Onboarding a new employee can be a tricky thing, especially at a smaller company or one that’s quickly growing. It’s an implicit rule of startup culture, after all: everybody’s going to wear lots of hats, and roles must bend to the changing needs of the organization. In some ways, then, you’re trying to prepare people for the unknown. How are you supposed to do that?
You can document processes until carpal tunnel sets in, but it won’t be much help if those processes become irrelevant by next week. Having a new hire shadow a supervisor or counterpart could be a better option, but only if the old hand has the time and wherewithal to explain the why behind the what. Watching somebody work isn’t very useful without context.
Of course, there’s always the “throw ‘em into the fire” strategy, but I doubt many people truly thrive under that kind of pressure. Trying to learn and remember a company’s worth of new names is stressful enough.
The onboarding experience at Torrent — at least as I’ve experienced it — is built to introduce the company in a more organic way. New employees are equipped with essential knowledge. At the same time, they’re given room to explore and ask questions. Expectations are made clear, but leadership seems just as interested in the expectations you have for yourself.
I say these things not to stockpile brownie points (I promise!), but because I’ve learned a few lessons here that I think could benefit other companies as they onboard their own new employees.
Onboarding lesson #1: Make time to tell the company’s story.
It’s easy for a new employee to feel engulfed by the present. They’re meeting new people, learning new systems and softwares, settling in to a new environment — and it’s all happening right now. In other words: cognitive overload.
As they hurry to get up and running, a recent hire might lose sight of the bigger picture: why they’re here and what impact they want to make in their new role. Which, if you ask me, is a shame. In any new venture, it’s important to remember your purpose.
One way leadership can make sure new employees feel empowered is by looking to the past — and then the future.
In my first days at Torrent, I participated in orientation sessions devoted to the company’s history and future direction. Our CEO took the time to explain why he started Torrent, how it’s grown over the past few years and where he hopes we’re going.
Hearing all this helped me understand the company as a story, one with many previous chapters. Situated in a larger context, my overwhelming present suddenly didn’t seem so overwhelming. I was reminded of why I’d been brought in and what I could do to help write some new pages. The whirlwind of onboarding was just a small part of the narrative.
Onboarding lesson #2: Teach the basics, but give new hires the freedom to explore.
As I mentioned above, broad-scale process documents aren’t always useful in companies that are committed to growth and accustomed to change. By the time you record every function of a particular role, the role will have changed. At a previous job, I spent weeks creating a step-by-step process document that was meant to serve as the be-all and end-all of project guides. By the time it was finished — you guessed it — the company decided on a new way of doing things. My document was scrapped.
That said, it might seem like new hires need these kinds of documents. How else are they supposed to learn how to do their jobs?
In the early going, leadership should consider equipping newbies with more basic knowledge: company-wide processes, policies and structure. Beyond the orientation sessions centered on Torrent’s history and future, I also attended meetings where I learned how the company handles different communication channels, HR issues, expenses and more.
Combined with support from my coach, I felt prepared to find my own way within an established framework. In other words, I’d been taught the rules of the game, but given some freedom to figure out my own strategy for how I would play.
Onboarding lesson #3: Encourage as many meet and greets as possible.
With an employee count hovering around 70, Torrent is the largest company I’ve ever worked for. At first, I was intimidated by the prospect of meeting so many different people — especially considering they were scattered across half a dozen cities. Adding to my anxiety was the requirement that I reach out to at least six Torrent employees for fifteen-minute “Meet & Greets.” I figured I’d be bothering people by asking for these meetings.
I was wrong.
Each and every member of the Torrent team that I contacted was happy to talk to me. They wanted to get to know me — to hear my story and share their own. They were glad that I had joined the team and graciously offered up more of their time if I ever had an issue they could help with.
This experience gave me the kind of confidence I never expected to have at a new job. And, considering that my role as brand journalist relies on sourcing information from people across the company, that confidence will make me a much better employee.
The lesson here? Push new hires to reach out to members of the team they might not otherwise meet until later. It will help them feel like a real part of the team much sooner.
When I think back on prior onboarding processes, each one was missing at least one of these three strategies. As a result, my experience was never as positive as it could have been. While every company’s unique nature will make for different needs, I believe the above lessons are worth trying in your organization.
And in the meantime, tell us: How does your organization handle onboarding? We’d love to hear about some of your best practices in the comments below.