It takes a village to onboard an employee.

A participatory approach to designing the right onboarding experience for new employees in your organization.

Kautuk Trivedi
Jul 4 · 7 min read

As businesses grow, hiring more teammates creates capacity for continued growth. The quality of that growth depends heavily on how soon and how well your new employees can start taking ownership and do impactful work. That is why setting up the right onboarding program is a crucial handle to ensure, what you’ve invested in hiring the best people, brings returns.

Most onboarding programs are compliance check-lists clubbed with attractive starter kits. While these are important, they are not enough. New employees need exposure to how their new workplace creates value for its customers and succeeds. They need to inhabit their new role in the organization. Unguided, this process becomes demotivating and takes far longer than it should.

An onboarding experience, that is designed via a participatory approach, can give new employees a well guided initial nudge, needed to become impactful teammates, while capitalizing on the enthusiasm of the first few weeks.

New employees..need to inhabit their new role in the organization. Unguided, this process becomes demotivating and takes far longer than it should.

Understanding an individual’s experience of job-transition.

An individual is in a ‘job-transition’ mindset from the moment they’ve accepted a new offer. They would typically spend another month or two in their current organization, take a break for a couple weeks and then join their new workplace. New faces, geography, bus-routes, workstations etc. can become unwanted hurdles in getting used to a new life.

Before Joining

Doing a Diary Study can be a great way to understand the experiences your new teammates go through in the early stages of job transition. I find Trello to be a great tool for this. You can set up a column for each day beforehand and send regular reminders (once in 2 days works well) for the participant to note down their feelings/thoughts/experiences on the Trello board.

Here’s what Ankita’s (name changed) experiences were as she maneuvered through this critical period. Her concerns range from basic logistics like transport, gas etc. to familiarizing herself with the new industry segment she’s going to become a part of, to how she would prefer to say goodbye to her loved ones and so on.

Ankita’s (name changed) diary entries during job transition

Her account is full of insights and opportunities for intervention. For example, sharing a list of trustworthy real-estate brokers, cooking gas agencies, internet service providers, grocery stores etc. with teammates couple of days after they’ve accepted the offer would be of great help for someone like Ankita.

By coding this qualitative data, you can identify relevant themes in Ankita’s experience of job transition. More on how to use this analysis later.

To get your soon-to-be teammate’s buy-in for this exercise:

  • tell them why you’re doing this, how it would impact them and how it would impact the organization
  • be clear about how you intend to use their data, since Diary studies are full of personal details
  • When they share hurdles that they are facing, be quick to respond and help, so they know you’re serious about listening to them (this one is make-or-break)

After Joining

If you’ve been growing somewhat steadily as an organization, you will at any given point have a group of people who’ve joined the organization a couple of months back. For designing your onboarding program, involving this group can be very advantageous.

Their experience of what it took for them to settle in, become productive and feel like a part of the organization is still fresh at this time. It’s important to note that these lessons, rules, rituals and guidelines are unique to your organization. By facilitating a journey mapping workshop for them, you can harness this knowledge and convert it into interventions for your onboarding program.

The goal of this workshop is to capture a new employee’s journey through their first few weeks in the new job in a way that makes it easy to identify possible interventions. To achieve this prepare a journey workbook with the following format.

Format for the Onboarding Journey Workshop

Now, start the workshop bottoms first (refer to the diagram). It’s easier for people to remember actions rather than how they felt at a point in time. Once they identify their actions, it becomes easier for them to remember what they were thinking at the time and what feelings would have lead to the thoughts.

Begin from the bottom-left on your timeline (DO) and ask:

  • Which events stand-out during this time in your experience?
  • Describe what you were doing at that point
  • Mhmm and what else?

Once you run through the entire timeline, move one step up (THINK) and re-start from the left:

  • What were you thinking? Narrate your thoughts
  • Mhmm and what else?

Finally, come to the top-left corner (FEEL) and ask:

  • How did that make you feel?
  • Mhmm and what else?

A great way to make participants comfortable with sharing their experiences is by sharing yours first. On one hand, this acts as an example of how they could respond to your prompts and on the other, it shows that you trust them enough to lower your guard and share freely.

In order to be truly exhaustive in generating insights, break the workshops down into two parts. Run the first series individually, so that you can deep dive on individual experiences. Once you’ve done a couple of these, gather all the data on a single timeline so that you can now run a couple of group sessions.

Thoughts, feeling and actions captured by participants

These group sessions would involve participants going through the journeys of others who were in a similar position. This stimulates discussions that help identify both shared and unique experiences. By the end of it you would have a self-corrected and aggregated expression of the journey a new employee at your organization.

Onboarding Journey Map
Onboarding Journey Map

Based on the onboarding journey map, coming up with ideas to ease the experience of changing jobs becomes straightforward. These ideas will invariably be aligned to the new employee’s need of the hour. For eg. based on the one above, creating your organization’s dictionary of internal jargon and terminology and sharing it with them before they join can save them a lot of anxiety in the first week.

Involving key stakeholders to recognize their role in the process

The right onboarding program should involve and cater to the expectations of all the stakeholders who have an interest in seeing their new teammate succeed. Involving key stakeholders in the formative stages aligns the onboarding process to their motivations and hence drive ownership and accountability in the future.

Running a short guided workshop with each stakeholder group can help you understand how they would like to be involved. Before you start, remind the group that our focus for the exercise is the new employee and helping them through their first few weeks is the primary goal. Give them 10 minutes to read through the journey map.

Now have them individually note down all the tasks they think they should be doing and the parts of the journey they would want to be a part of on a simple timeline. Bring it all together on a whiteboard, to drive discussion and refine further.

Stakeholders articulating how they would like to be involved

By the end of these sessions, what you will have is a step-by-step and time sensitive onboarding plan where the right people step in at the right time to ensure an overall great experience for their new teammate.

Onboarding plan for the pre-joining period (WIP version)

Prototyping early and getting feedback

I highly recommend that you don’t wait for the entire design process to run before you start testing your new onboarding process. It is a lot more productive to start running early prototypes in parallel and keep adding elements emerging from your workshops and discussions.

Example of an early prototype

Collecting feedback on your early prototypes will help you validate whether the process you’ve taken is generating valuable insights and leading you to your goal. Have in-person conversations with the new employee. These conversations can take the form of semi-structured interviews if you use the onboarding journey map to guide and probe.

Feedback sessions with new employees.

The onboarding program that was set-up at Belong.co using this method was co-created by around 40 Belongers, each participating at a different stage of the process. Overtime, we saw a clear correlation between the quality of a new employee’s onboarding experience and their eventual relationship with the organization.

Running this process for your organization will help you set up an onboarding program that is employee centric, holistic and truly unique to your organization. Would love to hear about your experience, if you choose to give this a shot or if you have any inputs that could make this better.

Kautuk Trivedi

Written by

People Systems. Design. Malcontent. Currently Exploring. 🌿

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