Published in Fall 2023

First impressions matter. Without a solid start in a new position, it is easy for employees to become disengaged or feel as if they have been thrown into the deep end with no life preserver. Onboarding is an organization’s first opportunity to establish and nurture a positive and productive relationship with a new employee.

When done well, early onboarding activities lay the foundation for long-term success for both the employee and the employer. Effective onboarding can improve productivity, build loyalty, increase comfort and competence, help employees experience successes early on, demonstrate an organization’s commitment to supporting new employees and help them begin to form relationships — all of which increases engagement and helps reduce the likelihood of early turnover, which can be costly and disruptive.

Learning Science and Learning Engineering

Learning science principles help explain how learning happens. Learning engineering goes one step further and focuses on designing and implementing learning solutions within constraints imposed by different contexts. With an understanding of how learning works (including factors that can impede it), we can design learning experiences that help keep learners engaged, motivated and on-task.

Importantly, we can leverage evidence-based practices more typically found in “traditional” learning contexts to create more effective onboarding and training programs. Learning is learning, no matter what the environment. In doing so, organizations can enhance employees’ success.

3 Important Learning Science Principles

We’ll explore three learning science principles and associated practices that, when effectively applied, can help support onboarding goals and solutions.

Learning Science Principle 1

People learn best when they trust and feel supported, connected to, and accepted by the people and environment around them.

It is well-established that humans want and benefit from social connections and interactions. A new workplace presents a new social environment in which social connections matter. New employees must feel welcomed, socially comfortable and accepted. Purposeful opportunities for new employees to interact with and build relationships with others at all levels of the organization are essential to fostering these critical components.

How to Implement This Principle:

    • On their first day, make sure employees know where to go and others are expecting them. No later than the day before the new employee is to report for work, send a message to current employees introducing the new employee.
    • Make the first day as smooth as possible to pave the way for important learning to begin. Employees should have the equipment and access they need on the very first day of work. And they must know where to go for technical support, if necessary.
    • Make their workspace and materials accessible. Not only should the physical workplace be accessible to all, but so should training materials and onboarding documents. This includes offering modified workspaces, tools to help people navigate digital information and providing information in suitable formats for all individuals.
    • Encourage new employees to share their perspectives on organizational norms and values. Give new hires specific opportunities to ask questions and pose new ideas that can help influence and shape organizational culture and processes.
    • Incorporate social interactions into onboarding. Social connections help people recognize that they are not alone in any confusion they may have, help them feel more comfortable asking for help, illuminate different perspectives, build empathy and provide opportunities for collaboration. Socialization initiatives can be as simple as assigning a new employee a “buddy” or as complex as formal mentoring programs.
    • Establish employee resource groups (ERGs) or affinity groups. ERGS are voluntary, employee-led groups with shared identities and interests, created with the goal of nurturing a sense of community, support and inclusivity in the workplace. They can provide a platform for growth and development opportunities, mentoring, professional development and social interaction.
    • Involve managers in the onboarding process in meaningful ways. Managers can encourage and listen to questions and stress the importance of progress and improvement over time — all of which can help normalize mistakes and encourage trust.

Learning Principle 2

Goals and expectations must be clearly articulated and feel achievable. They should be accompanied by opportunities to practice, learn, apply knowledge and receive timely feedback on progress.

Clear goals help employees focus their efforts by conveying what’s important and how success is defined. Further, they facilitate the process of evaluating progress and identifying any gaps or obstacles that may arise. Because learning accumulates gradually, employees must be given many opportunities to practice, learn and respond to timely feedback in an iterative fashion.

How to Implement This Principle:

    • Provide clarity around the job role, expectations, accountabilities and boundaries.
    • Help employees see how they connect to the big picture. Help employees see what they need to do to succeed, how expectations connect to the larger goals and the part they play in realizing the overall vision.
    • Collaboratively establish clear, measurable and achievable short-term goals. Short-term goals provide opportunities for employees to make progress and experience small wins. Over time, tasks can increase in complexity and level of responsibility.
    • Nurture employees’ sense of confidence, competence and self-efficacy. Help new employees articulate and understand their strengths and how they can be applied within their job. Progressively more difficult tasks and challenges help build self-efficacy, as can breaking down projects and tasks into manageable components. Together, these approaches can help employees to develop and maintain a growth mindset.
    • Watch for signs that new employees are struggling. If employees perceive tasks to be “over their heads,” they may need reassurance and support to restore confidence and motivation. One strategy is to encourage people to reflect on times when they have surmounted similar challenges and help build a recognition and appreciation for the fact that they can grow and learn with practice. Share examples of others who overcame similar challenges.

Schedule (and keep) regular, one-on-one check-ins. These touchpoints are important for assuring new employees that they are on track (or letting them know if they are not) and providing clarity on how to close any gaps. These conversations also support a smooth transition into their new role by helping managers and employees to get to know each other better and identifying roadblocks as quickly as possible.

Learning Principle 3

New learning builds on prior knowledge. To optimally provide a foundation for future learning, space out learning opportunities, take care not to overwhelm and provide novices with appropriate scaffolding to guide their learning.

Deep learning involves more than simply attaching new concepts to existing knowledge; it incorporates conceptual changes and the creation of rich, integrated knowledge structures. Effective teaching requires figuring out what learners already know about a concept and then finding ways to build on and develop that knowledge.

How to Implement This Principle:

    • Develop and follow a standard, documented onboarding procedure, maintaining an onboarding checklist for each new employee. This helps to ensure that important things are not skipped or given short shrift.
    • Provide a roadmap of the first few days so new employees know what to expect. Include agendas for the first week and the first month.
    • Subdivide required training into manageable chunks that are logically sequenced to support future learning. Space must intentionally be built into learning opportunities to allow employees time to learn foundational information and skills in a meaningful way.
    • For training on complex job tasks, allow employees to practice component skills before combining them. Prior to teaching an entire task or process, isolate the most important component skills and decide which needs to be learned and practiced first.
    • Create resources employees can reference as needed. These can include important job-related information that employees are not expected to memorize. For example, common policies, procedures, terminology, contact information and basic information on an organization’s products and services. Also, a glossary of industry or organization-specific terms and acronyms is essential.

Collect Feedback

Creating and implementing onboarding programs and processes using learning science principles is an important first step. Evaluating the effectiveness of each part of these programs, however, requires a process for the collection and analysis of feedback, accompanied by a process for incorporating improvements. Moreover, organizations and cultures evolve over time. As expectations for new employees and the organization as a whole change, organizations must engage in consistent review, evaluation and revision of the onboarding experiences of new employees.

In traditional learning contexts, the more students that are involved in the design of curricula and engaged in the improvement of courses and teaching, the greater their sense of agency and ownership for their learning. In the workplace learning context, this also holds true. Ask current employees about their onboarding experience. Ask how their first weeks or months could have been improved or what they wish their manager, or others, had done or told them during that time. This feedback can inform and help drive continuous quality improvement.

Concluding Thoughts

Truly setting new employees up for success is complex and nuanced — much more so than it may appear. The benefits of doing so, however, are significant for both employee and employer.

At the end of a successful onboarding period, an employee should have a clear sense of their role and expectations others have of them; their key strengths and capabilities and how they fit into the broader organizational vision; and how they can expect to grow and develop in their current role and beyond. By prioritizing strategies that foster meaningful learning from the beginning, organizations can set the stage for long-term employee success.