The psychology of onboarding: Part 1

Suddenly, you are there: in front of the entrance door of your new workplace. Perhaps it's the first time you fully realize you are about to enter a whole new landscape of people, ways and manners. Maybe it's also the first time you're standing as the new girl in the class and feel that you don’t really belong here. Yet. Or maybe all of this already hit you earlier - when you signed the contract. Or when you said goodbye to your old colleagues and closed the door for the last time and realized that you don’t belong there anymore. Perhaps you will go through the first day waiting for the feeling of being a stranger to go away. Maybe that will happen if someone invites you to lunch. Or when you get your business card. Perhaps you hope that the feeling of belonging will come true during the afternoon, with the handout of the staff manual and the two-hour introductory course for the intranet?  Maybe you will notice it a little on your way home and when you tell your family or friends about the first day at the dinner table? Maybe...

 

Is onboarding good business?

Onboarding is a term that denotes the process a person goes through when starting a new job. The term is also called organisational socialization, the introductory program, the culture process, etc.

Onboarding is not a new concept, and of course no new phenomenon at all. All organisations onboard all the time. What's new, however, is the increasing attention that the process is getting today. Onboarding is slowly reaching a level of professionalism in line with disciplines such as recruitment, engagement, performance management, etc. In many ways, onboarding is the missing piece in the employee ecosystem.

The new attention is primarily driven by the business advantages. Is it good business? The answer is an undisputable Yes. Companies investing in onboarding have better retention (Ganzel, 1998), shorter time to performance (Lombardi, 2011) and higher employee engagement (Maier & Brunstein, 2001; Meyer & Allen, 1988).

In spite of this attention and the obvious arguments for investing in onboarding, there are still relatively few structured approaches to help us understand what is really important in the onboarding process. What does the experience of being ‘onboarded’ look like and feel like, and what contributes to a good onboarding experience? What is the psychology of onboarding?

 

The importance of psychology in onboarding

Onboarding is above all a psychological process This means that it is dependent on the individual and collective experience of starting in a new job.  And that it is an emotional as much as it is a rational process. For organisations, it also means that onboarding is not something you can communicate your way through. It is a process that must be led and facilitated. Successful onboarding cannot be secured through an orientation programme. It must be tackled as a broader phenomenon.

So many aspects of psychology are present in onboarding, and many different theoretical perspectives help us to understand what potentially is happening in the process and what potentially will support it. For example, narrative psychology shows how our self-telling guides our search for meaning in the story of work and organisation (Bruner, 1990; Crossley, 2000). Social psychology and the constructivist approach illuminate how our entry into groups, and our ‘practice fellows’, affect what opportunities we experience as new employees.  Developmental and pedagogical psychology both contribute to our understanding of how performance and competence development can generate both energy and momentum – or stagnation and illegitimacy - depending on how we introduce our learning environment and culture (Berk & Winsler, 1990).

By strengthening our grasp of onboarding psychology, we can really help organisations get more out of their hard-won talent and - in the process - help many people have a better experience when starting in new jobs.

 

Onboarding is a process of transition

The key idea that this article would like to promote is the importance of respecting onboarding as a transition, that is, a change process that is not just something the new employee has to "do". This process both affects, shapes and challenges the employee.  It’s not just an innocent introductory phase, but a real change, which the workplace must actively lead the employee through.

Here the concept of 'transitional scripts' from religious science has a surprisingly strong explanatory power for the transition involved in onboarding. Transitional scripts are related to changes in social status and the process of moving from one state to another. They are used especially when a person's role changes or when she enters a new stage of life. Transition scripts typically have three phases:

The separation phase where the person is removed from her normal position and placed in a special, ‘holy’ state separated from the normal world. For example, marked by a physical removal from the normal residence, a special decor or by removing status symbols.

The liminal phase where the old identity dies, and the person is in a non-state where she is neither the one nor the other. In many cultures, this phase is perceived as particularly critical, as the person is now very exposed through having lost her old identity.

The incorporation phase where the person returns to the normal world, the sacred and emotional state has ended, and she now possesses a new identity and social status. The dangerous liminal phase is now complete, and life can begin again (Gennep, 1909).

The parallels to the onboarding process are easy to spot: The new employee goes through a transition process which will change her. It is imperative that organisations do not consider onboarding merely as a program that can be implemented, and which is defined only by time and activities. It affects, shapes and challenges the new employee on a personal level, and she can only get through it if she throws out old behaviours and takes on new behaviours, new understandings and new feelings. And this transition needs more help than just communication.

Thus, it is not enough just to present the ‘culture’.  You need to make sure that the employee understands the culture and relies on it. Networking is not just something that can be designated or made available.  You may need to help the employee, by facilitating and intervening in their networking activity. Goals should not only be clear, you need to ensure that they are seen as meaningful and achievable. The organisation must manage and track the transition. Not only to see that the onboarding program is carried out, but also to make sure it has the right effects.

 

How the transition can go ‘off the rails’

There are many ways that things can go wrong when we onboard people. Here are three very different examples from our work with clients in Denmark.

1. Hanne: ”I never really let go of my old workplace”

Hanne was a skilled R&D project manager who had been recruited for a very exciting position. According to her own account, it was a dream job, with more responsibility and a higher salary. Unfortunately, her first working day was delayed by one week, just before she was supposed to start. Ironically, the start day was moved because the new employer wanted to ensure a good onboarding programme, and the person who was the primary resource for this had suddenly to be elsewhere in the planned start week. Hanne had quit her old job, but during the week when her start had been postponed, her old company reached out to her with an attractive offer to stay. They also matched the salary of the new job. Hanne chose to stay in the old job.  As she explained it, she felt she "was not really done with that place". Two months later, Hanne was a jobseeker again. In the end, it was too difficult to restore the relationship with the old workplace.

In most cases, when an employee signs the contract with her new workplace, she has given up her affiliation to another workplace where she used to belong. She has left what she knows and taken the step into the transition. Excited, but also counting on us to help her through. As a transitional script, the beginning of something new represents the ending of something else. If the onboarding is not successful, the employee is left without belonging anywhere. Or like Hanne in the above example, choosing to quit the transition to search back to the familiar.

2. Henrik: ”Somehow, I just kept being that new guy”

Amongst the Sioux Indians, young warriors, as part of their transition to adulthood, were hung up under the roof of the tipi with hooks in the breast muscles until they got a vision of what they would be when they became adults. In a particular Buddhist culture, the children are ritually carried by their hands and feet to signify respect for how fragile they are. Not touching the ground.

The point is not that we should expose our new employee to extreme pain or carry him so that he does not touch the ground. But the critical part of the transition is ensuring that the new start is not caught in the ‘border country’:  half onboard, half off board. When you're a pupa, you cannot become half a butterfly. But what are you? If the onboarding program stops for some reason, or because there are no more activities and milestones attached to it, that does not necessarily mean that the transition is complete, even though new employees may well stay there for a long time. That was what happened to Henrik.

Henrik was a supply chain leader, whom I personally coached for a year. He was hired into a management team in a large Danish food business. He had been headhunted because he had a different profile than the rest of the team:  an academic background, MBA, experience working abroad and generally highly specialized in his field. In addition, he had a high level of intelligence and impressive analytical sharpness. The other management team members had grown up in the organisation. None of them had any executive education other than what they had received through the company. But they had performed amazingly well and driven the company to a whole new level.

They had brought Henrik in to add something new. I met him two and a half years after his entry into the position.  He was very frustrated, yet at the start of our collaboration he had incredible difficulty putting his finger on what he was frustrated about. He had the necessary space and freedom. He actually performed really well. He had made some brave decisions and had not experienced criticism from colleagues on the management team. But he was not backed up either. After a while, we were able to articulate what he was feeling; that even though he performed well, he somehow kept being the new and different one. Henrik went back and challenged his boss with this observation. His boss confirmed that the management team generally had the experience that although they were very impressed with Henrik, they did not quite think he was one of them. Somewhere they still had him on trial. The boss also confirmed that it had taken other managers further down the organisation at least five years to really be considered ‘one of us’. We stopped the coaching. Henrik gave it a year more. Then he left the company.

3. Annika: ”I never got over the experience”

Respecting onboarding as a transition also means taking seriously how it affects people when they start in a job and the onboarding process is not successful. It can truly hurt people when they start out at a high altitude but then land flat on their stomach.

Annika was 50-years-old when she was hired to manage the administrative systems in a small start-up business. The company had grown rapidly in the last six months and had difficulty managing this growth. There were many administrative systems, and they did not 'talk' together, so the challenge was to manage many processes simultaneously and keep all the balls in the air. This was Annika's competence and experience from her previous job in a publishing company.

She was really happy to be recruited to the new job, and with her new employer. It was agreed that Annika should start by picking up a lot of knowledge about the existing systems from her colleagues. But then something really bad happened. The colleagues had been under massive pressure and had to postpone important projects. So, when Annika needed their help to draw on their knowledge, there was no one to support her. They were all trying to catch up on their postponed work. Unfortunately, Annika was not good at asking for help, so she just threw herself into the task, and tried to master it all on her own. She was in the job for half a month. Then she was sick for more than a year. Today, she reflects that she never really got over the experience.

 

How can we build the sense of belonging?

In a large Indian consultancy firm, the choice of words used in the onboarding program describes this all-important psychological movement in the transition very poetically. As an overall title the introductory parts of the program are called "I begin". The closing parts are called "I belong".  This describes the movement from entering the journey until you feel that you have arrived. It is a very neat characterization of how onboarding is all about emotions. Being onboarded is about the growth of a sense of belonging. This is no simple feeling, and it is a difficult practice to induce it, but as an organisation you can do a lot to create a ground for the feeling of belonging if you structure and design onboarding properly.

There has not yet been a thorough study of all the different emotional experiences that determine whether onboarding is successful. But studies point to some key emotions (Bauer, 2014). There is the feeling of understanding and matching the organisation's culture. The feeling of knowing someone. The feeling of being able to do your job correctly. The feeling of being able to navigate safely around the organisation without making too many mistakes. The feeling of contributing to teamwork and collaboration. The feeling of performing and contributing to the organisation.

The new employee in the transition moves in a complex landscape of emotions. This is clear from our work reviewing the existing research, conducting our own research and our practical experience of working with organisations and individuals to improve their experience of onboarding.  Part of the complexity of this landscape is because some of the feelings that arise almost contradict each other.

In the process of investigating the psychology and identifying the emotions involved in onboarding, we have mapped the field into three overall tracks. Our aim has been to establish a starting point for a more systematic approach.  These are tracks which every new employee moves through - no matter what the onboarding program looks like. The challenge is how she gets through the tracks.

The first track we call forming. A new employee must be integrated into the organisation's culture and the culture must accommodate the employee. It is both a cultural forming process in which things like the organisation's vision, mission and values are internalized, and a shaping process that involves managing the employee's behaviour with rules and procedures.

The second track we call connecting. A new employee must be connected to others. It is an ‘official’ relationship-making process in which the employee must be linked in to the official networks. It is also a personal relational process where she must find her new 'friends'. And it's a process where collaboration, both in local relationships and the relationships that go across and out of the house, plays a big part.

The third track is the track of unfolding. A new employee must find ways to use her skills and deliver value to the organisation. It is an unfolding of the employee's independence and competencies, based on the organisation's success criteria and ways of working. It is also an unfolding and development of her potential through the challenges and demands of performance set by the organisation.

We have linked our division of these three tracks to Daniel H. Pinks motivation theory (Pink, 2009). Pink points out that the road to high performance and satisfaction in the modern world goes through a deep and fundamental human need to: a) contribute to the world we live in; b) be able to control our own lives; and c) be able to learn and improve ourselves. His theory gives clues as to where each of the three tracks should end and how onboarding designers could steer the process more effectively.

 

Track 1: Forming, with culture and rules

People seek meaning, says Daniel H. Pink. We have a basic need to tell a coherent and meaningful story about ourselves and our lives. We are concerned about whether we can see ourselves in that story, and whether it's a true and good story.  This means we are looking for meaning in the things we are asked to do. We also need ongoing feedback to provide this sense. With new generations entering the workplace who are accustomed to responding – and being responded to -- quickly in many other contexts, the requirement for speed in this feedback has grown. In addition, people are increasingly looking for a ‘bigger’ meaning. They need to feel they are part of something that extends beyond themselves and contributes in the world - in a good and true way. If the new employee fails in finding his own story and finding his place in the organisation's story, a basic human need is not being covered. As the employee goes through the forming track, 'meaning' or the sense of meaningfulness is therefore a good coordinate to look after. There are two dimensions of the forming track: culture and rules.

Culture is a problematic concept to define, and elements of the other two onboard tracks (connecting and unfolding), you can certainly also see as part of the organisation's culture.  But in the forming track we try to draw on the parts of the culture which relate to the organisation's cultural narrative, its values organisation and its formal and informal norms. There are a lot of emotional experiences that an organisation can choose to support, and it is one of the key onboarding design exercises to find out what your main onboarding ambitions are. The table below summarizes some of the most important emotional experiences that are all potentially present in an organisation's culture, and the resources one can choose to invest in to deliver them.

Emotional experience Onboarding focus Onboarding resources
”I feel that I am part of something bigger” Focus on the meaningful and coherent story about the organisation’s culture. The story about the culture.

The story of the past, the present and the future.

Strong and credible storytellers

”I feel welcome and awaited” Focus on readiness, ’the good host’ and honouring the new employee’s arrival. Administration of onboarding activities, checklists and roles.

The ‘welcome’ flowers on the table, breakfast, etc.

Onboarding swag (cool stuff with logos and the like)

”I fit in” Focus on making the written and unwritten rules of the culture visible The story of the values.

Knowing and legitimizing the unwritten rules.

Spaces for dialogue to explore and understand the culture

 

Rules and requirements for regulatory compliance are a very direct way of regulating behaviour, and thus also constitute a fairly large part of what an organisation uses to ‘form’ its new employees (Herrero, 2010). Rules are in many ways also culture. But rules need special attention, because using them in a clumsy manner can undermine all three of Pink’s basic motivational factors. They often take up a lot of energy and space in many organisations, and there is often a tendency to make the rules the first and perhaps primary focus of the onboarding program. That priority rarely does anything good for the onboarding experience, however. The table below summarizes the potentials and resources in the rule dimension.

Emotional experience Onboarding focus Onboarding resources
”I can do things right” Focus on understanding and preventing the new employee from making mistakes Flexible and available learning resources.

Flexible ’on-the-job-training’ practices and mindsets amongst the staff.

Knowing areas of potential failure and risks.

”I can vouch for this” Focus on creating meaningful, well-justified and transparent rules and processes Knowing and prioritizing the most important rules and processes.

Visual and verbal pedagogical presentations of systems, rules and processes

”I don’t really think about it anymore” Focus on practicing and integrating rules and processes Flexible and ad-hoc training and competence development programs available.

Executing and consistent leadership resources

 

Track 2: Connecting, via networking and collaboration

Annelise is a lawyer and has created an express career for herself in a large law firm. Two years ago, she decided to switch to a larger, more traditional and prestigious organisation. When Annelise went for lunch at the canteen on her first working day, she sat down, by mistake, at the partner table, where senior lawyers do not belong. You can imagine the silence as everyone in the room waited for what would happen next. Annelise is a gifted and sensitive woman, so when the first partner sat down at the table, she quickly and quietly went back to her office desk with her food. But the damage was done. Everyone had seen it, and she knew it. The next day, of course, she did not make the same mistake. She sat down at another table. But this time she ended up at the assistants’ table, where she did not belong either. Again, there was a complete silence in the canteen. Had Annelise not been so good at catching signals, she might never have discovered that she had made a second mistake. But she is, and she finished her first two working days with feelings of being wrong, and not belonging anywhere.

Talking to Annelise six months later, she told a story about an organisation that had generally been really hard to start in. A workplace with a very competitive culture and many sharp elbows. Annelise's rescue came when she and a colleague, Gitte, discovered they shared an interest in dogs. The two became friends in private. Had it not been for Gitte, Annelise would have looked for another job.

According to Pink, the second key to human motivation lies in an experience of autonomy. Human engagement is higher when people are allowed to do what they want to do, in the way they want to do it, with those they want to do it with. In the organisation's goal-oriented reality, one can rarely give full autonomy, but surprisingly, you can go very far to support people's experience and sense of influencing their own life in the organisation. Perhaps paradoxically, one of the most important things you can do is to connect employees with each other. Having the right connections is a basic condition for being able to find one’s way around the organisation, both professionally and socially. There are two dimensions to the connection track: networking and collaboration.

Networks: Access to most of the connection track’s resources lies in understanding how to access the organisation's different networks. It is a complex landscape of both formal and informal structures, some of which are easy, and others almost impossible, to become part of. A complete overview of all connections and how they are created is hard to create, and resource-intensive to maintain. Nevertheless, there is much to be gained by getting smarter in this respect. An organisation's network can be divided into four different levels (Stamps & Lipnack, 2007).

Organisational networks Work networks Knowledge based networks Social networks
The formal network of titles, organisation charts, etc. Ideally, power and communication flows through these well-defined tubes and deploys according to the wishes and designs of top-management. These structures and hierarchies are visible and are a ’need-to-know’ for the new employee. A similar formal network arises based on practical cooperation around projects and operations. Both internally in teams, across teams and the organisation. The work network can also be made relatively transparent, but most of us do not have the same overview as we have over the organisational network. There are gains hidden in mapping some of the most important parts. Our employees have a wealth of knowledge and interests that they can, and usually like to, share with others. The knowledge-based network can promote creativity and problem solving. But it can be hard to get an overview of who knows what, and where and how to access this. Knowledge is not always linked to the tasks that a particular colleague is formally responsible for. The personal relationships that arise in organisations are primarily private. But they also arise as communities that others can be invited into, even outside the context of work. Social networks can be an easy shortcut to creating bases of safety and commitment, and as an organisation, you should not be afraid to invite people to create communities about things other than work. It will only increase employee engagement.
Transparent networks Non-transparent networks

 

The table below indicates some of the emotional potentials that are inherent in an organisation's network.

Emotional experience Onboarding focus Onboarding resources
”I know someone” Focus on involvement, networks, trialogues, reciprocity and on utilizing time Knowing and visualizing the hierarchical and work networks.

Buddy- or affiliation programs.

Resources that grow the relationship to the direct manager.

A mindset in favour of generally involving employees

”I have a ’hinterland’” Focus on internal and external networks and on professional identities Access to networks.

Access to information.

Stakeholder maps

”We bike” Focus on friendships, small groups, being new and on creating a general openness. Focus on social networks, voluntary activities, minorities and shared interests Overview over and access to voluntary and social networks on the organisation

 

Collaboration is often an onboarding dimension, which is under-prioritized or completely overlooked in many organisations. Collaboration is a special dimension of creating relationships because it has its own dynamics and its own influence on the new employee's transition (Kammeyer-Mueller & Wanberg, 2003).  This is important when you zoom in on the cooperation of the local team and on what onboarding means for the dynamics and well-being of the team. And also, when you zoom out and look at collaboration across the organisation, including onboarding in the light of the organisation's ‘silo-formation’ and overall cohesion. Collaboration is largely outside the control of the new employee and is an area that requires readiness, facilitation and help. At the same time, it is an area where the organisation not only affects onboarding, but onboarding can also be used to influence the organisation. Examples of collaborative experiences that have a positive influence on onboarding are:

Emotional experience Onboarding focus Onboarding resources
”I contribute to the team” Focus on the processes of the team, revisiting and rebooting the team Knowing and visualizing the history of the team and its processes.

Facilitating leadership behaviours

”Someone was ready to support me” Focus on team dynamics, cliques, conflicts and constellations. Focus on readiness to interfere in collaboration challenges and failure to thrive Knowing socially risky areas and dynamics.

Knowing employee satisfaction and having tools for intervention.

Affiliative and involving leadership behaviours

”We are great – but so are you” Focus on cross-functional collaboration, silo-bridge-building activities and coherence Knowing key cross-functional barriers and bridges.

A generally collaboration-focused work culture

 

Track 3: Unfolding, in competencies and performance

The level of engagement and performance in an organisation are, in the end, based on the competencies of the employees and the results they can deliver. When organisations recruit, that’s where they start: They have goals to be achieved and they need staff who have the skills to help them do it.  If they do not directly recruit the competencies, they go for a person who has the potential to acquire them. In Daniel H. Pink's world of concepts, there is a connection between the development of competencies and the fact that, as humans, we like to master things. ‘To master’ is something that Pink considers to be a "driver" in humans. Getting better at things is fundamentally satisfactory to us, he argues. That's why we have leisure activities. That’s why we create things. It’s important therefore for the organisation to be aware that people want to learn by themselves to master things; it is not always necessary to push employees through special performance requirements, goals or even more or less hidden threats. The drive for more mastery already exists. The unfolding track deals with the organisation's opportunities for challenging and developing new employees. The track is divided into two dimensions: competencies and performance.

The competencies part of the track deals with how the organisation uses resources to unfold its new employees' knowledge and skills, and how, through tasks and challenges, it can help to create an experience of mastery and competence in those employees.

Emotional experience Onboarding focus Onboarding resources
”I can do it” Focus on self-efficacy and the experience of being a success.

Focus on the tempo in results, patience, trust, acceptance and satisfaction

Knowing how to break down tasks and preparation.

Knowing how to do on-the-job training

”I develop” Focus on the right level of challenges, the right help, and the importance of mistakes, disturbance and time alone Knowing the new hire’s ‘zone’ of proximal development.

Understanding potential and competence-needs

” I have a long-term perspective” Focus on early career development and long-term development plans Career development tools.

Cross-boarding tools.

Dialogue about employee development.

Coaching leadership behaviours

 

Performance  

Performance and competencies are obviously very closely linked together. Performance nevertheless represent an independent dimension because results have the ability to create strong feelings for the new employee: a unique and powerful sense of accomplishing something (Sniechowski, 2014). Results can make employees into heroes within the organisation - and even into international celebrities.  Good performance gives us the experience that we are contributing with the right thing; that our contribution has value, and it is we who created the value by performing well. This part of the unfolding track is about using results to speed up the new employee’s transition.

Emotional experience Onboarding focus Onboarding resources
”They are counting on me” Focus on choosing the right output, avoiding ‘crap tasks’ and giving signals of trust Mentor-roles.

Processes for setting expectations

”They use my knowledge” Focus on activating new knowledge and on connecting the dots Knowing role-definitions and needs.

A mindset generally appreciative of employees

”They know what they want” Focus on expectations and onboarding goals A good grasp of performance management.

Feedback-oriented employee and leadership culture

 

A model with all the necessary onboarding dimensions

Thus, the employee must move through three tracks and six dimensions at the same time - shaped and formed, opened up and connected with others, unfolded as human being and performer. Therefore, it is not a simple exercise to design the transition process. It requires both an overview and attention to detail.

The overall onboarding model reproduced below with the six dimensions has been developed to provide a balanced approach to the organisation's onboarding design.

The Onboarding Model ©

Watch a short video about The Onboarding Model

 

Onboarding in practice

In 2015 OnboardingGroup conducted a survey of 250 Danish organisations to establish their 'onboarding readiness' (OnboardingGroup, 2015). One of the things we asked them was where they felt responsibility for onboarding would be best placed in their organisation. The results: 13 per cent believed it should be within the HR function, 35 per cent thought it should be with the line manager and 52 per cent that it should be in both places. Asked where the responsibility actually was located, 24 percent said it was somewhere other than it should be. The conclusion to that part of the investigation was that confusion prevails in organisations as to how onboarding should actually be executed in practice.

This article has been focused on the psychology of onboarding, based on an understanding of what is at stake in the onboarding experience for the new employees, and committed to the purpose of making it a better experience for everyone involved. But this covers only half of the scope of the onboarding function. The second half of the challenge lies in exploring how best to use the onboarding resources of the organisation in the onboarding design and organisation execution.

There are many trends in onboarding today. New onboarding management systems, on-line onboarding portals, gamification of onboarding processes.  It’s important to assess to what extent these approaches take into account the psychological perspective. Everything that strengthens the good and engaging onboarding experience is pointing in the right direction. But ... the risk arises when organisations believe that the key to the good onboarding lies in these tools only, and that an onboarding portal can program them out of the onboarding challenge.

In order for onboarding designs to work, onboarding designers must prepare their organisation to take on the practical tasks in the local environment where the primary part of the operation takes place. This requires structure. And that requires competence development for whoever takes on the task. We will look more closely at all of this in the next article: The Psychology of Onboarding, Part 2.

 

Reference list

Bauer, T.N.: Onboarding New Employees: Maximizing Success. SHRM Foundation (2014).

Berk, L. og Winsler, A.: “Vygotsky: His life and works” og “Vygotsky’s approach to development”, i: Scaffolding children’s learning: Vygotsky and early childhood learning. National Association for the Education of Young Children (1995).

Bruner, Jerome: Acts of Meaning. Harvard University Press (1990).

Crossley, Michele: Introducing Narrative Psychology: Self, Trauma, and the Construction of Meaning. Buckingham: Open University Press (2000).

Ganzel, R.: ”Putting out the welcome mat”, Training 25-27 (1998).

Herrero, L.: Homo Imitans. Meeting Minds (2010).

Kammeyer-Mueller, J.D. og Wanberg, C.R.: “Unwrapping the organisational entry process: disentangling multiple antecedents and their pathways to adjustment”, Journal of Applied Psychology 88 (2003).

Lombardi, M.: Onboarding 2011. The Path to Productivity, Aberdeen Group (2011).

Maier, G. og Brunstein, J.C.: “The role of personal work goals in newcomers’ job satisfaction and organisational commitment: A longitudinal analysis”, Journal of Applied Psychology 86 (2001)

Meyer, J.P. og Allen, N.J.: “Links between work experiences and organisational commitment during the first year of employment: A longitudinal analysis”, Journal of Occupational Psychology 61 (1988).

Pink, D: Drive, Riverhead Books (2009).

Sniechowski, J.: “The 5 Key Emotions of Success”, Huffington Post (October 28, 2013, last updated January 23, 2014), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jim-sniechowski-phd/the-5-key-emotions-of-success_b_4103830.html.

Stamps, J. og Lipnack, J.: The Stadium Parable. Mapping the Whole Organisation (2007), http://www.netage.com/networks/parable/Stadium-parable-doc.pdf.

van Gennep, A.: Les Rites de passage. É. Nourry (1909).

Wenger, E., McDermott, R. og Snyder, W.M.: Cultivating communities of practice. Harvard Business School Press (2002).


The psychology of onboarding: Part 2

A previous article on ‘The Psychology of Onboarding, Part 1’ had the goal of understanding what is at stake for an employee starting in his new job.  This second article suggests what you can do with this understanding, in order to make the best use of an organisation's resources when designing onboarding in practice.

In the first article, we identified three different dimensions of onboarding. We viewed the process of onboarding as a transition through which the organisation must support its new member to undergo three important psychological movements: the forming of the employee; the connection of the employee into the organization; and the unfolding of the person and the high performer potentially hiding inside the person. We drew a map of an undertaking that requires insight, and both an overview and a sense of the details.

 

Onboarding Readiness

Our first article considered the psychology of onboarding based on a premise that an organization actually has a structured process to execute its onboarding design in. That is not, however, always the case. So, before we look at how to design onboarding in organizational practice, let’s stop for a moment to consider the general readiness of organizations in relation to onboarding.

In the autumn of 2015, we carried out a survey in Onboarding Group to better understand how far Danish organizations have come with their onboarding efforts. We got answers from large as well as small businesses and across industries[i]. The study shows that 88 per cent of the participating organizations agreed to a high or very high degree that a structured approach to onboarding has a positive effect. On the other hand -- and in that light, it may seem paradoxical -- only 30 percent replied that they had such a structured approach to a high or very high degree.

On the positive side, many of the organizations already had to some extent a process in place to give their new employees the best possible start. However, the development of onboarding processes in most places was at a very early stage: Only 20 per cent of the organizations believed that they were good or very good at onboarding new employees. And only one in ten measured the impact of their onboarding efforts.

The overall conclusion is that these organizations, though they did focus some attention on onboarding, did not have sufficient structures or competencies in place to ensure its success. Only 3 percent had implemented a fully structured approach to onboarding. Very few, therefore, represented "best practice". No less than 79 percent had ‘little or no degree’ of the processes, structures, and competencies needed to ensure successful onboarding. Four percent had not started with structured work at all, while 75 percent had begun, but lacked concrete tools to support the work[ii].

It is important for every organization to create insight into where on the onboarding journey it is. It’s not necessary to be able to do it all at once, but it will be very helpful to come up with a plan to move towards best practice.

 

The Onboarding Model

So how do we lay this plan? How do we put it all together? How do we identify and prioritise the experiences we want to strengthen in our new employee? How do we design the specifics of our onboarding program? A good exercise is to start by creating a better understanding of what we are already doing. In the figure below, with which we ended the first article and which we call our onboarding model, we have gathered together the three onboarding tracks and their dimensions:

The six dimensions of the onboarding model can be used to map out where organizations have placed the emphasis in their onboarding programs, and conversely, where they could advantageously intensify their efforts.

We urge the reader to take a moment to complete this exercise: Write on a blank piece of paper all the activities that currently are included in your onboarding program, and place each in one of the six dimensions of the model (listed around the outside wheel). Some will be easy to place, others may be harder because they can represent more than one thing. However, try to place them in just one field. The pattern gives a first impression of how you have prioritized the experiences that you give your new employees. There is no right or wrong pattern. But you might realize there are areas that you prioritize very highly, and you probably see that there are areas with very little focus. The question is whether the current prioritization ensures a good enough experience for the new employee and whether the organisation's resources are being used optimally.

 

Onboarding ambitions

Designing an onboarding programme to be a good experience for the employee is, naturally, only part of the story. It must, of course, support the business objectives for this recruitment process and our ability to create commitment and retain people longer term. In order to find the best design, an organization needs to be clear what its ambitions are for the onboarding programme, in each of the model’s six dimensions.

These ambitions should always point in two directions:

  1. What emotional experiences do we want to strengthen in our new employees? What will help them best and quickest to experience the feeling of belonging with us?
  2. How should onboarding support the development of our organization? Where can onboarding be a channel for creating necessary and desired changes in how everyone works?

Onboarding can be a unique opportunity to "disrupt" the organization's status quo. We get a new member, who we can influence from the beginning, and if we are ready and sharp, we can, through the onboarding programme, create small changes in the behavior of our current employees.  For example, onboarding can be an excellent way to bridge organizational silos by letting new employees solve tasks across functions before they grow into their own function.

 

Resources

Many organizations have had to learn that theory can be very far from practice in terms of executing a strategy. This applies, not surprisingly, also to an onboarding strategy. Let's pull the theory down to earth with an example from a public organization[iii]. It does a lot of on-the-job training as an onboarding method - and does it well. The concept is known and cultivated throughout the organization, both among managers and employees, and there are dedicated HR resources to handle the onboarding design. Nevertheless, the local onboarding manager did not find it difficult to give an example of a situation where things went wrong anyway. In that case, she had consulted the new employee’s line manager to make sure everything was ready. And received a clear affirmative answer.  She believed with certainty that her design worked well in the organization.  However, when she visited the department a week later, the new employee was just sitting passively at her desk. There was no one else present. As the onboarding manager caught up with the line manager, it turned out that they had simply forgot. The person who was originally set to keep track of the new colleague in the first days had been allocated to another task.

Workplaces are dynamic and busy places, and this example is not included to point fingers at those involved. But it shows in its simplicity the general challenge: that onboarding does not necessarily run according to plan. It does, however, take place in practice. And practice is dynamic and complex. Practice changes with the small fluctuations that occur in normal daily working life. We cannot change that, but we can be aware of it and use our resources based on this premise.

In the example above, the onboarding manager was well prepared to get things back on plan, but this is far from always the case.  In some places, work colleagues are being given the role of trainer, who should never have had that task. Either because they do not know the organization well enough, are not good enough communicators, or are not familiar enough with the various rules, or some other reason. Likewise, some employees are being appointed to act as buddies, who have neither network, empathy nor communication abilities to carry out the role. Readiness for onboarding is all about ensuring that the necessary links in execution are working properly. The idea that the key people take onboarding seriously and prioritize it highly is more than just a design. Onboarding is a culture that must be cultivated and staged.

 

So, however well designed the onboarding programme is, it needs the organization, the managers and the new employee all to engage in it in order to be successful. They can all be considered as resources that are important parts of the process. In the figure above, we have illustrated four types of onboarding resources. We can imagine every resource as a kind of safety net that can catch the employee if the flight altitude drops. Here are some quick definitions of the four types of resources before, in the rest of this article, we unpack them further.

Onboarding resources are the level of activities and tools that we shoot into the organization in order to create the best possible onboarding programme for the new employee.

Personal resources are those that the new employee brings into their job: attitudes, personality traits, experiences, skills, existing networks and so on. Some employees are so resourceful, they need no support for their onboarding at all. They manage it themselves.

Leadership resources are the level of support available from both the line manager and the management structure generally. Even in organizations where there are few onboarding resources, a skilled leader with an understanding of onboarding can easily carry an employee through the process.

Organizational resources are needed so that both managers, employees and the onboarding design can be put into play at all.  For example, if we have never explained strategy in our organizational culture, it will naturally be difficult for the manager to convey it further.  Or if we have developed an advanced mentoring program, but our mentors have no idea what a mentor does or should focus on, it will probably also be a somewhat difficult process. Etc.

Finally, we will look at Onboarding in special situations. This section covers particular issues concerned with the onboarding of managers; onboarding in global organisations, virtual organisations and start-ups; and onboarding of interim employees.

 

Onboarding resources: What do we have – and what do we need

The first check of our onboarding program was to make sure that we prioritized the six dimensions in accordance with our ambitions. The second check that we should do is look at the types of activities we have put into the design.

The activity matrix here is a key tool in our onboarding design. Vertically, the matrix has six onboarding dimensions. Horizontally, the matrix is divided into five types of onboarding activities:

Welcome activities - basically dealing with meeting the new employee. They do not necessarily have actual content, and they can be physical meetings, written exchanges or even virtual meetings – for example, the ‘virtual handshake’ with new team colleagues, where everyone presents themselves to each other on video on an online platform.

Information activities involve giving the employee knowledge. The activities are designed so that the new employee must either be able to remember the new information or simply know where it exists and when it is relevant.  Examples might be introductions to the organization's formal and informal network, or to the team's meeting structures and decision-making processes.

Learning activities - in which the new employee must acquire competence.  This might include training in the use of certain tools, or in specific processes and procedures.

Support activities - where we are ready to support the new employee through the onboarding. Such activities might be designed to intervene or follow up where we know that the new employee can face challenges or more formal follow-ups on how the onboarding goes.

Output activities - are about the new employee having to deliver or perform something. The output can be in writing, verbal or through actual behavior. It can be a test result where we check the new employee. Or a task where we challenge the new employee to give us new solutions for problems.

We again encourage the reader to use the model to check the balance of your onboarding activities.  Bear in mind that many organizations have a weighty load of information activities.  Imparting information alone holds the risk that we do not sufficiently involve the employee and thus risk-reducing her motivation. In general, we recommend that you increase output activities as much as you can. They demand active attempts at new behavior by the employee, giving both us and her an opportunity to see how she understands and translates the things she has learned. However, one must be aware that the more you turn up the output requirements, the more you challenge the assumption that onboarding is actually a period where you still have to make mistakes and be "on the road".

Portals

Digital onboarding portals are a trend in onboarding. They are not in themselves activities, but unifying resource centres for the activities. Research has shown that a visual overview of the onboarding process helps the new employee[iv]. It gives her a perspective on how long the process is, and it gives her the opportunity to see the wider context that individual parts of the process fit into. Some systems are arranged with a "percentage indicator" that fills in more and more with each activity. This is in itself of small significance but can have the same emotionally motivating effects as achieving a "real" result.

Portals that act as the employee's primary door of access to everything in the onboarding period, with links and access to all the other processes, can also be helpful and experienced a bit like a Bible in the early days with the organization. Finally, we have also seen portals that are integrated process control tools. These follow the progression of the new employee and point out when there are activities to be completed. They also warn their immediate manager and colleagues about their responsibilities and timing.

Gamification

Another trend we have witnessed is the use of games in onboarding activities. Gamification is a term used when people "play" either existing processes in the organization, or "play" learning and competence components that belong to the processes.  For example, this might happen by giving points for completed activities or by translating knowledge search into the organization into a board game, quiz or the like. Gamification is proven to be a strong strategic tool for recruitment, engagement, performance and retention[v]. Organizations using gamification have, on average, a 20 percent better overall onboarding experience score than organizations without, and also have an average retention rate of 11 percent better. In Onboarding Group we’ve developed a game to reconcile the initial expectations of the manager, colleagues, and the new employee.  Some organizations have used gamification more ambitiously, for example by setting up the entire workplace as an information treasure hunt, which can take a few days to get through.

Measurements

Another trend is to put more emphasis on measuring the success of onboarding, and Onboarding Group has developed a method for doing this[vi]. It is becoming especially important within the HR function, where the requirement to demonstrate effectiveness increases all the time.

It is central to ensure that such measurements are used in a constructive manner – both generally in the organization as a whole, and specifically in the onboarding process. The power relationship between employee and manager is already unequal, and in the onboarding period, this is, even more, the case, at least until the new employee finds his or her own position and base. Measurements may risk increasing the imbalance in an unconstructive way, but on the other hand, they can also be designed in a way that encourages a co-operative dialogue between the new employee and her line manager or the onboarding manager.

We have developed our own measurement tool, which continuously collects data about the organization's onboarding results. It gives both line managers and the onboarding manager an overview of how both the individual onboarding programmes and the overall design are working. The local department can use the measurements to find out when an individual onboarding process is running off track. Those with overall responsibility for onboarding can keep an eye on whether there are managers in the organization who need help with a particular aspect of onboarding.  Using this system, in 2015 we had enough data to establish the first real “norms” in Denmark for onboarding activity.

Rhythm

Many organizations take on a large number of new employees every year, and when onboarding takes place in large volumes, it is effective to establish rhythms of activities in the calendar[vii]. This could mean having monthly or quarterly introductory meetings or other activities that are repeated so that new employees can be collected continuously in teams. It is, of course, crucial that a new employee does not lack important information because they have to wait for the next planned activity. But certain activities are suitable as rhythm activities, and there can be money savings and quality improvements when the activities can be repeated and refined in this way.

Roadmap

 

It is essential to make the activities as concrete as possible in a plan, or as we call it: An Onboarding Roadmap ©. A very central factor in onboarding is actually time. Many onboarding programs are too short. The biggest number of organizations, as the figure below shows, have programs that are over after three months. Many don’t continue beyond 14 days of the new hire’s employment. Research on time-to-performance and break-even on recruitment suggests that onboarding programs should last for six to twelve months for maximum benefit, but most are already ebbing out during the first month.

Four critical periods

Organizations should have a strategic plan for how to navigate critical periods in the onboarding process. Critical periods here must be understood as periods when we must pay extra attention to the new employee's flight height.

Four critical periods are:

  • From contract signing to the first day
  • The first day
  • After the first 30 days
  • After the first 90 days

In our experience, these are key times when new employees are more likely to “jump off” if we haven't got them onboard properly. It can be a benefit for organizations to have a design that spans a whole year, but it is the first three months that, according to the retention statistics, are most critical. Therefore, we should use them as onboarding milestones.

In the example below, we made an Onboarding Roadmap © for the first critical period from contract signing to the first day. This period is also called pre-boarding, and there is a great, often untapped potential at this time to get onboarding off to a good start.

 

Personal resources: What does the new hire bring himself?

The people we hire always come with a lot of resources themselves. If we are lucky, our new employee potentially can cope with the entire transition him or herself.  Several times in our research, we met new employees who had virtually no help in their onboarding process but had in no way experienced that as a problem.  People like this seem to have the resources to search for information themselves and to seek out and if necessary, challenge the key people. We have come across employees who have just landed in an organization that has matched them and where they wanted to be. But we have certainly also met the opposite.

There are many things we can take into account in relation to people's personal resources in our onboarding design. Many recruitment processes involve personality profiles and tests which, though rarely used after the recruitment stage, can actually give quite a few hints about what the workplace should potentially be aware of in onboarding the person. [viii].

One perspective becoming increasingly important is to take into account which of the three generations currently active in the workplace that our new employee comes from. Below we have summarized a number of features it is helpful to be aware of for each of the six onboarding dimensions when we have to relate to the employee's generation:

Baby Boomers (born 1946-1960)

We can expect “boomers” generally to start with an optimistic perspective in the workplace and a relatively high work ethic.

Culture: They grew up in the information age. Expect them to be engaged in pursuing competitive wages, stable employment, meaningful work, and prospects for a pleasant retirement.

Rules: Expect a skeptical relationship with rules but beware of an authoritarian enforcement of the organization's rules. Boomers were young in the 1960s and 1970s. They have grown up in the battle between great world forces and in a time of revolutions. If changes are to occur, they would rather create them themselves.

Network: Expect them to seek satisfaction by creating personal relationships. We should support this where we can.

Collaboration: Expect a hate-love relationship with authority. They mostly believe in democratic leadership, consensus, and congruence. We should help them quickly to get the influencing dimension of collaboration.

Competencies: Expect them to be most loyal to their own careers and to work hard to live up to their expectations of themselves. We should give them as much responsibility as we can. We can advantageously "deal" with them: if they give something, we also give something.

Performance: Expect them to be competitive. We can use competition to motivate them, and they respond well to challenging work and decision-making tasks.

Generation X’s (born 1961-1980)

We can expect generation X employees to have a skeptical perspective on the workplace and a fairly balanced work ethic.

Culture: They regard work as a kind of self-fulfillment mission, and want a coherent narrative that promise wealth, work-life balance, and early retirement.

Rules: They were young in the 1980s and 1990s and have witnessed profound social and political upheavals. Expect them to thrive on rules that constantly transform and evolve. They have grown up in the age of technology, and welcome change as something that works for and supports them.

Network: They may be reluctant to commit too closely to their relationships and may be selective in their loyalty. We should support them by creating breadth in their networks.

Collaboration: They are not much impressed by authority and believe most in leadership through competence. We should support them by clarifying roles and competencies in close cooperation with them.

Competencies: Quick access to interesting and meaningful work/life choices and development opportunities is important to them. We should support them by opening the career door explicitly.

Performance: Expect them to deliver results, but remember their deep desire for, and understanding of, work-life balance when you put pressure on them.

Generation Y’s (born 1981-2000)

People born in the late twentieth century are likely to have a hopeful workplace perspective and a determined work ethic. Time magazine calls them "the me, me, me generation", but not necessarily as a negative thing.

Culture: Expect them to seek to build wealth and devote themselves to their special interests and passions. Expect to meet someone with a very "compelling", ecological and meaningful story. Keep in mind that in the world they have grown up in, the consequences of activities on a global scale have become increasingly visible. Expect them to view the workplace through the same technological lens that they use for all other parts of their lives: immediate, open, and without limitations.  The era of their youth has shown them that nothing is guaranteed. Instability and rapid change are the norm.

Rules: “Gen Y” employees, because they have grown up in an age of integrated technology, see change as inevitable, pervasive and accelerating. Also, expect that they have a different relationship to many traditional rules.  In their world, physical presence is "optional". Just as one does not have to "go" to the bank, physically download a rented film, etc., it is also not necessary to be physically present to work. According to a survey carried out by PWC, many will prefer more flexible working time over promotion. Training that only exists to support "compliance" may also be challenged by this generation. On the other hand, rich learning experiences that support the employee's own interests and passions, and which can be considered as a personal investment, will most likely be popular.

Network: First, expect that they know more about what a network is, and what it can do, than you do! You should also get used to a completely different degree of voluntary sharing and connection, and that they use networks in a more project-oriented way. They need to be able to access networks navigate them both physically and in their "native" digital media. Expect this generation generally to be inclusive in their relationships and that they expect loyalty to go both ways. We should support them in forming social networks that can be the foundation of their other networks.

Collaboration: As children of the baby boomers, they often have a polite perspective on authority and believe that leadership is positive if it promotes a common goal. Expect them to work well together. They have grown up in school systems that have required co-operation and conflict resolution, and they are not afraid of it. They should thrive on teamwork, but you need to support their various collaborations by ensuring that the objectives and goals are always clear.

Competencies: Expect them to see work as an opportunity for continuous learning and change. We should support them with an environment where even mistakes are the source of learning and development. Despite their self-confidence, they appreciate support, so be. prepared with the whole package of buddies, mentors and coaches. And close management. Also be aware that they expect to have many careers throughout their lives. They will know what they can get from being in your particular organization, and in general, they will be very honest about what their own intentions are.

Performance: Expect Gen Y’s to thrive on fast decision-making, stimulating work, continuous feedback and very frequent recognition. They need confidence in performing - and are used to "posting it". Also, expect them perhaps to have a different relationship to financial results than you – and also to time. For this generation, time is no longer money. It is yet another limited resource to be used wisely.

 

Leadership resources: How much do our managers master?

We have all met them during our work or organization life: Leaders who inspire and move us. Who want us to achieve something. Who see things in us, we didn't know we had. That changes our careers and our lives.   Such leaders can carry an organization's onboarding without any particular tools or activities, without the organizational resources ready and in place. They can make us feel like we belong, just because we want to belong with them.

On the other hand, we have all met the opposite. Managers who have had all the resources available; who are surrounded by HR and other functions that help and take care of everything for them yet fail to connect with us.  They do not inspire us, we will not sacrifice for them, we don’t want to go into work with them. The managers we have to leave again quickly.

Onboarding requires management resources.  Having a good onboarding design is not enough - it is vital we also have the leaders to convey and support the intentions of the design. We have studied how each of the six dimensions of the onboarding model requires support from the leader. Specifically, we have linked the onboarding model with six management styles, as defined by Daniel Goleman. According to Goleman, a leader typically has one to two styles that fall most easily to her, but in reality, the management task requires us to switch between all six. Leadership is not just what comes most naturally, but a reflected and considered choice. In onboarding, the leader must be able to make use of all six styles to optimally support his new employee. [ix]

This is not the place to explore these styles in more detail.  But it needs to be emphasized that in order to adequately cover our onboarding process, we have a task as an organization to ensure that the local manager and the management cadre as a whole have the competencies to support all the different onboarding dimensions.

 

Organisational resources: How capable is our organisation?

If we haven’t formulated our values, it will be difficult to require our new employee to know them. If we don’t know what networks make up our organization, it will be difficult to introduce the new employee to them. If we don’t have firm control over procedures in the organization, it will be difficult to demand that the new employee follow them. Etc.

In other words, it is clear that our onboarding design is based on a number of assumptions about our organizational readiness and maturity. These are preconditions for successful onboarding. Let's look at some of them:

Administrative resources

It is important not to ignore the importance or scope of the administrative task that comes with onboarding. Large organizations often have designated staff allocated full time to the administrative part of onboarding, which can easily include up to ten different roles in different departments. An organization's administrative checklist will depend on its complexity, but we can generalize some guidelines for the administrative process:

# Keep administration centralized. It may well be that responsibility for content is located in local departments and with individual managers. But there is no doubt that the administrative task should be standardized and centralized. It ensures execution.

# Designate an onboarding administrator. Place this centralized responsibility with someone who has the resources (skill, time, experience etc) to execute the process. They should then have the responsibility for checking that, for example, the IT department carries out its tasks in the onboarding programme.  Having a central administrator keeps the focus on one or more people who have onboarding at the top of their agenda.

# Prepare checklists for the most important roles involved in the onboarding: the department manager, the line manager/team leader, closest colleagues, HR, other support functions and the new employee.

# Build checklists into your roadmaps (as explained above) and use your roadmap structure to organize them so that all roles involved in the onboarding have a checklist for the period from contract signing to first business day, a checklist for the first working day and so on.

Knowledge, structure, competences

We strongly support the principle of keeping onboarding practice as simple as possible. It may well be that the conceptual framework is complex, but practice must be kept simple, to manage and structure the effort - and keep it updated. One of the most important things is to find a good place to start. It's not about doing everything at once, but about finding out what's most important to get in place to live up to our onboarding ambitions. We have divided the organizational resources into three categories: knowledge, structures and competencies. In the model below, we offer an example of the resources for a number of key onboarding initiatives:

Organisational resources: In personalized form

Since it can be an unrealistic ambition to expect our entire organization to have the competencies in place to support onboarding, it makes good sense to designate and train special roles for it.

Each of the six onboarding dimensions can be personalized in a single role or person.

Culture’s "grand old man": This denotes a person who has been in the organization for many years and may no longer be full-time but has been given a special onboarding role[x].  It may include introducing new employees to the culture, but also conducting less specialized technical and introductory courses. The role gets its power in the symbolism the person represents: This is an organization that she has invested much of her life in, and still wants to vouch for.

The compliance officer: Makes sure new employees know and comply with the rules.  Many workplaces have a head of compliance[xi], who is responsible for working with regulatory compliance throughout the organization. We have seen in several cases how having a separate focus - not just on the rules, but on compliance with them - brings benefits to the onboarding programme. If you have a compliance function, it needs to be involved in onboarding. Control and compliance are not always negative things but depends on how we market them. If the compliance function is, in fact, the place employees can approach to get answers to their questions or have their work evaluated according to the formal rules, the role can have positive and helpful associations.

The network buddy: Buddy programs work well in many organizations[xii]. However, who we choose for the role is important.  Ideally, this will be employees with good relationship-creating abilities and a high degree of empathy.  It can also help if such people are relatively new to the organization, so they can still recall the onboarding process themselves. It’s good to involve buddies at an early stage of onboarding and to keep the scheme voluntary.

The guardian of collaboration: This is someone who is vigilant that the organization has a focus on co-operation. Among other things, make sure that resources are available to facilitate collaborative and team processes, to ensure engagement and take care that conflicts do not undermine teamwork.  To personify the resource for collaboration is more of a challenge than the other five personifications because co-operation takes place both in a local, close team environment and across organizational barriers. In the local team, the guardian of collaboration should be the closest leader.

The coach of competency: A role that falls somewhere between the on-the-job-trainer role and the mentor role. The coach will typically be focused on developing the new employee's competencies. Professional coaches may well help with instruction, but they can also help the new employee to reflect through questions and techniques. Coaching adds an extra loop to learning when the new employee both learns and also reflects on how she learned it.

The mentor of results: A mentor is an experienced person who, through counseling, sparring, guidance, coaching, and feedback, shares his experience and competencies to support someone else's development[xiii]. We should train our mentors and give them the resources to prioritise the role. Mentors can be given wide responsibilities, from evaluating the employee's tasks and their strategic prioritization to solving collaboration challenges and designing development plans. We should also give them responsibility for the new employee's results. This ensures that they support the performance dimension in our onboarding model.

 

Onboarding in special situations

We have used the term "the onboarding manager" in several places in the articles. This is on the basis that it is not always the closest manager who is responsible for the new employee's onboarding. Just as it is not always HR or another department. Organizations place responsibility for the onboarding task in different places[xiv]. There is no data available to show where the onboarding program is best located, but there is evidence that it is crucial to place it[xv].

Below are our key guidelines for anyone who wants to establish what we could call the onboarding organization:

# Focus on standardization, consistency and repeatability in the onboarding design. Execution in practice is usually located elsewhere in the organization, and this will support it.

# Evaluate and standardise feedback about the onboarding program.

# Take the time to bring the right stakeholders into the design process.

# Continuously develop the onboarding program. Create the program, set goals, adapt, reach out to others and involve them.

# Assign responsibility. Create an informal and voluntary organization that can support the work in practice.

# Measure the onboarding. Visualize the measurement results. Get the results on the agenda of senior managers at regular intervals. This, and the previous article about onboarding psychology have considered onboarding in general terms and from a broad angle. In a variety of situations, however, one has to think in more detail to create the conditions for success.

Onboarding of managers should in practice be arranged differently from that of other employees[xvi]. Leaders must certainly go through the same onboarding tracks as their employees, but there are important additional factors. Obviously, getting top executives up and running quickly is important because these leadership positions are visible and make a significant impact on strategic decisions and the bottom line. Although onboarding programs for this caliber of management position are generally higher priority, up to 32 percent of global top managers report that their onboarding experience was poor.

Onboarding of managers is different from onboarding employees in key respects. Managers usually have several stakeholders, all of whom they need to keep track of and manage. Leaders need to be quicker to understand their organization and role because they are very promptly tasked with interpreting and communicating it to others[xvii]. Onboarding of managers should, therefore, involve an independent roadmap setting out priorities for the manager's collection of information and knowledge, as well as any communication initiatives needed. Leaders more often than employees are faced with unique and challenging situations that require unique solutions. The higher up in the organization a manager sits, the more tailor-made the onboarding usually needs to be.[xviii]

Global organisations

Even when an organization doesn’t think of itself as ‘global’, it can easily be operating globally and recruiting and moving employees and managers across national borders. We can advantageously use the onboarding model in global organizations, but we must pay extra attention to the different cultures we are operating in. When we onboard someone from another country or culture, we need to have a special focus on training in the local culture. Cultures are strong, and in particular, management culture and power distances can be very different from country to country[xix].

Second, in global organizations, you need to be clear what aspects of onboarding will be the same everywhere, and what will be handled locally. Both legislation and working conditions can be very different, so the local onboarding programs need to reflect this. Universal solutions are rarely viable in a global context, and often it can seem like a struggle to implement the onboarding ambitions because they are too focused on a concrete practice rather than on the deeper intention behind them.

Virtual organisations

Organizations are becoming increasingly virtual, and many employees can in practice work remotely and meet with their colleagues and stakeholders primarily online. In general, the virtual environment presents us with a challenge in supporting a large number of the emotional experiences on which onboarding is based[xx]. We have a challenge to create an experience of different frames and of the environment.  ‘Virtual onboarding’ requires that we do something extra using our virtual platforms - right down to taking pictures of the physical offices. When employees do not come to the office, we must bring the office to them.

Of course, networks and relationships also require a special effort in the virtual environment, such as requiring that all members of the virtual team always meet using live video. Learning is generally more structured and modular than in normal onboarding. Career development as well. Virtual collaboration also demands a higher degree of sharing of unfinished products. You need to be able to ‘work out loud’[xxi], as it is called. Share things that you are not completely finished with and maybe not yet completely proud of. In the physical office, we can see our new employee, track her performance and her well-being, provide immediate feedback and take immediate action, all of which has a number of obvious benefits. In the virtual environment, we need to invest more in the employees' ability to handle the tasks on their own. We also need to invest more in concrete follow-up and evaluation of the process.

Onboarding in start-ups

Onboarding in start-up companies also requires separate attention. Start-ups are very often chaotic, high-energy ventures. Much happens. Continually. And for many start-ups, growth in itself is the main focus and can create dramatic changes, which any HR function or onboarding programme may find it difficult to keep up with. If that is, an HR department or onboarding programme has been established at all. The start-up company lives in uncertainty, and this is also the case for its employees – including the new ones.  It can, however, still be a good idea in onboarding to have very clear communication about what that uncertainty entails. New employees should understand how important their onboarding is to the company's ability to reach its goal and ultimately survive. In order to thrive in a start-up environment, it is often also necessary for new employees to take much greater responsibility and a strong sense of ownership for the company's success[xxii].

As a start-up grows, so does the complexity. This may mean we need to communicate more frequently and in a much wider range of changed contexts and conditions than in a well-established business. The whole company may have changed in a week because of some basic decisions. New employees can quickly face challenges because what they just learned is no longer valid. Start-up companies must remember that people have not chosen to work in the company because of its name and brand, which is not yet visible in the market. New employees in start-ups have already made clear that they do not want to be a drop in the ocean in a large and established company. Therefore, it is also important that the start-up company does not treat them as such.[xxiii]

Onboarding Interims

There are also employees who are not really employees: the interim employees, temporary staff, consultants and other people[xxiv]. They also need to be on board if we want the maximum out of them. In fact, one could point out that onboarding of ‘short-term employees’ is more important because of the short length of employment. We do not have so many chances to correct any difficulties that may arise Onboarding of interim employees is a special area because, among other things, there are often requirements and expectations for such employees to be able to onboard themselves, and it’s important to be very clear about this[xxv].

If we use a lot of short-term or fixed-contract staff, it is a good idea to start making life in the organization easier for them and by doing so, increase their efficiency. We can develop specific information collection procedures that ensure such employees quickly become well-informed to the exact level required to perform the tasks. We can ensure they get support from the right stakeholders in the organization. We must remember that the information for such employees need not be complete. It just needs to be sufficient. We must develop good follow-up and acceleration tools to ensure that the temporary employee retains their value and vigour throughout the period.

    

In the many years we have been working with onboarding, we have learned to understand and respect the complexity of the subject. Of course, we have also learned that everyone - all organizations and all new employees - is unique. Everyone has their own unique features, their own unique story. The same is true of their objectives, and their set of resources. In the two articles, we hope to have offered some useful images and frames across all of these unique features, and we hope you can use them to guide and inspire your own investments in onboarding.

    

References

Bauer, T.N.: Onboarding New Employees: Maximizing Success. SHRM Foundation (2014).

Bauer, T.N. & Elder, E.: Onboarding newcomers into an organization, invited presentation at the 58th Annual Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Conference and Exposition. Washington, D.C. (2006).

Berk, L. & Winsler, A.: “Vygotsky: His life and works” and “Vygotsky’s approach to development”, in: Scaffolding children’s learning: Vygotsky and early childhood learning. National Association for the Education of Young Children (1995).

Bruner, Jerome: Acts of Meaning. Harvard University Press (1990).

Conger, J.A. & Benjamin, B.: Building leaders: How successful companies develop the next generation. Jossey-Bass (1999); Fulmer, R.M.

Conger, J.A.: Growing your company’s leaders: How organizations use succession management to sustain competitive advantage. AMACOM (2004).

Crossley, Michele: Introducing Narrative Psychology: Self, Trauma, and the Construction of Meaning. Buckingham: Open University Press (2000).

Dai, G., De Meuse, K. & Gaeddert, D.: Onboarding externally hired executives: Avoiding derailment – accelerating contribution, poster presented at the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP), Atlanta, GA (2010).

Ganzel, R.: Putting out the welcome mat”, Training 25-27 (1998).

Goleman, D.: Leadership That Gets Results, Harvard Business Review (2000).

Herrero, L.: Homo Imitans. Meeting Minds (2010).

Hoffstede, G.: Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values (Cross Cultural Research and Methodology) (1984).

HR Trend Institute: 210 Talent Management Trends for 2016, http://hrtrendinstitute.com/2015/05/13/10-talent-management-trends-for-2016 (2015).

Kammeyer-Mueller, J.D. & Wanberg, C.R.: Unwrapping the organizational entry process: disentangling multiple antecedents and their pathways to adjustment, Journal of Applied Psychology 88 (2003).

Lederindsigt: Planlæg det kommende år med et årshjul, http://lederindsigt.dk/vaerktoejer-skabeloner/ledelse-og-organisation/virksomhedens-aarshjul/.

Laurano, M.: Engaging your New Hires on Day 1, Aberdeen Group (2014).

Laurano, M.: We’re off. Entrepid (2012).

Lombardi, M.: Onboarding 2011. The Path to Productivity, Aberdeen Group (2011).

Maier, G. & Brunstein, J.C.: The role of personal work goals in newcomers’ job satisfaction and organizational commitment: A longitudinal analysis, Journal of Applied Psychology 86 (2001)

Meyer, J.P. & Allen, N.J.: Links between work experiences and organizational commitment during the first year of employment: A longitudinal analysis, Journal of Occupational Psychology 61 (1988).

Onboarding Group: Onboarding readiness (2015)

Onboarding Group: Kvalitative interviewstudier (2015)

Ostroff, C. & Kozlowski, S.W.J.: The role of mentoring in the information gathering processes of newcomers during early organizational socialization, Journal of Vocational Behavior 42 (1993)

Pink, D: Drive, Riverhead Books (2009).

Sibbet, D.: Visual Teams. Wiley (2011)

Sniechowski, J.: “The 5 Key Emotions of Success”, Huffington Post (28 Oct 2013, updated 23 Jan 2014), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jim-sniechowski-phd/the-5-key-emotions-of-success_b_4103830.html.

Stamps, J. & Lipnack, J.: The Stadium Parable. Mapping the Whole Organization (2007), http://www.netage.com/networks/parable/Stadium-parable-doc.pdf.

Stepper, J.: Working Out Loud: For a better career and life. Ikigai Press (2015).

Tækker, C.: Rekordår for startups – igen, https://www.dtu.dk/Nyheder/2015/05/Rekordaar-for-startups-igen?id=d559193c-0e74-4a5c-91ca-ca8ce7bfd0f0.

Van Velsor, E. and Leslie, J.B.: Why executives derail: Perspectives across time and culture, Academy of Management Executive 8 (1995).

van Gennep, A.: Les Rites de passage. É. Nourry (1909).

Wenger, E., McDermott, R. and Snyder, W.M.: Cultivating communities of practice. Harvard Business School Press (2002).

    

Notes

[i] Onboarding Readiness© 2015. Source: OnboardingGroup.

[ii] See note 1.

[iii] OnboardingGroup and Moment Professionals in 2012-2015 conducted extensive qualitative interviews in a large number of organizations and gained insight into their onboarding programmes. For privacy reasons, we have chosen to anonymize them in our cases.

[iv] The most effective onboarding programmes are documented in writing and visually, communicated to everyone and are systematically followed over time. Source: Bauer, T.N. and Elder, E: "Onboarding newcomers into an organization", invited presentation at the 58th Annual Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Conference and Exposition. Washington, D.C. (2006).

[v] Gamification is on the way into the onboarding and talent management world. Especially where simple games can be used to train and test social and cognitive abilities. In recruitment, we also see it moving in the form of simulations of life in an organization. In performance management in the form of played leaderboards, etc. Source: HR Trend Institute: "210 Talent Management Trends for 2016", http://hrtrendinstitute.com/2015/05/13/10-talent-management-trends-for2016 (2015).

[vi] In order to adequately assess its onboarding design, it is important to measure its effectiveness. This can be done, for example, through onboarding surveys (33 percent of respondents have done so in a survey from 2014) and by tracking the implementation of the organization's onboarding activities (28 percent of the organizations surveyed have done so in the same survey). Source: Laurano, M .: Engaging your New Hires on Day 1. Aberdeen Group (2014).

[vii] More and more HR departments have in recent years adopted the thinking about an HR year wheel. A strategic one-year planning model that ensures that specific tasks are taken care of, and ensures that resources are optimized, for example by keeping activities at fixed intervals and ‘collecting’ the employees who need to participate in the activity. Source: Insight into the insights: "Plan the coming year with an annual wheel", http://lederindsigt.dk/vaærkoejer-skabeloner/ledelse-og-organisation/virksomhedens-aarshjul/.

[viii] Bauer, T.N.: Onboarding New Employees: Maximizing Success. SHRM Foundation (2010).

[ix] Christian Harpelund has since 2003 been working on the development of Daniel Goleman's original description of six management styles. In 2004, Christian Harpelund published the management concept 6styles with the focal point of the style and their underlying emotional skills. In the book here we have processed from 6styles in relation to the six dimensions in the onboarding model. Source: Goleman, D .: "Leadership That Gets Results", Harvard Business Review (March-April 2000).

[x] See note 3.

[xi] The chief compliance officer (CCO) of a company: a manager with overall responsibility for managing and coordinating compliance within the organization. The CCO will typically report to the CEO or COO. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chief_compliance_officer.

[xii] Surprisingly, when you consider how central networking is in onboarding, a survey from 2014 shows that only 32 percent of the organizations surveyed offer networking opportunities such as a buddy scheme for their new employees. Source: Laurano, M .: Engaging your New Hires on Day 1. Aberdeen Group (2014).

[xiii] New employees who receive a mentor are more knowledgeable about their organizations than employees who do not receive a mentor. Source: Ostroff, C. and Kozlowski, S.W.J .: "The role of mentoring in the information gathering processes of newcomers during early organizational socialization", Journal of Vocational Behavior 42 (1993).

[xiv] When there is an owner of the onboarding process, the decision-making process is clearer, and responses to change and trends from any main organization are faster. HR is most often the owner of the onboarding process, followed closely by learning and development units. Interestingly, the onboarding process is rarely owned by an onboarding specialist. 43 percent place responsibility in the HR department. 25 percent place it in learning and development. 12 percent in the individual business units. 3 percent in recruitment departments. 14 percent in other types of functions. Only 3 percent have placed the responsibility with an actual onboarding specialist department. Source: Laurano, M .: We’re off. Entrepid (2012).

[xv] Placing a clear responsibility for and ownership of the onboarding program is a crucial tactic for the success of the onboarding. Source: http://blog.silkroad.com/index.php/2013/07/aberdeen-group-onboarding2013-report/#sthash.sBAXHilR.dpuf.

[xvi] Leaders and managers should be brought up-to-speed faster than employees because their positions are more visible and affect the bottom line more clearly. Source: Bauer, T.N. and Elder, E: “Onboarding newcomers into organizations”, presentation at the Society for Human Resource Management Annual Meeting, Washington, D.C. (2006); Van Velsor, E. and Leslie, J.B .: "Why executives derail: Perspectives across time and culture", Academy of Management Executive 8 (1995).

[xvii] Leaders are often brought in to manage strategic change, and therefore the onboarding of them will be different. Source: Dai, G., De Meuse, K. and Gaeddert, D .: "Onboarding externally hired executives: Avoiding derailment - accelerating contribution", poster presented at the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP), Atlanta, GA (2010).

[xviii] The higher a leader's level in the organization, the more the onboarding program should be tailored. Source: Conger, J.A. and Benjamin, B .: Building leaders: How successful companies develop the next generation. Jossey-Bass (1999); Fulmer, R.M. and Conger, J.A .: Growing your company’s leaders: How organizations use succession management to sustain competitive advantage. Amacom (2004).

[xix] Geert Hofsted's famous description of the differences in dimensions of different national cultures remains the basis of much of the international cultural and organizational research. Source: Hoftstede, G .: Culture's Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values (Cross Cultural Research and Methodology) (1984).

[xx] In the theory Visual teams it is described how different means of communication support different parts of the realization formation and team formation process. Some processes can be supported by pure virtual media and asynchronous in the interaction. Others must necessarily be face to face in order to achieve optimal performance. Source: Sibbet, D .: Visual Teams. Wiley (2011).

[xxi] John Stepper is quoted for coining this term. Working Out Loud is an expression that we increasingly make our work visible, just as we make ourselves visible on social media. John Stepper puts it this way: Working Out Loud = observable work + the story of your work. However, it also covers a working method in which a team makes work that is in process and which has not been completed to a greater extent, in order to invite others into the work with their contributions and continuous feedback. For virtual teams, the visibility of some of the work processes that you benefit from compensates for the lack of being physically close to each other in everyday life. Source: Stepper, J .: Working Out Loud: For a better career and life. Ikigai Press (2015).

[xxii] The thoughts in this section are written from the authors' own experiences as entrepreneurs over the past 15 years.

[xxiii] As an example of the start-up environment in Denmark, DTU can be taken. The number of start ups at DTU has grown explosively in 2014, when students and employees have established 51 new companies. Source: Tækker, C .: Record year for startups - again, http://www.dtu.dk/Nyheder/2015/05/Rekordaar-for-startups---igen?id=d559193c-0e74-4a5c-91ca-ca8ce7bfd0f0

[xxiv] Interim employees refer to an employment situation where the employment is limited to a specific time period determined by the needs of the hiring organization. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temporary_work.

[xxv] The interim employee is often employed as a consultant and usually gets paid a higher time-based salary as a counterweight to the fact that he or she does not have any job security. It often causes a high level of expectation about the person's competencies and abilities to solve the task in a consultative and independent manner. Source: http://cronos.dk/Interim_onboarding (2014).


What is onboarding?

Onboarding is the discipline of welcoming and integrating your new hires into the workplace. The definition is actually that simple. Organisations have always been doing it. Every organisation has an onboarding practice. But… not all are equally conscious about how they bring people onboard, and not all have invested equally in their onboarding design, content or practice. The increasing professionalism of onboarding is a more recent phenomenon, and the need for it is growing.

There’s a perception that nowadays that we change job more frequently. Actually, it’s not quite that simple. Some age groups do change their jobs more frequently than before, but others – including, maybe surprisingly, the younger generations - hold quite a steady tenure, especially in markets where labour demand has not been drastically increasing in the past decade. [i]

But, on average, our tenure is getting shorter. In January 2016, the Bureau of Labour Statistics reported the average employee tenure in the US was 4.2 years, down from 4.6 years in January 2014.[ii] So in most industries and professions, employers are having to spend more time and money on the attraction and retention of staff, and this area of expertise is increasingly coming into focus, with a greater emphasis on quality improvement and a higher level of efficiency. Turnover rates for white collar jobs in selected countries are set out below. These figures alone show the enormous extent of the potential demand for more effective onboarding activity.

 

*ILO 2015 (International Labour Organisation, agency of the UN). Employees in 'white collar' jobs

** Employee turnover rate, the percentage of employees who leave an organisation during 12 months CEPOS 2016 (https://www.cepos.dk)

 

Onboarding in the HR eco-system

Figure 1.1 The HR eco-system. The HR-field is an advanced eco-system, where onboarding appears to be the least developed discipline.

In the HR eco-system, right between the disciplines of attraction (employer branding, recruitment, etc.) and the disciplines of retention (engagement, performance management, career development, etc.), we find the discipline of onboarding. Onboarding is the vital link between the entrance of the new hire and his or her establishment in a successful everyday working life. In some companies, it’s a world-class link, highly developed and carefully nurtured. In others (and still in most, unfortunately), a missing link.

Where employer branding and recruitment have a long history of corporate focus – and of having tools, measures and integrated practices in place – onboarding has not had the same amount of attention or professionalization.

We learned long ago in the HR profession that a structured approach is probably the most important feature in our recruitment practice, in order to choose the right person to match the company, the job, and the expectations. Yet we do not seem to follow this learning through to the onboarding process, where in fact a lot is often left to chance in terms of what the new person will experience, how much support they will get and who will do what.

We have also known through the last decade that the hunt for talent must be turned increasingly into a hunt for potential since business changes so rapidly that it’s difficult to predict what talent will be relevant tomorrow. Yet we did not really integrate this knowledge into the onboarding process, where we still in many cases treat our new employees as if they just need to be uploaded with a stack of information and then use their own talents to create great results, without much further help.

As a result, when the process fails and the new employee chooses to leave us prematurely, we can have a hard time figuring out whether we are looking at the result of failed recruitment or failed onboarding.

 

Measuring onboarding readiness

    

For the past 4 years we have measured what we call an organisation’s onboarding readiness. We have learned that organisations have very different starting points when they decide to increase the professionalism of their onboarding. These starting points (shown in the diagram) form different stages of the onboarding journey. It is possible for an organisation to have components of several of the stages.  The amount of work it has done at each stage has a big influence on the quality of the next stage.

Onboarding insight: Some organisations have a very clear picture of how many people they onboard per year, how many they retain, what their time-to-performance is, and how their new hires experience the onboarding process. Some don’t have this type of insight at all. Those who don’t, often end up creating onboarding programmes driven not by data and actual needs, but by corporate information needs or internal ‘darling’ actions and events. Our data show that only 16 percent measure the impact of their onboarding programmes; 13 percent measure the business value of their onboarding; 25 percent measure their time-to-performance. Once an organisation gets more data, its onboarding efforts become more measurement driven, their design changes drastically, often towards more simple solutions, and they have deeper impact.  

Onboarding design: Some organisations have coordinated their onboarding ambitions and have consciously chosen the most important onboarding activities in a prioritized and structured design. Some don’t have an actual design but leave most of the programme to local managers and offer only access to information and rules, or requirements about how these should be presented. In our readiness data, 88 percent indicate that a structured onboarding design would support faster and better results in their organisation. Only 30 percent indicate that they have a structured design, and only 13 percent that they have a design which gets the best out of their new hires – in terms of both their previous experience and their potential. Once an organisation has a structured design, its central and local onboarding efforts go hand-in-hand, and the general onboarding experience, both the rational, knowledge-based experience and the emotional experience, starts to grow.

Onboarding content: Some organisations invest highly in their onboarding content. Colourful written materials, video-presentations, museums, intro-events, trained buddies, etc. The list can be very long, and over the past 4 years we have collected more than 200 concrete practices from around the world. In our data, 43% indicate that they have good onboarding content across different topics and needs. Once an organisation has invested in the right onboarding content, they experience greater corporate pride in the program, and a better and more fluent use of the materials globally and locally.

Onboarding capacity: Some organisations have trained their local managers and the colleagues who will ‘carry through‘ the onboarding activities and processes. In our data 50% indicate that their local managers have the skills and capacity to perform the onboarding processes well. Without the right skills or the right understanding of roles, any onboarding activity can lose its potential value. Once the skills and the right capacity are established, however, an organisation can actually do with very few planned activities, so long as they are carried out well.

Onboarding excellence: 50% indicate that they have the right administration and processes in place. This is contradicting the other findings and suggests that many organisations start at this end of the journey, establishing administrative resources before they have the design, the content or the capacity to be administered. Priority should be given to establishing the ‘right’ design. If not, you risk being highly effective at doing the wrong things.

Onboarding mindset:  In our work we´ve found some organisations where onboarding is not only a ‘programme’ or a ‘process’ but has been integrated into the culture as a natural part of work, and where all members of the organisation participate in empowered ways in welcoming and integrating their new colleagues. Our data shows that 29% feel that onboarding is a mindset in their organisation. The few organisations that do succeed in creating a common mindset, understand three key principles: No. 1 – The new starts are already motivated; No. 2 – It´s about them, not the organisation; No. 3 – Onboarding is a transition.

The measurements

We have seen, time and again, how becoming data-driven around your onboarding efforts can mean a positive revolution in the approach of organisations to their new hires. As stated above, there is a lot of value in figuring out how ‘ready’ your organisation is for onboarding, and there are also gains from evaluating the effects of particular activities you have put in place.

Our central argument, however, is that the most important element you should measure in onboarding is the emotional experience of your new hires. Onboarding Group has set out on a mission to create a global index for this experience. We use this measurement to help organisations understand what, in their specific context, culture, industry and structure, are the most important factors in the experience of their new colleagues. Below we share a few of the insights we have gathered.

 

The structure

In our collaboration with companies around their design efforts, we especially try to help them create a structured approach to onboarding. In our basic model, we have gathered three "onboarding tracks" (processes that a new employee goes through) and six key onboarding dimensions (areas of focus for enhancing the onboarding experience). The model can be used both to map where organisations have placed the current emphasis in their onboarding programme, and as a basic structure for measuring onboarding, thus creating clarity on what you are in control of, what is really important in your specific industry and where you would benefit from prioritizing your efforts.

The Onboarding Model - 3 tracks | 6 dimensions

Track One: Forming

People seek meaning, says motivational theorist Daniel H. Pink. We have a basic need to tell a coherent and meaningful story about ourselves and our lives. Therefore, we are also looking for the meaning of what we are asked to do in our work life. If the new employee is not helped to find his or her own story in the organisation's narrative, there is a basic human need that is not being covered. When the employee goes through the forming track, "meaning" and meaningfulness is therefore a good coordinate to navigate by. There are two dimensions to the forming track: culture and rules.

–         Culture

Culture is a problematic concept to define, but on the other hand is full of possibilities and symbolism. What matters is that new employees feel the organisation has a meaningful and inspiring story to offer. Not only on paper or on the history page of the website but reflected in the daily frames of reference and daily practice. Across industries, our measurements of culture indicate this is a key parameter in the first 1-3 months of the onboarding process.

–         Rules

Rules often take up a lot of space and focus in organisations and are often the focal point of many onboarding activities – but often mainly so that others in the company can feel "secure" that the new employee has been told what to do and what not to do. Many rules, however, are shaped and created by contexts that are complex and can be difficult to fathom for a new employee.  Moreover, when the rules come in large quantities, they can be quite overwhelming, and potentially a source of meaninglessness. So, rules are a necessity, but they must be clearly presented in a meaningful and gradual way. Although there are obviously differences between industries, our data about how rules are introduced in onboarding indicates that, even though they might have some importance from day one, the rules usually become really central to the new employee's engagement after about 6 months.

 

Track two: Connection

 

The second key to human motivation is, according to Pink, an experience of having autonomy. People's commitment increases when they are allowed to do what they want to do, in a way they want to do it, and with those they want to do it with. In the organisation's goal-oriented reality one can never give full autonomy, but perhaps surprisingly, one can go a long way to support people's experience and sense of having influence on their own working life. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, one of the most important things to do to ensure autonomy is to connect employees with one another. There are two dimensions to the connection track: networking and collaboration.

–         Networking

New employees need to feel they are being helped to establish a base from which they can relate to others.  The onboarding program should promote small local social spaces and affiliations. A complete overview of all connections and how they are created is difficult to get. Still, there is much to gain from becoming wiser about your employees' networks -- both the official and the unofficial, the work-related and the social. The data on networks shows that they are a central focus for a minimum of 6 months.

–         Collaboration

A bad environment for collaboration can scare away even the most dedicated new talent. The onboarding programme may need to help the organisation to become better at facilitating the team processes that take place when new people enter the pack. Collaboration has its own dynamics and its own influence on the new employee's transition. Some organisations are really good at preparing their managers for this facilitating task.  The data about collaboration is less clear-cut but suggests wide variations in practice - and an area where one needs to be very close to catching any challenges.

 

Track three: Unfolding

 

We must unfold the potential of these new resources and talents we have got through the door in the shape of our new employee. And we must dare to push the unfolding process. People basically like to learn to master things (and it is rarely necessary to push employees by means of specific performance requirements, performance goals or threats). The drive for mastery and coping with the given tasks already exists. The unfolding or development track is about the organisation's opportunities to create good challenges and engaging development for the new employee. The track is divided into two dimensions: competencies and results.

–         Competencies

New employees who feel they have arrived at a professional work place where they are both required and inspired to learn something, will become more engaged and will perform better. The competence dimension is about how the organisation uses resources to expand the knowledge and skills of its new employees, and how, through tasks and challenges, it can create an experience of mastery and competence for them. From our data it appears that the competence dimension is surprisingly important in the first 2-4 months.  From an onboarding design perspective, it’s important to create an experience of career development from day one.

–         Performance

The onboarding data indicates that new employees who have the experience of delivering concrete, and preferably important, results during the first three months have a better transition, no matter who they are. The onboarding programme should help the organisation improve its ability to design and highlight good results. Results and competences are, of course, very closely linked. Some organisations tend to use "pseudo" challenges in the onboarding period. We are starting to see companies daring to risk a little more and give the new employees more important challenges. These companies usually also get more out of the onboarding.

The Onboarding Model explained in 2 minutes

 

The Onboarding Index – and the honeymoon effect

An important discovery arising from our data-collaboration with our customers is what we call the honeymoon effect.

Figure 1.4 The honeymoon curve.  The honeymoon effect refers to the fact, that most new hires report a ‘dip’ or a ‘curve’[iii] in their emotional onboarding experience.

When new hires start in their jobs, there is a predictable curve in their emotional experience of the onboarding, going from high to low, to high again. The curve is based on data from an indicator we have created, called the Global Onboarding Index©, where we measure new hires’ experience on several measures of onboarding, and benchmark companies against each other in terms of their ability to create the best onboarding experience for their new hires. What the honeymoon effect and curve show is that new hires start with loads of expectations, and in general experience a positive energy and emotion around the time of starting in the new job.

However, the data also shows that new hires lose this sense of energy and momentum within the first three months on average. We could interpret this in several ways, but an obvious match with the experience from our onboarding work in practice is that during these months the new hires start to learn about the complexity of their job and role. This creates a sense of friction, which in turn erodes some of the hope and drive with which they started out.

Finally, the honeymoon effect tells us that it takes time for employers to re-establish the high emotional experience and energy. Knowing about the honeymoon effect gives an organisation several advantages. Firstly, we can learn something about when our new hires need support. If the dip happens in the second month, this is a strong hint that our onboarding activities should increase or change focus at this point. Secondly, if we start to learn about the steepness of the curve, we can become better at setting expectations and appreciating when and where we see new hires who climb the curve faster.

The highs and lows differ from company to company, but on average follow the visualization in the model above. What also varies is the point in time where the ‘dip’ in the score occurs. Investing in collecting this data gives a huge advantage – and most of the adjustments you must make accordingly as a company are basically done for free, as most of them are about spreading your design to match the curve.

Our data-collection for the Global Onboarding Index © has also provided strong evidence for the fact that, even though a company might, in theory, have ‘one’ onboarding program, there are huge variations in the internal effectiveness of the program, from department to department.

Table 1.1 Onboarding Index Variations across departments in a company’s Onboarding Index indicate that it is not always the overall design which determines the onboarding experience. Often local execution of the onboarding makes a bigger difference.

What these differences suggest is that the ‘local’ onboarding efforts can matter as much (probably more) than the centralized onboarding activities designed by headquarters. Again, several interpretations are available. Our key interpretation is that the impact of local leaders and their onboarding behaviour is one of the main factors behind the differences. No matter how well we plan onboarding, the relationship of the new hire to his or her local manager plays a key role in the onboarding experience. The potential gains of investing to make your local organisations more adaptable and readier to onboard are massive. Being able to narrow down investment in local leadership where it is most needed will benefit your onboarding success-rate significantly and learning across company borders about who does it and how, is not a huge investment.

 

Measurements lead to mobilizing

Even when an organisation has designed a good onboarding programme, it will of course only become successful if the organisation, managers and the new employee are fully engaged in its execution.

Having gathered data about onboarding in a wide variety of organisations, we note an increasing tendency for HR organisation to be concerned mainly with 'mobilizing' the resources of the organisation, rather than focusing on having a number of key happenings as the focal point for the onboarding process. We can also see that they are concerned with achieving better balance and better timing in the types of resources they mobilize.

 

High returns for a structured approach

By investing in onboarding, organisations immediately add value to their new employees.  Better onboarding gives new starts a great experience as soon as they arrive.  It helps to provide a sense of meaning in their job and add personal value. In the end it ensures a stronger commitment and a higher sense of loyalty.

Adding that kind of value to the new employees will have a positive effect on retention, reduce time-to-performance and help save costs that result from unsuccessful onboarding.

Onboarding of new hires is critical for success today. Employees expect more from employers, and if they don’t feel connected and onboard, they will leave for a new opportunity somewhere else. The following facts say it all:

  • 25% of new hires leave their employer within 12 months
  • 48% of new hires in their first job move on within the first 18 months
  • The average onboarding time-to-performance is 6.2 months for new hires
  • The cost of losing a new employee within the first 12 month equals 2 years of salary
  • The average tenure for the new generation is less than 2 years, so you need to get your new hires up to speed faster than before
  • Companies with structured and standardized onboarding processes experience 54% higher productivity from their new employees and twice as high a level of engagement

    

This selection of findings from our study leads to the obvious conclusion: There is huge potential for organisations to benefit by moving towards a more structured and professional approach to the discipline of onboarding.

Discover your organisation's potential - contact us today

    

References

[i] https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2017/10/21/workers-are-not-switching-jobs-more-often

[ii] How often do people change jobs?; Alison Doyle, October 17, 2018; www.thebalancecareers.com

[iii] Onboarding Group has developed the Onboarding Index ©, which is an instrument to measure the onboarding experience of new hires and a benchmark against industry and geography.