This is Not Your Father's Onboarding Program

From interactive reality shows to digital scavenger hunts, companies are adopting creative multichannel employee onboarding practices that immerse new hires in the brand while creating deep connections with their co-workers.
Employee Engagement

Successful onboarding, or providing new employees with the information they need for their jobs and introducing them to the company, is a critical aspect of a company's talent management strategy. But just like enterprises need to adapt to customers' multichannel demands, so do employee onboarding initiatives.

As such, employers are increasingly incorporating multichannel components into their onboarding programs and immersing new hires in a variety of knowledge transfers and skill sets across the organization to help them better serve the multichannel customer and advance the omnichannel enterprise.

Businesses that do not provide an effective onboarding experience risk losing their employees and providing a poor customer experience, notes Virginia Bianco-Mathis, chair at the Department of Management and professor of Human Resources at Marymount University.

"Employees want to know that you're investing in them and giving them the tools and information they need to be successful from day one, which leads to better employee engagement and retention rates," she says.

For businesses to be successful, that increasingly means keeping up with multichannel customers and employees, leading companies to incorporate various new channels into their onboarding programs. Adobe, for example, overhauled its employee orientation program as part of the onboarding process, turning it into an entirely digital experience. An orientation program is typically a one-day event that fits under the onboarding process of acclimating new employees into the company.

"We operate in more than 40 countries and before January of this year, orientation was handled based on the resources we had in a given location," says Justin Mass, head of digital learning innovation at Adobe. "It was fragmented and there was a huge quality conflict in the orientation experience."

Arguing that onboarding is important since it is a new hire's first impression of the company, Mass redesigned the company's orientation strategy as a digital experience that is offered every Tuesday.

"I wanted to create a scalable new hire experience where we can syndicate our corporate message in an orderly fashion that's reflective of our being a tech company and that's collaborative and global," Mass says.

The new orientation session was launched in January this year and takes place on a new hire's second day of employment at Adobe. The session was created through the company's web conferencing software, Adobe Connect, and incorporates real-time digital and recorded experiences that range from 90 minutes to two hours, Mass explains.

During orientation, the new employees attend the session through a mobile app or on a laptop. The number of attendees can range from 20 people to 75, depending on the time of year.

"The orientation is designed to be a participatory, multichannel experience," Mass says. "We want employees to develop a connection to our core values, which is to be innovative, exceptional, genuine, and involved."

The first step of orientation involves asking new hires to choose a core value that resonates most for them and explain why in an online "chat pod" or chat room. Social media is "an effective way for sharing ideas and many people are accustomed to communicating in a text-based fashion," according to Mass.

The exercise also allows enables the new hires to collaborate on ideas and begin forming connections to the core values and each other as a community, Mass adds.

Next, the group will watch a series of HD videos taking them through Adobe's history, including learning about its founders John Warnock and Charles Geschke, and the company's core products.

"We want our employees to be able speak intelligently about our core business, specifically our marketing cloud business and our creative cloud business," Mass says. "Throughout orientation I act like a host and with my co-host, we pause after the videos to ask the new hires, 'now that you've heard about us and where we're going, can you describe in two sentences what Adobe does?'"

This exercise is designed to help new employees feel comfortable talking about the Adobe brand. And once again via the chat pods, the new hires synthesize what they've learned and share in real time with the rest of the group.

Mass also discusses the importance of employees being brand ambassadors. "We challenge employees to help us get better at owning our narrative and to be loud and proud," he adds. "If you're active on social media, we want you to amplify perceptions of the brand, but also be authentic about it."

Social media is at the "front line with customers," Mass continues. "Be a customer advocate. If you see something going wrong, say something. We also tell everyone to find customers expressing admiration for Adobe."

At the end of the orientation, the new hires are told to turn on their web cams. The effect is "lots of people waving and looking up and down like in The Brady Bunch," Mass says. "It's another digital and fun way to introduce everyone to the brand."

Adobe includes other information, such as instructions about the company's benefits and forms, in an on-demand library called the New Employee Center that employees can access at their convenience.

Approximately 600 new hires have participated in the new orientation session since it was launched in the U.S. in January. It will be introduced in August to the company's locations in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

Mass' advice to other companies that want to provide a similar experience is avoid overwhelming employees with information in one orientation experience. "Think of new hires as customers," he says. "They're excited and nervous about being part of your company so be super deliberative about what you include to validate the decision they've made and provide some amazing ways for them to form deeper connections with the brand."

Employee Onboarding Gets a Multichannel Makeover

Companies that offer an onboarding program have an average employee retention rate of 86 percent, while companies without one have a 56 percent retention rate, according to a report by Aberdeen Group.

But not all onboarding programs are the same. The better programs are "interactive, use various types of technology, and help you get involved with the brand," says Bianco-Mathis.

Some companies offer very creative programs, such as communications infrastructure provider Neustar, which designed its orientation program as areality show. In June 2012, the company created the "Reality TV Training Program" which included a video about five new hires who experience what it is like to work at Neustar. New employees watch the video to learn about Neustar's culture, mission, goals, and performance management requirements. They also get access to online eLearning sessions about specific areas of Neustar's business.

Due to positive responses, the program grew from a day session to a 12-episode Reality TV Training program providing information for new hires to review on demand.. "It's an immersive experience that highlights the organization's values and includes the senior executives, and new employees quickly get engaged with the company," explains Bianco-Mathis, who adds that Marymount University also awarded Neustar the HR Leadership Award for its orientation program in June this year.

Successful onboarding programs also include opportunities for new employees to speak with other employees or be assigned a mentor to further understand the company's culture and values, according to Ken P. Yusko, professor of human resources and management at Marymount University.

"Onboarding should be steeped in socialization and it can happen informally or formally through different channels," Yusko says.

If it is a large company, one approach is to have employees go on a digital scavenger hunt, suggests Bianco-Mathis. "If they're in different offices, tell the new hire to find and Skype with certain people, and then discuss with a mentor what he or she learned," she says.

Emily He, chief marketing officer of Saba, a talent management software provider, agrees that helping new employees engage with more experienced employees is essential. "It is important for employees to develop a sense of community at their firms and giving them a platform that connects them with everyone and recommending people they should get to know is helpful," He says.

He points to Saba's client, IBM, as an example. The tech behemoth uses Saba to power a pre-onboarding community among college recruits. Even before their first day at IBM, the company provides the recruits with videos and training courses about their job functions and encourages them to communicate with each other through an internal platform.

Saba also offers onboarding tools for creating pre-recorded videos or live streaming virtual meetings. "Our tools allow you to do a lot virtually, but we still believe that nothing can replace an-person experience," He says, "So we often bring new hires to our headquarters to get a sense of our company's culture and values first-hand."

Even though in-person onboarding experiences are still ideal, sharing information through pre-recorded videos that employees can access on demand has quickly become a popular technique, notes Ari Bixhorn, vice president of marketing at Panopto, which offers search capabilities for videos.

"Video can be a great tool for conveying all the information employees need and we're seeing clients use it for all kinds of purposes," Bixhorn says. "They're using video for explaining company processes, creating screen recordings on how to use a CRM system, or filming executives welcoming new hires."

Videos provide a more personalized experience compared to audio or print materials, argues Bixhorn, and Panopto's search capability lets users fast forward to the exact part of a video based on a keyword search.

"People can quickly find the information they need [through search] and they can also do live broadcasts through video. It can also complement web portals and mobile devices," Bixhorn adds. "Mobile video [usage] is huge."

An ideal onboarding initiative includes both live and pre-recorded experiences that an employee can review at his or her convenience, noted Talya Bauer, professor of management at the School of Business Administration at Portland State University.

"If the in-person onboarding is not well thought out or conducted, a great online process could be better. Ideally the in-person onboarding experience would be supported with online support materials," Bauer suggests.

At the same time, incorporating multiple channels into an onboarding program may not make sense for every company. The digital agency Primacy has offices in Connecticut, New York, and Boston with about 90 employees. Even though the agency develops campaigns for clients through various channels such as mobile apps, the Web, and social media, it onboards nearly all its employees through face-to-face interactions, explains President Stan Valencis.

"We looked at a couple tools to manage the onboarding process, but in our case, the in-person approach was the most effective way to do it," Valencis says. "We're not onboarding 20 people at a time and so the face-to-face personal way is still the most effective way to bring people up to speed."

Employers should also not get caught up in using the latest tools just for the sake of having them, Marymount University's Yusko adds. "Helping people form good relationships is the key," he says. "Not whether it's through video or if you're standing next to the person."