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Creating a World-Class Onboarding Experience

Posted by Josh Cardoz on Thu, Dec 15, 2016

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As we celebrate this year’s Brandon Hall award for onboarding for our work with Continental, it’s been nice to reflect back on what made it so successful. 

A compelling narrator? An iconic learning brand? Fast pace? Humor? Striking visuals?

Maybe a little bit of all those things. I was lucky enough to be part of the design team that came up with the concept for this onboarding program - a digital learning initiative used to reduce classroom training whilst simultaneously getting new hires on board rapidly with the most critical information. Working with countless SMEs round the clock, trying to distill the entire wealth of knowledge within the organization in a few simple messages - this was a significant challenge where we learned a lot about what it means to truly onboard a new employee. 

Onboarding - Narrator - Continental.png That's Peter - the narrator of the experience. He is now the face of Continental's learning brand - a testament to how far the impact of this experience has reached across the organization. 

Today, after developing countless more onboarding programs for a wide variety of organizations across industries, some onboarding challenges remain the same. And as with all things SwissVBS, we approach each of those challenges with an equally creative and critical mind, focusing on the user and their eventual performance environment. 

So here are my best practices for how to approach your onboarding training: 

Be mindful of the entire new-hire experience

Whether it be an eLearning module or an in-person workshop, consider how it fits (or how they all fit) within the entire new-hire experience. This is a deeply empathetic process. When will they take the training? What format? How will they be feeling? What will they be thinking? Who will be their support system? How much? How little?

In an onboarding design, these are the questions that keep me up at night. 

Every moment of a new hire’s first few weeks needs to be thought through. For organizations that suffer with high attrition rates, this is even more important.

Put yourself in their shoes and see if the "flow" of the onboarding experience makes sense. Think holistically here and then drill down to where you can yield the most value out of each moment in those initial weeks.  

Speak to your learners, not at them

Onboarding is arguably the most emotional learning experience in L&D. By that I mean, learners are in a vulnerable state. You are welcoming someone to a brand new community. It's the first day of school. Think of all the anxiety that comes with that. What does that mean? It means your tone (as an organization) is everything. Think more like Hagrid, and less like Professor Snape

(SPOILER alert: Snape is actually a good guy in the end.) 

(Ahhh, that's a pretty big spoiler if you still haven't watched Harry Potter.)


The point is: Let some personality come through. Be human. This is not about showing how little the new employee knows and how much there is to know. It's about, first and foremost, welcoming them to your community.

We recently created an onboarding program for a Fortune 500 company in the home goods industry. The opening scene of the experience was quite powerful. We wanted to capture the feeling of being new and walking through the doors of a large organization for the first time. The result was a cold opening - no narration, no dialogue - for the first minute, and all you could do was take in the sights and the sounds: Busy crowds zipping by, elevators dinging constantly, everything looking a little foreign. We wanted to capture that all-too-familar feeling of nervous excitment that comes with being new. 

Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 4.18.45 PM.png

At the end of that cold opening, you walk up to the security desk and the security guard hands you an envelope with instructions on what will become your (fun!) mission for the remainder of the experience. Think of how quickly this level-sets expectations for the learner at this moment. 

Onboarding is the embodiment of your learning culture

Whether you like it or not, your onboarding experience sets the tone for your entire learning culture. This is why our most creative solutions at SwissVBS are often oriented around onboarding, because we know how critical these initial steps are with the learner. 

When you show your new hires their onboarding training for the first time, you are essentially saying, “See, this is how we do learning over here.” Now, think about your own organization and what that means for the sake of your learning culture. When you closely examine your onboarding training, think carefully about how you want to proceed. Get to the essence of your onboarding experience and remember that you are doing more here than imparting facts and figures. You are creating your next generation of ambassadors for the learning culture you want to create. 

...but don’t stress about it!

The great thing about onboarding training is that it is just step one. From a sarcastic learning designer's perspective, you're never going to have higher motivation. New employees are the best employees when it comes to learning. They are eager and ready to impress. So if you leave something out of your initial onboarding experience, don't worry. There will always be an opportunity for more.

If anything, use your onboarding training to actually learn from your new hires what they need to succeed and build out from there. Don't overthink the training, but rather start fostering the appropriate culture where learning (whether onboarding or not) is continuous rather than isolated. 

Got an onboarding need? Let’s talk about it. We'd be happy to share more of what it takes to create world-class, award-winning onboarding training.

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Topics: Awards, Onboarding

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