A good onboarding experience for new hires requires two key things

In my time as a manger, I’ve encountered quite a few people who were badly onboarded. As a rule it takes as long a time or longer to fix it as it took to poorly onboard them. Sometimes we’re able to re-onboard people and make them successful… and sometimes it’s too late.

It’s always baffling to me when companies do all the work to hire someone and then don’t set them up to be successful. Hiring is so time consuming. Managing people who are not delivering in their role is time consuming, too, not to mention emotionally draining. Onboarding people and helping them to be effective is—by far—the easiest option.

So what does a good onboarding experience look like?

At a high level, proper onboarding means two things:

  • Creating a feeling of belonging.
  • Creating a sense of accomplishment.

Belonging

Belonging is a human need, like food or shelter. It’s feeling accepted as a part of something, such as a team or organization. It’s a crucial aspect of group cohesion and psychological safety.

If someone doesn’t feel like they belong, it will be detrimental to their effectiveness. How will they ask for, or offer, feedback? How will they ask questions they need to know the answers to in order to do their job?

Belonging is also the level at which it’s important to think about inclusion; we want everyone to be able to feel they can belong on a team, regardless of gender, race, or sexual orientation. It’s important to acknowledge that if someone is the first, or the “only” on a team, that feeling of belonging may be harder to find. It’s important to pay attention to inclusion issues that might impede the sense of belonging and proactively address them. Many companies spend a lot of time diversifying the hiring pipeline, but there’s little point in doing so if “diverse” hires cannot be included and therefore more likely to be successful.

At my company, Automattic, we think of belonging on three levels. We want a new engineer, for example, to be able to say:

  • “I belong as part of my team.”
  • “I belong as part of the engineering organization.”
  • “I belong at Automattic.”

Anna Holland-Smith, an internal developer advocate at Automattic, focuses on our developer onboarding experience. I recently spoke with her about how we can help new hires feel a sense of belonging and accomplishment. Her advice:

  • Start extra early. We view the hiring process as “pre-onboarding” (covered in more detail here); the process has been designed to reflect both our values and how we work, and, in doing so, exposes our candidates to the reality of our distributed work culture. New hires can then join us on day one already understanding our work processes, with clear expectations and having already spoken to many Automatticians and experienced our culture first hand (“I belong as part of the engineering organization”).
  • Connect them to your core business. When joining Automattic, regardless of the role, everyone starts with a two-week rotation in customer support. This introduces new hires to our products, users, and internal tooling. Understanding how we relate to and serve our customers cultivates a greater sense of ownership over our products (“I belong at Automattic”).
  • Give them a buddy. Every new hire is assigned a buddy on their team who is familiar enough with the work to help them ramp up (“I belong as part of my team”). They also get a mentor elsewhere in the organization to support their adaption to the culture (“I belong at Automattic”).
  • Don’t forget to nudge. In our engineering department, we use Slack integrations and bots to supplement and encourage human interaction throughout the onboarding process (rather than taking the place of it). Throughout a new hire’s first weeks and months, the bots drip-feed necessary information and makes key introductions. We also add new engineering hires to a community for all of our new engineering hires, where they can interact with others having a similar experience (“I belong as part of the engineering organization”).

All of these things are about building connections and community, and creating a feeling of support. This, over time, creates a sense of belonging.

Accomplishment

From an onboarding perspective, it is this second point, developing a sense of accomplishment, which can be harder to ensure. That’s because how we define achievement is often variable across teams, divisions, and from one individual to another, and because owning an achievement is often a matter of perspective for the new hire.

For engineers, achievement is normally tied to the work: the code written, the design expressed, the feature shipped. Regardless of how you define it, achievement is important because the person you hired is there to do something, right? You selected them based on their expertise and what you thought they would contribute to your team. The sense of accomplishment is their own confidence that yes, they have contributed something meaningful to the group.

We’ve found that encouraging new hires to reflect on their progress can introduce this perspective and help frame their accomplishments. Of course, first you have to give them something to reflect on. For this, Holland-Smith advises that new hires be given suitable projects identified by their managers early on; that they be added as soon as possible to team calls, retrospectives, and manager 1:1 meetings; and that their learning be documented in the open.

Defining a good first project is especially key, and it has to be something that doesn’t rely on insider knowledge to navigate technical and organizational gotchas—these kind of things can be incredibly demoralizing for a new hire.

Providing helpful documentation is important, too. It allows people to learn at their own pace without feeling like they are “bothering” others. But building culture really starts with building collaborative practices. For engineers, that might include pair programming (i.e. programming with a partner using a shared screen or workstation), pushing out new code for feedback, and having “learn-ups,” where some kind of tool, library, or technology is presented and discussed. Over time, this normalizes learning, and can protect against the impression that is so easy to give new hires: that everyone else knows everything, and they always did.

We were all once an overwhelmed newbie, untangling everything. It sometimes helps to remind ourselves, and our new colleagues, of this.

Impact

While we looked at belonging and accomplishment separately here, it’s worth noting how they feed on one another. Someone who does not feel like they are contributing to the team will have a hard time feeling they belong in it. Similarly, without feeling some level of belonging, it may be hard for the person to feel like they have the support to accomplish much.

As you ramp up your new hires, talk to them about these topics. Ask how connected they feel to their teammates, where they get their sense of accomplishment, and what they think they’ve achieved so far. Reflect back to them the support they gave their new teammates, or other things they already have done that created value.

The faster you can foster a sense of belonging and accomplishment, the faster you can get your new hires to start consistently delivering on the things your team needs them to do.