Optimize employee onboarding to better retain top talent

I once showed up for my first day at a new job only to find that my desk hadn’t been cleaned out — or even dusted. I spent my first hours at work finding the kitchen, unearthing cleaning supplies, wiping down my desk and sorting through (aka throwing out) someone else’s files.

How do you think I felt about my decision to take that job? What if I told you this has happened to me at every single tech job I’ve ever taken, at big and small companies? And, incredibly, it keeps happening to new hires at tech startups every day.

Gallup found that only 12% of U.S. employers do a great job of employee onboarding — the rest are lackluster or downright bad.

A good employee onboarding program can improve employee retention by as much as 25% and make new hires 69% more likely to stick with an employer for three years. In an incredibly tight market for hiring tech talent, retention matters a lot. But onboarding is unfortunately an after-thought for busy tech companies today, which are scaling so rapidly, they often think the recruiting process ends once a sought-after hire accepts the offer.

Big tech companies like Google and Facebook can spend lavishly on employee onboarding (in addition to offering sky-high salaries, of course). But any company, big or small, can create a five-star onboarding experience without breaking the bank. Below are some suggestions that can help your company get new employees engaged from their first day — and, most importantly, help them stick around for your startup’s journey.

1. Start the onboarding process before your new hire shows up

Onboarding should start as soon as your new hire accepts the offer. Send a welcome email introducing your new hire to the organization and schedule a welcome call about a week before their start date to go over any questions. If you share advance material, don’t send anything that feels like homework or a slog — there’s plenty of time for that later. Whatever you do share, make sure it fills your new hire with excitement about what they can accomplish.

If your new hire is an executive who is relocating, crowdsource advice from your team for their home/apartment search, connect them with a real estate agent who can show them around and share tips on restaurants and activities to try after they arrive. If they’re bringing their family, the whole process will be substantially more stressful for them. Connect them with other parents on staff who can talk about school districts, daycare and private school options, and answer any other questions that come up. This can be a great opportunity to connect your new hire with a colleague they have something in common with — and might not otherwise interact with right away.

Starting a new job is nerve-wracking. In preparing for the first day, make sure you give the new hire clear instructions about where to go, to whom to report, even where it’s best to park. If possible, take care of the paperwork on benefits and other logistics before the official first day, so they can spend Day One meeting colleagues and getting oriented to the work and team.

Ideally this work should be handled by one person, your head of HR. Don’t have one yet? Wrong answer — every company that’s hiring should have a designated point-person for all things HR. It’s infinitely easier on new hires if they can submit their paperwork, and get questions answered, by a single person within the company.

2. Make the basics seamless

This should go without saying, but in my experience, it doesn’t. Make sure you’ve got a clean workspace, email, business cards, laptop and whatever else your new hire will need before they walk in for their first day. Preparing the new hire’s desk is the company’s responsibility, not the employee’s. Just because you’re a scrappy, nimble startup doesn’t mean an employee’s first days at the company should be disorganized. Basic HR issues should be taken care of behind the scenes so this person can focus on contributing to the company. Remember, recruiters will keep calling your new hire during their “honeymoon period.” When people ask your employee how their new job is going, don’t give them a reason to say: “I think I made a big mistake — my first day or first week was so bad.”

Add your new hire to recurring meetings for the teams and projects they’ll be working on. Put them on any email lists they’ll need to get up to date. Set up some introductory meetings with key colleagues, and pre-schedule a couple months’ worth of one-on-one check-ins with their supervisor. Make sure you know what your new hire’s first project will be, and make sure they know how success will be measured.

Start the first day with a tour of the office — don’t leave them wondering where to find the coffee. Add a virtual tour of where to find information and best practices for contacting colleagues. Are you a Slack-based company? Can people just schedule time on a colleague’s calendar, or does office etiquette require an emailed request? Consider creating “user manuals” for your teams, to clearly explain how people prefer to communicate. Or go one step further and clue them into all the company’s running or inside jokes. Don’t make your new hires guess or have to ask people how things get done — show them.

3. Make the process social

Before your new hire shows up, encourage people involved in the interview process to reach out with a quick note of congratulations. Share the news with the teams the new hire will be working with and encourage them to welcome their new colleague. Get the new hire some company swag (sweatshirts, backpacks) before they start so they feel like they’re part of a team when they join — bonus points if you include swag or small gifts for their kids or dogs, or something specially tailored to their hobbies and interests. People love free stuff, and they’ll be most excited to wear your logo when they start.

On the employee’s first day, set up a team lunch or coffee break so your new team member can meet everybody. No one likes being left to their own devices the first day to find the company kitchen or look for a place to grab a sandwich near the office. Book time with senior leaders, too — lunch or coffee or a quick meet-and-greet with a supervisor, the hiring manager or the CEO. Connect your new hire with a “buddy” or mentor who can answer questions and show them the ropes, either initially or through their entire tenure at the company.

4. Get creative

Once you cover the basics, push yourself to add something to the onboarding experience that provides even more of a human touch. Your goal is not just to show your new hire their desk and put them to work — you want to show them what’s great about your company culture.

Set up a plate of cookies, bagels or other snacks at their desk on their first day to encourage colleagues to stop and chat. Try creating a bingo card to help your new hire learn about their teammates over their first few weeks. Check out the custom welcome gifs the team at Lever, a recruiting-software company, creates to welcome new hires and new clients. Ask: How can I build excitement on both sides, so my new hire feels genuinely welcomed and thrilled to start work?

Survey after survey has found that employee engagement is crucial to talent retention. An employee’s first day sets the tone for their entire experience with your company. A seamless and welcoming onboarding experience can go a long way toward getting new employees excited about being part of your team, and then building loyalty for years to come.