Developing an effective onboarding strategy and program can be one of the toughest challenges for a corporate learning and development group. Yet it remains one of the most impactful processes we can influence. Research by the Human Capital Institute and Society for Human Resource Management affirms the value of the onboarding process in improving retention and shortening time to competency. According to SHRM, 60 percent of organizations surveyed saw effective onboarding improve time to productivity, with BambooHR CEO Ben Peterson saying good onboarding can improve performance by up to 11 percent.

Yet, in our experience, consistent, well-developed onboarding remains outside the reach of many organizations. Moreover, conflicting priorities and tensions over onboarding ownership contribute to a lack of optimization in this critical area of training. Minimizing these conflicts can be a key to better onboarding.

Onboarding Overview

Let’s first look at the current state of onboarding strategy. Effective onboarding results in two overarching outcomes: lower turnover and faster time to competency. To achieve these, an onboarding program should provide the following employee experiences:

  • Orientation on rules and codes of conduct
  • Presentation on the company’s culture and mission
  • Socialization with managers and peers
  • Training on tasks and procedures

You could easily rate your organization by how many of those experiences are met with new hires in their first 30-60-90 days on the job. Recent work by Allen Communication in this area points to best-in-class organizations knowing how to mix and match these tasks for best results, or, at the very least, focus on less to achieve more in the two outcomes.

“All too often on-boarding misses the mark,” said Jathan Janove, principal at Janove Organization Solutions. “Instead, the process should be treated as a new beginning—an opportunity to connect the employee to a shared purpose, to show how he or she can make a meaningful difference, and to establish a connection on an individual level.”  

Resolving Tensions to Achieve More Effective Onboarding

The first step in achieving good onboarding is the lowering of tensions or conflicts that exist in many organizations.

  • Ownership and follow-through: Regardless of company size, we observe inconsistencies in onboarding between the corporate recruiting function, HR, and learning and development. At best, this leads to disjointed or mistimed activities between recruitment and orientation training. At worst, new hires miss critical activities and have to wait a long time for training cycles to begin again. Onboarding then becomes more of a task of scheduling than engagement and support for new hires.
  • Compliance versus competence: It is no surprise that a newly onboarded employee needs to consume compliance information and sign off on a “do’s and don’ts” checklist. All too often, companies will incorporate these types of sessions in a checkerboard fashion during job training, leading to a haphazard, confusing training schedule and lack of focus on the tasks at hand.
  • Training consistency: De facto inconsistencies between what new hires are taught in the classroom and what their on-the-job expectations are often result in retraining in the field and a lack of trust in the onboarding process.
  • Brand perceptions and culture challenges: A new source of tension stems from how the rise of social media has blurred the lines between customers and employees. The best onboarding will be weakened if what the employee experiences and learns conflicts with what consumers and employees believe about your brand and products.

With the impact these non-design changes have on onboarding, elevating your company’s onboarding experience is as much about choice as it is about design.

Centralizing the onboarding function, or developing a clear demarcation of responsibility between recruiting, HR, and learning and development, is an important first step. We find an increasing number of companies building more structure into their onboarding process. “Preboarding” techniques such as socialization and familiarization to the company brand and mission are being handled by recruiting, making it a low-cost method to align employee perceptions of the company before and after hire. HR handles the more traditional parts of the onboarding process—the rules and code of conduct. And L&D takes ownership of ensuring new hires understand their job duties and the way their role fits into the company’s mission.

Making Design Match the Choice

Recent articles from professors at MIT’s Sloan Management Review have highlighted the significance of getting employees up to speed on one hand, and leaning toward employees’ individual strengths by reinventing the process on the other. While they show innovative thinking in these areas, the articles still don’t adequately address the issue of lack of consistency plaguing many onboarding processes. We believe that in many cases, new technologies and modes of learning offer solutions in the areas of consistency, socialization and brand perceptions.

Many of today’s new hires are adept at absorbing information in a nonlinear fashion. By moving compliance and checklist-type information to portals, we can avoid having this content distract from the critical socialization and competency components of our onboarding, and track consumption and completion.

Microlearning and gamification, in the classroom or online, provide great opportunities to combine socialization and learning activities. We’re seeing a rise in their use as companies shorten formal onboarding processes to be more supportive for employees already in the field. Onboarding a new employee is as much about selling your company and its culture to the new hire as it is acclimation and teaching.

Managing the typical tensions of onboarding can be easier when you design a process that combines the different onboarding experiences in singular activities.

  • Brand awareness and experiences
  • Socialization with peers and managers
  • Skill-based activities and assessments

Each activity that encompasses all three experiences will build your new hire’s confidence and create the glue you need to ensure better retention and employee competency. Many recent onboarding programs share these characteristics and are recognizable by being shorter and incorporating more on-the-job activities than ever before.

For your own organization, the first step can be addressing the tensions in your current processes. Then rethink and prioritize your design in shorter nonlinear activities. Onboarding done right is one of the biggest “bang for the buck” activities for any organization.