Now ask yourself, what's the first step to creating a lasting relationship between a new hire and your company so that some rave reviews are on the cards? It's not the signing bonus or the free lunch on the first day (though those are nice perks).
The correct answer is a well-optimized onboarding process. Onboarding is like that first date where both parties are excited, hopeful and a bit nervous. The primary goal as an employer is to make sure it's memorable for the right reasons, while also setting up the employee effectively to enable them to perform in their new role.
Understanding the Onboarding Process
The onboarding process is like providing an architectural blueprint for new employees. It’s the crucial phase where you set the tone, either welcoming fresh talent into a structured, nurturing environment or leaving them in a maze of confusion.
What Poor Onboarding Looks Like: A Cautionary Tale
I have experienced terrible onboarding before. On my first day, I turned up at the human resources office, filled out some paperwork and was handed a booklet titled 'Employee Handbook: Company Procedures and Policies', and ushered to my new workstation.
There was a post-it note with login credentials but nothing else. No introductions to my new colleagues, no tour of the campus, no schedule for the day and certainly no indication of what I should be doing once logged in.
Lunchtime arrived. I wasn’t sure where the break room you could eat in was or what the lunch protocol was. Am I supposed to wait for someone on my first day? I brought my lunch, but should I try to go out with these people I’d not been introduced to? By day’s end, I felt isolated, overwhelmed and was second-guessing my decision to join the company. .
In the weeks that followed, I grappled with unclear role expectations, struggled to understand company jargon and often discovered important information too late or by accident.
In my second week, I learned about a crucial weekly meeting when a colleague mentioned it in passing, discovering I’d actually missed it the week before.
This was just kind of how things went there. The cumulative effect was me feeling underutilized, undervalued and constantly feeling as though I was flying blind, with no co-pilots or air traffic control. It was stressful to say the least.
When I finally left, I took a fully remote position with a different company who gave me a digital version of the same treatment.
In some ways, remote onboarding was even more complicated as it took me almost six months to figure out what the business outside of my function was really all about and how I could support its efforts to generate revenue.
The result was all the same grappling with this and struggling with what I’d experienced before, except I was physically alone, in my home frustrated and annoying my manager via Slack or combing the company directory trying to figure out who I could ask for help.
Since then, I have experienced and helped plan effective onboarding experiences, complete with personalized training, buddy systems and a timeline for success, not to mention a good definition of what success looks like for me in my position.
The difference, in terms of experience, is akin to the difference between a loaf of sourdough bread and a pile of spilled flour on the grocery store floor. At a minimum, the positive onboarding prevented my beard from getting any grayer, at least for a little while.
Back to Basics
Onboarding is not just a routine step. It's an intricate dance of integrating a new hire into the company culture, processes and systems.
It's setting them up for success, giving them the tools they need and ensuring they feel valued from day one. Critically, it’s also the key to setting up an employment relationship where your new hires are able to be successful in their roles, and stay successful. According to research by the Brandon Hall Group, businesses with a strong onboarding process can improve new hire retention by 82% and productivity by over 70%.
If you wish to see your organization grow with confident, well-integrated professionals, it's time to treat onboarding with the importance it deserves.
The Fab Five of Onboarding: Making Every Scene a Standing Ovation
The various scenes, or stages if you prefer, of onboarding each play a pivotal role in cultivating the employee experience. Let’s take a closer look at what they are and how to execute them.
Pre-boarding: The Movie Trailer Before The Premiere
Remember the goosebumps you got from a movie trailer that left you counting the days for the premiere? That's pre-boarding.
How to execute: This is your chance to build anticipation. Once your hire is confirmed, send a branded and well designed welcome pack with company swag or an intriguing email teaser with hints of what awaits. Maybe even include a fun introduction video featuring their soon-to-be teammates. Ensure they know where to go and what to expect on their first day.
Why it’s vital: You want to build some sense of excitement and anticipation. This will help keep the new hire engaged and looking forward to whatever comes next as they go through the process. And at the end of it all, they’ll remember those little touches as part of why they feel good about joining.
First Day: The Red Carpet Rollout
Imagine arriving on a red carpet, ready to see and be seen, and no one acknowledges you. Awkward, right? A new hire's first day should be anything but that.
How to execute: Greet them personally (or virtually) with a warm smile. Start with an office tour, highlighting fun spots like the snack corner or the relaxation nook. Introduce them to their team members and set up a welcome lunch or coffee break. Make them the star of the show by creating a post about them on your company’s messaging platform, letting their colleagues know what they will be doing.
Why it's vital: People seldom forget their first day, whether it’s the first day of school or a new job. Ensure they remember theirs for all the right reasons. A positive beginning builds confidence and belonging, and helps integrate your new hire into the organization.
First Week: The Hands-on Workshop
Would you hand someone a camera and expect an award winning film with no direction? Obviously not, that would be absurd. It’s no different for your new hire as they find their footing in your organization.
How to execute: This week is about structured training. Whether it's using software, understanding company processes or mastering the art of the coffee machine, ensure there’s a plan. Designate a go-to person for any queries and sprinkle in real tasks to make the training hands-on and provide a new hire checklist for them to track how they’re progressing.
You’ll also want an onboarding checklist for yourself that includes:
- Introduce them to company policies and processes
- Walk them through their benefits and what’s required of them to make elections
- Give them a tutorial of where to find what they need (intranet, centralized documentation hubs, etc.)
- Introduce them to company goals.
Why it's a game-changer: It ensures the new hire doesn't feel like they're thrown into the deep end without a life jacket. Giving them the tools now prevents future floundering. According to Gallup, only 12% of employees surveyed strongly agreed their company did a “great job” onboarding new employees. Don’t miss this critical window to build emotional connection and enthusiasm with your new hire.
First Month: Check In Along the Way
This isn’t a pop quiz to catch them off-guard. It's more of a friendly chat over a work appropriate beverage. The first 30 days for new hires can be overwhelming, so don’t expect veteran levels of productivity right out of the gate.
In fact, Gallup estimates that new employees typically take around 12 months to reach their full performance potential within a role. This, in other words, is not the time to lose your patience.
How to execute: Schedule a check-in. Discuss their experiences, challenges and victories. Provide constructive feedback and ask for their insights on the onboarding process.
Why it's gold: This helps in adjusting their trajectory early on and reinforces that their growth and comfort are priorities.
Beyond: Measure and Manage Performance
Your favorite TV series didn’t just stop at season one, did it? Hopefully this is the case with your employees too as you venture beyond probation periods and into new concerns like development goals and performance KPIs.
How to execute: Regular check-ins aren’t just for pleasantries. Dive into discussions about their goals, their ideas for how to achieve them, the strategies and tactics that will help them meet their KPIs and what types of support they need.
Check-ins are a great place to set standards for work, measure progress and manage performance beyond the standard performance evaluation. It’s also an opportunity to introduce the employee to a long term mentorship program or communicate other development opportunities.
Why it's the real MVP: It ensures the new hire doesn’t feel forgotten after the initial honeymoon phase. It's about fostering a lasting relationship, showing them that they're valued not just in the beginning but throughout their journey.
Keys to Onboarding Optimization
To create the best onboarding experience you possibly can, you’re going to need to focus on a few key areas that you have within your control.
Clear Communication: No one likes to play the guessing game. Make expectations, roles and processes crystal clear from the start and create a communication strategy around emails during their early days.
Develop email templates for key interactions, from welcome emails and new hire requirements to those outlining the company’s core values, products and history. Wherever possible, build automation into onboarding practices so that events are triggered without a hiring manager or team member having to be involved.
Personalization: Everyone is different. One employee might love a hands-on approach, while another prefers to dive into a self-paced manual. Either is fine, but you need to have the content created to provide either experience.
Work with your marketing and learning and development teams to create personas and tackle whatever content types you think you’ll need to serve that audience.
Structured Training: This is not the time to “wing it”. Provide structured, well-organized training that eliminates barriers to technology, processes and data sources.
Engagement: Keep them hooked. Interactive sessions, team-building activities or even a surprise lunch treat can keep things lively.
Feedback: We say it all the time in HR that feedback is vital. But it has to feel like part of your culture from the start. Two-way streets aren’t created in a vacuum. If the other employees your new hire is meeting with can help you evangelize and exemplify your culture of feedback, you’re much more likely to get something meaningful from them.
You, in turn, need to be intentional in how you receive feedback from new hires. Showing them you’re willing to consider their thoughts and take action where necessary will instill faith that this will be done in other parts of their journey with the company.
Best Practices for Onboarding Optimization
We can’t talk about onboarding optimization without looking at a few onboarding best practices.
Without these in place, you’re likely going to end up with an onboarding journey that doesn’t capture the essence of your company culture or communicate your vision for the new hire’s role.
The Buddy/Mentor System
Navigating a new company can feel like traveling to a new city before the days of GPS. A buddy/mentor system provides your new hire with a local guide and a map to help navigate the new landscape.
Microsoft data analysts writing for Harvard Business Review found that the more an onboarding buddy met with a new hire, the greater the new hire’s perception of their own speed to productivity was.
- 56% of new hires who met their onboarding buddy at least once in the first 90 days indicated that their buddy helped them to quickly become productive in their role.
- 73% for those who met two to three times
- 86% for those who met four to eight times
- 97% for those who met more than eight times.
How to Implement: Match each newcomer with a company veteran who understands the structure of the business and has a strong internal network. This mentor should be approachable and eager to assist.
Organize regular catch-ups between the duo, especially in the first few weeks, ensuring the newbie has a platform to ask even the most 'obvious' questions without hesitation.
Why it's a Game Changer: This dynamic ensures that your new hire has someone they can turn to for quick answers, guidance, or even just a chat about where the best coffee spots are. It fosters a sense of belonging and accelerates the integration process.
Leverage Modern Technology for Onboarding
From interactive virtual tours to gamified training modules, technology can elevate the onboarding experience.
To start, you’ll want to incorporate something that sparks socialization. If your company uses a communication platform like Slack, I recommend a simple integration like Donut.
This sort of prompted meet and greet technology can inspire the person to make connections with people who they may not normally interact with in their day-to-day work. Understanding their counterpart's role will help them understand a different aspect of the business and see possibilities for collaborating across departments and disciplines.
Next, you’ll want to introduce tools that complement your onboarding process. For example, gamified learning platforms can make dense material more digestible, while virtual reality (VR) tools can offer immersive office tours or simulations of actual job scenarios. Augmented reality (AR) apps could superimpose useful information over real-world views, like pointing out different departments in a large office.
As these technologies become more sophisticated and ingrained into how people live their everyday lives, incorporating them ensures your process is not only current but versatile. Especially in remote working scenarios, tech tools can bridge gaps and simulate in-person interactions.
L&D From the Get-Go: Nurturing Growth from Day One
Learning and development is a top priority for many companies thanks to its impact on employee retention and helping organizations address skill gaps. LinkedIn Learning’s 2023 Workforce Learning Report shows that L&D efforts are helping to make the organization more resilient to changes in the market.
For this reason, more L&D pros are working with CHROs and CEOs directly.
From an onboarding perspective, waiting for an employee to 'settle in' before introducing them to L&D opportunities is like waiting for a plant to grow before watering it.
How to Sow the Seeds: Begin with a clear roadmap of the skills and knowledge the new hire would need in the short and long term. Integrate this into the onboarding process, ensuring they are exposed to relevant courses, workshops and training sessions right from the start.
Investing in a new hire’s growth from day one not only speeds up their competency but also signals that the company values their development. Coupled with competitive pay and benefits, this proactive approach leads to increased job satisfaction, better performance and greater retention.
Measuring Onboarding Success
Success isn't just a feeling, it's data-driven.
While you might have sprinkled your onboarding process with a bit of pizzazz and expertise, the question lingers: How do you truly know if it's working?
As the old adage goes, "what gets measured gets managed." Defined metrics, whether it's task completion rates, time-to-productivity or the good ol’ satisfaction survey, will tell you a great deal about how impactful your efforts to improve onboarding have been. The better new hires perform against these metrics, the higher retention rates will be.
Once you have an understanding of these metrics, you’ll want to look at the engagement levels of your new hires. An engaged employee isn’t just clocking in and out; they're involved, enthusiastic and invested.
While everyone has different styles of communication and personalities, participation in meetings, workshops and any voluntary company activities can be indicative of an employee's engagement.
Check their interaction with L&D materials and platforms and how well they document their completion of onboarding tasks. High engagement often means the new hire feels a sense of belonging and purpose, the hallmarks of successful onboarding.
You can also garner feedback from the mentors you assign to new hires to better understand the impact of your mentoring program and gain insight from someone who has a different perspective of the person and their experience.
Schedule regular debrief sessions with the mentor to ensure you’re getting feedback when it’s needed.
Long term, you can look at progression and promotion of new hires. Examine specific time frames and study how well certain cohort groups of employees who share an iteration of your onboarding experience are progressing either within the hierarchy of their department or in developing new skills. These behaviors are often indicators of a good foundation set down during onboarding.
Nothing quite sets the stage for an employee's journey like a spectacular onboarding performance. It's the opening act for that employee with your organization.
While free cappuccinos might give them a caffeine boost and fun office perks might entertain them for a time, it's the harmonious blend of understanding, engagement and continuous support that truly helps people perform.
Learn how other HR professionals have shaped their onboarding strategy by joining the discussion in the People Managing People community!