On Our Minds

Working with so many organizations across multiple issue areas gives us a unique view into what’s happening in the social sector. This is where we share our insights and ruminations.
Abstract graphic in the background with "Optimizing the on-boarding process" caption
Optimizing the onboarding process

by Imani Doyle (she/her) and Shanna Masdea (she/her)

Crucial to an employee’s long term success, the on-boarding process sets the tone for their time with your organization. As a result, it must go beyond teaching a new employee discrete job tasks—although that is an important part of the process—by providing a new employee with a deeper understanding of the organization's mission and culture, the role they play, and the support available to them during and after onboarding.

Here are 6 tips to help you create a meaningful and effective onboarding process: 

1. Make a clear map

Before beginning the onboarding process, it’s crucial to establish clear goals for each session and an understanding of how all of the sessions will work together. Skipping this first step can lead to a chaotic and confusing onboarding process that bounces a new hire around from meeting to meeting without necessary context or support. 

To make sure that the process is clear, the new hire’s direct manager, in conjunction with HR and other relevant team members, can create a “map” detailing who will lead each session, what the expected takeaways will be, and the time and date of each session. Then share this map with the onboarding team and the new hire. Not only will this help the new hire head into each session with a clear objective, but it will also help those leading sessions or conducting check-ins know what the new hire has learned so far and tailor their own session appropriately. 

This document is also an opportunity to emphasize all of the resources available to new hires. Along with key takeaways for a session, you can include the documents, people, and tools that will help the new hire once they’re ready to put what they learned in that session into practice—even if that doesn’t happen for a few months.   

As you create the map, you’ll be able to see the flow of the various sessions and consider how you can add variety. For example, instead of filling a day up with back-to-back group sessions, you may want to throw in time for shadowing, checking in, or reflecting on what has been learned so far—all of which are just as important to the onboarding process as a more formal session. 

Consider using the map as an opportunity to take the long view of onboarding. Adjusting to a new organization takes time. Think about what additional check-ins, reviews, or opportunities for feedback you’ll want to schedule three months, six months, or even a year into the role. You may even want to include goals for the new hire to have met by those dates to ensure that they’ve been able to put their onboarding into practice. 

2. Assemble an onboarding team

Successfully working at your organization requires teamwork. Successfully onboarding a new hire does too. Through their role, a new hire will interact with coworkers serving at all different levels and departments of the organization. Their onboarding process should reflect that. Who exactly is part of the team and what each person contributes will vary depending on the role and experience level of each new hire, but every onboarding team should include:

  • An HR or culture representative: Understanding the organizational culture and workplace policies of an organization is foundational to any onboarding process. Although a representative from HR does not have to lead every conversation on culture, they should be involved with creating the onboarding curriculum and checking in with the new hire throughout the process.  
  • Their direct manager: The person who will be directly supervising the new hire should play a pivotal role in crafting an onboarding strategy. They should also be frequently checking in and set aside time to go over the new hire’s goals, concerns, and questions. It is crucial that the new hire and manager begin to build a relationship during this time.  
  • Direct reports: If the new hire is managing a team of their own, set aside time for them to meet with their direct reports during the onboarding process. While they’re experiencing the changes that come with joining a new organization, their team is experiencing the changes that come with a change in leadership. Both sides will therefore need time and space to adjust to one another and make sure that everyone is clear on expectations. One approach we’ve found successful is first meeting as a team during a welcome lunch, or some other casual, socially focused event. Then setting up one-on-one conversations between the new manager and each member of their team to get to know each other a little better. Here, the new manager can ask their direct report about their professional goals, journey at the organization, and other context that will help them better support their reports. 
  • A coach or mentor: It is extremely helpful for a new hire to have a coach or mentor to act as their point person during and after the onboarding process. Oftentimes, this person is also their direct manager, but if the direct manager isn’t as involved in the day-to-day work of the new hire, it may make sense to pull someone who is more directly involved in to coach. In many ways, the coach serves as the link between what a new hire is learning in more formal sessions and what they’re actually putting into action. They can be a thought partner, helping the new hire navigate workplace protocols and debrief new experiences. And, while a new hire may be learning from many members of their team, the coach is the person who they will actively check in with. We recommend that a coach checks in with their new hire about twice a week, once at the beginning and once at the end, during the first month of the hiring process, and then tapers down to once a week for the next few months. 
  • Peers: New hires can learn a lot from lateral and even junior team members. Consider who at your organization is a power user of a specific skill or is a great model of your organization’s culture. Have them lead a session or act as someone for the new hire to shadow. This is really an opportunity to introduce the new hire to team members from across the organization, and for lateral or junior team members to build their own leadership skills by serving as a teacher to the new hire. 
  • Other new(ish) hires: We’ve found that it is extremely helpful to build a space for new employees to form a cohort and share knowledge during and after the onboarding process. You may not have multiple employees onboarding at the exact same time, but if you have multiple employees who are relatively new, they’ll still be sharing a common experience. These cohorts can act as a space for newer members to debrief, brainstorm, and problem solve together, while also building camaraderie and community with people in a similar position. Although ideally new team members feel comfortable asking anyone at the organization questions, in reality, joining a new group is hard and asking someone with more seniority can be intimidating. A community of newer people also offers a comfortable and accessible place to ask questions.

3. Teach practical skills

As discussed, coaches, peers, and even junior team members can be great resources for teaching both hard skills and about organizational culture to new employees. But what does it look like to actually teach a hard skill?

The “I do, we do, you do” approach is commonly found in education spaces and translates well to teaching a new hire. In this method, the new hire will first observe someone else doing the task, then they will do the task together with the person they’re shadowing, then they’ll do the task on their own. Like everything in the onboarding process, teaching hard skills should be done with intention.

4. Explain the big picture

No role exists in a vacuum. And, at social sector organizations, each team member exists in the context of the organization’s broader mission and their practical function within the organization’s ecosystem. It is crucial that every team member understands how their role, the core values and mission of the organization, and the roles of their coworkers connect so that they can really see how their day-to-day tasks support their coworkers and the organization’s mission. 

For example, something like requesting an invoice in a timely fashion may seem mundane, but knowing the concrete consequences of missing that request on both their coworkers and the organization will give the employee a better understanding of why these tasks matter.
Connecting the dots between the various people, departments, and functions of your organization can also empower new hires to work more independently. The more they know, the more they’ll be able to put each piece of their work into context and try new things without worrying about unintended consequences. 

5. Prioritize inclusion    

Especially now as so many offices are turning to hybrid or remote models, work can feel isolating for new employees. Both for employees' mental health and for the sake of effective collaboration, it is important to foster a sense of inclusion for new employees. Carve out time in their onboarding schedule to introduce them to team members either through in-person or virtual coffee dates. They’ll meet some people through the onboarding process itself, but it can also be generative to get to know coworkers in a more social setting. 

This past summer, On-Ramps started offering an in-office lunch option to welcome new employees. Although all employees have the option to work fully remote, we do have a lovely office, and many chose to come down and meet their new coworkers. Since introducing these programs, we’ve seen a marked shift in the levels of engagement among new hires. 

6. Schedule time for self-reflection and processing

It can feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day for all of the sessions, shadowing, and coaching you want to include in an onboarding schedule. However, it’s crucial that you build time for reflection and self-directed learning into the onboarding process. People need time to review the materials you give them to read before a session and to then process and digest that session afterwards. Without this time, all of the information you so carefully curated for them just won’t stick. Be intentional about providing time to chew on and digest all the tidbits of information. 
During these periods of reflection, encourage them to write down any questions they may have and make time for them to ask their coach, the leader of the session, or another team member later on. This will help them put all the various pieces together and normalize a culture that encourages asking questions. You can even leave a space for questions in the onboarding map.

Measuring success

A successful onboarding process doesn't mean the new hire knows how to do everything they received training on. Rather, it means that when they have questions about a task, they’re able to remember bits of their training or resources they received that they can go back to, and they know who to go to for guidance. 

It takes months, even years, to learn all the functions of a role, but onboarding can provide a solid foundation on which to start building that deeper knowledge.