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Employee Onboarding: Creating a Strategy of New Employee Engagement to Drive Long-Term Impact

Companies continue to consider what work will look like Post Covid-19. Those with plans to hire should take this opportunity to embrace a more radical onboarding strategy. One focused on cultivating a sense of belonging in the workplace and fostering a more energized, productive, healthy workforce.

COVID has brought many issues to the forefront for organizations to tackle, including burnout and how to function effectively in remote environments.  As organizations continue to think differently about what work will look like going forward, we challenge teams to consider starting at the beginning and building an engagement plan with employees that goes well beyond the age-old one-day onboarding plan.

The recent rise in remote work has caused companies to restructure their internal operations. Day-to-day execution, collaboration, team building, and firm-wide communication have all been re-envisioned to overcome the challenge brought on by the diminishment of in-person interactions. Invariably, this challenge also affects how companies onboard new employees - with in-person interactions limited, hiring and onboarding new employees must happen digitally, which makes adopting a new culture and operating model inherently more difficult. In spite of this challenge, companies have the unique opportunity to create trust with their incoming staff and establish an employee experience that is mutually respectful, supportive, and caring. The degree to which an employee feels supported and empowered to do their job while feeling a sense of belonging to an organization is foundational for obtaining a sense of well-being in the workplace and is often the difference between a satisfied, long-term employee and a dissatisfied employee looking to make a move. Based on our research and experience with clients, we’ve identified several key items to consider when creating an onboarding experience, many of which stem from the principles of intentionality, repetition, and transparency.

How to Welcome New Hires before their First Day: Pre-Onboarding

Much of the onboarding experience happens well before an employee’s first day of work, starting when an employee receives and signs their offer letter: We’ll call this ‘pre-onboarding’. As soon as the letter is signed, organizations should begin communicating with new hires by sharing expectations of what’s to come in the weeks leading up to their first day of work. Oftentimes, this involves providing pre-orientation items like the company handbook, HR documentation, descriptive resources about the company, etc. - completing and/or reviewing these materials in advance will make new hires’ transition into the workplace smoother and more productive. Additionally, companies should get employees set up with any internal communication/reference tools as soon as possible - this will give them a clear pathway to connect with other employees/personnel at the company and enable them to make those connections when needed/desired. These first interactions will set the tone for the rest of the onboarding experience, so thinking carefully about what to include in this early communication is essential.

Onboarding is normally seen as a "check the box" activity, but it's the most important thing a company can do, especially when you're onboarding in today’s remote environment.

While the new hire is preparing for their first day, this is also the time for teams and organizations to plan for them to join the team. Onboarding is normally seen as a "check the box" activity or for HR only, but it's the most important thing a company can do, especially when you're onboarding in today’s remote environment.  Many times, the approach we see clients taking involves a single day of ‘information overload’ to get new hires up-to-speed as quickly as possible; the ‘firehose technique’.  However, as consultants focused on organizational health and effectiveness, it’s our belief that effective onboarding goes well beyond a single day or week; it should be positioned and treated as an organizational strategy, with goals focused on integrating new employees into the company culture, accelerating transfer of knowledge, relationship building, and ensuring they are set up to find early successes in their roles

Remote Work Consideration #1: In a remote environment, gaps in communication during the pre-onboarding process can be exacerbated. It’s important to ensure that all communications are well planned/coordinated in order to keep the new hire engaged from the start

How to Create an Effective Onboarding and Orientation Process

On their first day(s) of work, new employees benefit from scheduled orientation time, much of which will give them more context about their role, the team they’re working with, and the company at large. This will also give them the opportunity to ask questions and take more ownership over their own onboarding. We recommend creating and sharing an onboarding schedule that sets expectations for what’s to come during the first few weeks of their time at the company - this allows the company to carefully plan for an effective onboarding, and also demonstrates to the employee that their time is valuable and that their onboarding matters. Onboarding activities should be effective in orienting the employee to the business and the internal operations of the company, as well as the culture and norms of the company, department, and team they are joining; this is a critical opportunity to help new employees become immersed in the culture, buy-in to the vision of the organization, build and identify a network of key contacts, and to help them get-up-to speed on “how we do things here.”  One important thing to note: onboarding is not training, it’s not a Bootcamp, and it shouldn’t be burdensome to the point of creating a sense of stress around time management and execution. Remember: new employees are also trying to ramp up so they can start meeting the expectations of their role, and shouldn't be hindered by the onboarding process.

In addition to creating an onboarding schedule, we recommend intentionally setting up time to make key introductions across the business - it is important for new employees to make connections with managers, co-workers, and members of the leadership team to feel a sense of teamwork and camaraderie. Keep these conversations light and informative and, when possible, try to involve teams across the organization, to help the new employees quickly begin building a network map. For a more dedicated workplace connection, consider matching an existing employee with your new hire and encourage them to talk/meet regularly throughout their first several weeks of onboarding. This will be an invaluable resource for the new employee, and will likely become a connection that lasts the length of their time at the company. Ultimately, supporting a new employee’s success by getting them connected with the people and operations of the company early on is a crucial component of this phase of onboarding.

Orientation/onboarding program suggestions:

  • Make it fun and engaging - Onboarding should reflect the group culture of your team.  Make sure the onboarding experience incorporates culture and speaks to the norms of the organization and team the new employee is joining.
  • Maintain the content - One of the hardest things to do is to maintain and refresh the content, but it’s critical to ensure it remains relevant, useful, and engaging for new employees and the role/team to which they are onboarding.
  • Leadership involvement is a MUST - Not only is it necessary for leadership to support the onboarding program, but they should also deliver and participate in onboarding sessions, in order to encourage early engagement and buy-in to the organization’s culture, ideals, and norms.
  • Involve cross-functional partners - Onboarding is the perfect opportunity to help new employees make early connections by inviting key people from partnering teams across the organization to introduce themselves and explain their work.
  • Onboarding vs. training - Keep in mind that onboarding and training have different goals and shouldn’t be seen as synonymous. The goal of orientation is not to overwhelm new employees with training materials, but rather, to create early and long-term engagement by helping to immerse them in the culture and create cross-organizational connections.

Remote Work Consideration #2: In a remote environment, the new hire may not have the opportunity to meet colleagues casually/in passing. It’s important to create multiple opportunities for new hires to connect with colleagues outside their immediate team and in a more casual atmosphere (think 15-minute meet-and-greets or Friday afternoon team happy hours).

How to Keep up the Momentum after the Onboarding Process: Post-Onboarding

One of the major difference-makers between effective and ineffective onboarding plans is what happens after the first few days. Ineffective onboarding puts organizations at risk of experiencing what has become known as the “ghosting phenomenon”: where excited new hires become disengaged employees who are no longer invested, less productive and tend to erode culture before eventually leaving. It’s critical that organizations devote adequate time and energy to making sure that new employees are invested in the vision and work of the organization and team. This is even more important in remote environments.

Organizations truly committed to employee well-being and long-term retention need to consider how their onboarding program continues to support employees beyond their hire dates. Consider using predetermined milestones (such as 30, 60, and 90 days) when implementing onboarding plans to help measure early successes for new employees. We suggest using these milestones as opportunities to check in with new hires, focusing on these key questions:
 

  • How are you adjusting to the transition?
  • Is there anything we can do to make your experience more successful?
  • Are there any questions you have?
  • Are you enjoying your new role?
  • Do you feel adequately supported to achieve success?
     

The answers to these questions will reveal a lot about how a new employee is feeling, and whether or not they feel supported in their new role. Building a program of reciprocal learning and feedback helps continue to build engagement and reiterates to the employees the organization’s commitment toward employee experience and well-being.

These early months of post-onboarding are also an ideal time to introduce any career development programs that your company offers to start discussing long-term objectives and goals to support your employees’ internal growth. Once they feel acclimated to their new environment, employees want to know that their long-term success is important to their employer, and that the opportunity to advance their career is supported. Take this time to ensure the employee understands how and when they will be evaluated in their role, so there is a clear understanding of expectations and opportunities for growth.

Remote Work Consideration #3: In a remote environment, it’s far easier to get “lost”, especially once an employee is beyond the first week. It’s important to create a conscious engagement plan that continues to create regular connections with new employees -- no level of communication is too much communication when in a remote working environment. Consider establishing regular 1:1 sync, using IM to casually check-in and having onboarding buddies to stay connected with new employees in their early months with the organization.

Get the Most out of your Remote or In-person Onboarding Program

While implementing an effective onboarding may be more challenging within a remote work environment, taking into account a few key considerations will make the process smooth and efficient, and will ensure your employee feels supported and cared for in their new role. This is an important opportunity that can be incredibly impactful for the employee and demonstrates the commitment of the company to deliver an exceptional new-employee experience.

Sia Partners has a team of consultants committed to helping organizations around the world tackle the tough organizational health and effectiveness challenges we all are facing today. Get in touch if your organization is ready to re-define your employee onboarding experience for long-term impact.