How and Why to Make Onboarding a Strategic Priority

For several years, organizations viewed the process of onboarding new hires as the automation of required tasks like completing paperwork, and then it was often up to the new employee to integrate into their new surroundings. But focusing on paperwork rather than the employee can have negative consequences.

Fortunately, in a recent SilkRoad survey, most respondents agree that onboarding is “very important” for improving culture, turnover, retention and engagement, showing that organizations recognize the importance of shifting the focus from paperwork to people to produce better business outcomes.

Red flags

Unfortunately, that same survey raises a few red flags. While three quarters of respondents reported having a formal onboarding program, far fewer are making the most of those programs:

  • Just under half (45%) start onboarding BEFORE the new employee reports for work
  • One-third have an onboarding program for employees who change jobs or are promoted
  • Over half say that C-suite execs are “minimally” or “occasionally” involved in onboarding.

Those stats show a majority of organizations are missing out on the benefit that comes from implementing a strategic approach to onboarding. Predictably, 91% of respondents’ onboarding programs included compliance-related paperwork, while 70% included benefits enrollment paperwork, a facility tour and phone/computer/email usage training. Luckily, 80% at least included a briefing about the company and job expectations. But that’s hardly enough to introduce and integrate a new hire into an existing organizational culture, which 79% of respondents reported as being “very important.”

Rethinking onboarding

So how can organizations that clearly recognize the importance of moving to people-focused onboarding programs successfully make the shift? First, conduct an assessment of the current onboarding program to identify shortcomings and determine the purpose of the program. Consider the program goals; evaluate the content to ensure it aligns with those goals; survey managers and employees to gather feedback and impressions about the program from both sides.

Next, adjust the program to address the shortcomings, specifically focusing on four critical areas:

  • Cultural mastery – providing employees with a sense of formal and informal norms and how to thrive within them
  • Interpersonal network development – establishing interpersonal relationships and an information network through experiences and communication
  • Early career support – ensuring employees understand their position and related expectations and are provided the tools to succeed in their job
  • Strategy immersion and direction – tying employees’ roles to strategic decisions to create understanding and buy-in

Onboard your transfers, promotions

Many organizations strive for improved time-to-productivity as a key outcome of an onboarding process. Time-to-productivity is important, because the faster new hires get up to speed and become productive, the faster they can adequately fulfill their job duties and bring a new energy to a team or department. It can also pay huge dividends for employee morale and engagement. Problems often arise because most organizations limit their onboarding program to new hires, missing the opportunity to drive productivity throughout the entire employee lifecycle. Instead, they should take a holistic view of the entire workforce and deploy similar experiences to drive productivity and proficiency at every opportunity within the employee journey.

After all, strategic onboarding is a continuous process that engages, aligns and activates people throughout every transition in the employment journey, enabling organizations to drive productivity and proficiency beyond the new hire’s first 30-90 days. This can include transitions such as transfers, promotions and project-based engagements.

While strategic onboarding measures time-to-productivity, it places more emphasis on time-to-proficiency (the time it takes for a new employee to achieve the job proficiency of an employee who has been at the organization or in that specific role for two years). This provides great insight into the speed and extent to which employees are able to drive business outcomes and make a meaningful impact on the organization and its goals.

To excel in time-to-proficiency, many organizations leverage mentorship programs, self-guided learning, multi-directional feedback, and cross-functional projects where employees are exposed to other departments or lines of business. Organizations that enable employees to see paths for themselves within the organization are more likely to achieve higher levels of employee engagement and retention.

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Organizations should look to create a continuum of personalized experiences comprised of meaningful touch points that inform, enable and empower employees to maximize their effort and contribution to the organization relative to their role, ambition and skill set. These employees become consistently aligned with organizational goals and feel activated to achieve them.

People over processes

Taking a personalized approach to onboarding that focuses on people instead of processes can deliver positive outcomes in the areas organizations have deemed “very important” in their onboarding programs: improving culture, turnover, retention and engagement. That’s not to say that the processes aren’t also valuable – automating critical paperwork can ensure compliance, simplify benefits enrollment and save resources from paper to man hours. But misplacing the focus on the processes ignores the most important and beneficial aspects of the onboarding process, including rapid and seamless integration of new hires into existing teams and decreasing time to productivity and proficiency so they can positively impact business outcomes.

For companies to realize these gains, they should start by assessing their current onboarding programs to identify their shortcomings and then adjust the program to meet the desired outcomes by shifting the focus from processes to people.