Better Onboarding, Better Retention, Happier Humans

Making new hires feel welcome and empowered to do their jobs with solid new-hire processes

(Alexander Milo)

We want to start off with two scenarios.

Scenario One

You just got a new job in journalism. Hooray! You are so excited and pumped. During your first week, you meet with HR and IT, and start to acclimate to your new team. But a few weeks in, you still don’t know who to go to for questions, feel isolated, and are struggling to make sense of the employee handbook, which is on the intranet and doesn’t appear to have been updated in months. “I don’t know if I made the right decision,” you tell your mentor. “And I’m feeling a lot of regrets.”

Scenario Two

You just got a new job in journalism. Hooray! You are so excited and pumped. Before your first day, you receive a note from a new colleague. “I’ve been assigned to you as a mentor,” says the note. “Your first few weeks may feel a bit overwhelming—there’s a lot to learn. But don’t worry, we try to ensure that you get the information you need when you need it, and I’m here if you have any questions.” During your first week, you meet with HR and IT, and start to acclimate to your new team. Throughout the first week, you receive two to three daily messages from an onboarding Slack bot, which drips out information at a steady-but-not-overwhelming pace. A week after your intro meetings, HR and IT send you a follow up note, explaining exactly where to find the information that they mentioned in your handbook. A few weeks in, you’re not feeling 100% competent—who is, that early?—but you know who to go to for questions. And you’re starting to meet people across departments through the new employees group, which pairs new hires who have joined in the last quarter. “This is a tough job,” you tell your mentor. “But they’re teaching me everything I need to know at a good pace.”

Which scenario would you want at your next job? For mostly everyone, it’s the second scenario, but many of the journalists who participated in our onboarding workshop at SRCCON:WORK shared stories that fit into the first scenario. As we went around the room, journalists used words like “overwhelmed,” “information-overload,” and “thoughtless.” Are those the words you want new members of your team to associate with your workplace? Probably not.

Onboarding is really important for new employees—many make the decision to stay or leave during the first six months of employment, according to Project Include–but it’s also incredibly important for employers. Research from the Aberdeen Group indicates that “companies with a standard onboarding process had 54 percent greater new hire productivity and 50 percent higher new hire retention rates.” Slow or ineffective onboarding leaves a lot of money on the table, and may make it more difficult to recruit future employees.

In this post, we share some questions that your organization or team will want to answer as you think through the experiences that you’d like new hires to have. And we’ll share a short case study from 18F, where Mel co-led the process to envision onboarding (and cut down on the time it took to onboard new employees by a significant amount.)

Let’s get started.

Questions You’ll Want to Answer

A number of journalists in our session remarked that the interns in their workplace seemed to have the best onboarding experiences in their news organization, because they felt like part of a cohort, had designated mentors, and were introduced to teams around the organization.

How can we optimize that experience, and translate it to a process that can scale from temporary and entry-level employees all the way through to C-level hires?

We recommend first performing an audit of your organization and team’s current approach to onboarding, starting with the following questions:

  • Can you explain your organization or team’s approach to onboarding in one sentence?

  • Who is responsible for onboarding a new member of your organization? Team? Person in your location?

  • How do you coordinate across departments?

    • Is a single department responsible for scheduling onboarding?

    • What documentation do new hires need? Where does it live?

    • Do new hires know who to contact if they have a problem?

And then interviewing at least seven people on teams that new hires will learn about during their first few weeks and asking them the following questions:

  • What’s something you learned about working here that you wish you knew earlier?

  • How frequently do you check in with new hires? Is that process formalized? Does the process differ depending on their role or seniority status?

  • What do you wish all employees at [your organization / team] knew after a month?

  • Can you walk me through the process for a new hire during their [time frame?]

  • What do you think would have helped you in your first [time frame]?

This process will allow your team and/or organization to think more about:

  • What onboarding tasks needs to be systemized.

  • What needs to be told to a person, versus what information needs to be findable (and new hires told where to find it?)

  • Who the audience is for this information? What does someone coming in at a C-level role vs. entry level employee need to know? What new information does someone need as they level up within an org., or take on management duties?

  • How to onboard people doing remote work.

  • How to systematize expectations.

Another helpful exercise is to gather your colleagues in a room and brainstorm everything new hires need to know about the organization, team they’re joining, role, and location. For each layer, then answer the following:

  • What do new hires need to know?

  • When do they need to know it?

  • Who owns this information?

  • Where does this information live?

  • How will this information be conveyed?

We also recommend thinking about specific actions, emotions, and knowledge that you’d like new hires to do, feel, and learn at each stage of the hiring process. How do you want them to feel, what would you like them to do, and what would you like them to learn when they:

  • Sign the contract?

  • Two weeks before starting?

  • One week before starting?

  • One day before starting?

  • One hour after starting?

  • At the end of their first day? Week? Month? Quarter?

Gathering this information and talking explicitly about how to improve previous hires experiences will help you iterate on your current processes and improve the experience for future hires.

How We Transformed Onboarding at 18F

At 18F, I worked with design researcher Andrew Maier to rethink onboarding for the organization. We approached onboarding as a design question: How do people learn and process information?

This is different for every person—some people learn best through written material, other people through face-to-face communication, and some people, we discovered, learned when presented with information over time in different ways. Instead of picking one way to orient new hires, we designed several elements for onboarding that overlapped with each other.

New hires received new information from a Slackbot that dripped out new information over time, at exactly the points where they needed to learn something. (The code is here and in the public domain.) This material was reiterated in a handbook and Slack-based classes, which introduced hires to different departments and roles, as well as through a checklist that let new hires know what they were expected to do at every stage of the process. We also created a way for people to tag information for new hires in Slack with an emoji so it automatically made its way to the backlog for the employee handbook. And we implemented a virtual coffee matchmaking Slackbot so that people could easily meet their colleagues across time zones. New cohorts of employees were placed in their own Slack room with a mentor, so that they could ask questions, feel connected to each other, and know people across teams. After a few weeks, we then asked these new employees to reflect on what they wish they had known, so that the process could be iterated upon and improved.

In other words, we didn’t treat onboarding as a static process, to be created once. We iterated each time we had new employees.

This was incredibly successful: we measured it both anecdotally (satisfaction from employees going through the new process vs. previous cohorts) as well as through feedback from managers about how long it took new employees to take on actual work. And it empowered new employees and made it easier for them to start working.

Onboarding is different at every organization, but a lot of the elements that make a good onboarding experience are the same: ensuring that new employees have support, information, and clear expectations on what they need to do, so that they can perform their best work.


  • Melody Kramer

    Melody Kramer is the co-founder of Hedgehog and Fox and leads audience growth and development for the Wikimedia Foundation. She writes a weekly column for the Poynter Institute, is a visiting fellow at UNC’s Reese News Lab, and is working with the Center for Collaborative Media to document every collaborative journalism project in the world. She’s reachable @mkramer and melodykramer@gmail.com. (Photo credit: Neil Kramer)

  • Kate Travis

    Kate Travis is the digital director for Science News, overseeing the magazine’s website, video, social media and digital products. Previously she was an editor at Science Careers and the news editor for the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. She has written for the Scientist, CR Magazine and Health. Find her at @kate_travis and ktravis@nasw.org.


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