Learning & Development, Recruiting

Onboarding: Beyond the Checklist

Organizations go through quite a lot to hire employees, so capitalize on that success with a thoughtful and effective onboarding strategy. I recently asked Keith Kitani, CEO of GuideSpark, some critical onboarding questions and am happy to share them with you in this article.


What are the biggest onboarding mistakes you have seen?

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen is companies focusing on process and forms instead of building an onboarding experience that truly integrates employees into the company. A great onboarding experience should also introduce new hires to the company culture, strategies and goals, and, most importantly, make new hires feel like valued members of the company—to drive long-term productivity and retention.

On top of this, most onboarding programs try to deliver too much information in too short of time. Companies have so many important programs to introduce and communicate that they often overwhelm employees with information, which has the negative effect of causing employees to disengage.

And instead of thinking of onboarding as a checklist, we should reimagine onboarding as a long-term journey designed around what’s best for the new employee. While paperwork and benefits will be a part of any onboarding experience, it won’t be the only driver for engagement. This more holistic approach will result in more engaged, productive, and aligned new hires.

What are some onboarding approaches that seem good, but are actually inefficient or misguided?

Companies often believe they are communicating well, but in reality, employees are overwhelmed and don’t remember much of the important information they are given. This has increased even more in the past year, with the rise of new employee programs offered because of the pandemic.

Communication overload is a huge problem for all employees right now, but newly onboarded employees in particular. With so much information to take in—company culture, new technology, platforms and tools, departmental organization, health benefits, not to mention the responsibilities of the new hire’s job—a lot of communications are to be expected. However, organizations often rush this process in an effort to get the employee everything they might need, but in a digital setting, this leads to employees feeling overloaded, stressed, and fatigued. 

Effective communication is about getting through to employees, and the right way to do that is to focus on delivering relevant information to the new hire; in other words, getting the right information to the right employee at the right time.

If you had to pick one onboarding strategy as the most effective, what would it be?

Many organizations only plan for a one-day or one-week onboarding process, but studies show that employees take several months to fully ramp into productivity in their role. I recommend building a long-term, ongoing experience to fully integrate new hires into the company. Utilizing 90- or 180-day experiences that cover programs, systems, processes, company culture, company strategies—with well-timed, ongoing reminders—will ensure employees are engaged and onboarded without feeling overwhelmed.

What groups of strategies make the most impact?

Relevant, targeted messaging:

The programs or updates that are most relevant will look different for every employee, depending on their location, department, or their new role in your organization. The more relevant and personalized you can make their onboarding experience, the more engaging and valuable it will be, especially if this is your new employee’s first onboarding experience post-graduation. In addition to targeted communication, integrating manager and HR business partner check-ins can deliver personalized information that cannot be delivered in one email.  

Consistency plus flexibility:

Companies should deliver a consistent onboarding experience to all new employees, no matter their role or location. This can be a challenge when a company is dependent on the local HR person or office manager. Using new digital tools to reach and deliver a consistent experience can help ensure all new hires are welcomed in the right way. However, not every new hire is the same, so the HR team and managers should have the flexibility to customize the onboarding experience when needed. For example, someone working remotely will ultimately have a very different onboarding process than a corporate employee, but they can still receive the same information, potentially customized to support their remote access.

Do organizations need to consider different strategies for different candidates? If so, how do they identify which to use when?

Yes, workforces are increasingly diverse and distributed—especially post-pandemic—so “one-size-fits-all” communications are simply becoming less effective. Customizing the experience, from the information to the delivery method, for your different employee groups is critical to driving higher engagement.

Measuring how your audience is engaging and tracking the impact of your onboarding process will allow you to know what’s working and what isn’t. Then you’ll also be able to make changes as your programs (and employees) evolve. Track as much as you can: employee demographic data, engagement data like clicks, views, or opens, as well as actions taken—are they completing paperwork on time? Are they meeting performance milestones? Use all of this information to continuously improve your communications by making them more targeted and relevant to each employee groups’ needs.

Do you see any of these useful strategies evolving over the next year or two?

Companies have already begun a massive digital transformation, so we’ll see a continuing need to deliver digital onboarding experiences that seamlessly integrate into HR systems and delivery channels like Slack or Microsoft Teams. A key step will be automating onboarding communications with engaging marketing techniques like automated email campaigns, first-name personalization, and customized program delivery. This will help businesses scale consistent onboarding experiences as the workforce changes and evolves. 

Another critical trend is the increasing number of remote workers. While it won’t be the extreme that happened during the pandemic, it will force companies to reimagine onboarding for their new hires. Strategies like targeting, customizing, and automating onboarding will continue to evolve and become even more important in the future.