Four crucial steps to successful onboarding
How to give your new team members a flying start
Posted on November 3, 2017
A couple of days ago, I met a colleague from back in the day when I was new in the IT consulting business. It turned out that he had just started to work on a new contract, and I asked him what he did. His answer baffled me:
"I'm on my third week now, and I still haven't got anything meaningful to do. It's so frustrating!"
I have been a consultant for nearly twenty years. Looking back — especially in my early years — I've sure had my share of crappy onboarding. And I slowly realized that of all the contracts I've been on, the majority of them had onboarding experiences that didn't live up to my expectations.
Which, by the way, were things like:
So I started to ask around. It quickly became apparent that, contrary to my belief, this isn't just affecting junior consultants working for huge corporations. Instead, there were many very experienced senior professionals recalling situations just like the one my former colleague described.
Let's do the math. The current average hourly rate for a developer in Sweden is roughly 90 euro. This means that three weeks of idle time costs about 11,000 euro.
It's also very common to bring on several consultants at once — for instance, to staff up before a project launch — so we have a multiplier as well. In my experience, the typical consultant batch is 3–5 people. Which gives an average cost of 44,000 euro. Just for staffing up.
So — in the spirit of saving money and preventing some fellow developers from dying of boredom or stress — I've put together a checklist for successful onboarding.
Make one person the designated guide for the onboarding journey. This person should be available at all times during the intro.
The first day should be scheduled back-to-back, and you should start off by presenting the agenda. If you can't put enough sessions together to fill a whole day, just call it a day around lunch. Nobody likes to be awkwardly left alone for two hours with nothing to do, even if you ensure them that "it's ok just to hang out."
The following days should have introductions as well as time for internalizing.
Several psychological studies show that people tend to focus a lot better if we cater to their basic needs first, so everything practical should be covered. Even the seemingly insignificant stuff:
This step is includes everything practical necessary to start working, and it's where most companies fail badly. Phrases like "We've just ordered your computer, it should arrive in a couple of days." Or what about "WiFi access for consultants? Maybe you can ask Kevin how he got it working." And of course, you haven't been introduced to Kevin, let alone where he sits.
Most of the things on this list are essential to even get started:
Everything that needs to be ordered, sent or set up should be prepared in advance to avoid waiting. To postpone these things until the consultant or employee arrives is just ignorant.
And since it's so common that it's not, this is an excellent opportunity to make a good first impression.
Also, make sure that everything the guide presents gets communicated via email as well. All self-service processes should have intuitive checklists to follow, with clear instructions on who to contact if further help is needed.
Mix knowledge transfer sessions with hands-on work. Allow plenty of time to internalize the information and to explore the environment.
In the case of handovers from developer to developer, multiple shorter sessions are preferable over a big-bang, two-day braindump. No-one is able to process such amounts of information at once.
And make sure that the new person gets to be in driver's seat. That is, let him/her do the navigation and typing as you go along. Learning is significantly improved by a hands-on, tactile approach, as opposed to mere passive listening.
Set expectations. Both regarding what you expect them to deliver and what they can expect from you.
Prepare a couple of easy tasks to get the person started. Doing so will build confidence and increase the motivation to learn more.
Introduce all the best practices used in the team, and make sure to convey any coding standards and conventions up front. Pair programming tends to do an excellent job at this in my opinion, but keep in mind that not everybody likes that.
It's important to have somebody to lean on during the first weeks, so make sure that someone is the designated mentor. Take notes about all the questions you get — if they are asked more than once, you should probably incorporate the answers into the previous steps of the onboarding process.
Encourage experimentation and allow mistakes to happen. Remember that with new people come new perspectives, so cultivate an environment where it's ok to question the status quo.
That concludes the checklist. Hopefully, this will contribute to conveying an overall positive impression of your company. And to keep you from wasting money on idle time.
Don't forget to ask the person you're hiring for feedback a couple of weeks in when the intro process is fresh in mind.
Good luck with your onboarding!
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