9 Creative Employee Onboarding Ideas to Improve Engagement and Retention

Joining a new organization requires a lot of learning. There’s plenty to take in, new processes to learn, and people to meet at every turn. Most new employees are worried about making a good impression on their new workplace — but at the same time, the organization should be working to make a good impression on them.

Orientation is a window of opportunity for companies to inspire loyalty in their employees, and to establish that they will feel at home in the company for a long time. It goes beyond saying that an employee should feel like they’re able to succeed at their new company at the end of orientation. If done correctly, employee onboarding can ensure loyalty, engagement, and a more united workforce.

However, traditional onboarding procedures aren’t the only way to educate and onboard new employees. What’s more, what worked a few decades ago may not be the most effective today. Your industry, your brand, and the demographics of your employees make your onboarding needs entirely unique. As the workforce continues to evolve, unique approaches to onboarding will not only help your employees succeed but also attract top talent to your organization. Let’s take a closer look at how you can improve the onboarding efforts more profitable in the long run.

What Are The Basics Of An Employee Onboarding?

The process of onboarding a new employee varies widely across companies. But there are a few underlying goals that you should strive for regardless of your company’s size or industry.

Pre-Boarding Materials

There’s certain information that an employee should have on hand before they even set foot in the office (or boot up their new laptop), such as:

  • Parking conditions
  • The preferred entrance for your office
  • Access instructions (including what they should bring to the front desk for registration)
  • Any other information to ease the transition to the new office

If you’re onboarding a remote worker, make sure they already have their required equipment and know when they are expected to log in and be present for training.

If you don’t do any of this, the employee may feel completely lost for the first few days or weeks. This makes for a messier onboarding process where managers have to spend extra time orienting the employee to how things run.

Paperwork and Technical Onboarding

This step may seem obvious, but the importance truly lies in the execution.

Practices and norms that may be obvious to you and longtime employees may not be at all obvious to a new person. Details like tech desk information, recommended plugins, and standard security procedures should be outlined before a person’s first day. This should be done regardless of whether the employee is remote or in the office.

Not providing essential tech information for someone attending their first week at the office is a sure path to alienating them from the rest of the team. They’ll be more likely to remember their first day as stressful, not warm and welcoming.

Gradual Introduction To Work

On their first day, an employee should be made aware of the expectations and responsibilities that will come with their new role. KPIs for success should also be discussed. After all, it’s inconsistent expectations that frequently drive employees to quit.

However, this doesn’t mean that the new hire becomes a full-fledged employee the moment their first day ends. The go-to principle is that an employee will not meaningfully contribute to the company for at least 90 days. Sometimes it can take as long as five months for employees to fully be able to give back and not solely use resources.

For maximum productivity, it’s best to ease a new employee into work slowly so there’s room to make mistakes without major impact. Set up time-bound goals (such as mastering different pieces of software after one month, three months, and nine months) to emphasize that learning over time is the expectation. If you have resources available for continued training, ensure that your new employees know where to find it and can access it.

Support From Other Employees

A lot of stress and anxiety can come from taking on a new job. Knowing that other people are available and willing to give support can help put a new employee’s mind at ease during those first few days. This can take multiple forms. If possible, try to assign mentors or designate employees specifically for answering questions from trainees. The trainees should feel free to ask questions without fear of ridicule or frustration on the part of the mentor.

However, if this isn’t possible, you can still enlist the help of employees on the first day by asking them for insight into the onboarding process. They can contribute valuable information on if current training materials are useful and adequately prepare new employees. Depending on their workload and comfort level, current employees can be a vital asset, ensuring new employees have essential information.

A Meaningful First Day

In spite of all the preparation we’ve outlined, it’s most important to make the employee’s first day feel notable and special. It needs to be made into an occasion, so that the new employee feels secure in the fact that current employees are happy to have them on the team. Don’t expect new people to jump into work right away — onboarding is about affirming that they’re part of the team and welcome within the organization as a whole.

Why Does Creative Employee Onboarding Matter?

You may be asking yourself, “Why does onboarding have to be creative at all? Aren’t we just introducing someone to a new job?”

While it is true that onboarding is serious business, it’s also your company’s first introduction to this new employee. It is the first opportunity to establish your company’s identity and establish norms and expectations. This paves the way for employees to be productive early on, and feel supported during crucial early times. Onboarding doesn’t always have to be fun, but it must speak to employee needs and ensure that they feel empowered with the knowledge and resources necessary for success.

Statistics bear out that if people are empowered and made to feel welcome, they’re much more likely to stay and contribute well. According to a report from Brandon Hall Group, “Organizations with a strong onboarding process improve new hire retention by 82% and productivity by over 70%.”

How can your organization achieve a strong onboarding process? Simply put, it pays to concentrate on results above format. While you may have had an office tour when you started your career, it may not be the strongest tactic for onboarding employees now. The goal at the end of the day is to ensure that new employees have what they need to begin their work, as well as the means to do useful work as early as possible in their tenure. Start with what you want to convey to your new hire, then ask your current employees what helped them the most in their onboarding experience. You may be surprised by their responses.

What’s more, as organizations increasingly move toward remote and hybrid office structures, effective onboarding will become even more important. Often, remote and hybrid teams suffer from poor onboarding simply because the “learn-by-osmosis” effect of physical proximity is eliminated. In a remote environment, there are no happenstance conversations that occur in the hallway or the break room. Every interaction is intentional, which requires extra care and attention to help employees build relationships with other team members. Intentionality is more important than ever — you have to make sure your employee not only knows what they need to know, but also feels connected to the organization as a whole. To make that happen, you need to get creative.

3 Onboarding Ideas That Aren’t Effective (Anymore)

There are several outdated onboarding traditions that have revealed themselves over time to be not only ineffective but alienating to employees. This is another key reason to survey current employees about your onboarding process: to ensure everything is coming across as you wish, and you’re welcoming new employees exactly as you hope.

Giving Company Swag To New Employees

While it’s nice to promote team unity through swag, the fact is that your employee may not have any use for that keychain or sweatshirt. They may even feel pressure to use the merch, or fear throwing it away and not looking like a team player. Purchasing and distributing merchandise that only gets thrown away is also a waste of money and materials.

Above all, the main thing wrong with swag as an orientation tool is this: it isn’t about the employee. It’s like giving someone a picture of yourself for their birthday. The gift shows no investment in the person receiving it — it’s just more promotion for the company itself.

If you still want to give employees swag to help them feel like part of the team, give something useful to their new job (i.e. pens or a laptop sleeve) or something they can incorporate easily into their workspace (i.e. a plant or a small stuffed animal). You can also give them the option to choose what swag they want, if any.

General Office Tours

This may come as a surprise, but a traditional office tour has a lot of potential to alienate new hires. While the goal is to help new employees get their bearings, a tour alone doesn’t always achieve that. New employees may be shy about asking questions, speaking up about physical limitations, or asking the tour guide to speak slower.

Instead, try giving employees building maps with familiar landmarks clearly marked. Emphasize that asking for navigation help is welcome, even if the employee they’re asking is otherwise occupied.

Naturally, remote teams don’t conduct office tours. However, the principle still applies in introducing new employees in “public” spaces. That social pressure still exists in a digital space (such as in a company-wide Slack channel). Introverted employees may feel very uncomfortable being put in the spotlight without warning, so be sure to ask before you tag them in the general channel.

Scavenger Hunts (And Other Games)

Yes, it’s time to retire the office scavenger hunt. It may seem like a good idea for employee morale to make onboarding a fun activity. But many people don’t want or expect a “let’s play” mood in their workplace. Depending on your company culture, games like this can also set the wrong tone for work expectations.

Keep in mind, onboarding is a chance for both employees and the company to introduce themselves to each other. Putting someone on the spot with a group activity that has no resemblance to their job description may not be the best way to start things.

Aside from that, group participation activities in onboarding is always a risk because they amplify social pressure. As a result, the activity may actually stifle organic conversation and bonding. It may give the impression that everyone must go along with group events at the company or be ostracized.

9 Creative Onboarding Ideas

Now that we’ve covered what onboarding ideas you should not use, let’s look at 9 great ideas that can improve your own onboarding process and why they’re effective. Many of these techniques also apply to remote work environments, however you may need to slightly adapt your execution to make them work for your team.

Establish Check-Ins, Especially Before Day One

Before onboarding even formally begins, checking in with new employees before they start can encourage a feeling of security. These check-ins can involve the employee’s manager, an HR representative, or even their future coworkers. This time can also be used for distributing documents (such as the employee handbook) and walking through their first day. But the main goal should be to provide space to answer the new employee’s questions in a low-risk environment.

Checking in shouldn’t stop at initial onboarding, however. Depending on the position, it may be months before the new hire feels they truly have a handle on their work. Regular check-ins at one week, two weeks, one month, and so on will allow you to catch and resolve any obstacles preventing a successful ramp-up.

Give Useful Contact Information

A common problem for new employees is feeling isolated. If a new hire has questions, they may not know who to ask or how to best approach someone for help. In the midst of learning entire new systems and hierarchies, new hires don’t want to accidentally interrupt the workflow of senior employees.

Stop these concerns before they start by providing new hires with an “address book” with contact information for senior employees. This way, new hires can ask for help during their first few months and build relationships with experienced employees. You might also give ideas for what subjects employees can ask for help on, the senior employee’s preferred method of contact, and their hours of availability (essential for remote or hybrid workplaces). Ideally, this will lower the barriers of communication and eliminate the common fear of bothering people with questions.

Provide The “Real” Resources

The onboarding process involves a lot of document distribution, and you may worry about bombarding a new employee with a pile of paperwork. However, it’s important to ensure that they have resources they can revisit during the onboarding process. It will likely save a lot of time and frustration on behalf of senior employees if new recruits don’t constantly need to ask clarifying questions.

Yet senior employees can be invaluable resources for constructing these documents. Ask your senior employees for the “secrets” of working for the organization (i.e. the non-obvious information or advice they would give that may never make it into the handbook).

For instance, you might include information about events that affect the general workflow, such as when server maintenance is most likely to take place in the office and how to plan around it. Otherwise, you might have a senior employee compile a list of tips for success (how long to wait between follow up emails, who is unofficially responsible for certain requests, etc.). Sharing this information may save a lot of unnecessary friction, and it will reinforce that the new team is happy to bring this person into the fold. By giving the new employee “insider” information, the onboarding process feels personalized, demonstrating that you put a lot of time and thought into welcoming the new employee.

Create An Anti-Isolation Schedule

Even if someone was recruited by a friend or previously worked with the organization as a contractor, the first week at a new position can be an isolating experience. In the midst of learning everything, a new employee has to navigate the social dynamics of an office and/or team.

If the team is willing and workload allows, put together a schedule for the new employee’s first week and month that includes assigned lunch partners. This is a very easy way for senior employees to contribute to the onboarding process if workloads are dense — they may not be available to write new documents, but a forty-five minute lunch is doable for most people.

If you’re working with a remote team, schedule afternoon breaks between onboarding activities for new employees to chat with other members of the team one-on-one. The point is to alleviate stress and make sure new employees don’t feel isolated within an established social hierarchy.

However, keep in mind that some people might be uncomfortable with the idea of a one-on-one lunch with people they just met (especially if those people are more experienced than them). Listen to your new hires, and open the discussion for candid feedback. If anyone expresses deep discomfort with this idea, don’t force it on them.

Set A Purposefully Slow Ramp-Up

Naturally, someone new to a position shouldn’t be expected to complete the same workload as an employee who’s been in the position for a year or longer. They shouldn’t have to struggle to keep pace with demand while still learning the technical aspects of their job.

Consider formalizing this low-obligation period as part of the onboarding process, with established landmarks for when their workload should be half that of a fully onboarded employee, then 75 percent, and so on. If this doesn’t match your company culture, consider assigning new employees to shorter workweeks than the rest of the team for a formal length of time. This is a formal acknowledgement that new employees need time to fully learn and absorb the organization’s processes — and that the organization is very willing to give it to them.

Make Orientation Immersive

One of the most important parts of onboarding is ensuring that people understand products and brand standards. It’s imperative that the organization take time to fully educate employees and answer questions so they understand what the organization is selling. Even if they don’t work in product development or sales, this education can help employees understand the needs and processes of other departments. It may also help them decide what to prioritize day-to-day.

Instead of simply handing your new employee a handbook or showing them a deck, consider holding a focused day of training about your organization. Show new employees previous versions of your products and explain why certain aspects were changed. You may even decide to give full product demonstrations to better illustrate what new employees can emphasize when speaking to customers or prospects. Disney takes this approach even further, providing an entire day of school-style classes about the company’s history, priorities, and culture.

Assign A Mentor/Buddy

If your organization has a strong culture of cooperation, or that heavily endorses mentorship, this may be your greatest asset when it comes to onboarding. A designated mentor for each new employee ensures that they’ll be able to find answers to their questions. It’s an elegant solution if you’re worried about overwhelming new employees with paperwork but still want to provide a knowledge base. People also tend to absorb job knowledge and techniques on a deeper level when it comes from a person rather than a screen or a book.

Overall, it’s important to nail down how existing employees can contribute to helping new employees. Employees should know what to expect from new people, how long they’ll most likely need help, and how they can best complete their regular work while new employees are undergoing onboarding around them.

The travel management company Travelperk takes this a step further by establishing official “first days” in the company’s schedule. New employees are onboarded in groups on only one day per month. Established employees are made aware of this day so they can be in a state of mind to help new people or prioritize work accordingly.

Normalize Mistakes (Even Quitting)

Starting a new position and learning new systems will inherently lead to mistakes. It’s important to acknowledge this, even if your organization has a high-performance culture.

Encourage other employees to be open about their first days at the company. You may even compile their stories into a document and distribute it along with standard onboarding materials. This may ease the nerves of many new employees.

Zappos normalizes the idea that some new recruits may leave because the organization simply isn’t a good fit. They are extremely upfront about the company culture and what the new employee’s position will require. If the position is indeed a poor fit, the idea is that that will be recognized early on in the process so there aren’t too many resources used on an employee that doesn’t stay. It also emphasizes that if an employee decides that they are a good fit for the organization, people around them will be willing to support them.

Evaluate And Iterate Upon The Process

Onboarding isn’t an aspect of business that you can set and forget. You’ll need to audit and re-evaluate the process regularly to ensure your workforce is ready to meet challenges and you won’t waste precious resources retraining people.

Survey your employees, both new and established, to learn what stuck with them during onboarding and what could be eliminated. Even if certain sections can’t be eliminated, you’ll learn where mistakes are most likely to happen and where new employees are most likely to have questions.

Criterion’s specialized HR functions can help you compile and organize onboarding data into a usable format. You’ll be able to record responses and analyze them in the way that works best for your organization. A data-rich filing system makes it easy to record changes over time. Extensive capabilities make it easy to find the helpful information within your collected data.

Final Thoughts

Your onboarding process is more than just a training period. It’s also a way to promote your company to the best talent in the industry. While many people don’t realize how effective it is, employees are more likely to stay with a company that has invested ample time and resources into their onboarding process.

To paraphrase the famous quote by Maya Angelou, people will forget what you said and did as time passes. But they will never forget how you made them feel. Conveying to someone that they are welcome and the people of their new workplace are invested in their success can go a long way in ensuring a person’s loyalty to the company.

Onboarding is a distinctive part of the employee experience, and it’s important to track and measure its impact on your workforce over time. With Criterion’s talent engagement features, you can customize and manage your onboarding process with ease. Store the results of your exit evaluations, distribute materials, and track each employees’ completion of onboarding procedures all in the same user interface.

What’s more, the built-in document filing system allows you to adjust or customize things to suit your organization’s unique needs. Self-service features ensure key resources and tools are accessible for employees and provide a single source of truth to help new hires get their bearings from day one.

Is your onboarding process helping your workforce succeed? Schedule a demo to learn how Criterion HCM can enhance your onboarding process for everyone involved.

Conor Quinn
HCM Software Specialist focused on client and partner success.
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