On his first day of work at a global corporation in the early 2000s, Gerrit Brouwer arrived to discover that his entire team was away at a Christmas party. Then he learned that his job description had changed.
Frustrated by this and other bad onboarding experiences, Brouwer in 2011 co-founded Appical, a Dutch tech startup that's now among a growing number of firms that offer apps to help employers welcome, support, train and hold onto their new hires.
To address turnover, weak productivity and other costly challenges, many employers now treat onboarding as an important strategic function—not just a day for filling out forms and sitting through orientation.
New onboarding apps have a range of functions from paperwork completion to team introductions that, in many cases, integrate with other HR software. And HR and managers don't have to wait until the first day of work to start welcoming new employees.
"With the rise of mobile technology, companies can engage with new hires before day one," Brouwer said. Appical, which has raised $15 million in venture funding, focuses on the employee experience, he said. "They are energetic and eager to start in a new role, and we really want to maintain that energy level."
Some onboarding technology focuses heavily on handling tax and benefits forms and providing new hires with important instructions before their first day. Other programs introduce new hires to their future teammates and to the organization's culture, clarify their responsibilities, schedule their first-day agenda and set first-year goals.
"In an ideal scenario, onboarding apps are an extension of the investments made in sourcing and recruiting. Companies that are promoting their employer brand and candidate experience want to continue a positive experience as the job candidate segues to employee," said HR tech expert Jeanne Achille, who chairs Women in HR Tech at the annual HR Technology Conference.
"Furthermore, they want to engage the new hire from 'day zero' by reinforcing their decision to take the job, making them feel included by their manager and team, and fostering productivity. This type of onboarding app goes well beyond paperwork and the assignment of a new laptop, desk or smartphone before the new hire shows up onsite," Achille said. "It might include learning content, videos of their manager and colleagues, and other … engagement tools."
Many employers, however, use onboarding apps that do little more than process paperwork so the employee can be placed on the payroll by day one.
"The paperwork benefits are indisputable. Having completed forms prior to day one means the new hire can be set up on payroll, benefits, 401(k), learning management systems, time and attendance, and other systems in advance," Achille said. It can also serve as a checkpoint to vet any regulatory compliance issues in terms of the employee's eligibility.
Talmundo, another Dutch startup, says its onboarding app helps employers "build an inspiring journey" for workers, with software that combines HR best practices and company culture to quickly integrate employees.
The app engages with new hires as soon as they accept the job, allows colleagues to share their experiences, details onboarding procedures, connects them with their teammates, helps them fill out paperwork in advance and provides details on what to do on their first day.
Utah-based HR software firm BambooHR's employee self-onboarding software also enables new hires to manage paperwork, meet new colleagues via e-mail and an organizational chart, and receive instructions before their first day.
A San Francisco-based onboarding and offboarding startup formed by Zenefits founder Parker Conrad, Rippling, which reportedly raised $7 million in venture funding last year, says its product "automatically does the 100 little things that IT, HR, and employees have to do when joining, working at, or leaving a company."
That includes shipping a pre-configured computer to the employee, setting up e-mail, Slack and Dropbox accounts (with a single sign-on), configuring keycard access and registering employees in HR systems.
Minneapolis-based Click Boarding notes that its app works as a stand-alone product or can integrate with various applicant tracking, payroll, HR information and learning management systems.
"When the onboarding app has expanded functionality, such as including videos and learning content, it serves to welcome the new hire, alert them as to unique benefits and opportunities with their new employer, and raise the probability of retention," Achille said.
Most executives questioned for a Korn Ferry Futurestep poll last year considered retention of new hires an issue at their companies, and nearly 20 percent said new employees leave because they dislike the company's culture.
Companies with standardized onboarding processes see significantly greater new-hire productivity and retention, and employees in organizations with the longest onboarding programs achieve full proficiency months faster than those in the shortest programs, relocation software startup UrbanBound notes on its blog.
"The good thing about technology is that we can measure what is going on," Brouwer said. New hires at Appical's more than 250 enterprise customers spend, on average, 9.25 hours on pre-boarding activity before they're on the payroll, he said.
Appical clients have reduced new hires' time-to-productivity by 45 percent, from about three months to slightly more than one month. And, Brouwer said, one large client cut HR's administrative workload by more than 55 percent by delegating the administrative burden to new hires in advance.
Among its features, Appical, which has opened an office in Brooklyn and counts Pepsico and Heineken among its clients, offers 360-degree office tours, company-jargon dictionaries and interactive game content.
Engaging new hires is important given the Millennial generation's emphasis on having a good cultural fit at work, noted Brouwer. Appical aims to help new hires align with colleagues from the outset, he said, and avoid ending up with "false promises and wrong expectations."
Dinah Wisenberg Brin is a freelance writer covering workplace issues, entrepreneurs, healthcare, personal finance and logistics from Philadelphia, Pa.
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