Imagine starting your first full-time job out of college: you’re nervous, excited and scared. You want to do well and make a good impression. On your first day, you put on the confidence-boosting new outfit you’ve bought for the occasion. You smile as you walk up to your new office building, wanting to project self-confidence, despite feeling extremely nervous, and perhaps like somewhat of an impostor: what if they find out you’re not the confident superstar you pretended to be during your job interview? Your heart is racing; your palms are sweating. Today is the start of a new chapter in your life. You have high expectations; you want to make a difference…you want to change the world.
You check in with security; but they don’t have your name on the list. They ask you to stand to the side and wait while they sort it out. You’re panicking that you might not get into the building. After what feels like an eternity, they tell you they’ve fixed the problem; you can take the elevator up to your new office. You get in a crowded elevator of people saying hello to each other; you’re feeling completely out of place. You walk into your new office space, give your name to the receptionist, and you’re ushered into a large conference room with lots of people, all of whom you’re sure must be feeling a lot more confident than you are right now. You find your nametag at the check-in desk, grab a cup of coffee and find a seat. You force yourself to say hello to the people sitting next to you and make small talk.
Then the instructor starts talking: “Welcome to Acme Corporation! Today we’ll walk through the information you need to know to get started in your new job.” For the next several hours, you listen to PowerPoint presentation after PowerPoint presentation, feeling increasingly overwhelmed with each subsequent presentation, and hoping you’re not going to be expected to remember all this information. You meet a lot of people during the day, and you can’t even begin to remember everyone’s names. The instructor occasionally asks if anyone has any questions, but you’re too confused to even know what to ask. By the end of the day, you’re feeling completely mentally exhausted, and even more overwhelmed than you did that morning. You hope the next day will be better.
When you arrive on day 2, the receptionist directs you to your new desk, and tells you your new manager will meet with you later that morning. You sit at your desk with your new laptop, wondering what to do. You’ve already read through the three emails in your new inbox. You’re feeling panicked, wanting to look busy but completely unsure what to do. You decide to reread the handouts from yesterday. You read about Acme’s culture and strategy, employee guidelines, and the description of your new job role…which is just as hard to understand after reading it the fifth time. You read some of the content from Acme’s website: their mission statement, their leadership team, their products and services.
Finally, your new manager stops by to say hello, apologizing that she couldn’t meet with you sooner. She invites you to come into her office. You smile nervously as you walk down the hall together, trying to make the appropriate response as she makes small talk. You take a seat in her office, and she spends the next 30 minutes or so giving you information on what she would like you to work on. You’re furiously taking notes as she talks. When she asks if you have questions, you manage to think of one or two. Then she smiles and asks you to let her know if you have other questions.
You spend most of the rest of the day feeling completely inadequate. You start working on the first assignment your manager gave you, but the further into it you get, the more questions you have. Should you knock on your manager’s door? Should you send her an email? How often is it appropriate for you to bother her? You decide to keep going on the assignment as best you can, making a list of questions to ask your manager later, and hoping and praying that you’re doing it right. By the end of day two, you’re feeling even more overwhelmed and exhausted than the day before. You’re also feeling scared and a bit demoralized: how are you even going to do a good job, let alone change the world, when everything is so confusing?
Of course, employee onboarding experiences take all shapes and forms, and not all of them are as bad as this hypothetical scenario. But, this scenario is unfortunately not that uncommon either. Companies put together well-intentioned onboarding programs, packing as much information as they can into a one- or two-day onboarding program, to give employees the information they need to learn about their new company and their new job role. They will likely give new employees some form of onboarding handbook, and they will either have an instructor go through the onboarding material with a group of several new employees (typical for larger companies), or they may have the new employee’s manager (or someone else) go through the material with the employee (more typical for smaller companies). Or worse…some companies just give the onboarding information to new employees for them to go through themselves. Or worst yet…some companies have little or no onboarding information even documented, and it’s up to the new employees to figure it out for themselves. Why do so many companies under-deliver on onboarding?
Quite often, the people creating the employee onboarding experience are seasoned employees with several years of experience in the company, and they forget how scary it can be to start a new job, particularly when it’s your first job out of college. Many companies also underestimate the importance of onboarding in shaping the employee experience. They assume that employees will adjust to their new job over time, and that initially feeling overwhelmed is just part of the new employee learning curve.
And while some degree of overwhelm and confusion is unavoidable, a good onboarding program can go a long way to minimize those feelings for new employees, and give new employees a much more positive experience. A good onboarding program provides several benefits: a shorter ramp-up time for new employees to be fully productive in their new role, higher employee engagement, improved employee performance, and lower employee attrition within the first year. In fact, research shows that the benefits of onboarding are so significant, it’s hard to understand why more companies don’t invest in more robust onboarding programs.
How can companies deliver a better onboarding experience for new employees? While the optimal onboarding program design will vary by company, here are five things all companies should do (if they don’t already) to ensure a great onboarding experience:
- Begin onboarding well before an employee’s first day, and continue onboarding beyond the initial orientation.
- Have a group of new employees start on the same day and go through onboarding together.
- Make the orientation program long enough to get new employees acclimated to the company culture and cover the most important information.
- Include participation from important stakeholders: managers, organization leaders, team members and recent hires.
- Gather feedback from new employees at several points in the onboarding process and use it to continuously improve the onboarding experience.
1. Begin onboarding well before an employee’s first day, and continue onboarding beyond the initial orientation. Onboarding should begin as soon as a new employee accepts the offer. The time between offer acceptance and start date could range anywhere from several days to, in the case of university students, the better part of a year. When new employees accept their offer, send them a congratulatory email from the company, preferably from their future manager and/or someone who will be the main point of contact throughout onboarding. Let them know how excited you are that they will be joining the company, and invite them to reach out to you if they have questions. It’s important for new employees to feel like they have someone they can go to with questions or concerns.
In my organization, we also assign a buddy to new employees after they accept their offer. We encourage buddies to offer to meet with the new employee in person or by phone prior to their start date, to help answer questions and share their own experience starting at the company. Once new employees start, buddies often take the them out for lunch or coffee, and periodically check in to see how things are going in their first days, weeks and months at the company. Most new employees like having someone besides their manager to go to with questions, and they like being able to build a relationship with someone before they start.
Preboarding activities can go a long way in improving the employee experience for new employees, especially when there are several months between offer acceptance and start date. Preboarding activities could include inviting new employees to a social event prior to their start date, to give them a chance to get to know several of their future coworkers in an informal setting. Or preboarding could be as simple as periodic email communications, to share helpful information and remind new employees you’re excited they will soon be joining the company. Even this can go a long way in keeping new employees’ excitement levels high and reassuring them that their future employer hasn’t forgotten about them. In addition to sending periodic emails, we setup a Slack channel where we can share information, moderate discussions and encourage new employees to ask questions.
Similarly, onboarding shouldn’t end after the initial orientation. During their first several months on the job, new employees are still getting acclimated to the company and learning the skills and knowledge they need to perform well. While most training beyond orientation will happen on the job, it can still be very helpful to bring new employees back together for regular training and social events. For example, you could plan monthly lunchtime training sessions and/or evening social events for new employees during their first six months. Continued onboarding activities help new employees get up to speed more quickly and improve their employee experience.
2. Have a group of new employees start on the same day and go through onboarding together. While it may not be feasible in all situations, particularly in smaller companies, being part of an onboarding “class” is another great way to improve the new employee experience. An employee’s first day can be stressful, and knowing they’re part of a group of people starting on the same day helps to ease the stress level of our new employees. Plus, new employees get a jump on building their network within the company by getting to know the other people in their onboarding class. Most of our new employees say that they remain close with their onboarding classmates after onboarding, and they find it incredibly helpful to have this network of peers within the company.
3. Make the orientation program long enough to get new employees acclimated to the company culture and cover the most important information. I use the term “orientation” to refer to the structured part of the onboarding program that begins on an employee’s first day and ends right before employees begin working in their new job role. During orientation, new employees go through training and other activities in a classroom setting. Most orientation programs are one or two days at best. And that’s understandable; it’s a significant investment to implement longer orientation programs. It requires more planning and resources to run the program, and every additional day new employees spend in orientation is a day not spent doing the job they were hired to do. But most companies who make the investment in longer orientation programs report that the benefits far outweigh the costs. Longer orientations help new hires get up to speed in their new job roles more quickly, and they improve engagement levels of new hires, which reduces attrition rates within the first year.
How long should an orientation program be? That will vary by company and type of job role, but many companies find that one to two weeks is the right length. The best way to figure out the right length of the program is to agree on what topics should be covered during orientation and map out a sample agenda. My organization has a two-week orientation for new employees, during which we cover the following topics:
- Administrative onboarding (e.g. laptop setup, paperwork, benefits)
- Overview of the company, our organization structure, what we sell, our culture, etc.
- Training workshops on some of the most important topics for our employees to know (in our case this includes topics such as Agile, Design Thinking and how to use common apps and programs)
- Discussions with several of our leaders and managers: what they do, what their teams/organizations do, advice for new employees
- Panel discussions with current employees (usually recent hires): what they do, what it’s like to work here, advice for new employees
- Team projects: new employees work in teams on a consulting-style project and give a final project presentation at the end of orientation. We find this is a great approach to train new employees on teamwork, problem solving and communication skills
- Team-specific orientation: new employees get to know their new teams and learn more about their specific job roles
- Social and networking activities, which give new employees a chance to meet and get to know current employees
It’s impossible to cover everything new employees need to know during orientation, and if you try to pack in too much detailed information, they will suffer from information overload and retain very little of the information covered. The orientation should focus only on the most important information for new employees, and it should include as many interactive discussions and activities as possible, while minimizing time spent on passive presentations. More detailed information can be organized and documented so that new employees can access information later, when they need it.
4. Include participation from important stakeholders: managers, organization leaders, team members and recent hires. The more you can involve participation from important stakeholders, the more likely you will be to have a successful onboarding program.
- Managers can send a welcome email to their new employees before they start, and arrange to meet one-on-one with their new employees during orientation or immediately after. Managers can also lead a team-specific orientation for their new employees, to introduce them to their team members and teach them about their new job role.
- Organization leaders should be part of the orientation agenda. They can give a welcome address to new employees on their first day, or they can lead a discussion with new employees to talk about what they do, what their teams/organizations do, and any advice they have for new employees.
- Team members can participate in the team-specific orientation to talk with new employees about what the team does and how they will work together. They can also attend social events to welcome the new employees and get to know them.
- Recent hires can be a great resource for helping answer new employees’ questions and sharing their own recent experience of starting with the company. In addition to assigning a recent hire as a buddy for each new employee, you can invite recent hires to social events, and arrange a panel discussion with recent hires to answer questions and share advice with new employees.
5. Gather feedback from new employees at several points in the onboarding process and use it to continuously improve the onboarding experience. Feedback can be gathered in a number of ways; some of the most popular methods are surveys, focus groups and individual interviews. I recommend a combination of approaches. Surveys have the advantage of being anonymous (if you set them up that way), which may encourage new employees to be more candid with their feedback, particularly feedback on the parts of the onboarding program they didn’t like. Survey tools also make it easy to aggregate feedback from a large number of people, and it’s easy to report on quantitative onboarding metrics by using surveys. Focus groups and individual interviews are good for gathering more qualitative feedback, at a level of detail that is hard to get through surveys. Focus groups work particularly well for generating ideas about what could be improved, because the focus group participants can build off others’ ideas. I find this often leads to the most (and most creative) ideas for how to improve the onboarding program. Individual interviews are the most time consuming, but they can yield the most detailed and comprehensive set of feedback. The interviews can be short; I generally keep them to 15 minutes each and I cover six or seven questions. It’s helpful if the person doing the interviews already has a good rapport with the new employees, so that they feel comfortable sharing candid feedback. Of course, I always let them know that individual responses will be kept confidential, and only aggregate results will be shared.
I recommend gathering feedback at least three times during onboarding: at the end of the initial orientation, then at one month and six months into the job. Each of these time periods yields different feedback, all of which is helpful for different reasons. For example, right after the initial orientation, new employees will have the best feedback on how to improve the preboarding experience and orientation. One month into the job, new employees can share feedback on how their first month has gone and any challenges they are struggling with, which can also allow you to step in and help address significant issues if needed. At six months into the job, employees are in a better position to share feedback on how the ramp-up into their new role has gone and what changes they would suggest to the onboarding program with the benefit of hindsight. I also recommend collecting feedback from the new employees’ managers at this point, to get their feedback on how the new employees are performing, and whether they see any performance issues with their new employees that future onboarding programs might be able to help address.
Wrapping it up: what are your suggestions for getting onboarding right?
I’d love to hear from you! Does your company do any of these things as part of onboarding? What other suggestions do you have for getting onboarding right? What do you think are the most important things to include in an onboarding program?