Onboarding: Let it breathe

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This isn’t the sexiest headline I’ve ever put together, but I think the argument is pretty sound.

First I want you to think of onboarding, which I write about way more than I even realized. Onboarding should mean the first couple of months on a new job, but usually it means the first day or two. And you know what happens in those days? A whirlwind of stuff: meetings, new passwords, new equipment, more meetings, signing things, etc. It’s very jammed up.

Now I want you to think of off-sites or all-hands meetings. These are a little different because usually you’re flying people in from different areas (sales guys, etc.) and it’s one of the only times you can have the whole team together, so you need to compress a lot into a small amount of space. I get it logistically.

But here’s the problem with all this: the human brain really can’t go for 10–12 hours/day between different meetings and presentations. In fact, the optimal ratio for humans working is 52 minutes on, 17 minutes off. That’s been proven by actual science.

A few years ago, I went to a 3–4 day off-site deal with a big health care company. You know the drill at these things. The whole day is planned. You stay in a room with candy/water/whatever and people come in and talk to you about their functional area. At some points, you fall behind and then lunch becomes “a working lunch.” Every night there’s a happy hour type deal. By Day 4, you’re utterly exhausted. You have no idea what was discussed on Day 1 and 2.

This doesn’t seem wise, but it’s often normative in terms of how we bring together our full team and supposedly get them on the same page.

There needs to be a better way somewhere, right?

Space out onboarding

I’d like to assume someone isn’t going to quit a job (or be fired) by Day 10, so what if we thought of onboarding more as a two-week process logistically? It could look like this:

  • Day 1: HR paperwork (if that’s not “pre-boarded”) and direct manager
  • Day 2: Processes with members of main team
  • Day 3: Someone from sales
  • Day 4: Someone from marketing
  • Day 5: Someone from Ops

Week 1 now over.

  • Day 6: Someone from HR
  • Day 7: Lunch with a VP/exec
  • Day 8: Team-building activity with main team
  • Day 9: Someone from account management, etc.
  • Day 10: Meet with manager to go over learnings from first two weeks

See how this approach would make it more likely that someone would actually retain info about sales, ops, or HR? Seems that might help break down some silos.

This is my pet peeve with onboarding: obviously everyone is entering a specific job, and that’s going to be their main concern. They want to be seen as good at that role and understand what ties to that role. I get it. Perfectly logical. So if they have nothing to do with Ops but you shove Ops into the 2:30pm-3:00pm slot on Day 1, they’re tuned out. But if you give Ops 30 minutes on Day 5 and that’s it, maybe they’re listening a bit more. Now they understand Ops better, so when a project comes up where they need to work with Ops, it gets off on the right foot. Seems logical to me. Maybe I’m naive though.

Point is: don’t jam everything into Day 1–2 and then assume “OK, they’re gonna go work on projects now.” Space it out. Give it room to breathe.

Off-sites need to be driven by priority

Priority identification and management is notoriously pretty bad inside organizations, largely because work isn’t actually about priorities and productivity. It’s about self-worth and relevance. I digress.

The reason off-sites get so jammed is because the prevailing mentality is this:

“My stuff is so important, and if this is when everyone is in town, I need to get my stuff in front of them!”

Now everyone has their 30-minute to 1-hour slot and you’re drinking from the fire hose. The actual efficiency of that is a null set.

Here’s what to do instead:

  • Determine the key priorities for the large group
  • Usually this will be around sales and maybe culture/recap/look ahead
  • Design 1 day on culture and recap/look ahead
  • Design 1 day on sales/financials/revenue projections (this stuff is what matters, even if we don’t touch it)
  • The rest of the time should be small group or teams working together
  • 1 dinner
  • 1–2 happy hours
  • That’s your week

Again, space it out. Let it breathe. And make sure it’s driven by priority, not everyone needing their piece.

Is this possible?

Sure. I think so. I bet some companies even do it well already.

In many cases, no. Human psychology and the need to have your stuff elevated when the most people can see it? That will always play in here.

But you need to remember how humans learn and process information. No one learns well by sitting in the same room for hours getting talked at. There needs to be breaks and community and discussions and manageable chunks of information.

Let it breathe.

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/hire-freelance-writer-ted-bauer/

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