Onboarding Blocks — How to think of and structure an onboarding process

Photo by Erwan Hesry on Unsplash

Properly onboarding new team members not only increases morale in new hires and increases team fit, but also yields better productivity in the team more quickly than an unstructured process.

Careful planning and thought, as well as company size- and stage-tailored methods, are prerequisites, and adaptation and constant evolution in concurrence with the hiring speed and the organization’s over-time structural changes should also be front of mind. Lastly, you need to differentiate between two main types of onboarding: 1) onboarding into your company and 2) onboarding into a team within your company.

To help illustrate how to think about onboarding, I’ve broken the process of building an onboarding workflow down into several blocks: which provide the creative freedom to come up with and evolve an onboarding plan that works for your company. I like to think of them as ‘blocks’ — similar to lego blocks — because broken out as such gives you flexibility on how to deliver and evolve them. How you execute and layer these blocks largely comes down to your company’s culture and the time availability of people that are of significance for the onboarding experience you want to deliver. For example, on this latter point, it is famously shared that Jack Dorsey (co-founder of Twitter and Square) used to personally onboard new employees with a walk where he would share his thoughts on the company’s vision and values, could someone else have done this as effectively? It’s up to you to judge for your own org, hire, and circumstances.

The blocks I highlight below are a mix of operational and cultural elements, they can be intermingled, layered, or done in whichever order you desire, but naturally some make more sense before others (unless you have a reason to do so). Also, you (the founder or leader) don’t have to be the sole architect of these blocks; other colleagues can be the authors of these blocks as well, shaping them as they see fit of the sub-cultures that might exist within their functions or divisions (e.g. tech teams tend to have their own sub cultures). Ensure, however, that any sub-culture still adheres to the values of your organisation — you don’t want to be encouraging factions!

Below are the ‘post offer’ onboarding blocks (once you’ve already thought through and delivered the offer or contract verbally or over more formal communication, and the candidate has accepted it) and their descriptions. Try to think of the list below as building blocks in a process you and your colleagues can create and make into a repeatable process (if more than one hire), specific to the role and circumstance of the new hire rather than a prescriptive sequence.

The technical/asset onboarding block — A seemingly simple, but important one, where you provide the new hire with anything as small as their new ‘badge’ to something more substantial like their new computer, login passwords, access to the intranet, etc. This block can be separate from the onboarding of HR-related matters (i.e. policies) as I will highlight later below. This block can feel very disorienting to a new hire who might have had different tech tools and processes in their previous role, so give it the right time and patience. It will likely vary if the hire is remote vs. in person, so you should think about unique experiences therein. It’s not necessarily the first block you should do if, for example, you want to highlight key risk factors of working in your organisation first (e.g. safety or regulatory requirements).

The cultural/values onboarding block — This is one where leadership (of some sort, be it divisional or higher up) takes the time to walk through what it is like to work with others in the organisation, what might be expected of them to get along with others, walk through the values, the bigger picture and vision, etc. This doesn’t have to be a 1:1 and it can involve multiple leaders if relevant, but the objective is to have the new hire understand the ‘tribal norms’ of your organisation and how they play a part in its success. As part of this chat, you should highlight any meetings or traditions you’d expect them to take part in and their regularity so that they can appreciate their importance.

The colleague onboarding block — Less about explaining the culture and more about showing the culture, this starts with how you introduce the new hire to the rest of the organisation (e.g. via email or otherwise at point of hire), and continues through where the new hire meets your broader set of colleagues over a welcome beer, dinner, lunch, etc. (whatever your thing is). This block is helpful so people don’t feel like a stranger or ‘new person’ forever, and so that a broader group of people know who the new hire is and what they will do. This can be done for a group of new hires, but you should try and keep that group to a small enough size that the broader colleagues can still spend some 1:1 time with each during the welcome.

As part of this block, you can also assign the new hire with a ‘buddy’ that helps them along the way. Pick who will be that buddy carefully, though, as it will require the buddy to dedicate time to the buddy role and properly consider the new hire’s status and/or needs so they don’t feel neglected. If that buddy is regularly absent or doesn’t deliver on expectations when the new hire needs assistance, the whole buddy thing can backfire. In other words, a dysfunctional buddy system is worse than no buddy expectations at all!

The roles and responsibility block — This one is where their direct manager or higher up walks through the org chart, where they sit in the org, who they need to report to whom, and what they will be directly responsible for. Ideally, you make it very clear what success looks like for the new hire and how that affects the org as a whole. You can add, if relevant, a description of how the organization works (eg. how your company makes money and contributes to the larger economy) if the employee may not fully understand how the industry functions (which can be normal for some roles in highly complex industries).

To highlight when this works well, my colleague Gus Curley adds: One legend that emphasizes this point is “during a tour of NASA headquarters in 1961, John F. Kennedy encountered a janitor mopping the floors. “Why are you working so late?” Kennedy asked. “Mr President,” the janitor responded, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.” My analysis is that the Janitor understood how his role contributed to the success of the company. Without the janitor understanding how the engineers work (in that they need a clean workspace to not contaminate their tests which ultimately could put the mission in jeopardy) he might not have cared so much about his own job.

As this anecdote highlights, at the end of walking a colleague through this block, it should be very clear to them what success looks like not only for them, but their team, their managers, and the org as a whole.

Lastly, this block should include a series of expectations for the new hire in terms of where they need to be contributing by certain time points after hire (your choice depending on probation periods as well as how long the training takes for them to be productive, but think of timeframes that make sense (e.g. less than a year)). As part of this you can introduce how the review process will work for your new hire, and how they can also add to your organisation by sharing their feedback on any matter (assuming you have a feedback loop within your org).

The HR policies and benefits block — This block usually generates quite a few questions, even if many were covered as part of the hiring process. It includes things like explaining the ‘work from home’ policy, the holiday policy, the pay scales for the future, etc. It also includes any regulatory and training requirements the employee will need to be able to do the job. So it is worthwhile thinking about when and how to cover these in a way that makes sense in the flow of ‘lego bricks’ above. Too soon, and you can come across as a very policy-driven organization, too late, and questions that might be important to the new hire to plan for their personal needs will be addressed too long after joining your organisation.

Armed with the above blocks, you can build a custom workflow for onboarding based on the needs of your organization. You can also lean in on your company’s leadership to innovate ways on how to customize these blocks; that’s why it is useful to break them out like this, because as the leader, you might want to take some of them on personally, and others, you might see better to delegate.

In the end, there is one simple rule when it comes to onboarding, after you are done with it, does the new hire feel welcome and appreciated, and have clarity on how they can help everyone and themselves succeed. If you’ve achieved that, kudos, you’ve done it well.

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A note on onboarding tools: Alex Lewis, my colleague and Talent Manager within Seedcamp, has also been researching the topic and seen how other companies implement these blocks using widely available tools and resources. In his words:

The blocks above touch on a number of subject areas within People Operations outside of onboarding, such as employee engagement and performance management. Building out your “People tech stack” can help with automating these steps and save you time at scale, manage and house your processes and encourage communication and collaboration across the company. For example, culture and values come across not only in your interactions with employees in person or via internal comms tools like Slack, but also should be documented for easy access by your team members, building an internal wiki using Notion is a popular and easy to scale tool, utilised across much of the ecosystem. Onboarding colleagues and arranging for technical procurement can involve multiple team members coordinating and can be difficult to manage when your time is thin, or you don’t have a dedicated People person. Tools like Donut can automate this process, and send reminders to relevant team members via Slack. Having an HRIS (Human Resources Information System), such as CharlieHR, can be a one stop shop for new employees to access HR policies and internal reviews to keep check on their progress and responsibilities, whilst platforms like Ben can house all of your benefits in one place too.

However, it is important to remember that tools do not replace the importance of one on one interaction, consistency of communication is paramount. Train your team members involved in onboarding to the highest standard possible, ensuring your new employees are continuously receiving the best experience possible with little ambiguity, so they are being set up for success from day zero.

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