An sign that says "Onboarding" with arrow to the right side. In an outdoor setting - employee onboarding concept
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The onboarding process is one of the first opportunities that a business has to provide a prospective employee with a look at the company’s culture, and to create a positive intersection point in the employee journey. Onboarding allows the new employee to get to know the routine, atmosphere, environment, technology and initial details of the business they just started working for, and this organizational socialization process provides many opportunities for your business to shine. In this article we are going to look at the onboarding process with the focus on improving the employee experience.

Employee experience (EX) is a way of understanding the daily journey that employees walk as they work for a business. It’s a way of learning to empathize with employees, to understand how your business is succeeding, or failing, for your employees, and is a great indicator of the current state of a business. CMSWire spoke to Alexandra Bowden, SHRM-CP, hiring, onboarding and retention lead for PEOPLEfirst, Talent & Retention Consulting. As Bowden put it, “The more onboarding can become a 360 degree immersive experience, the greater the likelihood of significantly increasing productivity, engagement, and retention — and therefore significantly reduced costs.“

Design the Onboarding Experience With Diversity & Inclusion in Mind

The concept of diversity used to refer to gender, race and ethnicity, but it has expanded to include the idea of people of different ages, educational backgrounds and technical aptitudes, religious and political beliefs, socioeconomic backgrounds, sexual orientation and identity, social cultures, disabilities and languages. From a business perspective, diversity brings increased profitability and better resilience, with a greater understanding of a diverse customer base, along with more opportunities for innovation and different perspectives.

Inclusion is less widely understood even by those businesses that already practice diversity. An inclusive workplace allows and encourages employees to be comfortable being themselves, to share their unique talents and points of view. Inclusivity encourages them to feel appreciated and supported because of their differences, not in spite of them.

Bowden believes that diversity and inclusion should be designed into the onboarding process. She stated that “If you're looking at creating an onboarding experience that has the powerful impact of increasing retention for over 80% of your new hires beyond 3 years, that means you need to design it with varying needs and wants in mind. By having a diverse and inclusive team focused on the design of the onboarding experience, they will be able to provide insight and perspective that's more comprehensive and innovative, and caters more properly to the varying needs of the new hires.”

By looking at onboarding with diversity and inclusion in mind, Bowden said that a business will be able to create something that is “adaptable and malleable, versus stagnant with a one-size-fits-all approach- greatly enhancing the success and impact of onboarding on engagement and retention for the great talent you're already investing so much in.”

Digital Onboarding Is Great, but Personal Interaction Is Still Vital

Not many people enjoy filling out forms, but it’s part of the process of joining a new organization, be it signing up at a health club or becoming an employee for a business. Many of the routine tasks we are forced to do as a new employee can be streamlined by using digital technology, starting with the job application, tax documents, all the way to job training videos. That doesn’t mean that we should automate away all the personal intersection points of the onboarding process — in fact, with the digitalization of the process, there may need to be more personal communication, rather than less.

Bowden described what the term “onboarding” means today, and explained that it “has far surpassed the days of coming in and filling out I-9's and other required forms. It's evolved to encompass the first contact you have with a potential employee through the first year-plus of their time within your organization as they adapt and train and become more productive.”

Taking advantage of the digital workplace should provide the time to do all the extra things that can make the experience more positive for new employees. As Bowden suggested, “Reducing the paper-load and making those necessary components of onboarding more efficient can free up time to focus on the elements of onboarding that are less tangible, such as creating a welcoming environment, establishing culture within their immediate team, building trust, designing a learning experience unique to the learner that will ramp them up faster and help them have the support needed to perform, etc.”

Businesses are very concerned with increasing efficiency, but it cannot come at the expense of creating an experience for the employee that sets the stage for the rest of their time with the company. As Bowden put it, “I caution this however, and want to be clear that creating a paperless onboarding experience, or one that's more automated, is not about reducing touch-points with a new hire. You want to reduce the time it takes on things that can be automated so that you free up time to focus on the human and developmental elements that cannot.”

CMSWire spoke with Coonoor Behal, design thinking expert, founder and CEO of Mindhatch. Behal reiterated that businesses need to relate to their employees as they would their clients, and said that “There's always a kind of primary and secondary customer. You have to serve your primary customer, like the people buying your service. You also need to design for your secondary customer, which is your employees.” Understanding the needs, emotions, motivations and drivers of behaviors of employees is crucial to creating a positive employee journey. As Behal said, “you take a human-centered approach to actually understanding your employees and their needs and their wants and their challenges.”

Behal suggested that business leaders need to empathize with job candidates, and understand how the process makes them feel. She said the scenario goes something like this: “I'm applying to your company. One of the first touch points in my recruiting process is human centered. And I feel like a person. You know, I'm going to want to work at your company. And it's gonna be kind of a ruler, a symbol of what it's like working at that company.”

Meaningful Mentorship Should Begin Immediately

One of the current trends in HR is to assign a mentor or coach for each employee, someone they can relate to, ask questions of, and look to should they have any problems with company hardware or software. In fact, mentorship is one of the things that is important to the newest members of the workforce, millennials and Gen Z workers.

CMSWire spoke with Lora Zotter, VP of employee experience at MentorcliQ. As Zotter put it, “It's a mistake to think that craft beer and ping pong is enough to keep millennials happy (or Gen Z, for that matter). What millennials want is thoughtful onboarding, mentorship, and opportunities for growth and advancement.”

Bowden agrees, and believes that the benefits of mentorship are many, and that it should begin with the onboarding process. She emphasized that “There are so many benefits to mentorship, one of the primary ones being capitalizing on your built-in resources and talent to build up your workforce. Sharing knowledge becomes part of a culture that's then focused on developing others and creating a continuous cycle of improvement and growth.”

That doesn’t mean that a mentorship program should be implemented without giving it much thought — in fact, an ineffectual mentor program may be worse than not having one at all. Bowden cautioned that “a poorly planned mentorship program will be one of two things: rarely used and obsolete, or a disengager. That last one is the most dangerous because it has the opposite effect of what the program sets out to do.”

An effective mentor can play a large role in making the employee journey a positive one by being a kind of conduit for Voice of Employee (VoE) feedback. By listening to those they are mentoring for, they will be in a position to access any problems that an employee is having. Bowden stated that “This can be an opportunity to catch retention issues early. It also provides extra support and a personal touch in navigating the tricky waters of a new organization and culture. Good mentors can significantly enhance the new hire onboarding experience and drive efficiency and effectiveness without putting the entire burden on HR or the leader to manage the long process.”

Collaboration Between HR and IT Can Eliminate Bottlenecks

Zotter, whose main role at MentorcliQ is optimizing their onboarding and internal mentoring/training programs, said that collaboration between HR and IT is essential to effectively using her company’s platform for onboarding and engaging their employees. She emphasized that "it's critical to have a strong collaboration with IT." The need for effective collaboration between HR and IT extends farther than the onboarding process — in fact, it’s an essential factor of the modern digital workplace.

There is nothing more dispiriting and disengaging for a new employee than going through the onboarding process only to be told that they have not been added to the system yet, so they cannot access any of the software they will be using. Or that they will have to wait three days before they get their IDs. An HR department that effectively collaborates with the IT department can solve these problems before they occur, which can help to make the first days of a new employee a positive, fulfilling experience. Bowden said that “The easier the process is for potential talent up front, the more likely an organization will be to get them through the process quickly and have greater offer acceptance.”

Bowden believes that an HR/IT collaboration can also help to reduce time and frustration, and stated that “HR's job is to help design the experience and help manage the process to ensure proper maintenance by all parties involved. This can include a lot of paperwork, surveys, emails, etc. IT can be helpful in automating these procedures, as well as helping to visualize where to build out internal sites for better communication and resources.”

By allowing IT to automate as much as possible, HR is able to provide a more personalized experience for each candidate. Bowden said that the opposite can occur without such a collaboration. “If the new hire process is not streamlined to be more efficient and effective, then HR and the hiring managers get entirely bogged down in the demands surrounding vetting and selecting a new hire and cannot possibly deliver a quality onboarding experience for the candidate.”

Communication Is the Key to Successful Onboarding

Most of the biggest complaints from job candidates usually revolve around a lack of effective communication. In fact, according to Bowden, two of the biggest turn-offs that job-seeking clients report are:

  1. A significant wait to hear next steps after applying
  2. Being ‘ghosted’ after the interview where they wait weeks, months, etc. to even hear back as to whether they're moving forward or not

Bowden is emphatic that communication is the single most important factor to creating a positive employee experience, and said that “Many anxieties and fears can be calmed by simple communication around information sharing. Be transparent and authentic. People get it. We are inherently forgiving in most circumstances, as well. So instead of going silent and assuming everything is okay with your candidates and new hires, or getting preoccupied and letting weeks pass without checking in or providing updates on changes/delays/etc- make consistent communication a vital part of your onboarding process. It's simple, it's effective, and it's free.”

Ineffective communication breeds uncertainty, anxiety and the feeling of being unable to control a given situation. The process of obtaining employment is already nerve-wracking, because our lives depend on being able to make a living, to pay our bills, to eat. Not only that, but our careers are a large part of what gives us a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction in life. With so much riding on the outcome, it’s no wonder that ineffective communication figures so highly in Bowden’s clients’ complaints.

Bowden relates it to an experience that many of can relate to: going to a doctor for medical advice. She questioned us to “Imagine that you are waiting on an important health diagnosis and the doctor's office goes silent for weeks. How do you feel? Scared, unsure, anxious, frustrated? Wouldn't you feel better by simply knowing more about the process? Like what tests they're running, how long it takes to get each result, when you can expect to hear from them, have them check in, etc.”

Final Thoughts

The onboarding process is the prime opportunity to make a positive impact on the employee journey. By designing it around diversity and inclusivity, digitally optimizing the experience, providing effective mentorship from the beginning, encouraging collaboration between HR and IT, and focusing on open and efficient communications, your business will help to create a positive employee experience that continues throughout the entire employee journey.

As Bowden put it, an effective employee experience program is when we can “understand their needs and priorities, and be diligent in designing an experience that's going to leave them satisfied and wanting more...or in your company's case — wanting to deliver more for your business! It's a win win and we have to start looking at it this way.”