Onboarding, Lobsters, and Pheromones

How to create the ultimate newcomer experience

We’ve all secretly thought about it: leaving everything and everyone behind to start a new life somewhere else. To reinvent who we are, to reinvent what we do, to reinvent what we need and what we want from this millisecond of a life. Tempting in 2022, isn’t it?

But we also know that if we’ve had these thoughts, it’s because we can afford to have them. We’re in places that feel comfortable—we can flick a match to our environment without much damage to the bottom levels of our livelihoods. But tell that to someone running for their life across the border carrying a five-year-old, speak that truth to the university grad floating across the Mediterranean on a raft without a rudder.

Becoming a newcomer is a romance to some, but a life-breaking circumstance to others.

Luckily, we have humans at the far end who understand the concept of open arms. The vulnerability of welcoming the new, the other, the lost-and-looking with no aspiration other than softening the ferocity of being foreign. We see it in the workplace with carefully-crafted onboarding, we feel it when we look up at the ceiling on our therapist’s couch, and we sense it in our bones when we see the miles of migrants with bags on their backs.

“People make plans, and God laughs.”

A happy human experience seems to be rooted in the desire to seek novelty over and over. There appears to be an intelligence inside us that sets off a series of uncomfortable sensations whenever we feel that the experience around us has expired. We then conveniently call it a crisis, a flash of intuition, or simply the “need for change” or to “try something new.” It’s like we walk around our lives, careers, and relationships in a moon-like state of exploration until the spacesuit we wear no longer lets us function as we wish we could. We feel suffocated and small, and seek to liberate ourselves from the outer shell encasing us—a dying career, a stale relationship, a city that no longer feels like home. Then one day, we finally break through it, only to walk around like newborn lobsters in search of the next carcass for which to harbor our delicate selves.

As newcomers, we are vulnerable.

We know we’re fragile—early Homo sapiens who hunted and gathered knew that too. Leaving the clan was risky, still is. Only our clans today are marketing teams, classmates, and our fine volunteers at the local community center. But thanks to the digitization of our social lives now, we can come together regardless of geography. All we need is the alchemy of modern apps. The thing is, as humans, we’re hardwired for emotional response, not convenient conversations. And we’re beginning to feel empty because we don’t know how to belong nor build deeper connections when the people we collaborate with are contained within a 16:9 light box. Do you know how tall your colleagues are? Are you able to press your nose against your phone to pick up someone’s pheromones?

According to the 2022 State Of Remote Work by social media startup Buffer, loneliness is amongst the top struggles for remote workers. But we didn’t need a cutting edge software company to tell us this, as it seems to be nothing new. Just look at findings from over 10 years ago when organizational psychologist Lynn Holdsworth found that full-time remote work increased loneliness over office work by 67 percentage points. Does this mean the physical workplace is our fountain for new friendships? If so, can we agree that the meeting tools we’ve pinned to our desktops are no consolation for our very human need for physical touch? We seem to wither when we’re isolated from our collaborators. It isn’t good for us, and it isn’t good for business. Which is why the business of onboarding has become so crucial to being successful at work.

Onboarding for belonging

Workers are expensive. And with such low switching costs to changing jobs today (ahem, Great Resignation) the balance of power is shifting more and more toward the workforce. But companies have begun to wake up, including big brands like Airbnb, which recently announced employees can now “live anywhere, work anywhere” without any effect on their compensation or career progression. The result? Since the announcement, the company’s career page has received over 800,000 visits, compared to 80,000 for that usual timeframe. (Their 6,000 employees seem pretty happy too.) It looks like the modern remote worker wants total flexibility—whether home, office, or foreign country. Companies have noticed that. The tricky part surfaces in creating a sense of belonging to the business.

But how do we onboard someone when the cues of culture and space no longer exist? How do we bring a new being into a team without overhyping the place with the canned culture of “we’re like a family” or by just throwing money at their home office setup and hoping for the best? Is there such a thing as a more beautiful onboarding experience? Is there a way to rope in the remote worker so they feel like a genuine part of things—a meaningful contributor in a place they trust they can grow?

According to Gallup’s “Creating an Exceptional Onboarding Journey for New Employees” report, it typically takes new employees 12 months to reach their full performance potential. However, the average onboarding program only lasts 90 days. Harvard Business Review says, “companies that implement a formal onboarding program could see 50% greater employee retention among new recruits and 62% greater productivity within the same group.” So what needs to happen to create a truly exceptional onboarding experience?

Here are some suggestions:

Start before their start date: A first day is no day for admin. Imagine finally moving into a dream home and being held up at the entrance with a stack of forms. Forget about a good first impression.

Let newcomers set their own goals: A good manager hires people better than themselves. People who, once briefed on the goals of the business, will be able to match their competencies and interests to some future objective they’d like to achieve. Empowerment, trust, you know the rest.

Physical artifacts count: A handwritten note in the mail with a thoughtful gift goes farther than a pre-recorded Loom video or a bag full of branded swag. Because don’t expect someone to change their wardrobe when joining your new company, but expect their glee when they receive your personal present.

Schedule face-to-face time, but don’t force it: This is about the person, not the process. The work goals will be evident, the person’s state of mind won’t. By taking the time to build a relationship in the first few months by talking openly, the manager-worker relationship can begin to evolve into something more solid. NB: Let the worker be free to decline the meeting whenever needed.

Give people a place to start: Make a list of documents, people to meet, things to watch, and things to think about for the first few weeks. Spread these events across weeks, give the newcomer a soft frame of things to do to counter the weirdness of being in a new workplace.

Allow people to buy whatever they want for their home office: Being generous with people’s setups says “I care about your surroundings and will give you the best chance to succeed in your new role.”

Force a friendship: When someone joins a remote company, they are still at their kitchen table, couch, or bed. In the beginning the only difference will be a new email address and permissions for a handful of new apps. It gets lonely, and it gets weird pretty quickly. Assign someone in their time zone to take care of them in the first few weeks. Talk often, check in, start to get to know them.

Give your trust away: Trust new starters by default. Implicit trust will free up lots of energy for the business instead of treading in the weeds of micromanagement. Managing someone in a different time zone 8,000 kilometers away is impossible anyway.

Provide access to everyone and everything: The new hire should be able to access any information to learn more about the company—including its past—and have access to everyone, including the CEO, to signal that collaboration is a real thing.

Meet in person often: All the money you’re saving on overhead? Invest it in gatherings every few months so people can form genuine connections and welcome newcomers with a physical presence. That’s most likely where stories and friendships will be made.

Don’t assume anyone knows anything: Be explicit with everything—from people’s roles in the company, to the people in the team, to the spelling-out of acronyms, to the honest reason(s) why the newcomer was hired in the first place.

Open feedback channels: After a month or so, ask the newcomer to write up their impressions, what surprised them, what you can do better in future onboardings. It will set the scene for open feedback in the months to come.

Write an intro about yourself: Write your life story or the story you most associate with. It will give the newcomer a taste of who you are, who the team is, and how they can connect with others. Get them to write their story too.

Keep things open: A newcomer’s onboarding process shouldn’t have an end date. The only criterion for completion is when the person believes they’ve found their place in the team in addition to the liberty to express how they feel, what they think, and the daily quirks that make them who they are.


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