How to Center Employees in Your Onboarding Process
Onboarding can be a nightmare for employees. It doesn’t have to be—if you remember who you’re building for.
I have a recurring nightmare. I’ve arrived on campus for the first day of school, equipped with a new backpack and a pristine collection of color-coordinated folders. Yet instead of enjoying the crisp fall breeze and the electric aura of possibility, I have a feeling of dread.
I know I’m meant to be here, but I don’t know where to go, or even what classes I’m taking—which means I probably haven’t done my summer reading, either. I soldier on with neither map nor schedule, and more worries appear. That hallway doesn’t look familiar. That stairwell isn’t where it should be. Where’s my locker? What’s my combination? Does this school even have lockers?
Perhaps you’ve had a similar nightmare: finding yourself on stage with no idea what your lines are, or showing up to class after skipping the crucial step of getting dressed. Even worse, perhaps you’ve lived through a scenario like this.
This is exactly how we don’t want employee onboarding to feel.
In this essay, I will… discuss why onboarding matters, how we approach onboarding at Pliancy, and how you can assess your own process.
What Your Onboarding Says About You
It’s been well-documented that a high-quality onboarding process has concrete benefits, like improved productivity, shorter ramp-up times, better retention rates, and higher employee satisfaction. And, of course, there are plenty of intangible advantages, such as a sense of belonging, a strong connection to organizational values, and a better understanding of company culture. (If you don’t believe us, take it from the SHRM Foundation, Forbes, Harvard Business Review, Bamboo HR, and Zenefits.)
Regardless of whether you subscribe to the intrinsic or extrinsic value of onboarding, one fact remains true: first impressions are everything, and onboarding is one big first impression.
Consider your onboarding experience and what it says about you. How often do new hires experience system access issues? How many new hires don’t have their computer set up on day 1 or delivered on time? When 9 a.m. on start day rolls around, is it clear what they’ll be doing for the first hour, the first day, and the first week?
Whether your new hires realize it or not, the employee onboarding experience gives them critical information about your company:
– Does this company care about its employees?
– Do they value employees’ time?
– Is the company thoughtfully prepared for projects and events?
– Do teams have organized workflows and processes?
– How does the company record and share information?
– How well do teams communicate and collaborate?
– What kinds of infrastructure exist for employees?
New employees should never feel like lost students wandering the halls. Instead, onboarding should be built around their experience. The process should anticipate needs, feel seamless to the employee, and strike a balance between automation and human support.
Onboarding at Pliancy
When I started working at Pliancy in 2021, it was the most organized onboarding process that I’d ever experienced. The company had built a strong foundation of knowledge sharing, live meetings, and thoughtful details. I was impressed—but that doesn’t mean it was perfect. It’s only in retrospect that I can see we had, and still have, so much room for improvement.
My experience was the result of years of iteration. It’s changed in big ways and small ways since my first day, and it will continue to change in the future. That’s the Pliancy way.
Embracing Iteration in Onboarding
Case in point: a few years ago, we licensed a platform that, among other things, helped guide new hires through their onboarding tasks. Over time, other teams moved away from using this tool. During a periodic review of resources, we realized that we were paying thousands of dollars a year for something that new hires would utilize for a few weeks, and then never log in again. It didn’t enhance the employee experience enough to move the needle.
So we pivoted. We adapted our onboarding checklist and workflow for a platform that was already standard for every employee, meaning the licensing costs were already accounted for. Plus, every employee would continue to interact with that platform regularly during the course of their work, rather than learning a system they’d only use for a month.
Yes, we blew up a process we’d worked hard on. Some may have seen it as a step backward. But in the same way you sometimes need to drop a class that isn’t serving you, we needed to drop that initial solution to realign with the bigger picture: optimizing the employee experience.
Building an Employee-Centered Onboarding Experience
There is no Platonic ideal of an onboarding experience. It’s impossible to prescribe a perfect and universal set of systems or steps, and I’d be wary of anyone claiming they can. Instead, I’ll share the basic components that guide our approach to employee-centered onboarding.
Each section also includes questions to help you evaluate your own onboarding process. You can revisit this assessment as you work toward your ideal onboarding state—just like we continue to do.
Balancing Knowledge & Connection
I think of onboarding as having two sides: knowledge and connection.
Knowledge refers to what new hires need to know: company policies, SOPs, expectations, and so on. It also includes what we, as employers and onboarders, need to know in order to build the best process possible.
Connection refers to the social and emotional aspects of a job: how new hires interact with others and how they feel about the company, their team, and their work.
Our onboarding elements fall into these categories:
– Self-Service Resources
– The Roadmap
– Cultural Immersion
– The Human Touch
📓 Pre-Boarding: Summer Prep
Imagine the chaos that would ensue if teachers and administrators started prepping for the school year on the first day of school. Working closely with managers, onboarding planning should start long before the employee’s arrival. There must be definitive answers on what hardware, software, and permissions the employee requires, plus the logistics of getting them what they need (physically or virtually) before their start date, and instructions for getting started.
– Do you have a final checklist to ensure the necessary components are in place?
– What systems does the employee need access to, and what is the process for granting access?
– Who is responsible for pre-start logistics, such as laptop setup, delivery, and office access?
🍫 Self-Service Resources: The Campus Vending Machine
Everyone processes information at their own pace. Some people absorb and digest everything fully the first time. Some may want to skim a collection and return to specific resources when they’re needed. Others may only search for information if and when they encounter a roadblock. Regardless of learning preference, a comprehensive collection of self-service resources can cut down on unresolved issues and delayed answers. This can take the form of a knowledge base, a shared drive, or an intranet. Wherever you keep your information, make sure it’s easily accessible and logically organized.
– Is your information stored and organized in a public place?
– How do new employees know where and how to access this information?
– Who monitors the accuracy and currency of this archive?
📍 The Roadmap: The Syllabus
A syllabus tells you more than what to expect from a class; it lays out what the teacher expects of you. Supplying an onboarding roadmap makes it easier to track progress, eliminates ambiguity, and gives new hires the chance to ask questions about the road ahead. Our road map outlines weekly expectations for what they should be learning, doing, or billing.
– Do your new hires know what is expected of them during the onboarding period?
– Do new hires know what meetings and events they can expect to attend during onboarding?
– Have you clearly outlined the transition from onboarding to everyday job responsibilities?
📋 Feedback: Course Evaluations
Nothing is ever perfect the first time, and every time we onboard, we find ways to improve. For a truly employee-focused process, you need to build active opportunities to solicit feedback from recent hires. Data from formal surveys has many uses, but it may tell only part of the story. Anecdotal feedback, the kind you get while making small talk before a “real” meeting begins, is just as valuable—and sometimes even more telling. And remember: if you’re not going to act on feedback, why ask for it at all?
– What formal and informal opportunities are there for new hires to provide feedback about their experiences?
– How are you storing and analyzing quantitative and qualitative feedback?
– How can you expand the conversation by seeking onboarding feedback from managers and team members?
🚸 Stewardship: Parking Lot Duty
During drop-off and dismissal, a school parking lot is a frenetic place. It would be anarchy without someone acting as a traffic cop/cross-guard/rule enforcer/supervisor. Someone needs to be in charge, just as onboarding needs a clear owner. This doesn’t mean that one person should handle everything; but one person needs to maintain a big-picture view of the onboarding process, delegate tasks, make sure things are running smoothly, and design feedback loops. In the absence of a designated steward, things are bound to fall through the cracks.
– Does your onboarding have a clear owner?
– Have you created an intentional communication plan to share essential information with the employee prior to the start date and throughout onboarding?
– How can you partner across functions to improve the onboarding process or get greater buy-in from stakeholders?
🎉 Cultural Immersion: The Pep Rally
Who doesn’t love a good pep rally? Like lunchtime and school dances, pep rallies gave us a chance to catch up with our friends, make new ones, and relax from the tests, required reading, and high-stakes group projects. Incorporating breaks into the onboarding process leaves room for new hires to get to know their new colleagues as people, not just co-workers. We’ve experimented with a few different ways to encourage cultural immersion, from company-wide meet & greets to small-group cohort programs.
– What opportunities are you creating for new hires to get to know their colleagues and build relationships?
– Is leadership modeling connection-building?
– What aspect(s) of your company culture do you want your new hires to experience from day one? What are you doing to encourage that feeling?
👋 The Human Touch: Your Guidance Counselor
AI can do amazing things, but it can’t replace the warmth of human connection (yet). Centering the employee experience means preserving the human element. Especially when you’re processing a deluge of information, it can be a relief to know there is a living, breathing person who can parse your questions and find you the answers. It’s also important to have a contact besides the employee’s manager, which encourages new hires to be open and vulnerable about their questions without worrying about the power dynamic of a brand-new reporting relationship.
– Who is the ongoing “first-line” contact for new hires?
– How are you directing new employees to this primary contact?
– Are there both formal and informal opportunities to ask questions during onboarding?
The Final Bell
Designing a functional onboarding process is difficult. Designing an employee-centered process, doubly so. Evaluating your responses to the questions above can point you toward where your process might need work. Then, consider the assets you already have: stretch systems you already use and find team members who are passionate about welcoming new employees into the fold.
As students at the School of Onboarding, we’re sophomores: we’ve learned the ropes, and we know where all the classrooms are, but there’s still a while to go before graduation. In fact, graduation might not even be the goal.
Pliancy’s onboarding process isn’t perfect and probably never will be. That’s a feature, not a bug. Onboarding needs to change as companies change; companies need to change as the world changes.
Every day is a first day. Are you up for the challenge?
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