Onboarding at a new company is a momentous “first.”
And not unlike other major firsts we experience—first day of school, first date, first time in a new city—it is riddled with questions of “Do they like me?” “Do I like them?” “Is this how it will always be?”
Recently, I was working with a client who was interested in transforming their company’s onboarding process. Conventional wisdom here is to get the new employee(s) up to speed as quickly as possible, primarily by telling them all about the company. It’s almost as if the company is saying to the employee, “It’s your job to onboard to us. Your needs, your preferences, your experience, keep all of that to yourself. Instead, just listen.”
This experience reminds me of a lot of bad first dates. The other person talks the whole time. They don’t ask you any questions. They dominate the conversation. And by the end of it, you question why you bother dating at all.
And yet, this is how most corporate onboarding programs are designed.
Instead, a momentous, memorable, motivating onboarding should be a two-way experience where the company is learning about you as much as you are learning about the company. And like a great first date, it should be well-planned, dynamic, personal, social, and meaningful.
Here are some actionable ways to make your onboarding experience just that.
1. Design a 2-way onboarding experience by setting a foundation of inclusion and belonging.
The same questions a kindergartner asks themselves are the same questions a 40-year-old on their first day of work is asking themselves. “Where do I sit? Who do I go to lunch with? Am I going to fit in? Am I going to make any friends? Am I going to be accepted?”
The way you ease this anxiety is by learning the preferences of this new hire as you begin integrating them into the company. The way I explain this to companies is the difference between taking an employee-centered approach versus a corporate-centered approach (which is, “I need to tell them all these things. I need to get them in our system.”)
That’s the need of the company. But what’s the need of the human? Their needs are to feel seen and understood, to feel valued, and to feel a sense of early camaraderie. Time for managers to understand a new hire’s working preferences, time for socializing, time for a new hire to teach the company something are all ways to design for those human needs.
2. Make it multimedia and multimodal
Most onboarding programs are Zoom meetings plus PowerPoints.
- “Here’s the overview.”
- “Any questions?”
- “We’ll be sending you a follow-up PDF.”
However, if you’re willing to invest a bit, there are so many more things you can do to make a new employee’s onboarding more memorable and, more importantly, educational. On the memorable side, instead of just giving you some company swag and welcoming you to the team, have the CEO of the company write a little message about why the company selected this particular item for the employee. Now, the employee doesn’t just see a $25 t-shirt, but a t-shirt that means something. Better yet, put the employee’s name on it.
On the education side, instead of one-directional presentations, it’s far better to engage the other person. Give them a project, allow them to start talking and collaborating with team members. Or get creative with it, and instead of making them sit through back-to-back Zoom presentations, turn some of the material into an internal podcast they can listen to, or short asynchronous videos they can watch on their own time—before coming back and chatting with team members about what they learned.
3. Make orientation feel like the customer experience
A terrific exercise for stress-testing your onboarding experience is to put new hires in the shoes of the company’s customers.
If your company majors on high-end customer service, then design the onboarding experience to feel equally high-end. If your strategy is all about innovation and speed to market, make your onboarding experience fast and inventive.
4. Create 3-6 person cohorts
I am an adamant supporter of creating small cohorts in the realm of three to six people, and then giving those people time to themselves in a private space. Not all companies are going to be hiring in such scale, but to the degree that you can schedule your onboarding so that you have at least three people joining at a given time (or breaking up larger onboarding classes into sub-groups of 3-6), this leads to highly emotionally salient, quality time.
You’re excited, a little nervous, and that combination is ripe for creating lasting bonds.
Then, set that group up for an hour each day during their first week for them to connect and share with each other about what they’re learning, how they’re feeling, and so on. Even better, give them some autonomy: make them a private Slack channel so they can chat throughout the day, give them some icebreaker exercises to facilitate on their own, and even a challenge for them to work through together.
5. Build in moments of adrenaline
There is some fascinating research around the memorability of high-adrenaline moments.
Now, this doesn’t mean your onboarding experience has to involve jumping out of a plane. But it’s worth questioning how you can create an experience that is felt in addition to just logically received.
This could be anything like:
- A physical or digital scavenger hunt
- A recruitment pitch competition
- A collaborative icebreaker game
6. Design from offer letter to the end of year 1
New employee anxiety tends to be rooted in uncertainty.
Most companies think of onboarding in the span of just the first few days. In reality, if you can design the experience from the offer letter to the end of year one, you can create a much more robust “story arc” and be more intentional about how you make each new employee feel.
For example, what are the communications before day one? The more new hires can know what to expect on their “first day of school,” the more at ease they will feel. How about sending a physical or digital welcome kit in advance? How can you show them they are being welcomed with open arms, opposed to showing up wondering if they’re prepared??
Careful though—I have seen companies take this too far by asking the new hire to invest significant time and energy before their first day. “Pre-read all this context. Here are a dozen different documents. Get familiar and we’ll see you soon.”
This is greedy, and most of the time, this individual is still tying up loose ends with their former job.
7. Define the “moments that matter” and elevate them
It’s hard to know when to celebrate if you’re receiving an offer letter. The moment you get it? After negotiations seem settled? After officially signing the papers?
There is a tremendous opportunity for companies here to make new hires feel celebrated by declaring celebratory moments throughout the hiring and onboarding process. Once the papers have been signed, can you send them a digital card signed by all the members of that person’s team? And then at the end of officially being onboarded, how about another celebratory moment, a toast, a badge, a defining checkpoint of completion?
8. Facilitate network building
We tend to think of networking externally, but it can and should also happen internally, within companies.
As much as possible, you want to optimize for this individual never showing up in a situation where the other people have to ask, “Wait, who are you?”
As soon as someone is onboarded, the company should be actively helping that individual connect with other members of the organization. This might be spontaneous 1:1 chats, a calendar of predetermined team members to meet with, or strategically choosing to connect with certain leaders within the organization for guidance and insight, almost like a mentorship. This sort of deliberate connection is going to become more and more crucial in a hybrid, virtual working environment where you can’t bump into someone in the hallway and strike up a conversation.
9. Curate the flow and storage of information
Nothing is more overwhelming than conflicting, disorganized information.
If your onboarding experience consists of giving new employees a Dropbox folder with 10 different decks, many of which share overlapping information with different, unexplained nuances, new employees are going to feel confused and set up to fail. (This also leads to the individual taking on the burden of the organization, opposed to the organization taking the burden off the individual.)
Instead, you want to design the onboarding process so that new hires only receive the information they absolutely need in that particular moment. This prevents a lot of wasted time spent searching through documents and folders that consist largely of unnecessary information that isn’t yet applicable to their day-to-day responsibilities.
10. Don’t forget the storytelling
Most importantly, a seamless and memorable onboarding experience is structured like a great movie.
You have a trailer that gives you a sense of what the movie is about before you enter the theatre. You have an introduction that sets the stage. There’s some ascending action leading up to a climax (memorable moments of adrenaline). And then there’s the descending action, allowing the new hire to settle into their new role.
It can be so easy to get wrapped up in all the logistical bits of onboarding: “Here’s how you do your job. Here’s how you sign up for these things. Here’s how you access your email.” But these aren’t the things that get people excited.
Instead, tell them the story of their future at the company. “Here’s who we are. Here’s what we’re going to do together. And here’s why it matters.”