Posted May 14, 2021 by Mark Perna
A new study indicates that 88% of companies aren’t onboarding new employees well. Here’s what to do differently. Mark’s article, “4 Ways To Turn Your Onboarding Experience Into A Strategic Advantage,” published at Forbes.com on May 4, 2021.
An employee’s experience during the first 45 days in a new position has a significant impact on whether that person chooses to remain at that company. A rule of thumb used by HR professionals is that up to 20% of turnover can be tied to that critical first period on the job. A poor onboarding experience can also have a negative impact on how willing employees are to recommend the company to their friends and peers.
Those first days on a job can have a dramatic impact on how someone perceives their role at the company—like a computer and an email address being ready for them or someone showing them where the bathroom is. That says nothing about other issues like understanding the company’s benefits program or strategic direction that might be part of a typical onboarding program for new employees.
In the wake of the pandemic, where many employees have been working remotely—and were perhaps even hired over Zoom—it can be easy for workers to feel detached from their work right from the get-go, thanks to a poor approach to onboarding.
Despite the high stakes in retaining employees, new research by Gallup reveals that 88% of organizations currently don’t onboard well. With jobless claims trending down and the War for Talent heating up, it’s time for companies to reimagine onboarding as part of their strategic advantage.
“High-performing employees excel in the right culture, with the right employee programs and strong manager support,” says Keith Kitani, CEO of GuideSpark, a digital communications company. “The onboarding experience is the ideal time to make sure top performers understand, value and integrate with all the great things about your company. As in most situations, first impressions set the tone for the entire relationship.”
Kitani, who sees onboarding as the connective tissue between new employees and a long-lived, highly productive career within an organization, says that the ideal onboarding experience quickly integrates a new hire into their role and into the company culture, programs and people. In other words, it increases long-term retention and accelerates an employee’s productivity ramp.
In the wake of COVID-19, companies have been now forced to also reconfigure the onboarding experience for an increasingly digital, diverse and distributed workforce.
With that opportunity in mind, here are four key elements to create a strategic onboarding program.
1. Create an experience, not a process
As organizations look to supplement or replace the in-person “informal onboarding”—casual interactions between a new employee and their peers and manager—that has gone away in our more digital, distributed world, many are starting to think beyond the bounds of paperwork and basic requirements. “If anything should be avoided, it’s the hours-long meetings—and novel-length manuals—where employees are overwhelmed with an influx of new information,” says Kitani, “including details that aren’t relevant to certain employee groups.”
Most importantly, says Kitani, “companies should focus on creating an ongoing experience to ensure genuine reinforcement of the company’s mission, priorities and objectives.”
In our digital hybrid age, don’t try to replicate the same in-person experience in a virtual environment. For example, while a one-hour in-person meeting with lots of participants and executives can certainly build engagement and reinforce culture, it just won’t have the same effect done virtually.
Despite this, Kitani says a thoughtful onboarding experience can still integrate new hires into the culture in many ways that might include: Brief formal executive presentations, educational videos with consistent brand style and voice, informal sessions with business leaders and managers, structured activity sessions with their new team and increased communication around programs like benefits and perks, especially those specific to a region or role.
2. Build a multi-month onboarding timeline
In an employee’s experience of onboarding, timing is everything. Rather than thinking of onboarding as a simple days-long process to be checked off, it should last at least 90 days—ideally, more like 180 days. “I think many organizations worry about ‘missing something’ that might be important to a new employee without realizing that over-communication is causing fatigue,” says Kitani, “which in turn means the new hire actually misses a lot of that crucial information.”
The answer, he says, is that rather than eliminating important information, break up that information up into more manageable pieces and deliver them over a longer period of time. That will allow new hires to consume lots of relevant information at their own pace, without being overwhelmed.
3. Adapt the experience to your demographic
One of the challenges every organization faces in creating a stand-out onboarding experience is that it must be adaptable to workers from four different generations, ranging from Boomers to Gen-Z. Each generation brings a unique perspective to the workplace—including what’s important to them in an employer (social impact, corporate responsibility, company mission), how they receive communications (email, Slack, text, mobile apps) and how they consume information (videos, infographics, animations, podcasts, documents).
That’s why it’s essential to look at your key demographics and design an experience that’s accessible and friendly for all the different generations that power your company. But Kitani has a word of caution here. “At the same time, you can’t assume everyone in a particular generation acts the same or wants the same experience,” he says. “Look at general generational trends and preferences, but also remember to measure engagement and iterate your approach so you become increasingly employee-centric and more effective and data-driven over time.”
The goal is to encourage new hires to engage with the onboarding experience in a meaningful way—going beyond simply consuming the information to actually interacting, asking questions, creating a dialogue and reaching out. “The more that new hires are actively participating by speaking up and asking questions,” says Kitani, “the better the overall experience will be for them. This is especially critical in a more virtual environment.”
4. Watch for communication overload
Digital communication—especially email—is growing exponentially within most companies. That can quickly overwhelm new employees, especially when they’re being bombarded with information relevant to their onboarding experience. The temptation for companies can then be to try to reduce the number of emails by sending longer and denser messages.
Sending these “kitchen sink” six-page emails may reduce the number of items in a new employee’s inbox, but it also reduces engagement. “The goal isn’t to just reduce emails,” says Kitani, “but also to improve employee engagement with the right information.
“The best way to reduce emails and grab attention at the same time is to deliver more relevant messages, starting by eliminating the one-size-fits-all email, which is sent to everyone but only relevant to a few.”
With new digital communication tools offered by companies like GuideSpark, companies can now target and deliver relevant communications—which helps reduce overall email noise while also increasing the likelihood that the key information reaches and engages employees.
It’s clear that a majority of companies must completely reimagine their onboarding experience to create a better introduction to their workplace values and culture. The good news is, it’s a great time to do it. Not only are there new platforms, tools and technology available, but we’re also in a moment when the mindsets of business leaders—and employees themselves—are truly ready for change.
“We’ve experienced an unprecedented year together,” says Kitani, “and more and more organizations are realizing that the effects of the pandemic will ultimately change how we work in the long term.”
As the War for Talent picks up steam, successful companies must capitalize on every opportunity to better engage and retain talent. Now is the time to reimagine the onboarding experience, from both the employee perspective and, on the company’s side, as a critical component of their strategic advantage.