Procedures for onboarding new recruits are evolving. Once, joiners were quietly merged into a team. These days they are more likely to be ‘unboxed’, with the flourish more usually reserved for that magical moment when you take a new phone out of its packaging with the intention of thoroughly looking after it. It’s a feeling that makes people feel valued from the moment they start, it helps them hit the ground running and it relies on a rethink in traditional onboarding techniques.
In our troubled times of economic uncertainty and war in Europe, companies need to be adaptable. However, far from encouraging new hires to be agile in their thinking, traditional onboarding techniques often take the opposite approach, moulding people to fit into a standard way of working.
An alternative method helps new employees bring more of themselves to work. This fosters a spirit of creative input from the start, and it begins by ‘unboxing’ people days or even weeks before their first day in the job.
What is onboarding?
The process of recruiting, hiring and training new employees is expensive and time-consuming. If you pick the wrong person, you might have to repeat the process. Ultimately, leaders are looking to help a new hire settle in before they start wondering whether this is really the job for them.
According to research by the Mellon Financial Corporation, professionals take just under five months and executives just over six months to settle in to a new job. To shorten these timeframes, and help people get up to speed, HR departments lead new hires through a programme of actions and events designed to help them feel familiar with their new surroundings. This process, known as onboarding, encourages productivity and helps job retention by providing a solid framework for new hires to hang on to.
Orientation – filling in forms and completing routine introductory tasks – can be completed within a day or so. Onboarding however may consist of many stages, in a programme that can last up to a year.
The key phases of onboarding
Before day one: Ideally, onboarding should begin well before the joiner’s first day in their new job, for example by granting them access to the company’s online onboarding portal.
Day one: Employees need to have clear ideas about what their duties and responsibilities are. They need to know who can help them answer questions on anything from HR issues to prioritising projects.
The first few months: Training in the opening weeks and months should follow a personal development plan, ideally supported by a mentor, with regular check-ins from leaders.
The first year: Joiners who are presented with a natural route for progression, including training and development, are more likely to stay for the long-term.
Creating an onboarding programme
Underlying intentions behind onboarding are still evolving. Research carried out in 2013, by Daniel M. Cable, Francesca Gino and Bradley R. Staats, found that – at the time – onboarding procedures were usually aimed at absorbing joiners into company culture. New people were expected to keep their personal values and creativity under wraps in order to quickly fit in with organisational identity, at least while they were at work.
Since then, much has changed, beginning with the influence of Generation Z. Digital natives, with You Tube channels, and armies of followers, don’t perform at their best if they have to keep their identity under wraps. Since the pandemic, older generations have joined Gen Z and millennials in prioritising personal identity. Recognising this, HR professionals are catching up with the conclusions reached by Cable, Gino and Staats, who advocate a more personal approach to onboarding.
The three researchers suggested that companies should encourage new hires to express creative ideas and talents on the job from day one. In an article for MIT Sloan Management Review, they describe an onboarding technique that they call ‘personal-identity socialization.’ This involves “encouraging newcomers to express their unique perspectives and strengths on the job from the very beginning and inviting them to frame their work as a platform for doing what they do best.”
Examples of better onboarding
Personal identity socialisation – ie, encouraging people to be themselves when you’re onboarding them – includes the ‘unboxing’ trend we see developing today. Both ideas welcome the individual to the company, rather than draping the company around their new person. Does it work in practice? And if so, what are its benefits? Cable, Gino and Staats took their research to Wipro, a business process outsourcing firm, where they were able to compare the traditional, ie organisational, approach of socialisation (onboarding) with the new, personal model:
Wipro found that onboarding processes emphasising personal identity rather than company culture led to stronger employee relations, better job retention, higher productivity rates and fewer cases of human error.
Cable, Gino and Staats established four principles that leaders should follow when onboarding new hires:
1. Break out of the traditional employment trap
Traditionally, a company paid people to complete a task, without necessarily expecting them to involve their personality in doing so. According to the three researchers, employers who break out of this way of thinking will see that “people have a desire to use their signature strengths — whether those strengths are connecting to others, being organized and prepared, or helping others understand technology.”
2. Help newcomers identify their authentic strengths
How as a leader are you going to introduce your new hire to other team members? Before you try, start by asking them to describe their personal strengths and best qualities. By using their answers when introducing them to others, a leader can mould the team’s perceptions about their new member before the person has even fully started.
3. Facilitate introductions to other organisational members
Parading the new hire in front of a line-up of old hands is a little one-sided. Rather than put joiners in a situation that mutes their chances of talking easily about themselves, try to introduce more balance. The researchers suggest that, “by talking about what they are like when they are at their best, people…construct their social identity around their authentic strengths.”
4. Ask newcomers to consider how their authentic strengths can be applied to the job
Throughout the onboarding process, leaders are advised to focus on the new hire’s capabilities as much as their own needs and expectations. Highlight areas where a joiner can bring value to your objectives. By giving them purpose and motivation in this way, you are helping them understand the organisation’s needs, and discover how these are best served by their role.
Ultimately, Cable, Gino and Staats are advocating a policy of inclusive leadership, where employers are ready to embrace personal identity. When they carried out their research in 2013, inclusivity was less of a priority than it is now. The pandemic was a watershed moment that led to a shift in mindsets, personal identity in the workplace became more important. People who felt that their employer didn’t recognise this were ready to quit their job, last year millions did so in the ‘great resignation’. Going forward, future skills – such as a new approach to onboarding – will continue to create a more caring work environment. Already, Diversity and Inclusion strategies are taking centre-stage, and inclusivity is shaping company culture.
Within this new way of thinking, the ideas published by Cable, Gino and Staat are now more likely to be adopted. This will pay long-term dividends. The researchers believe that “when newcomers feel they are using their signature strengths at work, many experience higher satisfaction, lower stress and less emotional burnout. As a result, they are likely to invest more personal energy into their work in hopes of advancing personal goals.”
In 2013, when the researchers carried out their research, companies could plan perhaps years in advance. They could encourage employees to adopt a fixed set of values and norms, from the moment they joined. Now that things are more unsettled, few companies can afford to be stuck in their ways. Only by encouraging people to bring more of themselves to work, from day one, are leaders likely to help them find the agility and creativity that a company’s future depends on.