The Best Onboarding Never Ends

L&D must transform onboarding into a human experience. They must work with partners to craft a continuous learning strategy that makes people feel welcomed and supported from the day they start to the day they leave.

This is a true onboarding story.

An 18-year-old recent high school graduate just got his first full-time job. He plans to work in the retail store for at least the next year so he can earn money for college. Then, because he’ll still need a job while in school, he may drop to part-time and work on the weekends and during breaks. Right now, he’s just looking forward to getting started. He’s been coming to this store for years and is excited to work with his friends in a place he’s always enjoyed.

The store manager welcomed him upon arrival for his first day and walked him to the office at the back of the store. Before he could start working in the store, the employee had to complete his new hire training on the computer. So he would have to spend his first two shifts (12 hours) completing e-learning in the office—by himself. After struggling to stay awake while clicking through module after module about harassment, money laundering, theft prevention, and inventory procedures for five hours, the employee got up and left the store. He never came back. Instead, he took another job at a competing store down the street for 50 cents more per hour.


Onboarding is an overwhelming and disengaging experience for too many employees. It’s also incredibly important for preparing and retaining talent, regardless of role or industry. According to the Aberdeen Group, 86 percent of new hires decide to stay or leave the company within their first six months. Some 76 percent of employees believe training in their first week is the most critical factor in their decision. If onboarding is clearly so important, why do Learning and Development (L&D) teams often struggle to improve their programs?

Onboarding is complicated. Every department has requirements—from forms new employees have to sign to operating procedures they have to review. At the same time, management wants new employees to finish training, know absolutely everything, and get to work as quickly as possible. L&D is stuck in the middle. They know frontloading this much information doesn’t work and that people inevitably fall off the “capability cliff” once formal training is over. But they only have access to the employee for a limited period of time. So they do the best they can. Unfortunately, this isn’t sufficient for employees, who have options if they quickly become dissatisfied with their new employer.

To summarize …

  • Stakeholders are not going to let go of their requirements.
  • Compliance training is not going away.
  • L&D will be asked to do more with the same (or less) resources.
  • Managers will always want new people prepared and on the job ASAP.

Rather than repeatedly redesign content and look for artificial ways to increase engagement, L&D must fundamentally rethink the concept of onboarding. Regardless of tenure, employees must be ready to perform today while developing the knowledge and skills they will need to be successful tomorrow. The breakneck pace of change in modern business requires a continuous approach to learning and support. L&D must adapt their strategies and tactics accordingly, starting with day 1 (and even before). Onboarding no longer can be considered a stand-alone program with set start and end dates. Instead, onboarding is just the beginning of an employee’s continuous learning experience within the organization.


L&D can craft a learning and support experience that balances employee and stakeholder needs by applying three foundational principles: prioritize, adapt, stretch.

Prioritize: First, the firehose must stop. New employees already have plenty on their mind on the first day. Their questions about when and how they get paid will always trump your “Four Pillars of Great Customer Service” video. Therefore, L&D must work with subject matter experts to clarify which topics are absolutely required before an employee can enter the operation. If it’s a need-to-know item, it should be included within formal training. If it’s nice-to-know—meaning it will not be immediately applied on the job—it should be provided as an on-demand resource. L&D also must redesign the onboarding experience so it fits within the context of the workplace. New employees should not be banished to the back office or classroom for days or weeks at a time. Rather, targeted training that focuses on just what people need to know can be blended into the daily working experience.

Adapt: One of the greatest failings of traditional onboarding is the one-sizefits- all experience. New hires come in every shape and size. Some may have years of experience, while others are new to the workforce. L&D must adapt the experience to acknowledge and leverage each employee’s unique capabilities. Assessments can be applied to gather baseline data and focus employees on areas where they really need development. This data also can be provided to managers to help them become proactive participants and improve their coaching activities.

Stretch: New employees will still not remember everything they are told, even with the best possible onboarding design. Therefore, reinforcement is an essential part of a continuous learning strategy. L&D must insert regular touchpoints within the working experience, so critical knowledge can be reinforced perpetually. These touchpoints also can be leveraged to introduce new topics—items that were removed from the initial onboarding process, as well as brand new concepts.


By positioning onboarding as the start of an ongoing process, L&D can help new employees immediately recognize the value of learning. They also will gain a quick understanding of how development works within their new organization and feel better supported throughout their tenure.

A continuous learning approach benefits both the employee and the business. Because of the renewed focus on critical topics up front, employees enter the operation quicker and with an improved level of initial capability. This capability then is sustained through continuous reinforcement, practice, and coaching.

While tools and tactics will vary by organization, the onboarding principles of prioritize, adapt, and stretch can be applied regardless of industry or role. BT, the UK’s largest provider of fixed-voice, broadband, TV, and mobile services, reimagined its onboarding experience while adding 2,500 contact center agents in the UK. Not only did it reduce training time by 24 percent, the company also recorded improved performance from its new agents. Eyemart Express saw similar results within its 140 U.S. retail stores, reducing onboarding time from 45 days to 10. U.S.-based home decor retailer At Home managed to reduce its onboarding time by 90 percent through the adoption of continuous learning in the midst of wide-scale business expansion.


Starting a new job will always be an emotional experience. Rather than focus on content and compliance, L&D must transform onboarding into a human experience. They must work with partners to craft a continuous learning strategy that makes people feel welcomed and supported from day 1. If new hires remain trapped in back offices and classrooms instead of doing the jobs they were hired to do, they’ll just leave. After all, there were 7 million job openings in the U.S. as of September 2019. Who could blame them for taking control over their work lives?

JD Dillon is a prolific author and speaker in workplace learning. For 20 years, Dillon has executed strategies for global organizations, including The Walt Disney Company, Kaplan, Brambles, and AMC Theatres. In his role as chief learning architect at Axonify, he partners with an awardwinning team to solve business problems for leading organizations through modern learning practices and cutting-edge technology.