4 Strategies for More Effective Onboarding

Get the most out of your onboarding program by extending the time window, adding one-to-one experiential learning, providing guided learning plans for the entire extended process, and measuring/analyzing your entire program.

Everyone has the same vision of perfect employee onboarding. Your new hires get up to speed quickly. They embrace (and, yes, evangelize!) your corporate culture. Above all, these new employees are motivated and contribute to the bottom line.

Sound perfect? It could be. Simple to achieve? That’s something else. The reality is that often, successfully onboarding new hires for long-term happiness and productivity can be challenging. Consider:

  • A full third of external hires are no longer with the organization after two years.
  • Almost a third of employees employed in their current job for less than six months are already job searching (Stein & Christian, 2010).

A few days of orientation is not sufficient to adequately engage new hires and get them off to a fast start. But how do you get there? The solution: “continual, reinforced learning environments” (Bersin, “The Corporate Learning Factbook,” 2012). By helping employees learn over time and apply what they learn on the job, your onboarding program will drive the golden benefits of new employee engagement, productivity, and retention.

Here are 4 strategies with examples to get your onboarding program productive now.

1. Extend the learning window.

After the initial orientation, true corporate learning happens in small chunks, over time. This type of learning is “relational,” and includes concepts such as on-the-job training, role relevance to the organization, in-house networking, and performance expectations.

Studies suggest extending onboarding programs for at least six months to achieve effective learning saturation. Also, keep in mind that beyond speed to competency, employees are still in the process of “buying in.” In fact, 90 percent of employees are still deciding whether they’ll stay at an organization throughout their first six months (Partnership for Public Service, Getting On Board: A Model for Integrating and Engaging New Employees,” 2008).

By extending your onboarding program past six months to a year or more, your learners will:

  • Understand and retain learning better with data learned in small bites over time.
  • Improve performance. Employees better understand the job and the organization while achieving productivity faster.
  • Have higher retention rates from continual learning, which keeps employees engaged and interested.

2. Incorporate learning through others.

Adding a personalized, one-to-one approach to your extended onboarding program greatly improves learning retention, since this is how we, as people, naturally want to learn. Some of the benefits you can expect to see through collaborative, in-person learning are:

  • Better data retention with the “show me” vs. “tell me” approach.
  • Increased employee engagement. Being face-to-face with someone demands attentive listening and feedback, resulting in a more productive learning experience.
  • Ability to understand the “soft” learnings of a job, such as the company culture or weight of departmental priorities.
  • An understanding of the “insider tips” everyone needs to do their job. Who’s your go-to person in accounting to get something approved? What managers should be kept in—or maybe out of—the loop?

One of our customers provides a good example of this: Medline (Medline Onboarding Program Case Study, Chronus Corporation, 2014). Medline is a medical device manufacturer with a large worldwide sales force. Medical equipment can be a complex, technical sale, so Medline ensures all new sales reps are well trained over the course of an entire year. Its onboarding program blends periodic classroom learning with one-to-one field training experience to ensure deep, technical learning is achieved.

3. Guide the learning.

Extending the onboarding training process and including individualized on-the-job learning is great. But how can you keep this phase of less formal training focused and productive? In a word: structure.

Just like classroom learning, it’s important to provide a structure for any extended informal or hands-on learning. Creating a guided workflow for the entire length of your onboarding program ensures that learning is continuous and productive, speeding your new hire time-to-productivity.

Providing structure for informal learning can be easy—even a simple checklist will do. Guided onboarding plans should provide:

  • Specific milestones and tasks
  • On-demand training articles or videos at key junctures
  • Check-ins and assessments to gauge progress
  • A definitive end point to the program to help employees focus on reaching their goals

Guided onboarding plans should be specific to job functions such as marketing or operations. Over time, you can build a small library of onboarding plans for easy deployment for the next crop of new hires. In Medline’s case, it has built out 11 different learning plans for its technical field sales force, which are used in North America, South America, and Europe.

4. Measure impact, iterate, and scale.

Results are fairly easy to calculate once you focus on tracking these metrics at two levels: the program level and the employee level.

At the program level, build metrics around defined business objectives, such as before and after new employee attrition rates or program completion rates. For individuals, to understand the impact your extended new employee onboarding program, surveys are handy. Onboarding software often can help you measure program performance and gather participant feedback.

With results in hand, assess your program and make improvements. Then standardize your program for repeatability across departments. Research from Aberdeen shows that organizations with a standardized onboarding process saw:

  • 13 percent higher rates of new hire performance goals met
  • 19 percent higher new hire engagement
  • 19 percent higher new hire retention

(Aberdeen Group, “Onboarding 2011, the Path to Productivity,” March 2011)

Everyone has an onboarding program. Make yours more effective by extending the time window, adding one-to-one experiential learning, providing guided learning plans for the entire extended process, and measuring/analyzing your entire program. Following this guide, it should be fairly easy now to scale your strategic onboarding program across your organization to achieve a uniform, effective new hire experience.

Steve O’Brian is vice president of Chronus Corporation, a global provider of software to run talent development programs including employee onboarding, mentoring, and coaching. For more information, visit www.chronus.com.

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