Training & Learning

Everything You Need to Know to Build a Scalable Employee Onboarding Process

Onboarding is the highest-impact period of an employee’s time at your company. In fact, 93% of employers agree that onboarding can make or break it when it comes to employee retention.

Bad onboarding is bad for business: new hires are twice as likely to look for a new job if they have a poor onboarding experience, and each of those resignation letters cost between 50-200% of the employee’s salary. Likewise, good onboarding is great for business: employees who go through a strong onboarding process are twice as likely to feel prepared and over three times as likely to feel committed to their new job.

When putting together your onboarding process, the choices you make will impact employee retention, learning, performance, and — by extension — your company’s bottom line. In fewer words, onboarding matters. A lot.

That's why we put together the ultimate guide for onboarding to map out everything you need to make an excellent first impression and convert new hires into great, long-lasting team members. Strap in. We’ve got a lot to cover.

Want to save the read for later? Download the companion ebook, below:

Onboarding playbook ebook cover | 360Learning

The Onboarding Playbook we swear by

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New hires are twice as likely to look for a new job if they have a poor onboarding experience.

What is onboarding?

Employee onboarding refers to the process of integrating a new hire into your organization. It’s a series of standardized events and milestones designed to help a new employee learn about their new company, their co-workers, and their individual role and responsibilities.

Onboarding is different from employee orientation, which is typically a one-time event for giving new hires practical information about the company, such as security badges and employee handbooks. This is just one component of a larger new employee onboarding process, which extends from the moment an employee signs their contract until several months into their new job.

Onboarding is often conducted by human resources or by the learning and development team. A well-defined and organized onboarding process is essential for helping new employees feel confident both in their role and at the company.

5 benefits of an effective onboarding process

The impact of onboarding — positive or negative — ripples throughout an employee’s entire time at your company. When you invest in creating a positive and valuable onboarding experience, new hires will appreciate it, and the company will be better off.

1. Onboarding bolsters early retention

A lack of investment in employee development is the number-one reason employees leave a job. Without enough support, new hires start off their job with doubt and distrust, driving 20% of them to quit within their first 45 days.

Don’t miss your first (and biggest) opportunity to demonstrate you’re invested in their growth. Onboarding helps them acclimate to the day-to-day and demonstrates your employee value proposition by investing in their growth from the start.

2. Onboarding helps employees zip through dull tasks

Strong onboarding processes leverage organization and tech to get through new-hire admin tasks quickly (and without boring them to tears).

Starting a job is, by nature, an admin-heavy process. The average onboarding program has around 50 admin tasks alone, including setting up company accounts, filling out tax documents, signing employment contracts and forms, and getting on the payroll. Paperwork is a buzzkill, and without an efficient process in place, it can stifle the momentum a new hire has coming into the job.

3. Onboarding fast-tracks productivity

If employees take half a year to become productive, nobody wins. Fortunately, a strong onboarding process can double new-hire productivity.

Employees need a high-learning, low-stakes period to acquire skills and become familiar with your tools and processes, and onboarding is the perfect time to do it.

4. Onboarding builds trust and community

Onboarding is a pivotal moment for community building and welcoming new people into your existing community. Ideally, new hires will plant the seeds for professionally and personally meaningful relationships during onboarding. Otherwise, they may feel isolated and build walls that keep them from being a happy or productive member of the team.

“Our understanding of what leads to professional satisfaction is often misplaced. People tend to overestimate the importance of the what when they should be focusing on the who.” — Rob Cross, coauthor of The Hidden Power of Social Networks

5. Onboarding strengthens company culture

If we had to name the single most important goal of onboarding, an emphasis on company culture might just be it. Culture drives positive organizational results, but when it’s vague or disconnected, it can actually undermine them. Plus, these days, people care about culture more than pay or titles.

If your onboarding program helps new hires feel like a part of your company’s team, everything else will fall into place much, much easier. At 360Learning, for example, our culture is built around collaborative learning. If we get new hires on board with our culture of collaborative learning, future challenges are much easier to tackle because we’ve established a precedent of accountability and peer-based learning.

How to plan onboarding, from (before) the very beginning

What do we want? Great onboarding! When do we want it? Now!

Below, we’ve laid out a step-by-step onboarding guide to help you create a top-notch onboarding program. Use these steps like a roadmap to make sure you’re heading in the right direction.


If you’re waiting for an employee’s first day to kick off onboarding, you’re already behind. Preboarding is a great time to get an incoming hire excited about your new relationship. They’re probably nervous about their first day and stressing about what to wear. Consider that an opportunity to get on their good side before they step foot in the office (or log on to the server) for the first time.

There are nine key steps to a winning preboarding experience:

  1. Send a welcome package. Include a healthy mix of helpful and just-for-fun items. Buffer sends their team company swag, and it gets staff excited and prompts them to post about it on social media.
  2. Collect feedback about recruitment and hiring. Do this with every new hire, and provide an avenue for anonymous feedback, like surveys or forms. It’s important to be ready to receive it and act on it.
  3. Chip away at admin to-dos. Some paperwork can be started or even completed before their first day. This includes things like the employment contract, tax forms, etc.
  4. Share FAQs and other important info. Over time, you might notice people stress about the same things. Mitigate nerves by providing information about details like parking and dress code. Make sure you don’t go overboard.
  5. Send onboarding calendar invites. This helps new hires prepare both mentally and logistically for meetings, training sessions, walk-throughs, and other necessary appointments. Netguru even includes tickets for a trip to visit HQ.
  6. Host an informal get together. Onboarding doesn’t have to be all business — we’re building culture here, too! Host a virtual team happy hour, and kick it off with icebreakers to keep things casual.
  7. Invite new hires to explore your learning platform. Send over the login credentials, so they can start clicking around and getting used to the interface of the platform.
  8. Ask them to make a personalized introduction. Encourage them to make an authentic introduction! Use video or get-to-know-you surveys to make connections more personal and genuine.
  9. Loop in the whole team to prep a great welcome. A warm welcome is a family affair. Let the whole team know when to expect the new hire in advance, so they can be ready with open arms.

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The first day of onboarding (induction)

If preboarding is the first encounter, day one is the first date. It’s an opportunity for you and your new hire to really get to know one another and prove you don’t have smelly breath. More importantly, it sets the foundation for (hopefully) many dates to come.

  1. Give them the lay of the land. They won’t be experts after one day, but a basic level of comfort getting around the place where your work happens, whether that’s in an office or virtually, will go a long way.
  2. Introduce them to key colleagues. Otherwise, they might spend days awkwardly bumping into them without ever officially saying “hello”; don’t forget the onboarding buddy!
  3. Complete day-one courses. Introductory materials or meetings often include company values, company organization, and other high-level information.
  4. Make sure they can access your learning platform. During the first few days, new hires will want to do some digging in their spare time; you might as well give them a goldmine of company knowledge.
  5. Don’t forget the Woo! A warm, enthusiastic welcome can do wonders for first-day nerves.

The first week of onboarding

Congrats! You made it past the first date. Next, you and the new hire will start getting used to seeing one another on the regular. It’s important to hold their interest, but you can’t be too clingy.

  1. Offer role-specific training. Once the new team member finishes their initial onboarding courses, move from general information to more role-specific training.
  2. Plan discovery meetings. Discovery meetings introduce new hires to different departments and are a great way to build a wider community and a bigger-picture look at the entire organization.
  3. Practice asynchronous learning. Don’t drag your new hire into a classroom or meeting for every piece of information; let them work through defined learning tracks at their own pace.
  4. Schedule daily check-ins. Nobody wants a helicopter boss, but you don’t want to check in on Friday only to find out they’re stuck on creating a password since Monday.

The first month of onboarding

Over the first month, you and the new hire wrap up the get-to-know-you phase and start going steady. You may not have said the L-word yet, but that’s completely normal.

  1. Close skill gaps. Collaborative learning helps you reveal institutional knowledge, which gives new employees insight into how company veterans do their jobs.
  2. Set personal OKRs. New hires should meet with their manager to establish long-term OKRs (objectives and key result), and put a plan in place to make steady progress.
  3. Continue weekly check-ins. Each week, managers and onboarding buddies should check in with new employees to ensure they’re feeling comfortable, confident, and supported.
  4. Give them more responsibility. The first month is when new hires stop asking, “how do I do this?” and start asking, “how do I do this well?” Give them new responsibilities accordingly.

The first three months of onboarding

After 90 days of onboarding, you’ve successfully cleared the new-relationship hurdle. You’re not quite married, per se. In fact, your chances of tying the knot — long-term employee retention — increase if strong onboarding practices continue throughout the new hire’s first year. However, after three months of strong onboarding, you’ve built a foundation for a healthy, long-lasting relationship.

  1. Measure role mastery. Using a skills assessment, progress on a learning platform, or some other evaluation, hold a formal review of the new hire’s abilities.
  2. Hold monthly 1:1s. Throughout the first three months, the onboarder should fade away as the manager begins checking in with the new hire more regularly.
  3. Hold a six-week probation review. If your company has a probation policy, 45 days is a fair period to suspend a full-time offer.
  4. Social events with the team. Who doesn’t love an offsite, team lunch, or happy hour? Plus, it’s a great way to facilitate team bonding.

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Advanced tips: 6 guiding principles of onboarding

The nitty-gritty details of onboarding will look different for each company, but these high-level strategies are sure to elevate any onboarding program.

1. Keep scaling in mind

Scalable onboarding is repeatable, resistant to human error, and resilient to unknown changes (such as COVID-19). Plus, done right, onboarding naturally grows alongside your company.
Here’s what we learned from Better.com's onboarding process for growing from 350 to 3,000 employees:

  1. Dedicate onboarding facilitators. As effective as technology is, nothing replaces the human touch. Whether it’s a dedicated L&D team, an onboarder or an onboarding buddy, these people should be always present, offering guidance and support when needed.
  2. Expect the unexpected. No matter how solid your plans, everything can go haywire at any moment. It’s important to have contingency plans in place and think about the future.
  3. Leverage on-the-job learning. According to Emma Schain, learning and development lead at Better.com, 70% of learning happens when the work is being done. This gives new hires hands-on experience and a level of comfort that training alone can’t match.

2. Leave room for feedback and adjustments

Creating a solid onboarding program from scratch requires a lot of planning. Don’t forget to plan some wiggle room, too.
Top-down management doesn’t work, and onboarding is no exception. A sense of discovery goes a long way, and your employees will appreciate having some control over their onboarding experience. In the spirit of collaboration, encourage your new hires to:

  • complete learning modules asynchronously (on their own time)
  • participate in peer-based training
  • express concern or questions when onboarding doesn’t make sense
  • share feedback about their onboarding experience
  • request new learning materials altogether

3. Personalize onboarding for every new hire

Picture this: you show up for the first day of work and a dense instruction manual is sitting on your desk. There’s a sticky note that says, “Here’s how to do the job. Finish this in 90 days.” That sinking feeling in your gut is exactly why personalizing onboarding is so important.

Onboarding isn’t one-size-fits-all. Great onboarding uses personalization to make the process more engaging, thereby improving learning outcomes. Personalization drives greater retention of learning material because learners are more authentically engaged when the content is specific to them. Don’t forget that actual people will be living through your onboarding program.

4. Communicate at every step

Like a new relationship, great onboarding depends on honest, consistent communication. Establishing a healthy cadence of communication during onboarding is key to build lasting trust, boosting employee engagement and performance, creating an effective feedback loop, and keeping new hires on track.

At 360Learning, we’re staunch advocates of the idea that not everything needs to be a meeting. Instead, we use asynchronous communication whenever possible to ensure communication is lean, direct, and doesn’t clog everyone’s calendars.

5. Mix it up

Variety is the spice of life, and great onboarding certainly isn’t bland. Make sure your onboarding program contains a healthy balance of modalities to keep new hires interested and engaged.

Here’s the secret recipe to 360Learning’s own spice blend:

6. Measure, optimize, repeat

There are two types of measurement when it comes to employee onboarding:

  1. Assessments and quizzes that measure learning objectives
  2. Surveys and feedback that measure employee satisfaction and qualitative data about their feedback

Assessments and quizzes reflect learning objectives by checking comprehension at the end of the lessons. Surveys and feedback, on the other hand, shed light on the employee experience and satisfaction.

We use both to gauge how well our onboarding prepares new hires for the job. New hires even take a short course on employee feedback to understand why and how it’s done at our organization.

onboarding course on feedback

3 tips to ace remote onboarding

The world was already becoming increasingly digital, and COVID-19 sealed the deal. Fortunately, innovations in digital tools make it possible to facilitate a great onboarding experience for your remote employees.

As a general rule, you can employ the same strategies and roadmaps to virtual onboarding. However, remote onboarding might require some additional tools and tactics. Use these tips to ensure remote onboarding achieves all the same benefits as the in-person alternative.

Embrace digital collaboration

Even in a digital environment, collaboration is key. Especially without face-to-face contact, new hires need extra support to learn from, work alongside, and bond with co-workers.

Virtual meeting software like Zoom and Google Hangouts are great for distributed teams, but you can have too much of a good thing. We wholeheartedly recommend an asynchronous-first model to foster collaboration without all the Zoom fatigue and wasted time.

Asynchronous communication and productivity tools like Trello, Asana, and a collaborative learning platform can help you bring new hires into the huddle without demanding hours of unnecessary virtual meetings.

Check in and reach out often

Starting a new job behind a computer screen can make you feel invisible. You never meet your colleagues face-to-face, have spontaneous check-ins in the hall, or get a reassuring wave from your manager when you arrive at the office. As a result, new remote employees can feel out of the loop, unsure of how to spend their time, and afraid to ask for clarification.

Go the extra mile to personalize your outreach and provide as much clarity as possible. At 360Learning, for example, we use Trello to give each new hire specific course recommendations, goals, and checkpoints. This helps new hires stay on track and provides that extra sense of security that they’re not missing something.

Here’s a quick, personalized nudge you might see during remote onboarding:

personalized onboarding check-ins

Establish clear metrics

Another way to help new hires stay on track — a particular challenge if you’re not sitting in the same office — is to provide consistent progress and comprehension checks.

At 360Learning, apart from setting quarterly OKRs, our onboarding courses include knowledge and satisfaction checks. We want to make sure each training session has a clear payoff and that the new hire walks away with a solid understanding of why they just spent time taking the course.

Employees can earn badges and high scores and track their progress over the course of onboarding:

badges for training

Also, we collect feedback from employees to ensure the training was clear, interesting, and up to date. The learner can also leave public questions and comments for the course author, providing clarification for everyone who takes the course down the line.

Reactions on the 360Learning platform

Use onboarding to create a culture of learning

Parents are successful when they raise children who know how to help themselves, and onboarding is no different.

By the end of onboarding, don’t expect your new hires to be masters — that’s not the point. The point is to get new hires comfortable with teamwork and collaboration so that learning doesn’t stop after 90 days. For example, one of the best markers of a successful onboarding program is where a new hire looks for help. Ideally, before too long, new hires stop turning to their onboarder or manager for help. Instead, they start consulting the company’s learning resources and their peers to overcome challenges.

To achieve this at 360Learning, we built our company around the principles of peer learning. We do our best work with decentralized, peer-driven, and accountable processes. The way we see it, as long as our employees have the tools and motivation to continually grow, the only place we can go is up.

Want to launch an onboarding program that works in 2021? Download The Onboarding Playbook we swear by.