Article

Onboarding

What’s the taste of your cultural marinade?

Introducing an accelerated learning approach to onboarding by focusing on the cultural and social dimensions of the journey, thus challenging the current paradigm of the structural onboarding focus and the assumption that only the duration of an onboarding programme predicts its impact.

Authors

Onboarding is the integration of new employees

Onboarding originates from getting on board a ship and refers to the facilitation and management of the “organisational socialisation” or integration of new employees into the new organisations or projects – and the good reasons for investing in this are numerous: successful onboarding is associated with better retention rates, higher job satisfaction and engagement, decreased time to performance and higher productivity among new employees.

Furthermore, when looking at recruitment expenses, time invested in new hires by other employees and the potential risk of re-recruitment, the business case is clear, and it becomes obvious that failed onboarding initiatives entail huge costs.

Those quantitative insights have almost become old news today, and following these, a more interesting question still remains: How do we actually ensure and establish successful onboarding? In the following, we will argue that cultural onboarding is essential to success and a key enabler for an accelerated onboarding.

Performance shaping factors in onboarding

An emerging discipline – but how to handle it?

Despite the fact that onboarding has emerged as the newest HR discipline, companies, organisations and communities have always welcomed newcomers. Think about it: The new thing is not that new employees need to get on board, but rather that the social integration of new hires is represented as a specific discipline in a certain way, which influences practice and how it is structured, regarded and conditioned. This has certain implications for how we conceptualise and plan to handle good onboarding.

According to Harvard Business Review, it takes approximately six months to get a new employee up to speed. Furthermore, the first period of employment is regarded as the most critical time for resignations from employees. As a result, it is often advocated that in order to guarantee good onboarding, companies need to extend the period of time in which onboarding activities take place to last for half a year or more. This quite intuitive response seems reasonable as a first step in investigating good onboarding, since many companies today more or less have an undefined onboarding strategy. Obviously, long onboarding programmes can be great – but does the length in itself necessarily predict the impact or success?

Taking it further, we want to shift focus from the quantitative matter of onboarding duration to the actual qualitative matter of the onboarding content. Why aim for extending the onboarding period, if you can accelerate the onboarding process from the very beginning by making some clever choices? We believe that you can do this by not only introducing the rules, tools, structures and procedures of the ship, but also by putting effort into the rituals, the unofficial rules and the values of the crew.

Facts about onboarding

  • For entry-level employees, it costs between 30-50 percent of their annual salary to replace them.
  • For mid-level employees, it costs more than 150 percent of their annual salary to replace them.
  • For high-level or highly specialised employees, the cost is at 400 percent of their annual salary.

Source: Talent Management and HR

Culture as the backbone (fundamental factor) for new hire success

When looking at onboarding through the three-piece model of “structural”, “cultural” and “behavioural” aspects, most onboarding literature and initiatives focus on the structural dimensions (e.g. formalising introduction and welcome meetings, ensuring access to buildings and systems, setting up workstations and assigning a leader) as well as technical skills training of new hires (e.g. system introductions, relevant certificates and training programmes). Structures and specific skills training are of course essential aspects of being capable of performing in the new job role, but one could argue that getting familiar with the systems and potential databases which the company works with is not what automatically gets the new hires up to speed. The culture part is more about getting the theoretical skills “out of people’s heads and into action” as soon as possible in the new surroundings, and that is why we think it deserves a larger focus. It enables the new hires to become a quicker fit in the way the organisation operates and to be able to adjust their way of working to the way the company works. It is the fast lane from “how I do things” to “how we do things around here”, and it is hard to capture in any introduction manual or slide show.

There is no need, of course, to forget the behavioural part of onboarding that could and should be addressed through good leadership among other things. Nevertheless, to us, onboarding should be the starting point or the “cultural marinade” where the new employees and organisation blend together that allows for a relationship in which the new hire comes to experience him or herself as a contributing and meaningful part of the organisation and the performing community. Just like a perfectly cooked coq au vin.

What exactly does the cultural understanding do? What effect does it have?

It gives you the keys to understanding the unwritten rules, it enables you to navigate in complex settings, it gives you support when times are tough (and you might want to quit your job), and it invites you to be an active and contributing member of your team. But perhaps most important of all, it provides a clear sense of purpose and direction that guides behaviour and allows you to successfully handle your newly started journey in the given structures. It sounds like a big package of gains, we know, but let’s be honest. Being the newbie in the workplace is never easy no matter how much experience you might bring in your backpack. Although you can have all the right competences in place to manage your new role, you still need to decode this specific organisation’s lived (yes, not only spoken) values, routines and politics. Unfortunately, this is difficult to do just by reading a “Welcome to the company” booklet or attending intro presentations from various stakeholders. Because the key here lies in the implicit. It is not just what they say, it is what they do. It is everything that happens in the organisation without people thinking consciously about it, and it can cover anything from lunch routines to how performance appraisals are conducted. Just like with the first days of school, there is a lot more to it than remembering your ABCs.

What are we working with in order to accelerate onboarding?

By getting a faster and deeper understanding of the surroundings they will operate in, newcomers are given an opportunity to excel quicker in an environment that feels safer and thus can let them be authentic. Studies show that new hires that are valued for who they are, are less likely to quit 3. And being an accepted member and culturally well versed participant of the organisation creates a sense of autonomy, self-efficacy and mastery – the key to motivation, wanting to learn the system, giving an extra effort, ownership and belonging – and the key to performance, so to speak.

Thus, by accelerating the cultural onboarding, we argue that you accelerate the overall onboarding effect.

Let’s visit a real-life case example and results of accelerated cultural onboarding, but first, let’s take a deeper look at the very foundation that Accelerated Onboarding relies on: the concept of “Accelerated Learning”.

The principles of Accelerated Learning

“Acceleration” is about catalysing processes that normally take longer time to develop, take place and mature. It is about creating certain conditions and environments that allow to speed up a given process. We build on many years of experience and great results from working with accelerated learning across different settings and define the onboarding process as one of the best arenas where accelerated cultural learning can take place.

The way we do cultural onboarding is by a purposeful and holistic design that captures several levels of learning. More focus on the situations where people get to do and create things – together – rather than having them just listen to presentations or merely talk in groups helps them generate emotions and “muscular memories” that are easier to retrieve in the future. We adapt the process to the way we know gives the best foundation for an open-minded, challenging and memorable integration. After all, that is what you want the new employees to experience, right? Accelerated learning is built on the four principles of staging, neuro, energy and teaming.

Staging
...increasing readiness for change

It is no secret that most of us prefer to stick to familiar territory and keep within our daily routines and the known. Thus, to create the right conditions that trigger habit-loving humans’ openness to change is not easy, but we have learned that quite often it helps to work with the whole experience – meaning not only focusing on the content, but also the context.

This means looking at the physical, social and narrative settings combined. As an example, the physical setting activates our senses in many ways (just think about the last time you were in a restaurant that was too loud or a meeting room that was too dark and how it caught your focus). As does the social setting (think about how conversations are affected by who is in the room). Last, but not least, the story we tell about the onboarding experience also makes a difference so just like the movie editors, we focus on the whole story and not just one scene.

By purposely designing a “new stage” for the participants, we are carefully priming them for the changes to come. A different scenery helps most of us to prepare our brains for different input and output and assists us in the process of opening up to unlearning, relearning and new learning.

Neuro
...creating a brain-friendly environment

Science tells us that the human brain learns faster and is able to retain information in a better way, when the learning experience has caught our attention, generated emotions and when we have been given a bit of time to reflect on what we have seen, heard and/or done. That is why we work hard on making onboarding easy, fun and rewarding.

Knowing how our brains prefer to create shortcuts and make quick decisions based on pattern recognition 4, we want new hires to be open-minded and willing to push themselves to learn new things instead of only trying to collect knowledge to confirm established patterns. That is why we want to challenge the path of least resistance for the newcomers and make sure that the messages we communicate during the onboarding process actually access their hippocampus, or more figuratively, reach their hearts and minds.

Energy
...managing energy, personal development and reflection, being present and the best version of yourself

In order to be the very best version of ourselves at the workplace, we need to be energised and feel like we are on top of things. Think back to the times when you did not get enough sleep, when you studied all night long (or even outstayed your curfew), or when your newborn baby kept you awake at night. Or the times when there has been stuff happening in your life that has taken your full attention and kept the train of thoughts running all day long. Were you able to focus 100% on your job or learn new things?

We believe that cultural onboarding deserves the best version of all participants: leaders, peers and newcomers. Through addressing the personal energy system and the importance of understanding it, we give the newcomers a language and the knowledge to recognise their own energy levels, and what they need from themselves and each other in order to create an appreciative environment. We generate a shift from the old paradigm of time management to the new with energy management, helping each new hire recognise and realise that success does not necessarily lie in the number of hours you put in, but that it is the quality of your focus in energy in those hours that really matters.

Teams
...with a twofold purpose: Creating a collective comfort zone for development that makes you secure enough to leave your comfort zone

Humans are social beings that thrive when we feel safe, appreciated and part of a pack 5. By creating an onboarding journey that facilitates the establishment of new relations and networks, we are also creating a shared journey and a sense of belonging where it is safe to explore new learning because everyone is in the same boat. Our natural instincts tell us to quickly empathise and connect with people we have something in common with, and in the onboarding setting the fact that everyone is new to the team quickly builds valuable ties and mutual understanding. Whatever new they are doing, they are doing it together. When this collective mindset and mutual acceptance is established, stepping out of the comfort zone and trying something new naturally does not feel as intimidating as it might have been before.

Blend the principles together and add your own spice = Accelerated onboarding

The specific content of the onboarding

In an exceptional meal, the marinade is often part of what makes it stand out from the average. And the “taste of the marinade” is determined by which spices you put in it. Albeit making a marinade in itself is doable, knowing exactly which spices work together and gives that specific taste that you are looking for is the key to success. This is where you add your own flavour to it. In the onboarding experience, you add your organisation’s spices, meaning the basic story, the structure and the explicit parts of the culture and the behaviour.

Basic story

  • The “what” and “why” of the client organisation
  • Overall employee branding

Structure

  • Organisational and systemic set-up
  • Procedural and practical issues

Culture

  • Standards, values and corner flags
  • Communication, social routines, leadership

Behaviour

  • Competences and skills needed and wanted
  • Vital behaviours and keystone habits

What does accelerated onboarding look like in practice?

With Implement UpFront, we have taken our own medicine. We wanted to explore how we could challenge the way we were doing things (from the usual structured onboarding programme we had) and actually create impact for our newcomers from the very beginning. Knowing that each and every one has gone through an extensive hiring process and has been carefully selected based on their skills and attitude, the UpFront programme is the perfect way to “dip our new colleagues in the marinade” and welcome them to the family and the way we do things. In essence, UpFront is less talking, more doing.

Implement UpFront is a learning journey that is specifically designed to accelerate new employees’ development, secure a smooth onboarding and create a sense of belonging. The goal is that each participant gets to experience the Implement culture right away – not from a day of presentations, but through “tasting it” in real life.

The overall programme runs over a period of five months, where the accelerated factor lies in five intensive days (The Camp) anchored on the ART principles where the new colleagues are introduced to carefully selected methods and theories that constitute parts of the DNA of Implement. They are brought out of the comfort zone of our office location and into a different setting where they are given the foundation to pay full attention, challenge their readiness for learning and build teams and togetherness with their peers. Additionally, we invite them to join a learning period over four months where each newcomer is asked to practise, experiment with and reflect on the things they learned at the camp. These experiences are shared in a learning community, before Implement UpFront is completed with a graduation day where each new colleague is expected to be fully integrated – as a real Implementer.

  • Awareness to focus on learning
  • Readiness for the experience
  • Togetherness to stimulate the social brain

Implement UpFront is not just about learning something together. It is about actually doing and creating something together – we build the conditions for that. We create memories, a sense of belonging, commitment, ownership and trust.

What results could you achieve by intensifying the cultural marinating of your onboarding?

You can simply get the desired taste of your meal in a shorter amount of time and without the need to add all the extra sauces on the table when you are serving it. Or put in other words: you get new hires that create networks and a feeling of belonging and that understand the context and the surroundings they are to navigate in a lot quicker. The beauty of it is that it happens at the very beginning of their journey, adding to that the safety and security they require to be open-minded to learning and performing faster.

New hires are hard to retain. That is a fact. And the cost of having them leave and finding and training new colleagues is high. That is also a fact. So by intensifying your onboarding programme, we believe that you will not only save time, but also money, and that you will have employees that are ready to contribute to the organisation’s overall success earlier because they have a different connection to the “why” and to each other.

We are not arguing that you should necessarily shorten your “cooking time” or the length of your current onboarding programme. We are merely suggesting an efficient way to improve the taste of the meal and accelerate your newcomers’ onboarding by giving them a bit of cultural marinade at the very beginning. After all, nothing beats intensity.

The learning curve I went through in those 4 days is much more steep than what I’ve been presented to in the last 10-20 years of my career.

Participant, UpFront 2016

UpFront: Onboarding at Implement Consulting Group

This article is also written by Joy Hunhammer.