3 Foundational Onboarding Principles for Driving Employee Confidence and Capability

(Part 3 of our #OnboardingSOS Series)

Hours sitting in the back room on the computer. Weeks in a classroom. Immediately thrown to the proverbial wolves. Do any of these all-too-typical onboarding experiences sound familiar?

It’s Day 1! It’s finally time to start the new job! Unfortunately, many new hires—especially deskless workers, like retail associates—slam into one of two extremes when it comes to their formal onboarding experience. Either they’re isolated from the job they were hired to do for an excessive period of time so they can get firehosed with everything they may possibly “need” to know. Or they are tossed immediately into the mix and expected to fend for themselves because the operation needs their help. Neither of these scenarios set up employees for success. To the contrary, this kind of situation can quickly lead to a loss of engagement and job confidence. Rather than put up with this mess, there’s a good chance they employees won’t come back to work tomorrow—or ever again.

Running on the spot

The race to capability officially begins on Day 1, but too many organizations see it as a reckless sprint rather than a strategically paced marathon. Legacy learning tactics can exacerbate this problem. Because it’s almost impossible to get new employees back into formal training once they get into the operation, managers often front-load as much information as possible into the limited time allowed. But how much knowledge can a new retail associate possibly retain when s/he is subjected to eight hours of eLearning in one shift? And what are the odds that s/he is even remotely paying attention to it anyway? It’s just too overwhelming!

The theme of our first #OnboardingSOS post was “Onboarding never stops!” That really is the key to this whole thing. Once the organization views “onboarding” as part of the continuous workplace learning experience, leaders can better balance the learning experience during an employee’s first days. This approach can improve both the overall employee learning experience as well as speed to initial capability by applying three foundational principles of modern workplace onboarding: prioritize, adapt and stretch.

1. Prioritize

green clockOrganizations must stop the firehose. To do that, they must decide what knowledge and skills are absolutely required before an employee can enter the operation. Focusing on critical topics will reduce the overall volume of information an employee must consume and ensure the right capabilities are developed from the beginning.

Organizations must also design the onboarding experience so it fits into the context of work. Targeted content can be more easily built for consumption when it is created to align as close to the working experience as possible. This approach can support a better blended learning experience as the employee shifts from on-the-job training to structured and informal content without having to go too far.

Most new employees come to the table with basic real-world problem solving skills. We’ve all Googled, YouTubed and Wikipediad our way to a solution at some point. Therefore, organizations should establish a foundation of easily accessed shared knowledge that employees can use to crutch their capability when needed by applying those familiar problem-solving behaviors.

2. Adapt

green leversOne of the biggest frustrations of the traditional onboarding experience is the one-size-fits-all mentality. A new hire who has ten years of experience working as a retail associate should not be going through the same content as someone who has never been in this role. Organizations must capture knowledge and performance data to personalize continuous learning from the start so employees only get the training that they really need.

In addition to adjusting the experience based on proven capability, organizations should allow the employee to pace their own learning. Everyone develops at different speeds. Therefore, tactics such as pre-assessment and on-demand content can further adapt onboarding to the needs of the individual.

A new employee’s manager is too often sidelined during formal onboarding.  Instead, the manager must be involved immediately so s/he can proactively engage in the continuous learning experience. Managers should be provided with actionable data on an employee’s growing capability so they know when and how to best coach someone they don’t really know yet.

3. Stretch

green calendarReinforcement is essential in a continuous learning strategy. Critical, need-to-know topics should not be left to one-and-done training. Rather, this knowledge should be reinforced immediately to ensure retention and application as the employee transitions into his/her role. This strategy, along with the ongoing addition of new topics through continuous learning, allows the overall onboarding experience to be stretched over an indefinite period.

Positioning onboarding as the beginning of an ongoing process also conditions the employee by establishing the immediate value and feel of continuous learning. That person quickly understands how learning works in the new company. This will help ensure the employee feels consistently supported throughout his/her tenure, regardless of the likely increased formal training during early days.

Learning isn’t enough. Performance is the goal. Therefore, behavior observation must be introduced quickly to ensure learning transfer and to continuously adjust the learning and support experience. This measurement can also be leveraged in aggregate by leaders to iterate their onboarding strategy and ensure maximum ROI.

Managers want new employees to be ready to go as quickly as possible. That will always be the case, especially when they only bring on new hires to close staffing gaps. Organizations must design the onboarding experience to accelerate capability and meet operational demands. However, this must be done strategically to honor the employee’s potential. By applying these improved principles, managers can get the new team member started off on the right foot and establish a cadence for ongoing learning and support.

JD is one of the most prolific authors and speakers in workplace learning today. His practical approach integrates science, technology, storytelling and pure common sense to enable employees, improve performance and drive business results. For 20 years, JD has executed strategies for global organizations, including The Walt Disney Company.

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