When organizations hold substantial in-person onboarding sessions, they do so in order to generate excitement among new employees, expose them to the culture of the organization and provide an opportunity to form relationships and start building internal networks.
July 15, 2021
When I joined a consulting firm straight out of business school, we had a week-long orientation for new employees. It was a great onboarding experience – a big production. But only three things stand out in my memory from that distant past: one of the firm’s co-founders told the story of the firm’s first and oldest customer, we received an in-depth book on problem-solving and I sat next to a gregarious fellow named Will, who has since become a partner at the firm.
When organizations hold substantial in-person onboarding sessions, they do so in order to generate excitement among new employees, expose them to the culture of the organization and provide an opportunity to form relationships and start building internal networks. However, in the past year of remote work, onboarding programs have been impoverished and the in-person events have been replaced by tedious web conferences or simple e-learning focused on policies and procedures.
As we move to an increasingly remote/hybrid working environment, we need to transform our onboarding programs to be more effective in online or blended formats. Luckily, we’ve learned a great deal from the past year about the deeper dynamics of onboarding.
Changing group membership is significant
First, it is helpful to take a step back and see onboarding in the context of social behavior. Humans have been part of groups for thousands of generations, so changing group membership is an important event, marked by ceremony. The stronger a group’s boundaries are, the stronger its identity. Having a strong identity brings benefits to an organization by providing focus, creating enthusiasm, deepening loyalty and creating a sense of belonging. To create strong boundaries, the induction period for new employees is crucial to get new employees fully vested in the organization.
In the current environment of fierce competition for talent, a trend toward remote and hybrid work and changing employee preferences, the role of onboarding is more critical than ever in employee attraction, retention and engagement. But there are a few deeper dynamics to keep in mind for an effective onboarding process.
Onboarding is an important imprinting period for new employees
We are all familiar with the concept of time-to-productivity in discussions about onboarding. Within HR circles, this is usually viewed as an efficiency problem and something to minimize; the quicker the ramp up, the better. However, the big picture goal is not time-to-productivity, it is lifetime employee productivity. You want to set up employees for maximum overall success.
Onboarding is a period of imprinting, where new employees get their bearings, make sense of their environment and shape their habits and expectations. They are also highly impressionable at this point, so it is an important time to convey the organization’s culture and values. We should make this process efficient, while allowing sufficient time to adjust.
The time for this imprinting in knowledge workers might be anywhere from 30 to 90 days. After this, the “outsider” becomes an “insider.” There is a great opportunity during that transition to ask new employees to reflect and share their thoughts and insights on the organization or department. They will have the fresh perspective of an outsider but will be able to relate it to the context of the organization.
Company culture is conveyed through stories and norm-setting
Even as we acknowledge the importance of organizational culture and values in the induction period, many of us only have a vague idea of how we absorb that culture. Many try to create simple e-learning content to replace their in-person onboarding and end up posting a company mission statement and proclamation of values.
However, each company culture is unique and rich with nuance, but it can’t be transmitted through simple descriptions. Much like in our society at large, culture is transmitted through the stories people share – the “organizational lore.” Stories speak to us evocatively on many levels.
In my first onboarding, the talk from the co-founder about their largest client included a story about how they declined a major piece of business they didn’t feel the firm could deliver on. It was a big decision at that time for the small firm and they were later rewarded with even fiercer loyalty and business from that client. That story was memorable and it conveyed a great deal about the firm’s values that a descriptive statement could not have done.
Norms are also an important part of an organization’s culture and observing how leaders and facilitators interact in sessions conveys a great deal. If an organization eschews live interaction in favor of informational content consumed in a solo fashion, this natural norm-setting process will be delayed.
Actions during onboarding can have important signaling value
Many organizations have some of their most senior leaders spend time with new employees, talking about the organization’s strategy, sharing stories and answering questions. When these leaders prioritize their time to talk to new employees, it sends a strong signal about the importance of those employees, their development and the prospects for the organization.
Even if new employees are not going to have a high impact on the organization within the first year or two, it is a long term investment. It is a bet by senior leaders that among that new group will be the future leaders of the organization and they can paint a vision of the future that can be compelling enough for these future leaders to want to stay. This turned out to be true in the case of my onboarding acquaintance, Will.
Even if live visits or fancy venues with nice meals are not feasible in the current climate, think about other ways you will create the signals you want. Intimate, live online Q&A sessions can work, but there are also other, inexpensive ways to signal to new hires what’s important. My receiving a tome on problem-solving drilled home the importance of that aspect of the job.
Some organizations may be able to move back to a purely face-to-face onboarding program and may be satisfied with that. But many organizations are moving irrevocably toward remote and hybrid work, which may mean onboarding needs to be done entirely online, or perhaps partially online blended with a shorter live experience.
Here are five implications or suggestions for evolving online or blended-online onboarding programs:
- Design your program with the objective of conveying culture and communicating policies and procedures.
- Don’t let onboarding be a solo experience. Maintain a social group experience so people can imprint together and form bonds with their peers.
- Ensure there are both structured and unstructured opportunities to interact.
- Involve senior leaders, preferably in live sessions, to share stories and paint a compelling vision of the future.
- Leverage insights from new employees at the end of their induction period when they will have a unique insider/outsider perspective.
Organizations are facing so many challenges; they need employees who are committed, engaged and enabled to maximize their contributions. A continuous focus on onboarding is the best chance to set employees and the company moving forward in the right direction.