A Complete Guide to Employee Onboarding
Your complete guide to employee onboarding. Employee onboarding affects the bottom line. Here’s how to implement a strategic onboarding approach.
Your complete guide to employee onboarding. Employee onboarding affects the bottom line. Here’s how to implement a strategic onboarding approach.
Employee onboarding involves everything from training to fully integrating a new hire into the workplace.
If you’ve ever started a new job, you know about “onboarding.” It’s being welcomed to the team, getting set up with your hardware and software, and learning what you’re actually going to be doing. It’s a series of events that encompasses many components: cultural, technical, and everything in between.
Areas to cover when onboarding new employees include:
Onboarding is not the same as orientation. Here’s a chart that shows the differences between the two:
Employee training is one part of employee onboarding – they are not one in the same. You know when you start a new job and you get a bunch of paperwork to read and sign, a warm welcome (hopefully!), a job description, a tour of the place and so on? That whole process is onboarding.
Aside from maybe the socialization aspect, learning the ins and outs of your role is often one of the most dreaded steps in onboarding. Training involves having someone you don’t know teach you how to do your job and practicing new skills and navigating (potentially unfamiliar) systems and software. It can be awkward and it takes time, and that time between cluelessness and proficiency can be a little uncomfortable. Training is all part of starting a new job though.
There’s also ongoing training that employees must undergo. Whether it’s specialized skills or having to learn how to use new software, training and development is a never ending endeavour.
Imagine starting a new job and the employee onboarding consisted of getting on a train for free, riding to the end of the track, being handed a pick, a shovel and a few other tools, and being told that your job is to add 10 miles of track a day. This is how it was back in 1863-1869 for those who worked on the First Transcontinental Railroad (the Pacific Railroad).
That’s why research on “organizational socialization” – which is basically how people learn the rules of their job – started. In 1979, professors John Van Maanen and Edgar H. Schein began to delve into the concept of what would become employee onboarding. The pair wrote a paper discussing how new employees could learn the culture and acquire social knowledge – self-guided, trial-and-error, and even a period of education and training followed by apprenticeship.
More formal onboarding procedures have since been formulated and implemented, based on this research. But, even still new recruits often have very negative experiences, like this one. This is partly because 22% of companies don’t even have a formal onboarding program, while 49% claim their onboarding is “somewhat successful”.
With managers being busier than ever, there’s often little to no time to focus on proper employee integration. While 93% of employers believe that a positive onboarding experience is critical in increasing the rate of retention, 29% of employees feel their organization didn’t do a good job during onboarding to prepare them for the job.
Though the majority of companies recognize the importance of structured onboarding, devising and initiating a strategy is one of those to-do items that regularly gets bumped to the bottom of the list.
Considering the cost-per-hire could be as high as $6,110, companies need to be diligent in their onboarding process. Take into account that the cost of losing an employee is around $15,000USD, and that workers who have a negative onboarding experience within their first 90 days are twice as likely to look for another job – it’s no doubt employee onboarding is of the utmost importance.
When employees are effectively onboarded, retention is higher, which means turnover is lower and that translates into huge cost-savings for businesses.
Not having a structured onboarding sequence is part of the reason why more than a quarter of employees quit their job within their first 3 months. New hires are more likely to be satisfied and stay at their job longer when there’s a solid process in place.
Onboarding also has a lasting effect on performance, engagement, and employee retention. The Global Culture Report conducted by O.C Tanner found that successful onboarding can result in a 70% increase in sense of belonging, a 37% increase in their understanding of their purpose within the organization, and a 50% increase in their engagement.
With no formal procedure for onboarding, employees are thrown into their new work environment and left to learn the ropes on their own. There is no clear process and new hires must independently reach out for any help they need. Perhaps there’s a rough sequence that supervisors follow, but without a formal, strategic onboarding structure, employees have to navigate the workplace, policies, and hierarchy alone.
An informal onboarding process leaves new staff feeling uncertain and with low morale. Organizations that don’t have a formal onboarding program are less effective than those that do.
Informal, unstructured employee onboarding is definitely not the way to go.
You guessed it – formal onboarding involves a strategic step-by-step plan to get employees integrated into the company. The onboarding program consists of a series of actions and tasks that teaches a new hire their role, the business’ goals and expectations, and workplace norms.
Formal onboarding reduces the stress inherent in starting a new job and getting to know coworkers. It’s a repeatable process that details every stage of getting acquainted with a new position and organization. This structured approach decreases the uncertainty and anxiety people typically feel when changing jobs and/or companies. Ultimately, a formal procedure for onboarding results in better, more productive and contented workers.
Onboarding managers or supervisors should review this checklist prior to a new hire’s start date:
To ensure your business is up-to-date on onboarding practices, consider adopting these trends if you haven’t already:
Picture this: after what seems like countless interviews, you’ve signed the right offer, and then your doorbell rings – you’ve got a package from your new company. Totally unexpected and totally awesome! There’s no better way to make that first impression on a new employee than by making them feel welcome before they even step foot in the office. Most of the big companies practice Preboarding. You can do this by:
These actions show new hires that your company wants to engage with them and is excited about and committed to having them on the team.
As we’ll talk about more later, Twitter is big on Preboarding. They put a lot of effort into the period that follows signing a job offer until the point a new employee sits at their desk for the first time.
This trend refers to something different from organizational socialization. Socialization is becoming a more common piece of modern workplaces. Opportunities to socialize builds and strengthens employees’ relationships with their coworkers – think team lunches, work buddies, coffee catch-ups, etc. And having good relationships with coworkers makes for a more enjoyable workplace for its employees. An employee is more likely to stay at a job longer if they get along with their colleagues. In fact, 70% of employees say that having friends at work is the most important aspect of a happy working life.
Square acknowledges the significance of good workplace relationships and puts an emphasis on their “coffee culture,” providing regular opportunities for junior members to connect with senior leadership. There are roundtable introductions and casual one-on-one talks which allow new talent to get to know their fellow coworkers.
Everybody learns differently. Personalizing the onboarding experience can affect an employee’s productivity. It’s important to cater to the various learning styles of each new hire. This can be done in the following ways:
When it comes to Personalization, DigitalOcean takes the cake. New hires receive a handwritten note, champagne, company swag, and their workspace is decorated with a balloon – this signals existing employees there’s a new team member to welcome.
A variety of factors have contributed to the changes surrounding employee onboarding:
As with most processes in our modern world, in most industries, onboarding has been automated. There’s no longer a need to handle a ton of paperwork, personally pinpoint issues, and chase after employees to complete assigned tasks. There are apps and software that streamline the whole process.
A Digital Adoption Platform, offers employee onboarding solutions by streamlining software usage with automation, and cross-platform processes that simplify work. There’s nothing more relieving to a new hire, than seeing that using their software will be quick and seamless.
It’s just as crucial to have a structured onboarding program for remote workers considering the uptick in working from home. Thanks to the various tools and platforms now available, it’s also as easy as it’s ever been to remotely onboard new hires.
Since remote employees don’t have the same opportunities to integrate and socialize organically, they require a solid strategic onboarding process. Depending on the complexity of the role, remote onboarding – just like on-site onboarding – can last anywhere from a couple weeks to several months. For some companies, onboarding continues for a year.
A remote onboarding program will encompass all of the same elements as on-site onboarding – a series of virtual meetings and training sessions, as well as paperwork, company rituals, and how strategic initiatives and OKRs are set. However, the delivery and interaction will differ as it will be done digitally.
There are some tips and best practices when it comes to remote onboarding, as it can be more difficult than carrying out the process in the office. Here are some of the top practices to fully onboard and support new recruits:
1. Create a plan with clear milestones
Onboarding a remote employee can take more time because they don’t have the advantage of being in the workplace, absorbing information from coworkers and their surroundings. Make sure the path is clear and milestones are known. Be sure to plan meetings with agendas, links, etc. Start with a plan that covers at least the first 90 days.
2. Send employees a welcome package
Whether it’s just a digital welcome pack or a package delivered to the employee’s home, consider sending an onboarding/welcome pack before onboarding begins. Include general information – in the form of text and video – as well as some company swag to make new hires feel welcome and create a sense of belonging.
3. Give them a small first project
This may be a given, but don’t expect a new employee to jump right into big, important projects. Let them warm up and collaborate with their team; allow them to learn a bit on their own. A simple or short-term project will provide an opportunity for knowledge discovery, cross-team collaboration, and socialization.
4. Onboard in groups when possible
Minimize redundancies and efforts by onboarding and training new recruits in cohorts. Bringing groups together like this also establishes a sense of community. New team members can get to know each other more quickly, and in less intimidating settings than one-on-one. It might also reduce the feeling of isolation.
5. Provide space for feedback
Regardless if you have experience onboarding – either remote or on-site – always ask for feedback and provide a safe space for employees to share what worked well and what didn’t. This could be in the form of surveys administered following each module, a weekly check-in, etc. There’s always room for improvement, and considering the significance onboarding has on personnel and the company as a whole, it’s just good business practice to be constantly enhancing the experience.
6. Connect with new hires personally
Making a connection with telecommuters is obviously more challenging than doing so in the workplace. So, reach out to new hires, allow for personal introductions and conversations to get to know one another. If possible, get together regularly at HQ or a local office. Otherwise, meet for video chats on a regular basis. Also, make time for your team to spend time together, virtually, partaking in non-work related activities and discussions. As people social distance during the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re feeling a stronger desire to connect with their coworkers through virtual games, movie nights and even video water cooler hangouts.
7. Check-in with new staff regularly
Sometimes new staff members get forgotten or left to fend for themselves because there are other more pressing matters to attend to. This impacts morale and a new recruit’s sense of belonging. Make it a priority to schedule regular check-ins to see how new members are coping, integrating and feeling about their role. This is a great opportunity to get feedback and assess your employee and their progress in the onboarding sequence.
Here are some checklist items to make sure you’re onboarding your remote employees successfully:
Obviously, you can’t train remote employees the same way you train staff who work in the office. But, just as you (ideally) use a variety of methods when training workers in-person, you should offer the same range for employees who work from home.
There are four distinct levels in the formal onboarding process – the “building blocks” of good onboarding. Professor Tayla Bauer of Portland State University refers to these 4 main principles as “the Four C’s”.
The Four C’s are:
The lowest level, compliance involves familiarizing employees with the basic legal regulations and policies.
This stage is all about making sure workers know their role and understand all expectations.
A broad category, this level encompasses both formal and informal organizational norms, providing the employee with a sense of the company culture.
Think interpersonal relationships, networking, and socialization with coworkers and colleagues.
The ability of an organization to take advantage of these guiding principles determines its overall onboarding strategy. Most businesses fall into one of these three categories:
Naturally, nearly all companies cover Compliance during formal onboarding. For firms that practice Passive Onboarding, there might be some form of role clarification, but Culture and Connection aren’t addressed. Perhaps there are some informal ways, but there’s been no concerted effort by HR or anyone to streamline the task. Agencies at this level might have an onboarding checklist of tasks they need to complete. Passive Onboarding works to a degree, but it’s not systematic.
Where an organization thoroughly covers Compliance and Clarification in their formal onboarding and Culture and Connection is touched upon, Level 2 – High Potential Onboarding – is achieved. Still, there is no established process across the board.
In a Proactive Onboarding, or Level 3, firm, all four building blocks are formally handled. There’s a systematic approach to onboarding that involves a human resources management strategy. Not many companies are at this level.
Certainly, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach for onboarding, but there is a general formula:
Self-confidence + Role clarity + Social integration + Company culture knowledge = Successful onboarding
With all that said, there are specific best practices – and yes, remote and on-site onboarding share most of them. Top companies, like Twitter, Microsoft, and Netflix follow these common best practices for onboarding and supporting new talent:
1. Start early
Don’t wait until your new recruit walks through the door on their first day to initiate their integration. To reach Proactive Onboarding status, your onboarding program must begin in the recruiting phase. Onboarding is not a one-time event; it should start before the employee does. As CEO of BambooHR, Ben Peterson, says, “If we don’t worry about onboarding before the employee starts, then we’re way behind.”. Along with other necessary materials and fun swag, provide candidates with a realistic preview of the job as it helps build trust between employee and employer before they even walk in the office.
2. Prepare resources
Give the new hire what they need to succeed, even before they enter the office. Introduce them via email and provide them with all the resources they need – beforehand -to navigate the workplace and get a solid start on day one. Consider including a welcome letter and special tips on getting around their new environment. Create a work plan and schedule, and be sure they receive all the details on their new role, the hierarchy, etc.
3. Welcome your new member
Beyond introducing a new team member with a nice email, think of other ways you can make them feel more welcome.
4. Facilitate & promote connection
As mentioned, connect new workers and schedule meet-and-greets with existing employees. If new hires are in a position to create meaningful connections, they’ll likely stick around longer and feel better about their workplace. Ensure you keep them informed on who’s who and how the company’s structured. Block out time for one-on-one with managers as 72% of new hires say this is very important during onboarding.
5. Set expectations for work & management style
A person may know their job, per se, but often the expectations and managing style are uncertain. Aside from providing a job description, have your new employee work toward some short-term goals in their first few weeks and discuss skills development, management style and advancement opportunities.
6. Assign a buddy or mentor
In a study by BambooHR, it was found that 56% of respondents felt that having a mentor in the workplace is very important, especially when starting out. A buddy can help bring a new hire up to speed more quickly, ease social integration, and offer support to make them more productive and satisfied. Think about scheduling monthly meetings in addition to informal check-ins. Having a buddy can boost productivity levels – by as much as 97%!
7. Plan for training and development
Employee engagement is the key to retention and employee happiness. Yet, according to a survey conducted by Achievers, only about 30% of employees feel engaged in their work. Creating a training and development plan starts with onboarding. Take an inventory of skills and outline opportunities for further education.
8. Give and ask for feedback
It’s best practice to sit down with your new hire and do an informal review where you give and receive feedback regarding onboarding. Be sure to talk about the positives, address any challenges, provide them with opportunities for feedback and make yourself available for questions.
9. Customize the experience
Your onboarding should align with your company culture and brand. Spice up the program by involving company products or team-building exercises. And remember, each person learns differently, so personalize the experience by catering to your new hire’s specific learning style, where possible.
10. Continue the process
Don’t forget: onboarding is ongoing. It doesn’t just end after the formal sequence of events and tasks or when you feel your employee “knows the ropes”. Continue the process by expanding your new hire’s knowledge, giving them feedback tools, using technology when you can, and being consistent.
If you already have a systematic onboarding approach in place but want to improve it, aside from the best practices we just mentioned, here are some quick tips to amp it up:
A prime example of onboarding excellence is Microsoft. Their onboarding begins the day an employee gets their offer and continues for about 6 months. Microsoft understands that it’s an ongoing, long-term process.
Aspects that contribute to Microsoft’s first-rate onboarding approach include:
Microsoft prioritizes that personal touch, but has had to pivot quickly with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. As recent recruit Eran Samocha explains, his manager was going to fly to meet him as part of his onboarding, and Eran was preparing to go to new employee orientation. However, when stay home orders were issued, the whole plan changed. But employees still meet with their boss and coworkers – just digitally.
Microsoft has had some hiccups along the way, as they try to reestablish their onboarding program in the virtual world, but they still focus on connection and friendships. New hires are encouraged to chat with each other and hold breakout groups to get to know each other. New recruits are assigned an onboarding buddy, who is usually local.
With their virtual onboarding running fairly smoothly now, Microsoft sets clear expectations from the beginning – software versions to use, how to enroll for benefits, what the job involves, etc. They also send new employees the Microsoft device of their choice, with clear instructions on how to set it up.
Sapling listed Eventbrite, Twitter, Google, LinkedIn and Zapier among the best in employee onboarding. Their superior onboarding strategies have the following elements in common:
Let’s look at one case in little more detail to get a better idea of what a “top-rated” employee onboarding program looks like.
As the name suggests, Twitter’s onboarding focuses on making the period of time between the moment a new hire says “yes” to a job offer and the point when they sit down at their desk as welcoming and productive as possible. Twitter obviously recognizes the effectiveness of preboarding.
Even before the first day, there’s a sequence of 75+ steps and handoffs between Recruiting, HR, IT and Facilities. During this time, new members are given an email address, a t-shirt and colorful PDFs outlining what can be expected on the first day. A bottle of wine is left waiting for them at their desk. Their desk is strategically situated based on whom they’ll work with.
On the first day, new hires have breakfast with the CEO, (currently Jack Dorsey), followed by a tour of the office and group training on the tools and systems they’ll be using.
Understanding the significance of socialization and the ongoing nature of onboarding, Twitter hosts a monthly Happy Hour for new hires that the Senior Team also attends. They even have presentations on Friday afternoons where recent recruits get to learn about projects underway and interact with leads, PMs, managers, etc.
After a few months on the job, employees are asked about their experience thus far. These exchanges inspire changes and tweaks to enhance the process.
Twitter’s desire to reduce first day jitters and discomfort inspired their Yes-to-Desk approach. There’s lots of work to do and Twitter wants employees up and running as quickly as possible, so they get them as comfortable and familiar with the organization as they can right away.
We’ve touched on some apps and software to aid in the onboarding process, but there’s a variety of products on the market. You can select tools based on your organization’s needs and the shape of your onboarding program. Options include software that’s comprehensive – covering every aspect of recruiting and onboarding – and solutions for specific tasks.
The typical capabilities of onboarding software include:
Some top-rated employee onboarding tools include:
If you’re not sure where to begin, WalkMe has a guide on selecting the best employee onboarding software for your business.
There are generally two types of pricing: monthly subscription or perpetual license. Usually, the price will be dependent on the size of the organization or the average number of employees onboarded in a month.
Here are a few market trends to keep in mind when searching for onboarding software:
Onboarding software that’s cloud-based is becoming increasingly popular, as it allows individuals to access the system from anywhere with an internet connection.
Focus on new hire experience
Employee engagement is a growing concern, and as such, onboarding platforms are making the process more enjoyable. For example, some tools have a messaging feature where new hires can reach out to their supervisor before their first day.
Training & performance management integration
Many platforms have the capability to train new workers and track goals, which helps new employees become productive more quickly.
All in all, a great onboarding journey can increase employee retention by 82%. Yet, only 12% of workers strongly agree that their employer has a good onboarding approach. When most organizations are only focused on the first week, it’s no wonder so many employees feel this way. Without a strategic onboarding plan, companies will likely leave their new hires feeling abandoned, confused, and dissatisfied in general.
Considering it’s the most crucial period in an employee’s relationship with an organization, every company should make the investment in their onboarding process to make sure it’s successful. Employee turnover is expensive, yet, it’s almost entirely preventable. Over 75% of businesses are not properly applying onboarding practices, resulting in a broken process. Your company doesn’t have to be part of that statistic.
By implementing the best practices we listed – from using onboarding software to assigning buddies and getting feedback to constantly improve the process – you can design a formal onboarding program for your business. The outcome will be more engaged and productive employees, lower turnover and reduced costs, and better recruits.
A structured onboarding policy benefits both employer and employee. All of the top companies and most successful organizations acknowledge the power of employee onboarding. Sure, it’s an investment of both time and money, but it’s absolutely worth it – the stats clearly indicate the positive effects on employees and the bottom line. Constructing a robust onboarding program must be thought-out and done with care and intention. After all, your company’s reputation largely depends on how it treats its people.
Here are some of our resources for employee onboarding:
Updated: November 10, 2023
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