4 keys to the best employee onboarding
We all know onboarding is important. There are studies upon studies that show its correlation with retention. Quicker ramp times lead to meaningfully different business outcomes. Thoughtfulness in our onboarding process can ensure we’re being inclusive — setting up every single employee for success, not just those who know existing employees or have been in similar roles before.
Getting onboarding right is critical. But it’s hard to know where to start.
Sora has helped dozens of companies design, streamline, and automate their onboarding processes to create exceptional employee experiences, and we’ve collected quite a few best practices along the way. Over the years, we’ve found that the best of the best onboarding experiences are designed with 4 main goals in mind:
As one of our customers put it, the first day of a new job is one of the most exciting days an employee will have at a company. Our job is to prolong that for as long as possible, and the employee is actively seeking validation that they made the right decision. Any mishaps on the first day put doubt in people’s minds, but a great first day gives them that initial validation that lasts a very long time.
We need to give new hires the lay of the land. They need to understand in a relatively short amount of time how their team interacts with others, how their team and their own goals contribute to the goals of the company, how their performance will be measured, etc.
Across companies and industries, referred employees are on average more successful than non-referred. This isn’t because referred employees are smarter on average. They know where to go. They have contacts, they’re not afraid to ask questions, they have an easier time understanding the culture — they basically have a head start. We need to work really hard to close that gap and integrate people equally, whether they know someone already or not.
This is perhaps the most obvious and concrete thing we need to do — prepare a new hire for their job with any job-specific or company-specific skills. A lot of this work is often dependent on other teams and hiring managers, but there are also things People teams can do to ensure we have a consistent and effective ramp across teams.
All of these goals are directly related to retention, engagement, and productivity — not just the most important things for an onboarding process to instill, and not just the most important things for a People team to focus on, but some of the most important metrics for a business, period. Even the C suite thinks these 3 outcomes are absolutely critical. And it all starts with onboarding.
These four onboarding goals are generally shared across all organizations, but if your company has others that are more relevant, or yours look slightly different, that’s totally fine. Distill down to your top themes and follow these same steps to get your action plan.
For each of the onboarding goals we define, we need to think through:
- Preboarding - what can we do before someone starts to further this goal?
- The onboarding process itself, of course
- Post-onboarding - what are we going to continue to do to ensure we’ve set the right foundation?
- And finally, whether there are any remote vs. hybrid vs. in-real-life implications — are there any changes we need to make for employees that are remote vs. those in-office?
It feels obvious that we should excite new hires, but it’s often overlooked as a goal when so much work is required just to meet the bare minimum of compliance/logistical setup. (Shameless plug to get Sora to help with automating work and elevating onboarding experiences!)
Again, we need to validate new hires’ choice to join us, carry on the excitement they’re feeling, and alleviate their biggest concern: Will my experience here live up to the expectations I have from the recruitment process?
Recruiters and hiring managers have to maintain a high level of energetic, positive communication to make sure their candidates don’t leave their offer on the table. Once they sign that offer, that excitement shouldn’t go away — if anything, it should increase!
- Send them things :) it really does go a long way. Send the classic t-shirts you have for sure, but try to go the extra mile and send a hand-written note (even this can be automated, but it feels personal) or a succulent or something that will help them in their day-to-day work.
- Send emails from leadership, from managers, from people they’ve already met — make them feel incredibly welcome, like we are excited for them to join, and their excitement will be reciprocated. (Pro tip: automate these emails, but make sure they still come from real, human email addresses and look like you sent them manually!)
- Start the first day with an exciting demo, not a logistical session! It’s expected, but a little disappointing to get straight into “please make these benefit elections” or “show me your ID we’re doing your I-9 first thing” or “let’s get your monitoring software installed on your laptop.” It’s unexpected to have a session that really wows new hires and builds enough excitement that they can’t wait to have their laptops monitored to get started ;)
- Try to encourage and empower managers to sprinkle in quick wins in their role to make them feel productive as soon as possible
- Schedule a welcome lunch or happy hour. Virtual ones are harder, but still key! See here for some prompts to make them more fun.
- Make sure managers, department heads, other leaders schedule fun, inclusive social events on an ongoing basis
- Have new hires join an occasional sales or customer call that you know will go well
Remote vs. hybrid vs. IRL implications
- Send swag/laptop with plenty of time to arrive before remote employees’ start dates. And tell them when to expect their laptop!! If it’s Thursday before a Monday start and you haven’t said anything, they start to wonder if anything will come in time. If it’s Thursday before a Monday and you’ve set expectations that their laptop will arrive Friday, they’re at ease. It’s a subtle but compounding difference.
A successful onboarding program affirms the employee’s decision to join your team by carrying the level of excitement from their initial offer into their first month at your company and beyond.
Introduce your company
Introduction, remember, involves giving new hires the lay of the land. Help them understand how their team interacts with others, how their team and their own goals contribute to the goals of the company, how their performance will be measured, etc. A new hire needs to understand the ins and outs of their new organization to feel comfortable, get to work faster, and excel in their role.
Don’t forget to introduce them to the small pieces as well. Local lunch spots are part of introducing someone to your company too!
- If there are fun, branded things you can share that are informative, you might send some of those materials before a new hire starts. But be very, very careful here — do not make it feel like they have homework, and don’t send too much!
- Have each team give presentations about how they interact with other teams. At larger companies, department heads can record videos and lower-level leaders can lead sessions. At smaller companies (and really all companies), the more people can hear directly from leadership the better.
- Create 30/60/90 day plans! These plans should help people understand what to expect and what is expected of them. Very important tip here is to involve managers, but make it as easy for them as humanly possible. Provide extremely thoughtful and baked out templates. Do not give them ambiguous tasks at any point in the onboarding process, or they simply won’t get done.
- Schedule coffee chats! Understanding the organization starts with meeting people in the orgs. Some caveats:
- Do not schedule coffee chats back to back. Scattered coffee chats should be with people of different levels and on different teams to help get people introduced to “the way things work” at the company
- Help employees tie their goals and expectations back to OKRs or your company equivalent
Remote vs. hybrid vs. IRL implications
- Leadership sessions are easier to call into remotely than to schedule across different offices on the same day
Introduction to your company to your new hires as if it were a human, with all the nuance that comes with it, puts new hires at ease and provides them with the foundation they need to feel confident and equipped to get started.
Integrate new hires into your culture
Help people navigate connections and culture as if they already knew a ton of people at your company. Successful integration means employees have somewhere to go for questions they might be embarrassed to ask their manager, they understand your culture and feel like they can jump into it, have multiple contacts across various departments, etc.
(Fun fact: I cross-boarded to a software engineering role from a sales engineering role at a previous company, and couldn’t stop telling people how relieved I was that I felt comfortable asking “stupid” questions — it shortened my ramp by what felt like orders of magnitude.)
- Introduce yourself and their manager for questions. Provide FAQs ahead of time (dress code, whether remote or in-person), contacts for different types of questions, etc.
- Again, coffee chats!! With people all over the company.
- Assign onboarding buddies, and similar to empowering managers with 30/60/90 day plans, be extremely helpful and prescriptive about what a buddy should do. (We send automated Slack messages to buddies almost every day of their buddy’s first week detailing a small thing they should do that day, and send reminders on an ongoing basis.)
- Provide FAQs and contacts for any questions that come up — don’t just hand people off to managers never to hear from you, the people they’ve interfaced with most, again.
- Make sure buddies stay in touch. At Sora, we send reminders to buddies to check in at least once a month. The point is to build long-lasting relationships!
Remote vs. hybrid vs. IRL implications
- Fabricating “watercooler” moments remotely is hard, but we have to try. Welcome lunches and/or happy hours should be scheduled, even for remote employees, and fun Slack / email intros help quite a bit. At Sora, we ask an employee some silly questions before they start, and send their answers to the team on their first day. We’ve also seen fun debates that get the whole team involved, like “In-N-Out or Shake Shack” or “would you rather fight for your life against 1,000 chicken-sized horses or one horse-sized chicken.” 😂
Great onboarding programs intentionally integrate new employees into their company culture and don’t leave it all up to the employee to find their way around.
Ramp up talent as soon as possible
Without proper ramp of sales team members, sales targets might be missed. Without efficient ramping of recruiters, hiring targets are missed (which has all kinds of downstream effects, from sales targets missed to customers lacking the attention they need to <insert every company goal ever here>). The list goes on — all company goals rely on effective onboarding.
- Send any reading if desired, but ideally just emphasize rest :) the most important thing a new hire can do is bring their best self to work on their first day.
- Tell new hires what to expect during onboarding!!!!!!
- Send them their calendar and literally tell them what will happen — they won’t be able to log into their calendar until their first day.
- Continue to tell them what to expect during onboarding!!!!!!
- Let employees track their progress of their ramp and take ownership of it.
- Think about company skills: how does someone succeed at your company specifically?
- From culture-related things they probably need to learn (relevant to integration above) to common acronyms used that they’ll probably need to understand sooner rather than later to join conversations.
- 30/60/90 day plans are the absolute star here. Enforce them!
- Enforce 30/60/90 check-ins from managers.
- Perform 30/60/90 check-ins from the People team as well!
- Relate first performance cycle to onboarding ramp plans.
Remote vs. hybrid vs. IRL implications
- Remote employees could use more buddies! At Sora, we give new hires one buddy on their team and one buddy in a completely different org — one they’re less likely to come in contact with super often. They serve completely different but equally important purposes.
Ramping employees as efficiently and effectively as possible is the most business-critical component of your onboarding program, and you can do a lot to empower managers and ensure quality and consistency.
Putting it all together
Hopefully you can walk away from reading this with one tactic you’ll incorporate in your onboarding process, or at least a plan to create your own plan based on your company’s onboarding goals.
But if you forget everything about specific goals and tactics, remember these two most important themes to weave into your onboarding process.
- Connection — to goals and expectations, to colleagues, to the company; and
- Preparation — for their day to day navigation, setting them up for success with the tools they need, and their performance, setting them up for success with the skills they need to be productive, motivated employees
These themes are super obvious ties to the core goals of any business, and particularly any People team, that I mentioned earlier — retention, engagement, and productivity. So if you need a compelling pitch to your C Suite about why it’s extremely important to invest in a great onboarding process, this is it. Everything we build out in our onboarding program boils down to connection and preparation, which are directly related to these outcomes.
An amazing onboarding process really can incorporate all of this. It’s just about sitting down to map out what a thoughtful process would look like at your company.