Team Onboarding

Below are the notes I’ve pulled from articles and books on the topic of effective onboarding training. The aim is for this to be a starting point for understanding how to build an effective onboarding process.


New Employee Onboarding: Best Practices For New Hires

First impressions: Important information that falls through the cracks or isn’t conveyed properly means that employees’ knowledge bases are inconsistent. Inconsistencies, when multiplied, can turn into a disparate company culture.

Welcome Wagon: Assign specific peer mentors to new members of the team, and entrust them with helping their mentee meet other employees, especially those not on their team. Ask mentors to  send out introductory emails to the company, and be there to answer random questions

Have fun: Reaffirm that belief by showing them the cool parts of your company, not just the paperwork. employees who feel like their company invests in them will be more productive and do better work for you.

Choose your Own Adventure: The best way to figure out what works and what doesn’t is to ask new hires themselves. After their first week, sit down with them one on one and ask them to give honest feedback on what went well and what they feel is lacking in the process. Implementing their feedback gives new team members ownership over the process and demonstrates that their input is valuable.

Onboarding New Hires with Trello

The “Why”
New people working remotely weren’t getting to know the rest of the company as fast as new people who worked in our office. We want them to know our company history. We want people on day one, for example, to know why we will never play another game of “Gotcha!” in the office ever again. Never. Again.

Using a Trello board for onboarding tasks
Additional lists include “Who’s Who in New York”, “Who’s Who Working Remotely”, and “Things We’ll Never Do Again”. The “Before First Day” list contains items such as: email our new hires email address, have the team lead reach out, have a sysadmin order all necessary equipment, book travel if necessary, prepare their paperwork. Now, if I’m out of the office, anyone can take over reaching out to the new hire to tell her which ID to bring.

Beyond onboarding tasks
To the right of our “Done” list is company information like: “Can I Have?”, “Who Do I Talk To About?”, “History Behind…” It helps answers questions like, “Can I bring a bike into the office?”.

Getting to know who people are
Then come our Who’s Who lists separated out by location, “Who’s Who in New York” and “Who’s Who Working Remotely”. I asked each employee to answer a few simple checklist questions and to attach a picture of themselves.

Every time we hire a new employee we have to run through the whole process again so we use this board as a template for personalizing boards for each new hire. After creating your own company’s main Onboarding board copy it.

Create a new specific board for your new hire with her name and start date and keep the whole board intact, keeping the cards. Add just the people you need for that “Before First Day” actionable list.

Technical Onboarding at Hootsuite

Danger of Team Debt
Organizations can also accrue ‘team debt‘ as a consequence of bad design: where each person added to your team eventually decreases overall team productivity. Productivity drops because each new addition lacks an understanding about the team’s processes, cultural norms, how to do their job, corporate values, code standards, architecture, and more.

Each person’s inefficiencies compound to a point where their time and effort spent navigating your ‘system’ outweighs their time and effort spent shipping code.

Accounting for Team Debt
How soon does someone who is new to your organization get an answer to a question? I call this number the “Answer Index”. This number is the mean response time in HipChat calculated by measuring the time between a post that contains a “?” and a reply.

The second key measure is how soon after hiring is someone able to contribute to the their team? How soon does someone feel connected to their team? Our Talent team asks new people these questions in scheduled 30, 60 and 90 day conversations

Pay it down with Systematic Onboarding
Kate neatly defines onboarding as the act of “taking someone from outside of the team, outside of the company, and making them an integrated, productive, and confident member of the team.” Onboarding is like training – an activity that pays back your invested effort handsomely in terms of productivity.

Welcome Email
Covers: how stoked we are that they’re joining us, what they can do to be ready for Day One, what they can expect in their first week, who they’ll be working with, what technologies they will use, who is available to answer their questions. It’s important to reciprocate their excitement.

Training Guide
Almost all of us feel those invisible walls around us anytime we show up in an new and unfamiliar setting. Those invisible walls separate us from our social support network which hampers us from asking questions that help us get productive get familiar with our surroundings and understand our context.

[Kate] calls this ‘social capital’: mutual reliance, an underlying sense of connectedness that builds trust

Pairing every new person with a Training Guide who answers their questions and breaks down those invisible walls lets them invest in a social support network that will help them now and later on.

“People want to connect with people, not with todo lists”.

Train the Trainers
To ensure that our Training Guides understand the WhyHow and What of onboarding and their role, we hold a “Train the Trainer” session the Wednesday before their new charge is set to start.

Day One
You get just one opportunity to make a memorable impression. How? Make it personal. Make it unexpected. Make it significant

Spend a lot of effort and a little money to make a Welcome Gift.

Push to Production. This conveys the speed at which we operate (continuous delivery), gives someone the rush of shipping (as Engineers that’s what we live for, right?), and conveys to them that we trust them and that the responsibility of delivering to the last mile is theirs.

Present, in person, a series of talks that connect them to their cohort and to a speaker. Onboarding talks help someone new develop a common sense of purpose, understand our culture in Product & Engineering, and most importantly, how to participate in and contribute to our culture and our mission. In fact, Training Guides who attend the Talks routinely say they are clarifying and energizing. On-the-job training in the morning, and in-person talks in the afternoon

They follow up with each attendee and asks for their ROTI (return on time invested) and comments about what they liked about the session and what can be improved. Talks are run like a funnel, broad to narrow.

How To Use Your Unfair Advantage To Create an Unforgettable First Day For New Hires

Even though feeling productive is a strong emotion, it is also a short-lived one. In order to create a long lasting emotion, a real WOW effect, you have to create a personal bond.

Research has shown that a person’s mood can be affected even by 3 degrees of separation from people they don’t even know. You’re job at the first week is to bring down the walls and let new teammates talk and get to know the team. If they’re good, they’ll be effective anyway, so don’t worry so much about it. Find ways to make them connect.

Make them smile. If you know that your new guy or gal enjoy playing a game, say Startcraft 2, maybe you can buy a miniature and place it on their table, with a little note “We’ve got your back! Attack!” Or, if your new hire is a part of distributed team, send them a barber shop quartet to sing her a song.

Make it a tradition
We have a little tradition, where the last person to join the company is responsible to create a “starter kit” for the next one to join. I knew that 5 years from now, when Omri opens this book and re-reads my dedication on the first page, he’ll remember his first day with us.

Onboarding and the Cost of Team Debt

We talk a lot in engineering about technical debt, but few people talk about what I call “team debt”. The idea is that when a feature is built it requires a certain amount of work to be thoroughly completed, and, if it is shipped before all the work is finished, anything leftover accrues as debt.

When employees aren’t properly trained, integrated, or managed, they are operating at less than optimal efficiency and “team debt” is accrued. Each new employee that is added without being sufficiently trained and integrated increases that debt. If unchecked, team debt can reach a point where expansion must be halted in order to address the deficiencies of the existing system

At a very high-level, onboarding is the process of taking someone from outside the company and making them an independent, productive, and confident member of the team.

Onboarding is finished when the nebulous idea of “reliable independence” is achieved, where an employee requires no more resources from coworkers and managers than the average work collaboration. 

Eliminate Team Debt
A coach once told me that every time someone joins a team, the team fundamentally changes and becomes a new version of itself. Re-iterating processes and values when a new person joins won’t just benefit the new hire; it will also benefit existing team members. Training new employees reduces team debt by integrating the new employee and re-aligning the existing employees.

Diverse Teams
A lack of onboarding is bad for pretty much all new employees, but it’s worse for people who are different from the existing group. A parent joining a team of all young people might have trouble attending after-hours social events because they have more responsibilities at home.

Without explicit onboarding, new employees have to disproportionately rely on existing social structures to learn about their job.

Improve onboarding
First, distribute the load of onboarding. The idea that the only people capable of mentoring are senior members of the team is false. Often, the best person to teach someone is the last person who did it. This is because the farther away you get from material you’ve learned, the more it becomes intuitive and the harder it is to teach

Distributing the load also has the added benefit of preventing mentor burnout by not putting the burden of onboarding on the same few senior team members over and over again.

Second, to streamline onboarding focus on the following three categories: technical skills, knowledge of company processes, and personal development.

Technical skills – things like knowing a programming language and understanding tools the company uses for development. This category is pretty straightforward. it’s only a fraction of what someone needs to know to be a productive member of their engineering team.

Knowledge of company processes – Understanding organizational processes is more difficult for new employees to learn. This is because organizational​ processes are unique to each company and often poorly documented. It includes things like the values of the company, the explicit and implicit management hierarchy, and how to get your job done day to day within that system. (I would add context to this)

Personal development – It involves the development and personal trajectory of the engineer.. Helping employees learn new things and achieve their goals is just as important as paying them a good salary.

People often mistakenly think that confidence follows the acquisition of skills when it’s often the other way around; skills follow confidence. You can bolster confidence by giving people constructive feedback on their work, helping them to achieve short-term goals, and checking in regularly to make sure they feel productive and satisfied with their job.

Fun Ideas
First, find ways to get different people to work together and learn from each other.

Make sure that you have appropriate feedback channels for new employees, like weekly one-on-ones or code labs where people can ask any questions about the company or the technologies you use.

Find ways to help people connect with their team and the larger community outside the company.

Finally, my favorite fun idea—have a “Harrowing Adventures of the Week” session where people tell stories about their most harrowing computer misadventures and crises. These kinds of stories can help people connect over the trials and tribulations we face in our day to day work.

Why Startups Should Train Their People

I wrote a short document called Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager which I used to train the team on my basic expectations (and I include at the end of this post). I was shocked by what happened next. The performance of my team instantly improved. Product managers that I previously thought were hopeless became effective.

Why you should train your people

Properly run start-ups place a great deal of emphasis on recruiting and the interview process in order to build their talent base. Unfortunately, often the investment in people stops there.

[In hiring metrics] the most important statistic is missing: how many fully productive employees have they added? By failing to measure progress towards the actual goal, they lose sight of the value of training.

Training is, quite simply, one of the highest-leverage activities a manger can perform

If your training efforts result in a 1 percent improvement in you subordinates’ performance, you company will gain the equivalent of two hundred hours of work as the result of the expenditure of your twelve hours.

Performance Management
The right question is the one that isn’t asked: When you fired the person, how did you know with certainty that the employee both understood the expectations of the job and were missing them? The best answer is that the manager clearly set expectations when she trained the employee for the job. If you don’t train your people, you establish no basis for performance management

Product Quality
[Founders] find that their beautiful product architecture has turned into a Frankenstein. How does this happen? As success drives the need to hire new engineers at a rapid rate, companies neglect to train the new engineers properly. As the engineers are assigned tasks, they figure out how to complete them as best they can

Employee Retention
After putting economics, aside, I found that there were two primary reasons why people quit. 1) They hated their manager – generally the employees were appalled by the lack of guidance, career development and feedback they were receiving. 2) They weren’t learning anything – the company wasn’t investing in the employees

What should you do first?
The best place to start is with the topic that is most relevant to your employees: the knowledge and skill that they need to do their job. I call this functional training

As a happy side effect, this type of effort will do more to build a powerful, positive company culture than 100 culture-building strategic offsite meetings.

The other essential component of a company’s training program is management training. Management training is the best place to start setting expectations for your management team.

Do you expect them to agree upon objectives with their team? If you do, then you’d better tell them, because the management state-of-the-art in technology companies is extremely poor. Once you’ve set expectations, the next set of management courses has already been defined; they are the courses that teach your managers how to do the things you expect

One of the great things about building a tech company are the amazing people that you can hire. Take your best people and encourage them to share their most developed skills. Training in such topics as negotiating, interviewing, finance, etc. will enhance your company’s competency in those areas as well as improving employee morale. Teaching can also become a badge of honor for employees who achieve an elite level of competence.

Some keys to implementing your training program
The first thing to recognize is that no start-up has time to do optional things. Therefore, training must be mandatory.

Enforce functional training by withholding new employee requisitions. Therefore, training should be the most basic requirement for all managers in your organization. An effective way to enforce this requirement is by withholding new employee requisitions from managers until they’ve developed a training program

Enforce management training by teaching it yourself. you should teach the course on management expectations, because they are, after all, your expectations.

Ironically, the biggest inhibitor to putting a training program in place is the perception that it will take too much time. Keep in mind, that there is no investment that you can make that will do more to improve productivity in your company

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