Think back to your first day of work. How did that experience feel? Did the thoughts running through your head sound more like “I’m so overwhelmed” or “wow, I can’t wait to get started”?
The onboarding process likely had a huge impact on your answer and perhaps even the trajectory of your employment. This step could be the difference between a new hire that becomes a long-lasting asset or one that submits their resignation before the six-month mark.
You need more than a welcome kit to create a positive employee onboarding structure. You’re making a first, second and third (and fourth and fifth) impression. Each step should work toward integrating your employee into the fabric of your culture and developing a productive member of your team.
Some efforts are easier said than done. It all comes down to having a streamlined, consistent and clear process.
We know this sounds daunting, but it’s no lost cause! In this guide, you’ll find everything you need to create a successful onboarding experience that fulfills new hire needs and reduces internal headaches.
Let’s start with some data.
What exactly is an employee onboarding process?
We all generally know what onboarding is. But where (and when) does the process even start? What are the most critical aspects of a successful onboard, and how long does it take?
If you have any of these questions, then stick around.
Employee onboarding introduces new hires to their role, goals and other important company information. It starts right after the offer is accepted and can last for up to four months.
The time needed to onboard an employee depends on the organizational structure and unique aspects of each role. On average, 90-120 days is enough to integrate a new hire into the organization.
Ideally, the employee onboarding process consists of five phases:
- Role-specific training
- 90-day review
Phase 1: Pre-onboarding
Before a hire's first day at work, an HR manager makes the necessary preparations, mainly they’ll:
- Share and finalize paperwork.
- Support relocation (if needed).
- Send over company overviews.
- Outline a first-day plan.
- Inform the new colleague’s team.
Announcing an employee hire is probably the most critical step in the pre-onboarding phase. Colleagues might not know how the new role relates to theirs. It’s your task to explain the hire’s position and how they’ll contribute to their team and the organization as a whole.
Consider answering the following questions:
- What are this hire’s priorities?
- Who is the hire reporting to?
- How could they contribute to existing projects?
- When is it appropriate to assign tasks to a person filling the role?
Those working closely with a new employee should have these answers before the person joins. Otherwise, there’s a great chance that teammates will start reaching out with unrelated requests and distract the hire from their key responsibilities.
Now, let’s take into consideration online onboarding in the remote and hybrid working model. One vital step not included in the phases above is ensuring your employee receives all devices needed for a successful day one.
Brittany Leaper, People and Culture Manager at 7shifts, a restaurant scheduling software with over 200 employees distributed all over the world, shared:
“Our goal is to effectively welcome and onboard new team members whether they choose to work remotely, hybrid or in-office. All new hires receive a branded box with all of the equipment they need for their job (e.g., laptop, monitor, keyboard, mouse, notebook, pens) as well as special surprises including a 7shifts branded t-shirt, hoodie, socks, reusable straw, mask, hand sanitizer and stickers.”
Phase 2: Orientation
The first day has come! Now, what do you do next?
Your main task is to help your new hire acclimate to their new environment. They’re likely way more nervous than you are. Orientation is a chance to build a connection and put your employee at ease.
Day one is rather busy. You and the hiring team will likely be:
- Greeting your new employee.
- Giving an office tour and settling them into their workplace (if in-person).
- Introducing them to co-workers.
- Assigning a buddy – a team member who’ll be mentoring the new hire.
- Giving access to necessary tools, including login information.
- Sharing company resources, such as policies and employee responsibilities.
- Running through a checklist of first-week tasks and answering questions.
- Staying accessible throughout the day to promptly address any requests.
Orientation doesn’t end on the first day. It takes a week to a month for an employee to adapt to your company culture and get to know their team. But you can’t be expected to guide them through every single step. Neither you nor an onboarding buddy would be able to keep up while also managing your own work.
Here’s where an exhaustive company resource guide or wiki comes in. Company culture, mission, values, organizational structure, role-specific step-by-step guides – every piece of information a new hire needs during their first days and months in your company should be documented in a comprehensive knowledge base. These tools strengthen your hire’s comfort level and encourage proactivity during onboarding.
Phase 3: Role-specific training
After orientation, your employee is ready to train. In fact, these two phases often go hand in hand.
Employee integration takes time, experience and some healthy trial and error. That’s why role-specific training can start before your hire completes their orientation.
What does role-specific training involve? Well, it depends on YOUR role. An HR Manager will entrust this task to the new hire’s immediate supervisor. If that’s you, this is where you truly step into the game.
Say you’ve hired a content marketer. As that person’s manager, you want to guide them through specific job expectations while familiarizing them with team goals. This introduction might include walking through the peculiarities of the niche, introducing buyer personas, explaining the company’s approach to content marketing and letting them know what you expect from a recently hired specialist.
Apart from guiding hires through their day-to-day tasks, SaaS companies often include product training in their onboarding program. This step helps turn new hires into brand advocates.
You can train for product knowledge by including related how-tos in your knowledge base or running workshops. The latter is a great option when you onboard multiple employees at once.
Phase 4: Transitioning
As employees complete training, they move closer and closer to total productivity. This is considered the transitioning phase. At this point, a new hire works toward becoming a full-fledged employee and begins reaching the goals set by their supervisor. Set up a 30-60-90 day progress plan with milestones to reach.
Following the other onboarding phases, your employee now knows what they’re responsible for and what they can do to succeed. This transition is an opportunity to familiarize themselves with their tasks and take initiative.
Phase 5: 90-day review
At this point, you and the employee should have a general understanding of:
- How successful the onboarding process was
- If there are areas where they need more support
- Whether or not they are a fit for the role
After 90 days, HR and the direct manager could collaborate on a performance review. The check-in should help you assess the employee’s efforts and progress thus far and, most importantly, provide constructive feedback.
You can also collect feedback from colleagues. How does this new hire collaborate? Is there room for improvement? This information might help you define what to discuss during the meeting.
The 90-day review enables you and the employee to assess their experience and progress in the role. If they align well with the position, this could also serve as a springboard to set them up for further success with your company.
Three can't-miss benefits of a solid onboarding plan
You know that onboarding influences organizational success. Let’s get into exactly why it’s so important.
An effective employee onboarding program smoothly integrates new hires into the company. By clearly communicating expectations, general context and goals with the help of exhaustive onboarding resources, you promote employee autonomy from the very first day.
A straightforward onboarding process also means managers can focus on their core responsibilities while still thoroughly supporting their new employees.
No wonder companies with a robust onboarding process see productivity increase by over 70 percent.
Improved employee morale
Make sure they feel welcome! Healthy employee morale relies on feeling part of the team. A well-defined onboarding process prepares internal colleagues ahead of time, outlines clear expectations and gives everyone the chance to get to know one another.
The job market is highly saturated. In the first month of 2022, US employers saw a 467,000 increase in employment, exceeding estimates. While recruitment was the biggest challenge for 70 percent of employers in 2021, the abnormal job surge surely still has impacts on the rate in 2023.
Don’t lose top talent! Companies with solid onboarding programs are up to 80 percent more likely to improve new hire retention.
Employee onboarding challenges
Only 12 percent of employees strongly agree that their company provides an excellent onboarding experience. We know this isn’t from lack of trying, but several factors go into managing a successful program. Sometimes things simply slip through the cracks.
Let’s gear up for mistake prevention mode. What can go wrong during an employee onboarding process?
You can’t ask your new hire to read through the entire knowledge base in the first few days. While it’s important to grant access to the information they’ll need, there’s no cause to run through the parental leave policy before it’s relevant.
It takes more time to sort and identify which resources matter, but the effort is worth knowing they won’t feel bombarded by unstructured information. The hire is also more likely to actually retain what you’ve told them and put it to good use.
What is a sales representative’s role? It might seem intuitive. However, sales reps at a small company often handle tasks not included in their job description, such as business development, copywriting, managing strategic partnerships, etc.
If you hire a person who simply wants to sell and expect them to be proactive in activities you never outlined, you’re setting everyone involved up for disappointment.
Lack of feedback
When someone starts a new job, they’re looking to do it right. Constructive feedback will improve performance and open healthy lines of communication. Further, positive feedback for a job well done will boost morale and keep them invested.
Junior specialists often underestimate themselves. It’s easy for them to compare their productivity to more experienced colleagues. Unrecognized successes could lead to frustration or lack of motivation.
Be proactive in your feedback. Don’t wait for an employee to ask for a one-on-one meeting. By then, it might already be too late.
Not engaging other employees in the process
As we’ve mentioned, employee onboarding is ongoing, usually over the course of a few months. The employee will hit several touchpoints every single day. It’s easy to get lost in the shuffle.
Preparing your team to welcome new colleagues offers a well of support and a chance to make connections.
Not explaining growth opportunities
What does your new hire’s career path look like? How do they reach desired outcomes? It’s up to you to let them know that you value their development. Start with a clear outline of the growth opportunities and what they need to do to get there.
In an interview for The Society for Human Resource Management, Jeff Smith, VP strategic initiatives at 15Five, says:
"At 15Five, once someone joins the company, their job description includes actionable details around what's expected during their first 30, 60, 90 and 365 days. Another simple technique is describing a typical week or month in the role. Job descriptions should always include the outcomes that someone is responsible for, why the outcomes are important to your company and your company's values."
When employees don’t have a clear vision of their future at your company, they’ll likely start looking for it somewhere else.
Goal setting is vital, but only if you’re setting your employee up for success. Inflexible expectations can only lead to burnout. And if they don’t reach that goal, morale will plummet.
What does your new hire need to learn? What is actually feasible in the foreseeable future?
Stefan Wissenbach, the founder of Engagement Multiplier, an employee engagement software, has shared his thoughts with Lever.
“Giving in to the temptation to set the new hire to task right away is likely to result in frustration and a terrible experience for them: on the one hand, they’re incredibly motivated to get off to a strong start and make an impact, but in reality, they’re not fully equipped to do their best work.”
This isn’t to say you should expect poor results or diminish ambition – just remember to give your employee some grace. It’s your job to communicate and educate. If you keep running into issues, it’s best to talk to niche experts and do some benchmarking.
Employee onboarding best practices
Now that you know what not to do during onboarding let’s run through a few best practices.
1. Start onboarding your new hire before their first day
Never forget about the pre-onboarding phase. This step will make or break your new hire’s first day. Here are some actions you’ll want to take before they walk through that door.
- Send a welcome email. When an applicant accepts a job offer, reach out and give them all the details they need to prepare for their first day. When is the start date? Who will be involved in onboarding? Who is their primary point of contact? A recipient should have these answers after reading your email.
- Build team connections. If you can encourage the team to connect with a new employee on LinkedIn, do it. You’ll help the employee recognize some faces, spur excitement and makes that first day just a little less stressful.
- Send a brief instruction. A few days before the start date, send an email with a walkthrough of their first day.
Betsy Francoeur has recently taken the position of content manager at AkitaBox. She says a positive pre-onboarding experience has had a significant impact on her first days with the company:
“Plenty of communication before my first day. My position is 100 percent remote, so it's not like I could just show up on my first day and everything would be ready for me. I received plenty of communication from the HR department and the IT department leading up to my first day so that I would be ready to go. I picked up my IT equipment a few days before I started and it was all ready to plug and play. I knew what my calendar would look like over the first few days so I wouldn't be surprised by meetings. I felt very prepared going into my first day.”
2. Create a new hire checklist
A new hire checklist is a directory of tasks for an employee's first 10/30/60/90 days. The doc also includes links to necessary information (e.g., where they can find an employee handbook or knowledge base), team member contacts and other fundamentals.
Instead of following your new hires every step, give them the checklist during orientation. It should become their go-to resource for navigating their first weeks at your company.
3. Develop an internal knowledge base
A knowledge base is a centralized repository that stores information about your company culture, history, business processes, etc.
An internal knowledge base can include how-to guides, video tutorials, FAQs, handbooks – literally any type of content that helps your employees find solutions to work-related problems without asking for help.
Various software like Scribe’s auto-generated step-by-step guides can be a perfect addition to your company’s knowledge base. Scribe can generate role-specific tutorials, guidelines from the IT department and daily workflows instantly with no need to draft them up.
Of course, the use of a knowledge base isn’t limited to onboarding. Everyone at your organization should be able to access it anytime. Still, supporting new hires is one of the top use cases for an internal knowledge base. Link to it in your new hire checklist and give them the freedom to explore the data and tools that will help them carry out their job effectively.
4. Explain growth opportunities
Professional growth is one of the most powerful drivers for employee engagement. But to make it work, you need to make sure your new employees know what opportunities are available to them.
Research shows that companies that provide a potential growth trajectory to new hires during onboarding see 19 percent higher retention and productivity at work.
When a new employee has integrated into the team and gone through their job-specific training, schedule a meeting to discuss their KPIs and career progression plan.
5. Help them make friends
At least 29 percent of startups are hiring remote roles these days. Likely, your new hire won’t be able to casually have coffee with coworkers or go for a drink on Friday nights.
If that’s the case for your organization, you’ll need to find a way to encourage new employees to build relationships with colleagues outside of work.
The first few days are opportunities to make meaningful connections – you just need to create an environment that makes it possible.
Try to plan a new hire’s day-to-day activities in a way that helps them get to know their team. For instance, you could schedule check-ins with their immediate colleagues or host a virtual lunch hour. Note that spending more time with their peers in those first few days is likely more empowering than lunchtime with a CEO.
6. Assign an onboarding buddy
In recent years, the buddy program has become an increasingly popular initiative.
An onboarding buddy is a colleague assigned to help a new hire navigate day-to-day tasks. This person is neither a supervisor nor an HR manager. Connecting with a peer allows your employee to feel more comfortable asking questions and sharing concerns.
AkitaBox’s Betsy Francoeur says:
“Every new hire at my company is paired with an onboarding buddy. Your buddy is someone who checks in on you and can answer questions. They're someone from outside your immediate team so that you can start to make friends in other departments. My onboarding buddy and I have become good friends. It's nice to have someone to go to who isn't HR or your boss when you have questions or want a second opinion.”
7. Schedule one-on-ones
You’re likely the first or second person the employee got to know, and you’ve helped them acclimate. Regardless of if you are HR or an immediate manager, be sure to check in with a new hire in their first few months at work.
After 30 days, invite your new hire to a one-on-one meeting. Include the following questions in the meeting agenda:
- How has your first month been?
- Is there anything I could help you with?
- Have you had problems with accessing the necessary information?
- Have you already visited team-building events? How was the experience?
- Have you had a chance to collaborate with the team?
- Does the role meet your expectations?
- Do you feel comfortable with the amount of work?
During this session, you can identify gaps in your onboarding program or even capture workplace concerns.
8. Revisit your onboarding process regularly
Does the process you’ve built work? You won’t get the answer immediately.
“Our new hires are sent a series of short ‘pulse’ survey questions that require them to rate their onboarding experience and allow room to include any feedback they may have. We use it to improve onboarding by department or as a whole,” says Brittany Leaper of 7shifts.
The best way to measure the effectiveness of your employee onboarding program is to ask your new hires. After their first month, send an employee onboarding survey to gather feedback on their experiences. Here are some sample questions you might want to include:
- Did the job meet your expectations?
- Do you fully understand your responsibilities?
- Do you lack any tools to perform your job successfully?
- Do you have all the information needed to handle everyday tasks?
- Do you know who you can turn to if you have any problems at work?
- Do you get along with your team members?
- Are you empowered to share your views at the workplace?
- What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced since you began working at the company?
- Is there anything we could have changed to improve your onboarding experience?
It’s also good to modify those a bit by offering employees the chance to rate specific aspects using a five-point scale. If you are following this pattern, one of the questions could be: “On a scale of zero to five, how well is your experience meeting expectations?”
A simple onboarding survey not only helps improve the process for future hires. It also offers insight into what else you could do for existing employees.
You only get one chance to make a first impression
Creating a solid employee onboarding program is the first step you can take to support a positive work environment, foster an integral team member and improve employee retention. A successful onboarding experience sets the tone for your new hire’s engagement at work. It can impact everything from productivity to morale.
So many factors go into this process, but it’s worth every step. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes – onboarding is a team effort, and it’s okay to learn along the way. Be open and encourage feedback. Work together to create a structure that works for your company. Before you know it, your new hires will become your biggest ambassadors.