Onboarding is like a second date. You’ve already made a good impression via the hiring process and your candidate journey; now, you want to continue to develop and solidify the relationship.

Fundamentally, onboarding is about getting employees up to speed and feeling comfortable in the organization. But a powerful onboarding process does more. It creates a sense of belonging, of being at home and equipped to be effective in their new role, and sets up a new employee for success. It gives new team members a strong foundation of the organization’s methodology, people, and culture and helps them navigate the complexities of a human system. For a powerful onboarding process, it needs to be more than checking the boxes on the inevitable activities. Given the Great Resignation that organizations are experiencing across the board, establishing an intentional onboarding process is critical for those who want to retain top talent.

We spoke with a number of individuals who onboarded with a new employer within the past year. Here is what CHROs and other executives need to know.

Design a process that nurtures relationships

One of the biggest mistakes organizations make in onboarding is focusing uniquely on skills and information and overlooking the importance of relationships. An exceptional onboarding process facilitates a sense of relatedness between new and existing team members.

For example, some organizations ask new employees to schedule informal conversations with other members of the company. These conversations cross-functional and departmental lines, giving new employees a sense of what others contribute to the organization and helping to break down silos. They also give people a chance to learn about each other’s lives outside of work.

Some organizations assign new employees an “onboarding buddy”— an existing team member who can answer questions at regular check-ins, and whom the new team member can observe in real-work situations. These relationships often continue even after onboarding concludes.

When organizations nurture a culture of relatedness, they see the results in their bottom line, including engagement. For example, a survey from the Society for Human Resource Management found that among employees who report high levels of engagement at work, over three-quarters have strong relationships with co-workers.

In the words of one individual, “[Establishing relationships] makes you feel comfortable and welcome in the company.”

Prioritize flexibility and independence

Onboarding processes are often rigidly structured, with each of the new employee’s days planned. While organizations might take comfort in consistency and control, new team members chafe under it. Instead, individuals preferred when their organization clearly delineated onboarding expectations, assignments, and due dates, and then let them proceed independently.

“I had assignments—readings, shadowing, conversations I needed to have—and I was given the autonomy to manage the work myself,” said one individual. “[The company] gave me an adequate timeline, and then it was up to me to schedule the work in my calendar and get it done.”

Clarity makes an impact: according to one survey, employees are 23% more likely to stay with an employer if the onboarding process is clear.

In our post-pandemic survey, respondents reported that they no longer felt they needed to put up with inflexible work environments. The same sentiment applies to onboarding. Ultimately, flexibility is a sign that an organization respects its people.

And like regular work, onboarding is something team members should be able to complete in a hybrid or remote fashion—especially if the job requires relocation, and hires may have loose ends to tie in their prior locale.

Don’t rush

There’s an understandable impulse to get new team members on the ground running as soon as possible. But like a good second date, a strong onboarding process doesn’t rush things.

It pays to allocate enough time—around eight to ten weeks was ideal for the individuals we spoke to—for new employees to form relationships, and ground themselves in the organization’s tools, methodology, structure, and culture. Employees might take on some work while onboarding, but they shouldn’t assume their full accountabilities until they’re completely onboarded.

“In the past, I’ve had onboarding experiences that were essentially a required information dump, and then I was being flown out the second week of work,” one individual recounted. “[At my current organization], I appreciated how they brought intentionality and patience to the process and didn’t push me into things.”

The return on investment shows up in the quality of work. When new team members begin working with clients and taking on projects of their own, they have the background of relationships, skills, and knowledge to perform exceptionally.

Continuously iterate and improve

As circumstances and the organization evolve, the onboarding process also needs to grow and change. A dynamic process ensures that onboarding provides its intended value to a new employee and the organization.

To make sure a new hire is navigating their first few weeks of work powerfully, ask them to complete a short onboarding survey after two or three weeks. The only person who needs to see the results is the onboarding manager, who can then course correct if necessary. If you haven’t yet done so, make sure you also ask for feedback on your candidate journey: what was valuable and distinctive, and what could be improved.

At the end of the onboarding period, ask for feedback via another survey, and check to see if the employee feels at home and effective in their role. Consider sending a survey to their manager as well to know what has worked and what might be missing in the onboarding process and activities.

Key takeaways

Too often, organizations overlook the onboarding process. At the core of powerful onboarding is intentionality.

  1. Strong relationships are requisite for success at a new organization. The onboarding process should facilitate the cultivation of relationships between team members.
  2. New employees prefer flexibility and autonomy over rigid structures. Outline clear expectations and assignments, then let individuals complete them at their own pace.
  3. Avoid the temptation to get new team members on the ground as soon as possible, and instead allocate enough time—often around eight to ten weeks two or three months—for employees to establish relationships and know-how. Reap the benefits in the high quality of their work.
  4. Review your onboarding process from the perspective of the “customer”—i.e., the new employee. Survey the new employee and their manager during and after onboarding and make adjustments as needed to create a useful and empowering mechanism that benefits the employee, their manager, and the organization.
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