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September 12, 2019

How to Run a Kick A** Onboarding Program by Thinking Like a Tour Guide

Pardon my language… I just wanted to make the point.

I’ve had the opportunity to create a new hire onboarding experience. When I took on this task, I thought, “How complicated can this be?”   

Seven months into this project, I’ve learned how layered and most importantly, how impactful this responsibility is to the organization.

After personal reflection and sharing my challenges and successes with friends and colleagues, I’ve come to a few conclusions that I’d like to share with you (you awesome new hire experience builder, you!) in the hopes that it sets you up on the right foot when you develop or improve your new hire experience at your organization.

It’s time to break out your tour guide flag – it’s tour guidin’ time!

After coordinating my first new hire program, I had a flashback to a vacation I took with my family in 2011. It’s been a while so it’s not something I think about all that often, however, memories of the trip were sparked in my mind because there were a number of commonalities with the trip and the early success I had with the first new hire program.

For fun background, my family and I took a trip to Ireland and I highly recommend it! Serious question/sidebar - is everyone in Ireland a comedian? Because everyone we met was so funny, didn’t matter what age, gender, profession – all hilarious. Even the sheep were pretty funny. Or it may just be my admiration for Conan O’Brien, one may call it comedic brilliance by Irish association.

Besides the funny sheep, there are seven elements that our great Irish tour had lead by an awesome tour guide that made it such a great experience. This is how you can apply lessons from that tour to improve your onboarding experience. 

1.     Share the itinerary of your journey

Here’s a little healthy work/life lesson for ya, did you know that just the act of planning a vacation will make you happier and more excited about taking a trip? Go ahead, nibble on that little factoid or better yet, wrap it up and save it for later. It’s all about anticipation, people. You’re welcome.

Part of a great new hire experience is creating excitement, highlighting what we will accomplish and setting expectations. A week before new hire orientation, I send a welcome email that summarizes what to expect during the new hire program, (for us, this is a schedule for the first three days of a new hire joining). It also includes expectations on what to wear - no need to dress in a suit, we’re a casual office.

Rather than going into the details of the agenda (need a little element of surprise), I highlight the overall theme for the first three days, it includes:

  • Day One – New Hire Setup & Understanding the Company History, Customers and Key Personas

  • Day Two – “Around the World” Understanding the Different Functions of the Organization

  • Day Three – Understanding the Technology

Structuring and sharing the itinerary this way is helpful because a new hire knows what to expect and what they’ll be learning each day. This helps avoid any unnecessary stress or concerns if someone wants to cover a certain topic, they can be rest assured when we’re going to cover it.

This also provides a structure for scheduling the speakers. Having an overall theme and intended outcome for the day provides guidance for what each presenter should share during his or her presentation.  

2.     Stick to a schedule

All aboard the new hire onboarding train. To get the most out of this journey, we can’t be zipping around all willy nilly. No, we have to stick to a schedule. This was a bit of a difficult adjustment but it was well worth it. We decided to standardize when new hires join to be the first full week of every month. This makes it possible to pull resources from across the organization without overburdening presenters every time we have a new hire. Instead, we have everyone join at the beginning of the month and this means we can put a focused effort into creating a great experience and they have the opportunity to bond with fellow new hires. Win-win. 

 3.     Designate a guide  

It can be quite overwhelming to step out of a plane, train or automobile in a foreign place. So I’m sure you can appreciate what it’s like to have a friendly face greet you and make sure you’re in the right place and guide you on your new journey. 

This has been a simple way to have a significant impact on the quality and experience of onboarding. It’s one thing to schedule different sessions by inviting speakers and organizing the agenda, however, it takes it to the next level to have someone join as a facilitator throughout onboarding. It makes such a big difference!

I participate in all of the sessions for our onboarding program, that way if a session ends a little early or runs a little late, I can coordinate and set expectations with the presenters and participants. In addition to creating a smooth schedule, this also helps to build trust with the new hires and me (the facilitator). It helps to establish me as their go-to person, not only during onboarding but as the new hires are getting up and running in their roles. 

I’m essentially a new hire security blanket. 

4. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

It’s important that everyone involved in the new hire’s journey is informed of what is going to happen that first week. This includes hiring managers, talent partners, presenters and buddies that we assign to each new hire (more on that later!)

At least two weeks in advance, it’s important to confirm all of the new hires and start confirming the agenda with everyone participating. 

At the end of a new hire’s first week, we invite them to introduce themselves during our weekly office happy hour. We want to be sure they have a chance to communicate and share a bit about who they are with the team.

5.  Signify the importance

This lesson came about because I learned this the hard way. One of my earlier onboarding sessions, a presenter backed out of the presentation 10 minutes before the session saying, “She didn’t feel prepared for the session.” Dang. The powerpoint was done, I’d already confirmed with her a week prior. So I felt I had done what I needed to do to be all set. At the end of that onboarding program, I took a step back and reflected on why she felt she could drop-out last minute like that. And I realized, she didn’t understand the importance of the program.

As a result, I now print off the full agenda, leave a copy on each presenters desk with their section highlighted one-week prior to onboarding. This gives it weight and significance. It also shows how many other people are committed to participating. 

I’m pleased to say I haven’t had a dropout since doing this. Win!

6. Sprinkle in the fun

At different points throughout the new hire journey, it’s important to have some fun. Here are some ideas to do so:

  • In the welcome email, we include a link to a Spotify playlist with all of the songs that our company band played at our company kickoff 

  • We start off the first day with a “Buddy Breakfast” this is a fun and light way to ease into the day. Each month we ask for volunteers to sign up to be “Buddies”, and the expectation is to check in with their new hire once a week for the first 6 weeks. To make it fun and social, we kick off the first day with a breakfast for everyone to calmly meet and greet one another.

  • We have an office and neighborhood tour (weather pending, but so far we’ve been lucky) to take a break, meet people and stretch our legs. 

7.  Ask for input to iterate and experiment 

Don’t keep doing things the way you’ve always done them. Ask for feedback and look for ways to continue to iterate and improve.

For example, at an HR meetup, I learned about the VIA Character Strength Survey. Now we incorporate taking the survey and pairing with a partner to discuss the results as a fun ice-breaker and a break from all of the company-focused materials. 

We’re going to be trying out two new things in our next onboarding - one is comedy-related and the other is about creating your own career path. Needless to say, I’m quite excited!

If you have any cool ideas to share, please feel free to do so!

And finally, be sure to share your appreciation for everyone who makes onboarding possible. It takes a village to create a great onboarding experience. Be sure to let everyone who participates know how much it impacts the program.

Best of luck in your next onboarding program! It’s going to be awesome!


Sarah Salbu is the Senior Employee Experience Manager at Mendix. Follow Sarah on Twitter: @SarahSalbu.