What can small companies do to make the onboarding experience special?

Onboarding experience

Your budgets may pale in comparison to the likes of Google and Meta, but that doesn’t mean you can’t onboard like a giant

Here’s what a handful of today’s tech titans are doing to support their new starters. But, more importantly, here’s how you can make onboarding feel just as special – without breaking the bank. 

Freedom from the first day at Netflix

Netflix is all about giving its customers choice. So it kind of makes sense that the company’s onboarding process is based on its culture of ‘Freedom and Responsibility’. Crucially, what this means is that new employees are free to contribute ideas immediately. In fact, they’re actively encouraged to do so.

Sounds good in principle. But what does that look like on paper? This innovative framework for free ideas is based on the following:

  • Autonomy from day one – Netflix empowers new employees to take ownership of their roles and contribute immediately. Instead of micromanaging employees, managers provide clear expectations and guidance – all whilst giving them the freedom to make decisions and execute their tasks independently
  • Limited formal policies – not only that, this organisation has minimal rules and policies. Instead, new hires are simply expected to act responsibly and make choices that align with the company’s values and objectives
  • Open communication – Netflix also encourages open and direct communication. So from day one, new employees are expected to share their ideas, concerns and feedback openly. The idea is that this fosters a culture of collaboration and continuous improvement
  • Continuous learning – what this means is that new employees are expected to stay up-to-date with industry trends, contribute ideas and seek opportunities for self-development
  • Learning by doing – the onboarding process at Netflix emphasises learning through practical experience. New hires are encouraged to jump into real projects and contribute right away, learning from their experiences and adapting along the way. Mistakes are all part of the journey towards innovation here
  • Trial and error – and on that subject, Netflix’s culture allows new hires to take calculated risks and learn from any slip-ups. This philosophy encourages innovation and creative problem-solving, giving new starters the confidence to think outside of the box – and not fret about making mistakes
  • Transparent Information sharing – Netflix shares a lot of information about its business, strategy and financials with employees – including its newest hires. This transparency helps them understand the bigger picture and make informed decisions
  • Feedback and accountability – there’s also a strong emphasis on giving and receiving feedback. New hires are encouraged to provide constructive feedback and take accountability for their actions. New starters can even make suggestions on company policies during the onboarding process. 

“We share documents internally broadly and systematically, so people can read and often comment on them—including memos on each title’s performance, our strategy decisions and product feature tests. There are some leaks, but the value of highly-informed employees is much greater,” the company says.

But doesn’t this create chaos? Especially when it comes to the endless back and forth of  ‘creativity by committee’ – not to mention confusing version control with internal documents. 🤯

Netflix doesn’t think so.

“Instead, it has created an extremely successful business model over the last 25 years. The lesson is you don’t need policies for everything. You can be groundbreaking without them. Freedom can (and does) lead to chaos when we fail to couple it with a strong sense of responsibility. That is why freedom and responsibility go together.” 

And when 86% of employees reported a positive onboarding experience, and 67% would not leave Netflix if offered a job for more money, the company must be doing something right.

So what can small companies do?

Allow new recruits to feel comfortable in sharing new ideas from the start. There’s plenty of research to suggest that Gen Z is the most agile and creative generation; 56% of Zoomers consider themselves creative compared to 44% of millennials; so create a safe space for their ideas to flourish from the first day and reap the rewards down the line. 

Moving from boot camp to buddies at Buffer

One of Buffer’s core values is to ‘Improve Consistently’ and the team recently demonstrated that they practise what they preach by radically redefining the company’s onboarding process. 

“For many years, we operated with a 45-day ‘bootcamp’ for new hires. New teammates came in as contractors and we didn’t offer our standard benefits, nor include these ‘boot campers’ in our retreats, until after they passed their probationary period,” said Nicole Miller, Director of People at Buffer.

But despite the company’s good intentions, it was clear that this process began to feel “off” for a number of reasons.

“It was stressful for new teammates to feel they were under a microscope, and that wasn’t what we wanted the Buffer journey to feel like. And it also presented our new teammates and our administrative team with additional hurdles and paperwork,” she continues.

Instead, the team at Buffer tried a new approach; one that put the emphasis on peer-to-peer support. It includes the following three team members from day one:

  • Hiring Manager – the new hire’s direct supervisor coordinates all of their 30, 60 and 90-day goals. Importantly they also connect the new starter with their ‘buddies’. 
  • Role Buddy – typically a peer who’s working on the same team, they’ll ‘meet’ with the starter once or twice a week via Zoom and is the go-to person for any task or role-related questions (usually asked via Slack or email).
  • Culture Buddy – usually on a different team, this buddy will chat weekly with the new hire about the company history, culture and norms – generally for the first six weeks (and as needed after).

The good thing is that onboarding at Buffer isn’t set in stone. Instead, it’s an iterative process which is tweaked and refined over time. 

“In our latest evolution, we put a particular emphasis on our Culture Buddies knowing how to give both coaching (advice designed to help teammates grow and advance) and corrective feedback (which points out a needed change to make),” says Miller.

So what can small companies do?

Broaden the support network from day one. Having a peer on the team and from elsewhere in the company means your new starter doesn’t have to worry about “bothering” their manager if they’re too busy to talk. Super important when working remotely to stop new starters from getting into their heads – yeah, we’re looking at you imposter syndrome. 😰

And you know what the best part is? It doesn’t cost a penny.

At Digital Grads, we’ve worked with a number of SMEs that use the buddy system to support new starters; a cost-effective way to settle first-time jobbers into working life. Interested in learning more? We’ve gone into detail about this and other ways organisations are improving the remote onboarding experience here. 

Selling yourself slowly at Salesforce

You can’t create a special onboarding experience in a day. Not according to the world’s leading CRM software company, anyway.

“Successful onboarding is a process that lasts weeks (even months). Otherwise, companies run the risk of losing good talent,” argues Theresa Ludvigson & Patrick Willer at Salesforce.

Instead of allocating a single day for orienteering, Salesforce onboards its new employees for their first 180 days. Not only that, the process begins seven days before their first day on the job. It’s a long-term process that mirrors the way the company markets itself to customers.

Makes sense for an organisation that’s so focused on selling. But how does it actually work for staff? 

  • Drip feed content over time – the company creates a ‘trickle’ campaign over helpful content; a mix of learning (what you need to know to excel in your role) and culture content (how the company values show up in your daily work)
  • Personalise the journey – the first-week journey is followed by several weeks of content that build upon each other. This tailored information is delivered slowly, becoming more detailed over time as and when they’ve found their feet
  • Track and learn – Salesforce uses feedback to pre-empt any future queries. For example, the organisation sends an explanation of the Salesforce payslip one day before new starters receive their first paycheck. This also helps new hires avoid spending their time searching for answers or filing tickets with the support team
  • Engage employees like customers – so, with this thinking, Salesforce has been able to turn what used to be a one-day orientation into a six-month-long journey. This has allowed the company to tailor its onboarding curriculum to different learning styles, future-proofing the program for the next generation of workers

So what can small companies do?

Whilst Salesforce uses its own technology to automate the onboarding journey for new starters, you can still adopt its principles for success – even without the tech. Namely, take a slow and steady approach to the onboarding experience instead of trying to cram everything into a day. Because when the average new hire is expected to complete up to 54 activities during the onboarding process in 2023, why not eek it out a bit?

Research suggests Gen Z isn’t going anywhere if you get things right too; in fact, over half (61%) of Zoomers say they can see themselves staying loyal to one place of employment for ten years or longer. And that’s because this generation has the appetite to learn, connecting on-the-job training to career progress. So drip-feed training over time and make sure it’s an interactive experience for new starters – not a one-way street. Get it right you’ll create an onboarding experience that keeps them engaged for many months to come. 

If you need any help hiring gen-z or even just fancy a search to see what’s out there, head on over to our grad recruitment app and check out today’s burgeoning talent.