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  • Deb Urbanik

To build a great Onboarding strategy, think like a caveman

She had done everything right. Janet had built a great new onboarding strategy at her company. There was a now an online portal that eliminated the stacks of paper that formally greeted a new hire on day 1. There was a WOW orientation complete with balloons, food, and fun exercises. There was a virtual tour of the home office including the story of their rich history. The new person's name even flashed across the monitor of the lobby as they walked in the door. She had built a fun and energizing start to a career for her organization, yet eighteen months after rollout, early voluntary turnover had actually increased by .5%. "What have I missed?" she thought as she struggled to think of how she would position this news to her CHRO.

To find her answer Janet needs to travel back hundreds of thousands of years. Although much has evolved in the human experience, the hard wiring of our brains has been slower to adapt. The fundamental need to belong to a community to ensure our safety and security still drives our behaviors and responses. Alex Pentaland of the MIT Human Dynamics Lab says,

"Modern society is an incredibly recent phenomenon.  For hundreds of thousands of years we needed ways to develop cohesion because we depended so much on each other.  We used signals long before we used language and our unconscious brains are incredibly attuned to certain types of behaviors. Whether we are aware of it our not, our brains are constantly scanning for safety and belonging cues."(1)

A new employee is joining a new community which will bring out feelings of excitement but will also trigger our innate need to fit in. This concern is not satisfied with a single event or even a week-long immersion. It is an ongoing stream of belonging cues and connections that confirms in our minds that we are safe here, we belong. Renown business author David Ulrich confirms this in an interview with Rodger Dean Duncan for Forbes Magazine where he outlined the qualities of belonging:

  • Belonging is active, not passive

  • It requires persistent work and does not occur haphazardly

  • It endures over time 

  • It is created through shared values 

  • It fuels well-being

Now let's return to Janet's on boarding strategy and offer her a lens to explore improvements. She might ask herself:

  • Have I created active experiences for my new-hires, or are they passively receiving information?

  • Have I built a framework of connection opportunities and accountability for new talent that is both supported and self-driven?

  • Does my approach endure? Have a built a strategy that will fuel belonging over the entire first year of employment or am I focused on just a WOW beginning?

  • Is my onboarding strategy an introduction to working here or an invitation to thrive here as a part of our culture? How am I helping them experience our shared values through this journey?

  • Am I listening to new-hire feedback and understanding the impact my strategy is having on their wellbeing? Have I built pauses for discussion or experiential surveys into my process?

While onboarding tools today offer a dazzling array of high-tech portals, virtual tours and splashy events, there is a fundamental human need for acceptance that must be fulfilled in order to build enduring human connection at work. To build these solutions well we must continuously reassure our new hire's inner caveman, "you are safe here, you belong".

(1) - Source – Coyle, Daniel. The Culture Code. New York: Bantam Books, 2018. (p11)

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