Here’s one of my articles published last month (May 2010) in Training Journal. You can also get a PDF to download if you prefer to read it in all its published glory on your shiny new iPad. Comments very welcome.
Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?
"On my first day I arrived and was immediately drowning in rules and policies, all apparently about what NOT to do. The HR person taking us through didn't seem that confident and just rushed through a seemingly endless Powerpoint presentation which sent most of us into a state of paralysis. I'm still not clear what I am actually expected to DO in my role."
"Our manager said we didn't have time for the usual induction and we got straight into the job. I had to learn by trial and error, but I got there in the end."
"Well I'm not sure whether that trainer just got out the wrong side of bed today, but I hope the other people I meet aren't as cynical and depressing. Otherwise I don't think I'll be able to last long. It's certainly not the impression I got from the interview."
As organisations, and as individuals, we never get a second chance to make a first impression. This is especially true when we find ourselves in a vulnerable position such as entering a new job role. We become hypersensitive to the information and actions we see around us. We are more likely to jump to hasty conclusions, real or imagined, in a desperate attempt to reach certainty of mind.
Cognitive psychologists have observed this behaviour as "premature cognitive commitment" and it is very difficult to shake these initial impressions once set. From an organisational perspective, this means we run big risks if the onboarding experience that new staff receive is poor and open to interpretation.
Onboarding sets the tone for how employees perceive an organisation in terms of corporate culture, communication and values. However, for many staff entering a new work place, the experience can be an inconsistent, sobering and unnerving affair.
It is no great surprise then that many new joiners don't stay the course. It has been recorded that 90 per cent of employees decide whether to leave their new employer within the first six months (recently voiced by Gretchen Alarcon at Oracle).
Measuring time to full productivity of new staff reveals it can take anything between six and twelve months to reach the required performance levels. Such high levels of staff attrition are extremely costly to an organisation. Then, when a staff member leaves, all of that early investment in that individual - from recruitment, selection and induction to salary - is lost before they can add any real value.
There are many reasons why these onboarding problems occur. However, at its heart usually sits the tumbleweed of absent or poor communication. This can undermine efforts at each key stage of a new employee's journey into a new organisation. Any mismanagement of messaging, inconsistencies or simply an absence of support can derail a new joiner.
These first few months are a particularly delicate time yet, when handled well, can provide a superior foundation for long term employee engagement, more than any subsequent corporate cultural change programme.
Communication. Communication. Communication.
In general you can't communicate too much. Yet it is far more common for us to stay silent for long periods and allow perceptions to stray. Communication is the golden thread on which all engagement activities hang.
In onboarding terms, successful communication will produce three key outcomes for each individual:
- Congruence - aligned messages are easier to assimilate and understand in the minds of those new to your organisational culture.
- Competence - building the skills and knowledge of the new joiner throughout their onboarding experience reduces the overall time it takes for them to reach full productivity.
- Confidence - a new joiner that feels well informed, knowledgeable and ready to apply their skills is well motivated to perform at high levels at the earliest opportunity.
Technology as a catalyst
In designing a successful onboarding strategy, it is essential to harness technology to deliver an experience that is aligned and supportive with an organisation's values and culture. It must also deliver more productive employees, quickly and at lower overall cost.
Not only can technology help communicate more information in a timely and accessible fashion, but it can also be used to avoid information overload - another common problem for new staff. Technology genuinely offers a win-win opportunity to positively impact your staff, your top-line productivity, as well as your bottom-line.
Let's take a look at some of the key stages of onboarding and explore how improved communication through an appropriate application of technology can achieve a more effective experience for your new employees.
This stage covers all recruitment and selection activities, including the public presentation of the organisation's ‘employer brand’. Communicationneeds to accurately represent the organisational culture, the nature of the job roles available and working conditions.
There is also a clear need to positively position the organisation to attract talent that may be in short supply. However, the organisation's story must be authentic. A new joiner will soon discover if the brand doesn't match their experience – here are a few tips to ensure this doesn’t happen in your organisation:
- Offer a careers portal giving visibility to employee practice, a summary of your organisation's activities, the range and variety of job roles available, and (through job board functionality) access to vacancies and the application process.
- Applications can be filtered through immediate exercises that test applicants' basic abilities and attitudes to the job role. By ensuring that applicants fully understand the role and culture, there are fewer losses later in the recruitment/induction process.
- Selection exercises at interview stage can simulate the working environment. They can provide valuable direction for both applicant and employer on the level of subsequent training and development required to reach the desired levels of competence and productivity.
Upon selection and acceptance of the role, new joiners often experience a chasm of silence between receiving their offer letter and their first day at the organisation. This can dent a new starter's confidence and lead to a reappraisal of their decision to join.
A pre-joiners portal (sometimes linked to the original careers portal with access to additional secure areas) can continue engagement and provide important stimulation and reinforcement as soon as the job offer is accepted.
A successful example of such a portal is being used by Sky with significant business results – it also won ‘Most Effective Training Programme Award’ at the recent Customer Contact Association Global Awards.
Social media tools can be used to safely connect with existing employees and other new starters irrespective of their geographical location. These tools can be embedded within the portal and/or provide links to existing tools which may be linked to a recruitment strategy. Common social media services that may already be in use include Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin.
Used correctly, social media can provide a mechanism for new employees to contribute and demonstrate their value to others already in the organisation. Likewise, existing employees and, critically, members of the management community can reach out and engage with new incoming team members.
This approach can help new starters operate more effectively as they’ll have an increased understanding of current projects that they will be working on. It will also help new team members to understand commonly used jargon amongst colleagues and start to expose them directly to the culture of the organisation.
Induction from the first day onwards can be radically re-designed and shortened if pre-joining learning activities are put in place. There can be significant savings in overall training time, of 50 per cent or more, where the induction experience focuses on application of knowledge and skills already acquired.
By extending the use of an online portal to include additional learning activities, further flexibility and personalisation of the induction experience can be achieved. This allows those, able and willing, to fast track themselves to a proven level of competency much faster than previously. While those needing additional support can be given the attention they need from the organisation's training and coaching staff.
Since communication is more effective when spaced over time, providing ongoing access to learning and performance support via the online portal will help cement new knowledge and skills. It will also increase accuracy on the job and accelerate the acquisition of practical and positive work experience.
The cumulative effect of aligning all of these stages is to give the employee a highly congruent, contextualised and personalised entry into the organisation which will build confidence, competence and loyalty. While many factors affect an employee's motivation levels and loyalty, clear, regular communication and clarity of purpose will keep their focus through the initial months until they are fully embedded in their new company.
Onboarding directs the conversation
Communication has always been about a conversation rather than a one way transmission. In today's highly interconnected world, we are all becoming used to, indeed expect, a two-way interaction. As we've seen, the technology and tools are there for us to harness.
Do try and use the techniques above to reach alignment across all key stages of your induction process to help yield significant cost savings, more robust employee engagement and productivity. This will in turn lead to reduced levels of attrition.
Put simply, employees are more confident and competent in their chosen role and are appropriately motivated to perform in line with the corporate brand and mission if they experience a good onboarding process. Going forward this can only be achieved by putting communication and technology at the heart of your onboarding strategy.