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10 Employee Orientation Activities To Help New Starters Hit The Ground Running (+Template)

You arrive at your new office early, excited, and maybe a little nervous.

The human resources person you talked to three weeks ago when you accepted the job offer told you to arrive at 8 am. You find the receptionist, introduce yourself and get a surprised, blank look in return.

You’re told the HR person isn’t in the office yet. Thirty minutes later she arrives, asks you to “hang tight”, and tells you to read through their new employee handbook while she “makes some arrangements”.

At this point, you’re probably wondering if you made the right decision to join this organization.

Now imagine that you receive a warm welcome email from human resources a few days ahead of your first day, confirming a more leisurely start time of 9:00 am.

You show up to find a friendly receptionist who greets you by name. Your direct manager comes out immediately, a smile on her face, saying how happy she is to have you onboard and “to expect a chill day, with a few scheduled activities to help get you going.”

While a great first impression doesn’t always lead to a great lasting impression, it certainly helps set the stage for one.

Here I'll help get you started on creating an employee orientation program that will “wow” your new hires, leave them feeling like they made the right decision, and help them hit the ground running.

We'll run through what orientation is and why it’s important, and the top 10 activities your new employee orientation program should include with some bonus for remote workers.

Let's dive in.

What is a new employee orientation program?

HR software provider Bamboo HR offers this great definition of employee orientation:

“Employee orientation is the process of introducing newly hired employees to their new work environment. It provides the basic organizational information employees need to feel prepared for their new team, department, and role within the company.”

An effective employee orientation program makes new team members aware of company HR  policies and expectations, helps them complete essential paperwork, and answers any questions or concerns they may have before they transition into their new position.

This contributes to a great overall onboarding experience and can consequently help new starters get up to speed quicker and reduce employee turnover.

How is employee orientation different from employee onboarding?

Employee onboarding is the process of fully integrating a new employee into a company and its culture.

Onboarding activities are designed to help a new employee acquire the skills, experience, and expected behaviours needed to ensure they become an engaged, motivated, and productive member of the organization.

An onboarding process would include a new employee orientation program, along with a number of other activities and practices.

Orientation is part of your wider onboarding process.

New hire onboarding can start as early as the job offer stage, and generally lasts 90 days but up to a year or more depending on seniority and role.

A new employee orientation program, on the other hand, typically starts on the new hire’s first day of work and extends through their first week. 

Pro Tip: adjust the length of your orientation program based on the needs of your organization, the role and responsibilities of your new hire, the existing policies and processes you have in place, and the amount of time you can dedicate to creating a truly amazing orientation experience.

Why is an employee orientation program important?

A new employee orientation program is a critical component of an effective onboarding process and can have a big impact on the overall employee experience

Research shows that implementing an effective new hire onboarding process (which often includes a structured orientation program) has a positive impact on company success and on long-term employee engagement, retention, and productivity. 

Who is responsible for employee orientation?

Like the broader onboarding process, new employee orientation (NEO) is not just the responsibility of your human resources team.

While HR professionals will often be involved in the creation of a new hire orientation program, it’s the responsibility of team members, managers, and senior leaders to execute orientation activities.

Stay up-to-date on all things HR & leadership.

What are some key factors for an effective orientation program?

An orientation program is part of the onboarding process and shares many of the same keys to success, such as:

  • Have a clear purpose: get clear on what experience you want a new hire to have on day one and in their first week, and what the focus is (e.g. people, products, culture, etc.)
  • Minimize surprises: let new hires know in advance what their first day and week will look like, everything from what the dress code is (or is not!), to what they need to bring. This helps alleviate stressors a new hire might experience when starting a new job.
  • Be prepared: put a new hire checklist in place, schedule meetings and training sessions in advance, get their workstation ready, and prepare other team members to help. Putting a structure in place will ensure everyone is aware of their role and nothing important is missed.
  • Exercise patience: your new team member will almost certainly make mistakes, forget parts of their orientation program, and miss a step or two as they get up to speed.
  • Don’t overwhelm: set a reasonable pace, provide plenty of breaks and free time, and avoid overwhelming the new hire with too much information.
  • Provide resources: introduce them to key individuals and show them where resources like employee handbooks and policy manuals can be found.
  • Build-in flexibility: allocate time in the orientation agenda to add new activities, and make orientation processes adaptable to sudden work changes e.g. COVID-19.
  • Make it fun and engaging: avoid boring orientation videos, long lecture-style presentations, and excessive amounts of time where they’re alone.
  • Focus on a welcoming atmosphere and relationship-building: Managers should encourage a team culture in which members welcome and support their new colleagues. A welcome lunch is a great way to welcome new hires into the team.
  • Leverage technology: tools such as HRIS software provide automated, integrated solutions to help manage the myriad of orientation tasks.

What are the top 10 new hire orientation activities?

The types of employee orientation activities will vary from organization to organization. These are largely dependent on the existing policies and processes you have in place, and how much time you’re able to dedicate to orientation.

If you work in a small business or startup where time is limited and there are few formal rules and procedures, your orientation program may just be one day of meeting new team members and getting your work environment set up. If you’re in a more established organization, it could involve a larger number of orientation activities.

Pro Tip: The COVID-19 global pandemic has had a significant impact on how orientation activities are handled, so consider if / how they can be done remotely when in-person orientation isn’t possible (we’ve offered some suggestions throughout). Also, check out this great case study from Microsoft to learn how they adapted to remote orientations.

Meet one-on-one with direct manager

One-on-one (1:1) meetings are a critical part of developing and fostering positive and productive relationships between you and the members of your team. You can use your first 1:1 meeting to review the orientation program agenda, create a trust agreement, and even go through their job description. You can also use it to put your new team member at ease by addressing any concerns they might have as well as get them excited!

Pro Tip: Start your one-on-one meetings right away; consider making it the very first thing you do on your new hire’s first day.

Connect with new co-workers

It can be tough to be the new kid on the block. There are many ways you can support your new employee in their efforts to connect with their new team members and foster their feelings of belonging and inclusion. Don’t hesitate to get creative in how you do this!

Pro Tip: New team members at Vancouver-based software provider Thinkific fill out a questionnaire before their first day with a couple of fun facts, such as their favorite food and proudest accomplishment. When they start, their answers are shared through the company’s Slack channel to give everyone more insight into their personality. Current team members are then able to jump onto the thread to give their own warm welcome.

Get face-time with the leadership team

Involving a senior leader like the CEO or founder in orientation, whether it’s having the leader give an office tour or company presentation, gives that person the opportunity to help new employees understand the company culture, educate them on the company history, explain company values and expected behaviours, and take them through the company goals. It also helps the new employee feel valued by, and connected to, leadership. 

Pro Tip: In my previous life as a senior executive I would spend an hour with every new hire during orientation (this could be done virtually today) to explain our vision and mission statement, how our products were used by our customers, and how the team member would contribute to achieving our goals. 

Pair up with a buddy or mentor

According to Greenhouse, a hiring software platform provider, “one way to help your newest employees feel more comfortable is to create a buddy system that pairs each new hire with someone who has a little more tenure at the company.” 

At Greenhouse, they pair each new employee with someone in a different department. The “buddies” each take their new hire on an office tour right after their first onboarding session, and then all the buddies and their respective new hires go to lunch together on their first day. This helps make sure new hires have a friendly face around the office and a peer to reach out to for those day-to-day types of questions.

Related read: How To Start An Effective Mentoring Program In 6 Steps

Complete required forms and paperwork

Paperwork is a necessary, but often boring, part of the new hire process, so it's preferential to have your new team member complete as many of the required forms as possible before their first day. This frees the two of you up to focus on more important and exciting aspects of their new job.

During orientation, human resources can help your new employee check and complete any paperwork that remains to be done. One idea from Jordan Boogaard at Eddy HR is to use info gathered from employees during onboarding to reward new starters when they complete their paperwork e.g. you know their favorite restaurant, give them a voucher.

Review employee handbook and company policies

An employee handbook is a critical tool for new hire onboarding and should be reviewed between the employee and you (or HR) as part of the orientation process. It’s used to educate new employees on the rules and processes that govern the employment relationship, and the rights, responsibilities, and expected behaviours of the employer and the employee.

Pro Tip: The employee handbook and key HR policies, such as harassment, diversity and equity, leave, and health and safety policies, should be sent in advance as part of the new hire welcome package. This allows the time during orientation to be spent addressing questions or concerns.

Take a facility or office tour

Depending on the size of your organization, you might have a small office space or an entire building. Either way, it’s important to take your new team member on a tour of the work environment to familiarize them with where facilities are. It’s also a great opportunity to meet new co-workers (just remember not to overwhelm them with faces and names).

Pro Tip: Don’t hesitate to get creative with your office tour. For example, consider making it into a fun scavenger hunt using a service like Strayboots or Goosechase

Set up the workspace and workstation

Whether it’s as simple as a laptop delivered to a remote employee’s home for virtual work, or a dedicated office space fully equipped with furniture, computer, printer, and mobile phone, it’s important to have ready in advance everything your new team member will need to be successful.

Pro Tip: Have a full list of all the required tools and equipment built into your new hire checklist to ensure that nothing gets missed. (I recall one time when a manager I worked with forgot to order a laptop for their new employee, and they had to wait two weeks for one to be delivered!)

Get hands-on with the company’s products and/or services

There’s no better way to educate someone on what an organization delivers to its users and customers than for them to experience it for themselves.

For example, baristas at Starbucks are expected to be able to explain the differences between a wide range of beverages so, on their first day of work, new employees receive coffee tastings facilitated by the store manager. (Similarly, at my previous company, every new employee got to plug in and play with one of our industrial digital cameras and would get a tour of the manufacturing space.)

Set goals and coordinate training and development

The new hire orientation program is just a part of the employee’s entire onboarding journey. To set the stage for the rest of that journey, work with your new team member to:

  • Set 30, 60, and 90-day performance goals;
  • Coordinate job training and skills development; and
  • Continue to be integrated into the culture and team.

These activities are big pieces of work, however, and orientation can be a busy time, so don’t worry too much if you don’t get to these on your new employee’s first day or even their first week. Just make sure they get done as quickly as possible to keep the onboarding going!

Bonus: how to make remote/virtual orientation fun and engaging

Creating an engaging environment that enables relationship-building can be challenging. One thing to bear in mind is your organizational culture—doing so enables you to include relevant and appropriate items to virtual orientation. 

Here are five ways to make your remote orientation more effective and engaging: 

  • Send a “welcome/survival kit” to remote workers’ homes to start building a relationship with them before day one. This will help them feel like part of the organization quickly. Things you might include in your care package include:
    • Company products (if relevant) like branded shirts and other merchandise
    • A light ring for any videoconference calls they might have
    • A company-branded, vacuum-insulated bottle (e.g., a Thermos) 
    • A personal note from the CEO/Department head welcoming them to the organization
  • Send an electronic gift card to buy your remote new hire breakfast/lunch during orientation and share lunch with all new hires to better get to know each other.
    • Be mindful of dietary restrictions and preferences. To avoid any shocks, a neat trick is to send them a questionnaire before orientation day, subtly ask them about their favourite food/restaurant, and send them a voucher.
  • Ensure orientation includes guest speakers from their own team/department and from other parts of the organization they’ll depend on:
    • Part of orientation might involve having each new hire’s respective manager join virtual orientation and enter a breakout room for a defined amount of time (e.g., 30 minutes). This will support new hires in getting to know their new managers on day one
    • Have members of the HR team jump on to chat through information relevant to their roles (i.e., Benefits team member talking about benefits)
    • Have senior leaders alternate a conversation around organizational culture, or otherwise record and play a video that includes senior leaders talking about company mission, values, etc.
    • Build in virtual coffee chats with senior leaders throughout orientation. A senior leader can host a virtual game or fun conversation in between paperwork and policy overviews to keep folks engaged
  • Share a digital new hire library
    • Include standard operating procedures, helpful hints, tips, and guides for new employees to get their bearings more quickly
    • Company glossary with terms, abbreviations, etc. 
    • Useful training and videos about the company and its culture
  • Conduct a virtual scavenger hunt
    • One of your activities can include a scavenger hunt later on during orientation. You can use this to reinforce key information new hires should walk away with
    • Include items related to company culture and history
    • Include a component involving the identification of members of the senior leadership team
    • Include information about or examples of products and services the company offers
    • Spice it up - you can make your scavenger hunt themed around an upcoming holiday, event, or movie while reinforcing important information about the company and team. 

Sample template for a new hire orientation agenda

Now you should have a good idea of what employee orientation is, why it’s important, and what activities are typically included in an orientation program. But you may well be asking, “How do I put it all together, and which activities should come first, second, etc.??”

To help you with that we’ve provided a sample agenda for a two-day orientation program, which you can download below. You can use this as a sort of new employee orientation checklist to make sure things aren’t missed.


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Thinking wider

Employee orientation is an important step in your onboarding process. Getting it right will ultimately contribute to improved productivity and employee retention rates.

Zooming out, it's important new employees are supported as much as possible during the first few months in their new role.

This includes regular check-ins with their manager and you might also consider activities such as pairing or mentorship.

Further resources to help you optimize your onboarding process:

Also, subscribe to the People Managing People newsletter to stay up to date with the latest thinking in HR from leadership and management experts from around the world.

By Mike Gibbons

Mike has held various senior leadership positions in the technology industry, most recently as the General Manager of FLIR Integrated Imaging Solutions. His responsibilities included coaching and leading a team of over 300 people; managing P&L for a US$100M business; and defining and executing business strategy. Mike is guided by his deeply-held beliefs in connection, curiosity, humour, empathy, and honesty. After much soul-searching he decided to leave the corporate world in 2018. Since then he has invested in and helped several early stage companies mature, grow responsibly, and live true to their values.

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