When designing our onboarding program, we initially researched the processes used by other companies to find out what ideas and programs could work for our team. In the end, we tried (and failed) two common techniques before landing on an onboarding program that worked.
Hypothesis No. 1: New Employees Need To Learn The Company’s History And Culture
Like many tech companies that have been around awhile, we have extensive lore, history, traditions and in-jokes that can be overwhelming for a new hire. Initially, we assumed this was the key problem we needed to solve.
This became basis of our original onboarding process: Tell a really good story about our company and our values. We introduced our benefits, our people, our clients, the ways we work and anything else we could think of. We even came up with a 30-email slow-drip campaign. Once a week, the new employee would get a different story or explanation behind the way we work.
But when we followed up with our employees, they didn’t feel like all that storytelling solved all the onboarding goals they had. There was more work we needed to do to really support people in their introduction to the company.
Hypothesis No. 2: People Need To Feel Included
If being able to understand all the references wasn’t enough, perhaps we also needed to help people feel more like they were included in the culture. So, we made sure that on the first day of work they got their green company hoodie, a welcome gift and, most importantly, a sponsor to help acclimate them. We booked them lunches with coworkers in every department to get to know folks, created a seating chart and took photos of everyone to help with recognition, and introduced them to the various practice groups so they would know more about how we work.
We found all of these improvements helped new hires acclimate to their new organization. People need to feel included and engaged in a company before they’re comfortable taking the kinds of risks that lead to their best work. But when trying to really understand how we could support our new hires, we found these additional steps weren’t enough.
Hypothesis No. 3: People Need To Know What Success Means
If we wanted to really help new employees succeed, they needed to know more than our history and lore. They needed more than inclusion to hit the ground running. They needed to feel supported. As we looked into this, we found that the best way to support our new hires was to explicitly tell them what success looked like, for both them and the company. At our company, everyone is now required to play the “Sticky-Note Game”: a process used to collaboratively define what success and support looks like in the next six months.
In the first two tries, onboarding was all about unloading information onto a new employee. At no part did we make it a two-way conversation. By asking them to share what they valued most and sharing our priorities as well, we both got to see what the other side was really about.
The Quickest Way To Define And Map Success With Only Sticky Notes
The Sticky-Note Game works because it’s simple. You only need three people, and no complex HR tooling. It’s just the employee, their sponsor and a colleague, plus a bunch of sticky notes. Within the first two weeks of someone joining the company, we’ll start mapping out their next six months and focus on some tangible goals with three steps.
• Brainstorm. Three people, all invested in the new employee’s success, work together to lay out professional, personal and company goals for the foreseeable future. Each goal gets a sticky note, and you quickly have a full set of aspirations.
• Map. With the ideas generated, the team works together to organize them into overarching themes. This helps define what’s really important to the employee in broad strokes so they know what they’re ultimately aiming for every day.
• Prioritize. With three people in a room — almost all of them curious and ambitious in our case — you’ll have more goals than you can realistically work toward at once. This is good. A mix of short, medium and long-term goals gives everyone involved a roadmap and helps narrow down to the most important pieces.
After the Sticky-Note Game, new colleagues know what they’re supposed to do, and the business knows what it needs to support them. They’re invested in their success and the success of the company as a whole. Most importantly, they don’t have dead time waiting for an assignment to come in. They have tangible things they will be working on right away. Through the process of the game, they already have an understanding of how to reach their goals and who on the team can help.
Holding Everyone Accountable For Their Own Success, And Their Peers’
Nowadays at our company, the process isn’t just for new hires. We converted this onboarding process to be done every six months for everyone in the company, including the CEO. By making it a normal part of our company culture, we can keep track of how we’re helping to support the success of the company and our colleagues.
It also makes it easy for everyone in the company to see how they can help each other. I can look at everyone’s goals side by side and draw my own conclusions for how to direct and invest the company’s resources to best support everyone’s paths.
This isn’t the end of refining our process. Our onboarding system is changing with each new mind that joins the team. So far, this pattern of storytelling, inclusion and explicit expectation-setting for success has been critical to our process. We are eager to see what the next big step will be.