It all starts with onboarding. This is true in the literal sense, of course; a new hire’s first week on the job consists of learning the ins and outs of the company they’ve just joined. In a larger sense, though, onboarding is evidence of a company’s maturity and sophistication. Thoughtful onboarding processes remain necessary long after that first week, and, if executed properly, pay continual dividends over the (hopefully) long course of an employee’s tenure. Good onboarding helps break down inter-company silos and prevents veteran employees from leaving the company and taking valuable institutional knowledge with them.
Nevertheless, this area can represent a missed opportunity. Companies often only offer basic, rote HR onboarding, meaning that a new hire is given little more than a laptop and an explanation of their benefits before being set loose for their first, shaky few weeks on the job. While some organizations go the extra mile and offer engineering and org-specific onboarding, many do not. As a result, shared knowledge is replaced with top down processes which bear little relation to how people actually go about performing their day to day responsibilities.
Too many companies are failing in their efforts to solve this equation. Before explaining how the process can be improved, however, it’s helpful to first ask what onboarding really consists of. On its face, this would seem like an easy question to answer. Many people, however, are stumped when their basic assumptions of the process are interrogated. Does onboarding only occur once, when someone joins a company for the first time? If that’s the case, what do we call the process of training when someone transitions to an entirely new team, or into an entirely new role? How about when a new technology is introduced and mass adoption is necessary?
Each of these scenarios requires a considerate and strategic process of facilitation and communication, which is to say that onboarding never really stops. And yet few, if any, of these are accompanied by onboarding strategies. Most companies think of onboarding as something that applies strictly to new employees, and even in that specific situation, their operations often prove inadequate.
To prove this point, let’s spin up a hypothetical scenario that is nonetheless consistent with so much of what I’ve seen during my time in Silicon Valley. Evan has just started as a software engineer at Acme Systems. After his HR briefing in a company conference room, his new manager escorts him to his desk, introducing him to his new team. Given special recognition is Ada, who sits three stations down, and has been tapped to mentor Evan. Ada didn’t sign up for this responsibility of her own free will; she was instead “voluntold” to help get Evan up to speed, informed that it would be in her best interest to look after him if she wanted to be considered for a promotion in the next year. Ada has resolved to do her best but, focused on shipping product in pursuit of that promotion, she has little time or energy available to answer questions and would very much prefer to concentrate solely on her own personal responsibilities.
Taking his seat, Evan is sent links to a series of static write-ups, often stored as Google docs, and is told to read them sequentially in order to understand basic issues such as setting up his laptop. Reading though this information is tedious and feels a bit cold, lacking, as it is, the human touch. Evan is told that if he has any questions after reading them, he should look to Ada for answers. At this point, Evan has just enough understanding and awareness that he is assigned to work on an easy project that allows him to experience the team’s end-to-end lifecycle. This could be something as inconsequential as adding a button to a product, which requires little in the way of explanation. Nevertheless, Evan completes the task, and his manager is offered a pat on the back for getting a new hire quickly up to speed.
However this small success obscures a larger failure to grant Evan organizational knowledge. Chances are, he’s still confused on a number of topics such as testing and workflow, which will be left for Ada and the team manager to clarify little by little over the coming weeks and months. The lack of a thoughtfully designed and broadly disseminated curriculum for instilling organizational knowledge worsens departmental siloing, as every team is left to invent their own disconnected, sometimes contradictory ways of teaching new hires how to work at the company. What’s more, all of this isn’t even the worst case scenario, as we’re assuming that Ada and the team manager have both a solid grasp of the topic, as well as the time and energy to bring Evan up to speed on it all.
The lack of a more comprehensive onboarding protocol will undoubtedly chip away at Evan’s morale. He may have been a rockstar engineer at his previous company, but that success didn’t totally prepare him for this new role featuring different coding languages, technologies and workflows. This difficult first experience prevents him from fully buying into the company culture, while also planting a seed of doubt about the company’s ultimate success. It also puts Evan amongst the majority of the American workforce. In 2017, Gallup found that only 12% of employees strongly agree that their organization does a great job onboarding new employees.
This dissatisfaction may even be a factor in his looking for another opportunity as soon as possible. While such a decision may seem drastic, scattered processes and team siloing often makes it easier for someone like Evan to leave all together rather than transfer to a new role in the same company. This is why employee turnover is estimated to be as high as 50% in the first 18 months of employment. If Evan does make his way out the company door, he triggers a process that will require 6 to 9 months of his salary in search of his replacement. Sometimes, an even bigger issue is the opportunity cost of not bringing a product or feature to market in a timely manner.
It doesn’t have to be like this; companies can instead institute smart processes that get employees up to speed quickly and comprehensively, inspiring a faith that this is a place where people can do the very best work of their career. The ideal onboarding experience offers a grounding in three areas:
Getting new hires up to speed with all this requires, first and foremost, a patient and supportive social environment. To put it bluntly: human beings matter, and new hires need to be welcomed by their colleagues in a way that reassures them that they’ll be capable of contributing and making an impact. First impressions are critical. In the above hypothetical, Evan’s first task is to read a series of boring Google docs, while his second task is to bug a mentor who barely has time for him. Everyone would be much better off if, instead, he were patiently guided through the company’s ins and outs by an enthusiastic colleague.
This philosophy is more important than ever considering our abrupt and wide spread transition to remote work. Compounding all of the aforementioned mistakes is the fact that they can now unfold across the great digital divide. In fact, Evan may not even have a proper desk at company HQ, and Ada may only register as a name on Slack and, occasionally, a face on Zoom. Given these possibilities, it’s more critical than ever to design an onboarding experience which capitalizes on the basic human need to belong by prioritizing a warm, empathetic human connection.
Communicating how your company works and how to work at your company shouldn't be left up to chance. If the company can succeed in providing this, it will speed up the learning curve and enable a much quicker and more thorough grasp of the ways in which the organization is structured and where, exactly, the new hire exists in relation to the rest of the company’s many moving parts. During my time at Twitter, I often repeated a favorite phrase: “It’s important for our colleagues to know how Twitter works AND how they work at Twitter.” Employees shouldn’t be a little cog lost in the expanse of a large machine. Instead, they should be given every tool to understand how the machine works holistically.
Netflix has done an exceptional job of creating a track that methodically and seamlessly takes its employees from their first days understanding the most basic aspects of company operations through higher level processes, including career advancement and mentorship opportunities. Not unlike the best health care systems, Netflix early on recognized that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Their success at creating an environment in which the onboarding continues long after an employee’s first weeks is a significant proof point to the industry, demonstrating that it’s possible to proactively design systems which prevent churn and encourage longevity.
In recognition of all this, the most successful companies make the most of their opportunities to fully onboard new hires before turning them over to their managers. Just as there is no second chance to make a positive first impression, so is there no better opportunity to educate people in the ways of the company than before they are inundated by day-to-day responsibilities. It may seem counterintuitive to keep people back, to prevent them from hitting the ground running. The truth, however, is that fully digesting a complete operating manual is in both their and the company’s best interests. This sort of patience is by no means a foreign concept to tech leaders, many of whom already practice this sort of discipline. What are Agile, Cloud, or CI/CD if not the thoughtful technologies characteristic of a mature company looking to harvest long term benefits?
There are usually two main reasons why new hires are not given more time to onboard deliberately:
What is more, a deliberate onboarding pace helps a company extract best practices and better understand how operations are falling short in ways that could have far reaching implications. While helping new employees get up to speed at Twitter, for example, it became apparent that it was next to impossible for many engineers to get access to the initial source code. I was able to lobby the higher ups and make this easier, though who knows what was lost by way of decreased productivity prior to that point.
This leads us to one of the most important and succinct points on the topic. Onboarding isn’t a passive thing; it’s not a simple box meant to be checked and quickly forgotten. It is, rather, an iterative, social process of creation, one that has the potential to serve as a mirror which reflects where the kinks are in a company’s technology, processes, and culture. It grants the opportunity to clarify and simplify, not only for the benefit of those just joining the company, but also for those who have been there for years.
This is why static tools, such as Google Docs or Wiki Pages, are insufficient tools for codifying the organization. As isolated, individual learning experiences, they often fail to get people on the same page and encourage a common sense of ownership. The most effective means of learning how a company works is to do so in the company of others. Beyond all the already outlined benefits, a social learning approach lays the groundwork for quickly solving a new employee's initial difficulties.
It’s almost a given that, at some point during their first months, they will get stuck on a problem, lacking the adequate context or knowledge to push through and find a suitable solution. In such a situation, the only way forward is to ask their friends and coworkers for help. If they were initiated via a static onboarding process, though, they might feel too intimidated or confused to effectively ask for help. Instead, they will burn precious time trying and failing to muscle their way through, resulting in a final deliverable that is substandard and uninspiring.
There are a few basic tools and metrics which allow a company to track it’s success at onboarding. The time it takes before a new hire’s 10th commit is a classic, much deployed one. Another is to analyze the diversity of code bases that individual employees contribute to, the idea being that better onboarding will result in a wider base of contributions. For companies going public, there is their market cap per engineer, which may offer some sort of picture on how efficiently employees are able to contribute to the company’s financial success.
Employee churn and job satisfaction should always be considered, especially given the growing number of recent surveys which demonstrate that company culture and career growth are potentially more important factors than base salary when it comes to worker retention. And as we’ve already established, it’s well within a company’s financial self-interest to minimize churn, considering the fact that companies can spend anywhere from 16% to 213% of an employee's salary to cover the costs of finding a replacement.
I’m of the opinion, though, that the very best indicators of success revolve around trust. Namely, how much and how well do people trust that their colleagues and managers have set them up for success and will help them out in the case of professional struggles? There is, obviously, no objective means of strictly measuring something like trust, though it’s possible to get pretty close. We’re told again and again that company loyalty is a thing of the past and that younger generations carry an innate expectation that they will leave for greener pastures multiple times over the course of their career. And yet, a 2017 survey found that 78% of employees who believe their company encourages creativity and innovation are highly committed to their jobs, while simultaneously showing that 83% of employees who believe that management helps them overcome professional challenges are motivated to stay in house.
Pushback against a more deliberate, comprehensive and thoughtful onboarding strategy mainly centers around two issues: the new era of remote work, and the belief that the benefits of a better process are either too abstract or too far off in the distance.
It would be easy - and, to some extent, understandable - for companies to throw up their hands and declare onboarding a lost cause with everyone working from home. However, this new shared reality makes the process more important than ever. One of the great perks of office culture is the serendipity that occurs when people meet under unplanned circumstances and realize they can be of service to one another. This not uncommon occurrence can perform a lot of heavy lifting when formal processes are inadequate, though it ceases to be a magical X factor when we cease sharing a common space. Managers, therefore, need to be even more deliberate with how they introduce a new hire to their new role.
Remote work doesn’t change the fact that people still crave the opportunity to form social bonds. The magic of a great team can be seen in the ways in which it coheres as a community, ways which often transcend the formal workplace. This sort of sociability enables a sense of belonging that will never be imparted via a boring slide deck.
As for the hesitation around investing in something whose payoff isn’t clear, there is an understandable tension between optimizing for a new hire’s time to first commit vs optimizing for their lifespan at the company. While a manager may want to harvest contributions as quickly as possible, they must realize that they’re doing so at the potential expense of that employee making even greater long term contributions to the company. In so doing, they negatively impact a shared culture of high performance. It’s not for nothing that Facebook gives some new hires a 3 to 6 week tour of the company before handing them off to their specific team and manager. During that time, these employees are allowed to engage with different parts of the stack, asking questions and acquiring a holistic picture of how the company functions.