to classic aliases like msgs to stay on top of Lab happenings.

Roles & Responsibilities

The PLIX team put together a Roles and Responsibilities document this summer. It uses the RACI Framework (see for more info) to outline the following for each aspect of our project:

  • Responsible: Person who performs an activity or does the work.
  • Accountable: Ultimately answerable for the thorough completion of the deliverable or task.
  • Consulted: Person who needs to give feedback and contribute to the activity.
  • Informed: Person who needs to know of the decision or action.

I can imagine that it was really helpful as an exercise for my team to put this together, to clarify who owned what part of each project. I can also look at this as a newcomer and see where some colleagues’ names pop up much more than others. As we define my role more clearly we can assign responsibility and accountability for these to me.

Having Fun

The learning-focused groups at the Lab often think about designing workshops around what Mitchel and Natalie call the 4 Ps: projects, passion, peers, and play. I’ve covered how we are learning to work together via the first three already: collaborating on projects, sharing our passions, and interacting as peers. So, last but not least, that leaves my favorite, PLAY! Team-building definitely benefits from goofing off on serious fun and is worth every minute we “waste” doing so. 

The lockdown has made connecting playfully so much harder, though! In these physically isolated months we spend some part of our weekly lunch engaged in an online game. Our go-to so far seems to be Skribble, but your team may prefer any of the many dozens of games shared on the lengthy Quarantine Games List

Feeling Welcome

I’ve titled this post “A Welcome Well Done” because that is how it feels to me. We’re sharing these tools that we use in DLCS because we care a lot about how people learn and collaborate. A lot of the tools may have been obvious to you, and we realize there are some things you may be doing in your group that we should consider adding to our onboarding process. Please let us know what you think of our processes, and how we could improve. We thank you in advance with a big virtual HUG from all of us.

Image note: I mentioned that I have a long history with the Media Lab. The banner image shows a relic from my earlier stint here (I didn't work on this project, but it was thematically relevant!) It's the electric-field sensing project Welcome Mat by the Center for Bits and Atoms as seen in an article “An installation of interactive furniture” in the IBM Systems Journal 39:3&4 ©2000  Authors: Omojola, Post, Hancher, Maguire, Pappu, Schoner, Russo, Gershenfeld

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