A Radical New Approach to Employee Onboarding

First Day on a New Job

Someone shows you to your desk. The tech guy (it's most often a guy) sets up your email and logs you into the "system." HR hands out health insurance and 401K brochures–sometimes you'll even get a t-shirt with the company logo. People will be extra nice to you. If you're exceptional, your new boss might take you to lunch.

Most people recognize this description of the first day on a job as a shared experience; however, what follows can be wildly different for everyone. No two onboarding experiences are alike.

When managers start a new job, they step into a set of projects and begin managing a team of strangers. Employees step into the middle of ongoing projects and must learn the tasks and their manager's expectations. Everyone needs to understand the culture. It's tricky to navigate these complex professional, tactical, and social roles, and mostly we're expected to figure it out as we go. It's pretty much a crapshoot.

Depending on the circumstances, an organic, unstructured onboarding can go well, and, soon enough, the new hire is in the flow. But sometimes, things don't go well. Conflicts, misunderstandings, and confusion can set up a new employee for misery and failure during the first few weeks.

In a recent post, Economist Tyler Cowen quoted a manager saying, "I've been onboarding about five people every two weeks for my team. The number of them that learn all the important stuff in under a month is zero. The number of them that have a self-guided strategy to learn what is relevant is almost zero."

"What onboarding process addresses the wicked multivariate problems of a knowledge worker in a complex organization?"

Remote Work

Onboarding has always been fraught with risk. And now it's even more challenging. If your new hire is remote, her first day of work starts in the same chair she sat in when she was unemployed. Lunch is the leftover pizza in their fridge. The onboarding experience is Zoom meetings, Slack channels, and email. Remote work can feel like a multiplayer video game, where the new employee has to figure out the rules, meet the characters, and understand the goals, all while the arrows and bullets are flying. Workers take huge risks when they agree to start a new job, and it costs companies a lot of money to recruit and hire a new employee. Shouldn't there be a well-designed process for integrating new people into the team and the work they do together?

A skilled carpenter can show up to just about any construction site with minimal direction and start contributing valuable work. A group of flight attendants and pilots who have never met can enter an airplane and work together from boarding to deplaning without a hitch. Professional white-collar work is a different animal.

Managers expect information workers to figure out what to do and how to get it done, each essentially flying their own plane toward an undisclosed destination.

Onboarding in many organizations consists mainly of reading emails, attending meetings, and hoping you're asking the right questions. It takes time for new employees to figure out how projects progress from start to finish and understand their bosses' anxieties sufficiently to determine their priorities. It takes a lot of trial and error to know coworkers' faults and foibles, their strengths and vulnerabilities. New employees need to learn the nuances of their new workplace. Does it have a fixed or open mindset? Are coworkers collaborative or competitive? Do they value courage more than safety? Do these people have a sense of humor? New employees need to figure out when and if they can relax and be themselves.

"How can you possibly formalize and standardize a process that compresses such a steep learning curve into a few days?"

Off-label Design Sprint

There's an elegant onboarding process that didn't come from the HR world. It takes four to five days to execute, any company can implement it, and you can use it to onboard anyone from an entry-level associate to a new CEO. This process is a design sprint.

Design sprints were developed by Google Ventures, not to onboard employees but to help the fast-growing companies Google invests in to innovate quickly with less risk. The design sprint takes tools from human-centered design and implements them in an agile sprint. A small group, about five to seven people, gathers together to focus in a time-boxed sprint on a specific challenge. This process begins at a 5,000 feet level with the articulation of a long-term goal and ends with reactions and feedback from five real users on a prototype.

The Long Lifecycle of a Project

Think about how long it would take for a new employee to see the entire lifecycle of a project: from defining a challenge, generating ideas, deciding on which ideas are worthy and feasible, executing a prototype, and testing on customers or stakeholders. A design sprint runs through this in four to five days.

Much like the airline crew, design sprints are structured so that anyone can enter and perform on a level playing field, even with people they don't know. Working in a design sprint is immersive and collaborative. Everyone starts in the same place, and everyone's ideas are blended to generate a final output that doesn't belong to anyone. During a sprint, you observe how each member thinks about the business goals and strategies, approaches problem-solving, and makes decisions. You learn their tastes and attitudes and how they see their customers and users. It's like taking a core sample that collects many layers of the business and the team.

Get Real. IRL.

You can conduct a design sprint virtually on a shared whiteboard or in person. Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages. For onboarding, the best practice is to work in real life, outside the office, with the help of an experienced facilitator. If your team is remote, this is an excellent opportunity to gather them together in an inspiring location away from the distractions of work and home to create a memorable shared experience that produces valuable work.

Spend four to five days away from distractions, working in focused collaboration, and create a creative solution to a real problem. Build a tangible example to see how people react to it. At the same time, you're sharing meals and getting to know your coworkers as true collaborators and real people. Can you think of a better way to start a new job?

If you're interested in testing this concept in your organization, let's talk.