Onboarding as an Immersive Experience

Instilling new hires with a sense of ownership starts with the right kind of facilities tour.

Training Magazine

Some metaphors become so ingrained in a culture’s vocabulary that we tend to forget they’re metaphors. In departments ranging from training to human resources to marketing, it’s a commonplace to talk about the “onboarding” process for new employees. “Onboarding” is something people typically do on a ship, yet in a business environment, no one is using the phrase to evoke images of a batch of new hires mounting a gangplank.

But the nautical metaphors don’t stop there. We welcome people to “the crew.” We refer to their new role as “setting sail” on a new “voyage.” Conflicting information “muddies the waters,” though willful disruption “roils the waters.” And the ability to deal with the inevitable uncertainty is often couched in terms of “navigating uncharted waters.”

Maybe all this (largely unconscious) framing of the work environment in nautical terms is the reason one of the better management books in recent years was written by a former Navy commander. That book is Michael Abrashoff’s “It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy.” The book recounts Abrashoff’s transformation of the U.S.S. Benfold from the service’s worst-ranked ship under his predecessor into its best, along with lessons learned that can add valuable perspective to any organization’s efforts to improve performance.

One of the most critical lessons learned: everyone in the organization must feel responsible for the overall outcome, not just for their area of direct accountability. Without an appreciation for the hurdles that others must overcome in the execution of their jobs on a day-to-day basis, the reaction to inevitable problems can often lead to pointed fingers rather than pulling together. On the U.S.S. Benfold, Abrashoff addressed that by rotating the entire crew across functional areas, so everyone had first-hand experience with the operation. As one discussion of the book put it, “You cannot have a sense of ownership over something you do not understand.”

Onboarding and ownership

This brings us to our main topic: the role of the facilities tour in the onboarding process. Showing new hires around isn’t just a courtesy; it is a matter of helping them find the cafeteria, copying machine, or storage room. It’s ultimately all about creating that sense of ownership. It would seldom be practical to have every new employee spend months or even weeks trying their hand in every department, the way Abrashoff rotated his crew. But a well-designed onboarding tour can give new hires a more-than-superficial awareness of everything, from the mailroom to the production floor to the loading docks. It’s a critical step in building a sense of ownership over the entire system. It will maintain the new employee’s motivation from her hire date through her retirement, no matter how roiled the waters may occasionally become.

In almost any business situation, communication is critical. On an onboarding tour, not only is what’s being said essentially but also who says it and how they say it. The content of the tour guide’s voiceover must be carefully crafted because that sets the tone. Still, when the participants can ask questions of the employees executing a task, that’s a much more personal engagement. And that opportunity to see a job through someone else’s eyes can be a powerful tool in building a sense of ownership.

But when the tour passes through an area with high noise levels, communication can be challenging.

The solution that trumps all others

Some companies address audio (and safety) concerns by creating pathways for tours around the perimeter of a work area, sealed behind a clear plastic barricade. That may be necessary for a dangerous environment, but it constrains any sense of connection to what’s being observed.

Some provide the tour guide with a microphone and a more-or-less fixed loudspeaker. It’s not the most efficient solution: this doesn’t make it any easier for a participant to ask a question or for anyone other than the tour guide to answer that question.

There are other electronic solutions, most of which have weaknesses in terms of limited effectiveness or range, awkward or uncomfortable wearable technology, or poor quality audio.

None of those issues will arise when participants are outfitted with a two-way tour guide system using headsets that link transceivers and receivers for all. The headsets are comfortable and discreet, even under a hard hat. The hands-free microphone connects the speaker’s words directly to the listener’s ear, clearly and crisply, avoiding the noisy external environment altogether. And there’s no need to hand a lone microphone back and forth when someone other than the tour guide is speaking – conversation flows as spontaneously as it does in a quiet meeting room.

But the most crucial message will be heard by all, even though it’s communicated by actions rather than words: It’s your ship. Welcome aboard.

Rick Farrell is the President or Plant-Tours.com. Farrell is North America’s foremost expert in improving manufacturing group communication, education, training, and group hospitality processes. He has over 40 years of group hospitality experience, most recently serving as President of Plant-Tours.com for the last 18 years. He has provided consulting services with the majority of Fortune 500 industrial corporations improving group communication dynamics of all types in manufacturing environments.