What is Employee Onboarding? A Definitive Guide
Posted on March 14, 2023
Get onboarding right, and you'll set employees up for long-term success. Get it wrong, and your next hire may prematurely leave for something better.
In the age of the “Great Resignation,” it’s crucial that employers create an effective onboarding program.
In this article, you’ll learn the best practices for employee onboarding in the modern workplace to improve employee wellbeing and reduce turnover rates.
Table of contents
- What is onboarding?
- The importance of proper and detailed employee onboarding
- 5 stages of a strong onboarding process
- How to create a 30-60-90 day onboarding plan
- Metrics to refine and improve your onboarding strategy
- Keeping and retaining talent beyond the first 90 days
- Create a process and continually improve it
What is onboarding?
Onboarding introduces a new hire to your organization so that they make a smooth transition into their role. Effective onboarding sets your new employee up for long-term success.
Keep in mind there is also a distinct difference between onboarding and training:
- Onboarding ensures the new employee has access to all the information they need to integrate into the company.
- Training provides technical details and processes required for an employee’s day-to-day tasks.
There’s overlap at the start, as onboarding and training begin at the same time. But training extends far beyond onboarding and is cyclical in nature. For example, if your business releases a new feature, you’ll need to train your existing employees on it.
Onboarding, on the other hand, has a fixed timeframe and a clear end date.
During an effective onboarding program, your new hire will get to grips with how to do their job, but also how their role fits into the wider business. They’ll learn about your company culture, values, structure, history, and vision.
What is reboarding?
Reboarding is when you need to update employees who’ve spent significant time away from your business with company changes.
Here are a few scenarios where employees will need reboarding when they return to work:
- Major shifts to new processes, such as a new asynchronous communication policy
- Abandoning the office for remote work
- Employees returning from sick leave, sabbatical, or parental leave
- A former employee returning to the company
Reboarding allows employees to reintegrate, meet new colleagues, and learn new processes after time away. But it isn’t just about getting staff up to speed; effective reboarding boosts motivation for employees who might feel apprehensive about returning.
For example, say you’ve hired a new team to help with social media and changed your customer relationship management system (CRM) to a new provider while a new mother was on parental leave. You’ll want to make sure any necessary introductions and the new system’s training is on her reboarding schedule.
The importance of proper and detailed employee onboarding
Much more than a box-ticking exercise for HR, getting your onboarding process right has long-term benefits for both employers and employees alike.
According to Gallup’s State of the American Workplace report, 51% of people lack engagement at work. Engage your new hires immediately to build a positive and lasting relationship. The onboarding experience is your prime chance to lay the groundwork and set the right tone.
A University of Warwick study found employees are 12% more productive in positive working conditions, so it’s important to design your onboarding process with long-term happiness in mind.
Some of the benefits of great onboarding for employees include:
- Wellbeing and mental health support
- Boosts in motivation, productivity, and a sense of accomplishment
- Feeling appreciated
- A heightened sense of purpose in the business
- Improved team morale
And benefits for the employer include:
- Improved employee retention rates
- A sense of trust and loyalty
- Boosted employee engagement and satisfaction
- Reduced absenteeism
- Increased profitability
Happier, more productive employees are less likely to quit prematurely. As a result, comprehensive onboarding can reduce recruitment costs and increase your bottom line.
5 stages of a strong onboarding process
On your new hire’s first day, they’ll be expecting more from the onboarding process than a quick intro by human resources.
Done well, onboarding is a detailed and structured process that maps out the employee's journey over the first months to a year and beyond at your company. It’s a chance to set expectations and give your people a clear roadmap for success in their careers.
Use the following steps to create an effective onboarding process.
As soon as your new hire receives their offer letter, they’ve entered your onboarding process.
Ensure the offer letter is informative and covers at least the following items:
- Clear definition of the role offered and how it fits in with broader company goals
- Name and role of the manager
- Number of hours per week and any overtime requirements and pay
- Explicit details of benefits, bonuses, and commission
- Details of any equity and when it matures
- Confidentiality agreement
- Notice periods and when you have the right to end the contract
Speak to your legal advisor for the specifics for your state or region. They will also confirm any other documentation you’ll need to employ your new recruit legally.
Next, ensure your new employee has all the information they need for day one, but don’t overwhelm them with everything at once. This stage of preboarding can include:
- Employee conduct policies
- Communication policies
- Expected online or in-office working hours (or overlap hours for distributed teams)
- What equipment they’ll be getting, and how they will receive it
- Training modules or company handbooks you’d like them to read before they start
Finally, a week before your new hire is due to start, send them:
- Their schedule for the first day or week
- An invite to join any company community channels such as Slack (this isn’t necessary, but could help new hires feel part of the team so that first day is less intimidating)
Slack has seen great results with the latter tactic. A week before the new hire’s start date, they invite them to a channel specifically created for new hires to meet (e.g., #2022-new-hires). Then, share tons of information to help ease them into the role.
Importantly, they invite them to introduce themselves to the company in the “#introductions” channel so everybody has a chance to say “hi” and welcome them aboard.
When creating a schedule for the first few days, try not to overwhelm your new hire with back-to-back meetings. Give them space to settle in, get used to how everything works, say hello to coworkers, read up on processes, etc.
Consider which day of the week you’d like them to start. Typically new employees start on a Monday, but why not try starting them later in the week?
Mondays can be stressful, with a whole week looming ahead. Starting your new hire on a Thursday or Friday will help them relax as they head into the weekend. Play around to see what works with your company culture.
If you have a hybrid office where people switch between workspaces, invite your recruit to start on a day most of the team are either in the office or online. This way, they will get to know who’s who quicker and start to build relationships with their colleagues.
Give your new hire plenty of opportunities to answer questions or concerns before starting their new role. They’ll start their first day with confidence, ready to achieve their goals.
Next on your onboarding checklist, get your employee up to speed with company policies and standard operations procedures (SOPs).
Employee orientation makes it easier to transition into a new work environment. The more sound your orientation process is, the quicker your new hire can get to their job.
In the first week, give your employee access to:
- Required toolkits and software
- Their email account
- Password managers
- Communication channels
- Information on security procedures
- Work equipment regulations
- All relevant documents
There will inevitably be a lot of information to learn, so don’t expect it all to go into long-term memory immediately. Your best bet is to highlight key information at the top of any documents, then make it a reference tool for when questions come up.
Organize your information into manageable “chunks” (or short paragraphs and sections) with headings, subheadings, and bullet lists, so new hires can easily digest it.
Leave a great first impression on your employee and show them you have easy systems to manage their workflows now and in the future.
Use a work management dashboard tool like Notion or Asana to collate all relevant information in one place. This makes it far easier for employees to refer back to and, as they are living documents, makes them easier to find and update as the employer.
If you do make an update, all you’ll need to do is send a message to your team to head to the internal knowledge base and review the change. This is much easier than manually sharing a handbook PDF each time you make an update.
Having these processes set up sounds obvious, but many businesses (especially busy startups) don’t remember to prioritize onboarding and documentation.
It takes a dedicated effort to set up initially, but it’s well worth your time. This way, when you’re ready to scale, you won’t need to scramble. As you grow, you’ll be able to shift these tasks to an HR professional or people team.
To enable seamless integration, your new team member will need information about the company structure and the colleagues they’ll work with daily.
Give your hire a warm welcome and introduce them to the wider team, too. This is especially important to build team relationships if you’re fully remote.
How you make introductions will depend on your internal comms setup, culture, and team size.
For example, remote teams in similar time zones could meet for a virtual “coffee chat” and get to know each other over Zoom.
If your team is distributed around the world, encourage asynchronous voice messages or video exchanges between new and existing employees. This is a popular method for reducing meetings while maintaining the human touch.
Don’t eliminate meetings completely though. One-to-one introductions with leaders and people your new hire will work closely with is a great way to help them make allies and meet mentors quickly.
No matter how you make the introduction, make sure to include:
- Who they are
- What their role is and the team they’ll be working with
- A bit about their background and why you hired them
An upbeat intro will help coworkers warm toward their new colleagues and welcome them into the team.
After you’ve made the introduction, encourage your hire to say a few things about themselves so the team can get to know them personally.
You can automate some of these processes, like a template “welcome” message in Slack when a new person sets up their account, but you’ll energize new team members most by keeping the introduction process human. Small actions can help employees feel more at home.
Here are some ideas for memorable pre-onboarding activities:
- Personal videos or messages from senior leaders or CEOs
- Sending branded swag or other gifts
- Organizing social events or virtual happy hours during the first week
Here’s an example of the personalized welcome package new employees receive at Salesforce:
4. Foundation-building and direction
A robust onboarding program doesn’t end after the first week; it should set the foundation for your hire’s future. Think about the journey they will take over the following months to help them imagine working with you for a long time.
Include transparent expectations of their role and how it can develop.
Will they receive training and access to continuing professional education? How will you measure their performance? What goals do they have for their role and career in general?
Make your hire aware that the onboarding process will take time and that you’re there to support them as they get acclimated.
The foundation-building stage is also an excellent opportunity to reiterate your company culture and how your hire’s role aligns with your values. Communicating this helps newcomers become effective employees who can quickly feel part of something bigger than themselves (and excited to drive the company mission forward).
5. Supervision and milestone reviews
Ease any initial isolation your new hire may feel by connecting them with a designated mentor or buddy.
Choose someone who isn’t their manager or in their direct team. Ideally, they’re at the same level in the organization but not somebody they will work directly with on a daily basis. They were the newbie once too, which makes them relatable. The role of a buddy is to show your new hire the ropes, answer questions, and help them relax into their role.
Regular check-ins are important to ensure your hire is settling in. Don’t overdo it, though; this could make your employee feel micromanaged.
Weekly one-to-ones are a great place to start, as you’ll want to ensure they’re getting up to speed and have a dedicated time slot to ask questions. Once they’re a bit more settled, you can extend them to biweekly or monthly check-ins (depending on your preferences).
Who should do new employee check-ins? That depends on your organizational structure.
If you don’t have an HR team, the hiring manager should be responsible for following their report’s onboarding. Don’t skip these meetings. They’re essential to providing your recruit with a sense of belonging and helping them perform their tasks at or above expectations.
Regular milestone reviews and progress tracking are essential activities for nurturing the manager-employee relationship. Research shows that people tend to quit poor-fitting managers more so than poor-fitting jobs. More than 57% of DDI survey respondents said they have previously quit a job due to a bad manager.
To ensure your team develops mutual respect, implement a structure to nurture your employee’s development. If you invest in them, they’ll feel empowered to invest their full energy in doing a great job.
How to create a 30-60-90 day onboarding plan
An easy way to structure your new hire’s journey is to create a 30-60-90 day onboarding plan. This will make everything specific, actionable and measurable, which is vital for practical goal setting.
Structuring your onboarding plan in this way clarifies what your employee should expect in their first three months and what you expect from them. The specific milestones make it easier to track performance and help you identify any tougher onboarding areas. The plan is a form of ongoing support for your hire and point of reference when they may feel unsure.
Build a rough template but wait until they join to flesh it out. Collaborative creation will make it personal and reflect individual strengths.
Here is how to structure your 30-60-90 day plan.
The first 30 days
The goal for the first 30 days is to get new hires up to speed on the SaaS tools you use and what your project management workflows look like. You’ll also explain the company team structure and mission.
Employees should deep dive into technical training and learn the systems they use for their job. If they’re joining a team, ask the existing staff what they think this person should know to succeed.
Importantly, set achievable goals so you can measure your employee’s progress.
Here’s an example for a new copywriter in their first 30 days:
- Watch internal training videos
- Use those resources to carry out research and create your first project brief
- Develop an outline and share your thoughts with a voice or video message
In this example, the new hire (copywriter) undergoes some training and has a crack at completing a task (the outline) and shares their work using team voice or video messaging software.
In other words, they have tackled both the output and communication expectations of their new role.
The second 30 days
The following month is the chance to assess your new hire’s initial performance and address any early-day hiccups. Analyze any mistakes on both sides and find out what can be learned from them.
Avoid common pitfalls that managers make with new hires, such as:
- Leaving them without direction, like next steps
- Assuming they have everything they need
- Not asking for feedback
- Poor communication
Checking your hire learns from mistakes helps instill a growth mindset. You want this type of person at your company, especially if you’re still in the growth phase.
If you’re satisfied with their progress, it’s time to let them know they’re doing a great job and increase their workload. Create a concrete personal development direction that aligns with company priorities and the new hire’s growth objectives.
For example, in a sales role, the goal could be to improve communication skills and the way they do this to make X number of cold outreaches.
The third 30 days
In the third month, as your hire takes on more significant projects and the scope of their work increases, it’s time to build a more specific roadmap for the future. How will you invest in their growth and learning?
Don’t underestimate the importance of investing in your employee’s education. A Workplace Learning report by LinkedIn found that 94% of employees stay at a company longer if it helps them learn.
Allow your hire to share thoughts on current processes and consider making changes accordingly.
Make their goals achievable and agree on the standards you’ll use to measure them.
Sometimes, however, new hires don’t work out. Be careful not to fire too fast. If a new recruit is a solid culture fit, consider moving them around your organization and finding a more appropriate role for their skillset.
This way, you’ll save on the cost of hiring for the other role and show your new recruit that you’re invested in their future with you.
Metrics to refine and improve your onboarding strategy
The first three months are a critical time for retaining new hires. According to Gallup, disengaged employees are 2x as likely to actively seek new jobs as engaged ones.
It’s not only your employee’s performance you need to measure. To understand where you should make tweaks to your onboarding, track the employee experience in your process.
Here are some key metrics to measure the effectiveness of your onboarding:
- Employee output. How long does it take new hires to learn their role and achieve desired outcomes?
- Retention rates. How long does the average employee stay?
- Time of resignation. At what point in their role do people tend to leave your team?
- Employee satisfaction. How happy are your team with their role and the support they receive?
These metrics are direct outcomes of your onboarding processes, so continually monitor them to understand if your systems work.
For example, do your recruits tend to quit within their first year with you? Check your growth objectives strategy to understand patterns in why people quit (e.g., they’re bored and wished they’d been challenged with more responsibilities).
For more specific feedback, conduct anonymous employee surveys at the end of the first 90 days. Continue asking for informal feedback if you need clarification on where to optimize your onboarding.
Keeping and retaining talent beyond the first 90 days
According to Gallup, disengaged employees cost the U.S. $483 billion to $605 billion each year in lost productivity. Great engagement equals great retention, so keep your employees engaged beyond the 90-day mark.
Feedback loops and an ongoing development plan are simple ways to keep engagement rates high.
Once the 90 days have concluded, listen to feedback and act on it by managing workloads accordingly. If your employee wants more of a challenge, provide them with it.
Allow straightforward dialogue between different tiers of the business. Make it easy for employees to address any concerns. Help them stay engaged by involving them in the goal creation process.
Remind them that onboarding doesn’t stop after three months and that you have an ongoing plan of action to help them progress with their career.
After the first year, review performance and explain how this influences their future. How long will it take to get a promotion or a raise?
Maintain team camaraderie with perks and social activities. Find ways to boost morale and show your new hires you appreciate them. Start with positive feedback, but if budget allows, thank them with a starting bonus or welcome gift.
Create a process and continually improve it
Hybrid and remote work is the new normal for many companies. Others have returned to the office after a long time working remotely and under very different conditions.
Despite this, many onboarding processes are stuck in the past. Without modernized systems in place, onboarding can be inconsistent, impersonal and leave the wrong impression with your new employees.
Onboarding isn’t a checklist of requirements to rush through. It’s a way to continuously nurture your employees so you can create an enviable company culture.
Start systematizing your onboarding right from the hiring process with Polymer. Give potential employees a positive interaction from the first touchpoint. Sign up for your free trial here.