How to Optimize Onboarding

The right tools can make new hires more productive more quickly and save time for HR.

By Dave Zielinski June 6, 2019
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​Good onboarding practices can reduce turnover and greatly improve new hires’ time to proficiency. But next-generation onboarding technologies can also eliminate much of the manual work, reduce the chance of problems or delays, and leave more time for HR and line managers to train and socialize new employees.

Using customized portals, today’s platforms allow new workers to complete essential digital forms, learn about teammates and begin developing short-term goals even before their first day on the job. Many also feature artificial intelligence (AI)-driven virtual agents to answer commonly asked questions. These portals can customize workflows to match an organization’s orientation needs and send automated reminders to ensure that all onboarding tasks are completed on time.

The stakes are high for choosing the right onboarding system, since nearly one-third of new hires grow dissatisfied and look for a new job within their first six months of employment, and those who stay take an average of eight months to reach acceptable levels of productivity, according to new research from Gartner. A recent Gallup study found that only 12 percent of employees strongly agree that their organization does a great job of onboarding new hires.

Choosing a Vendor

There are a number of stand-alone, or “point,” onboarding systems, and many others are part of all-inclusive HR software suites. Point systems typically provide the most modern features and functionality, since the vendor is focused only on developing and refining one technology. Stand-alone platforms also can provide more customization options.

Systems that are part of all-in-one HR suites have the advantage of integrating easily with other platforms in the vendor’s suite, such as recruiting, learning or core HR systems. This option is appealing to some HR leaders because it means they won’t have to shop for an additional system or ask users to learn a different technology interface.


Making Onboarding More Effective
  • Define your objectives. Determine the structure and content of your onboarding program. Give careful thought to what new hires need to know about the organization and their roles.
  • Identify key players. Onboarding is more than an HR initiative. People throughout the organization need to take ownership of their part in the process by contributing content, serving as mentors and building connections with new hires. 
  • Stay engaged. Onboarding can last from a few weeks to more than a year. Develop timetables to ensure that new hires stay on track, and suggest resources to help them develop throughout their employment journey.
  • Keep tweaking. Gather feedback from new hires about how the onboarding process worked for them and how it can be improved.

Aligning Automation

The many transactional components of onboarding are a good fit for automation and AI, says Jeremy Ames, founder and CEO of Hive Tech HR, a human resources technology consultancy in Medway, Mass. “The onboarding systems that have baked AI into their platforms are trying to save HR and line managers time by moving routine but essential tasks over to self-service tools that can walk new employees through procedures,” he says.

“These systems are smart enough to know who you are, the key requirements of the job you’re starting, the language you speak, potential mentors in your location and more,” says Marc Solow, leader of the HR shared services practice at Deloitte Consulting in Atlanta. “They’re built to handle a high volume of questions that are asked repeatedly, such as where to park, how to set up direct payroll deposit, how to fill out certain forms and more. The best systems efficiently hand you off to a human if there’s a need to answer more- complex questions.”

Those automation features can give busy line managers more time to welcome new hires, says Jen Stroud, HR transformation leader at Service Now, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based company that provides an onboarding platform. “If you can use automation to take care of much of the administrative work, it frees you to focus on creating people connections and relationships that strengthen the bonds for new hires and improve retention,” she says.

One common challenge of onboarding is that it requires the support of departments beyond HR, such as information technology (IT), legal, facilities and finance, and interaction among those groups has traditionally relied on manual processes. Many of today’s onboarding platforms can bring new efficiency and visibility to those processes by using the automated features of centralized service delivery platforms.

For example, a hiring manager or new hire could access the platform to select the computer equipment needed, kicking off a workflow that tracks how IT is meeting the need. Managers might also select an office space using an interactive floor map, triggering facilities to jump into action. The use of automated reminders helps all parties meet deadlines and creates added accountability.

These platforms give line managers much-needed support, says Sari Wilde, managing vice president in the HR practice at Gartner, who notes that managers spend more than twice as much time as HR on onboarding employees, according to the Gartner study.

Engage Early and Often

For successful onboarding, employers should create uninterrupted communication with new hires in the period between when they accept an offer and their first day on the job, experts say. Solow knows of one high-tech company that lost top talent in part because it failed to maintain communication and support in that crucial time.

“The company didn’t have a well-defined mechanism to communicate and interact with new hires in that period,” Solow says. “As a result, they lost top people to nearby competitors who would swoop in and court these candidates, making them think twice about the offer they’d just accepted.”

Wilde reminds HR professionals not to overlook the importance of onboarding existing employees who are transferred or promoted into new roles in the company. How quickly they get up to speed—and how long they stay in their new role—depends in large part on how they’re oriented to their job, she says.

“We haven’t seen this process owned as much by HR, and it’s often not formalized,” Wilde says. “Having HR play a bigger role is important, even if it’s just in providing onboarding templates and guidelines for line leaders to use.”

One notable trend Wilde is seeing is a rise in “employee-owned” onboarding strategies. In these approaches, employees who’ve recently joined the company play a significant role in onboarding new hires.

“Organizations are realizing these individuals have the greatest understanding of what new hires need, since they’ve recently gone through the process themselves,” Wilde says. “New hires also can feel more comfortable talking to and learning from someone like themselves.”  

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.

Illustration by Dan Baxter.

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