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Onboarding: the fast track to staff productivity?

The pressure on HR teams and line managers during busy and difficult times can mean elements of the onboarding process are inadvertently overlooked or forgotten.

But it can be a mistake to cut the time and money spent engaging with new recruits before and after they start.

Why wait until a person's first day to make them aware of the organisation's values, vision and goals - or to explain in more detail their new role, who they will be working with and where?

Regular communication with someone during their notice period will sustain their enthusiasm and expand their knowledge of their new role before their first day. It can also reduce the risk of their being swayed by a counter-offer from their current bosses.

So, as soon as someone says 'yes' to a job, their new employer should think of them as one of their own. And having made the decision to move, the successful candidate wants to feel part of his or her new team straightaway, whatever their notice period.

Unfortunately, employers can take their foot off the accelerator once someone has accepted a job, especially when it comes to senior hires.

According to a survey for HR recruiter Hays Human Resources, 39% of employers are in frequent contact with new senior hires during their notice period. Just half retain 'some' contact, but a tenth admit they have little contact at all between the acceptance letter being returned and a talent walking through the door for the first time.

Barney Ely, director at Hays Human Resources, says: "Companies must not miss the opportunity to start the transition process to a new company early.

"Many organisations also fail to realise the probation period is a two-way process. Employees are deciding whether they want to stay, and the effectiveness of the onboarding process will play a part here."

Increasingly, employers are putting starter packs online, because they recognise in the current climate managers may not have the time they would like to have to spend with a new team member in the first week.

"Give new hires access to employee or team profiles before they start and, if appropriate, invite them to company events, where they might glean useful information," says Ely.

Telecoms giant O2 says onboarding has become more important in its new business areas, where it must attract talent outside of its traditional roles.

HR delivery consultant at the company, Stuart Eynon, says employees are increasingly referring friends or external contacts and it is the personal touch that has the most impact. "We telephone candidates before they start with us, as well as sending postcards and emails. We encourage managers to welcome them on their first day," he says.

Eynon says there are costs to getting onboarding wrong. "If the turnover of new starters goes up, it means higher recruitment costs and a loss of talent. Also, a new starter who leaves because they are disengaged has a negative impact on our internal teams."

O2 is making more use of social media during its onboarding process. It uses the company social network tool Yammer so co-workers can collaborate on ideas, share feedback and ask questions.

"It allows new employees to integrate into the company quicker because they feel part of a community immediately," says O2's head of enterprise innovation, Shomila Malik. "People can get lost in internal processes and not know who to talk to, but with this system they have all the information they need at their fingertips."

Consultancy Capgemini also believes social media is the future of onboarding. Its vice president UK HR, Ann Brown, says sites such as Facebook and Twitter are already having an influence. "Increasingly, when someone accepts a job, they are searching out friends and buddies who they will be working with in their new organisation," she says. "In many businesses, senior people are being given smartphones before they start, so they can hit the ground running and we expect to see more mobile apps relating to onboarding. The whole induction process needs to be made less clunky."

She accepts Capgemini must do more itself to adopt new technology in this area and that the company's existing onboarding process is effective - but very traditional. "We have formal onboarding two days at a time throughout the year, where people learn the background to the organisation, talk about silly acronyms and see presentations by senior people," Brown says. "Ultimately, onboarding must meet both sides' objectives and for us we need people to be effective with our clients as soon as possible. If it takes three weeks from when they join, that is a cost; if it takes three days, because a lot of the work was been done before they start, then that is much more effective."

The onboarding process is moving more and more online and Kenexa Onboarding is a web-based application that integrates with a company's recruitment technology and performance management systems.

Kenexa product marketing manager Sunita Navile believes creating a more efficient online system is particularly beneficial today, when many organisations are recruiting additional agency and part-time workers.

"It is crucial to get onboarding right with this group, to ensure people are engaged - because they could be working at multiple locations and with different employers," says Navile. "HR teams need to look at their induction process for full-timers and adapt it to part-time and agency staff. Some things might be less relevant, but other points may be more important. Some people, such as working parents, have different needs in an organisation, so make sure the onboarding process takes this into account."

When it comes to winning back trust, the banks face an uphill struggle, but onboarding has a role to play here too.

Lloyds Banking Group's group resourcing director, Lindsey Tasker, says the banks have realised they need to be honest about what has happened and not hide the mistakes they have made - if they are to attract the best talent and keep it.

"We are telling new starters that they can help us change as an organisation and be part of something exciting," he says. "This ensures we get the best people. The measure of our onboarding success is whether people feel welcomed, informed and engaged about what we are trying to do."

Tasker is working with HR consultancy Independent to modernise the bank's onboarding process.

Independent's HR consultant Victoria Toomey has helped Lloyds make its onboarding more candidate-led. The bank has pre-joiner internet sites, organises networking events for new recruits and sends out good luck text messages. "The changes being made at the banks and how people are treated when they start will ripple out into the job market," says Toomey.

New starters need reassuring they have made the right decision - and companies never get a second chance to make a first impression.

How firms treat staff before and when they begin work often determines whether they become engaged with the organisation quickly - or not at all.

AmicusHorizon: home truths

Such were the problems with staff morale at housing association AmicusHorizon five years ago that the onboarding process had to be revamped to ensure the best talent was recruited - and stayed.

AmicusHorizon was formed in 2006 by the merger of Amicus Group and Horizon Housing Group and it manages 28,000 homes across the South East, employing almost 1,000.

But, following the merger, the association initially performed badly and was put under regulatory supervision by the Audit Commission in 2007. The company culture was described as 'broken' and the staff across three sites had no confidence in the management or pride in where they worked.

A new management team, led by former Tower Homes chief executive, Steve Walker, arrived with the aim to create a 'one team' philosophy. Onboarding was crucial to this.

Director of HR, Richard Purchase, says the entire onboarding process had to set a positive tone and image for the organisation. "Our evidence is that the more effort you put in pre-start and post-start, the quicker people become engaged, understand the ethos of the organisation and start to perform," he says. "Induction has had to become a more sophisticated process since the merger."

AmicusHorizon now sends out information packs to interested candidates, who are encouraged to find out more during an online tutorial and application process. On their first day, they meet the HR team and their line managers and begin a mandatory series of training modules, which lasts about six months.

"We take very seriously how we interact with people who are applying, whether or not they are successful, because people talk to each other about how they were treated during the recruitment process," says Purchase. "This could help us attract better talent in future."

Lexington Catering: fostering feedback

In the hospitality industry, customer service is king and a strong onboarding strategy can make all the difference.

Corporate food provider Lexington Catering puts all its new starters through a bespoke programme called 'Lex 123', developed by training company Learnpurple. It begins as soon as the recruitment process ends, so a new employee feels part of the team straightaway.

The company is in regular contact before the official start date, informing the new hire of how reference checks are progressing and inviting them to tour the business and meet the key people they will be working with.

The first part of the programme (Lex 1) begins during the first month and explains how the company has been built on its visions and values and what these mean to individual employees. There is an off-site session with other new starters from the organisation's various locations.

Lex 2 is a follow-up group session taking place within three months, to ensure the company is meeting the promises it made as an employer when the job was accepted.

Within six months, the Lex 3 phase begins - a more detailed session on the importance of customer service. Staff learn about customer psychology and talk about their own experiences with clients - good and bad - since they joined.

"In this industry, we must create an environment that inspires people," says Lexington Catering managing director, Julia Edmonds. "We ask for feedback after every session and from the one-to-one meetings, to ensure we are fulfilling our role as employers and that a person's training needs are met early."

She adds that one important measure is the company's staff turnover rate, which is about 15% for junior staff, compared to an industry average of about 45%.

The company uses online 'Talent Toolbox' software provided by Learnpurple for the induction process, which lets employees manage their own needs to ensure they are getting what they require from the HR function.

Meanwhile, the HR team receives key reminders about the stage individuals are at in their probationary period.