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Onboarding introduces people to their new workplace. But place has become more diffuse in the hybrid work world. Onboarding also involves meeting new colleagues, learning policies and practices, and becoming immersed in the organizational culture. All of that must be rethought in the transformed white-collar workplace.

Onboarding has never been a strength for most organizations. Managers too often forget about their new hires after celebrating their agreement to come on board.

A good place to start in re-evaluating your process is with the individual, as we are increasingly reminded of the importance of flexibility and autonomy. Customizing onboarding around individual preferences and learning styles makes sense. Some people, for example, love meeting new people; others need a buddy to introduce them around. Some people will want to pack a lot in initially, others will prefer a staged approach. Videos can be helpful here, allowing them to watch according to their own learning pace.

“Organizations often focus too much on sharing content and don’t spend enough time ensuring that employees are actually absorbing that content,” notes Chris Williams, a consultant with Root Inc. He recommends designing the onboarding experience from the new employee backward, keeping in mind there are five generations in the workplace, many of them glued for much of their day to their cellphones, making it hard to grab their attention.

To get on the right track, interview recent onboarding graduates and find out how effective the current process was for them and how to change it. Ask them not just about the content, but the way the content was delivered.

Mr. Williams stresses the importance of pacing and sequencing onboarding over time, rather than making new hires drink through the proverbial fire hose. “Onboarding is not a race,” he writes on the company website.

Give them easily digestible amounts of information using multiple mediums and platforms. But don’t be too loosey-goosey; make sure it happens. In Harvard Business Review, digital experience experts Sinazo Sibisi and Gys Kappers urge you to monitor whether new hires have actually read critical company information and passed the e-learning modules.

Mr. Williams highlights the importance of helping new recruits understand the big picture for the organization and their role in fulfilling strategy. But avoid lectures and PowerPoint presentations. “Work on your skills in storytelling and simplifying the complex to engage new hires in your organization’s goals,” he says.

To be successful, each new hire has to create an internal network of colleagues they will work with closely. Interestingly, only 20 per cent of companies are helping new hires establish an internal network as an objective of their onboarding efforts, according to research by The Institute for Corporate Productivity. “It’s the quality and effectiveness of their internal relationships that often separates productive employees from the unproductive,” the Institute’s CEO, Kevin Oakes, writes in Culture Renovation.

But you need to do this right. And again that means going slowly and softly. He says being sought out by others is the magic elixir. Rather than promoting the new hire’s expertise and pushing it out to others in the organization, the most successful newcomers started by finding opportunities to help others in ways that established the new person’s reputation and legitimacy as a useful resource.

Coach new hires on this approach. Many will want to reach out boldly to others and try to demonstrate their expertise and worth. That creates mistrust, particularly if they are relying heavily on experience in another organization. It’s better if they meet new colleagues in introductory sessions in which possibilities for sharing expertise can arise. They have to learn to be sensitive to how their new colleagues might react if they seem heavy-handed in their efforts to assist.

As well, you need to help them identify and engage colleagues who are well-connected within the organization. “While the absolute size of someone’s network is not a great predictor of success, who the person is connected with is,” he says. They need connectors who can give them indirect access to information and expertise across the organization. In some ways that also helps their credibility because they are effectively borrowing the credibility of the more established members of the organization.

He also urges you not to limit onboarding to new employees. Pay attention to transfers, expatriates returning after serving the organization in other countries and former employees returning to the company.

The goal in onboarding is usually to get it done quickly – to have the new individual comfortable and productive. But perhaps your organization needs to aim higher. At Toyota, the goal is to inspire the new hire from their first day on the job, Mr. Oakes notes. The company has made inspiration a key performance indicator for onboarding by asking the recruits questions like: “Do you feel inspired?” and “Did you feel while coming on board a confirmation of your decision to join Toyota?”

Do you dare to make that a goal as you reconsider your own onboarding program for the hybrid world?


  • “What makes you grumpy?” seems a scary question to ask a subordinate. But it does hit at an important point so management coach Lara Hogan recommends asking in a one-to-one session, along with these follow-ups: “How will I know when you’re grumpy?” and “How can I help you when you’re grumpy?”
  • To combat marginalization, author Alan Henry suggests a rotation approach for meetings to promote inclusion: Everyone should have a turn to book meeting rooms. Everyone should rotate ordering lunch. Everyone should have a time taking notes.
  • Embrace the naysayers, advises communications specialist Josh Ritter. They are usually naysayers because they already have a vision and don’t need yours. You can’t expect them to automatically jettison their ideas for yours. It’s your responsibility to reach out and persuade them to come on board with the new vision; if converted, they may surprise you in how productive and loyal they will be.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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