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Building a Team that Wants to Stay: Tips for Properly Onboarding User Researchers

Two days isn’t enough when it comes to adjusting to a new company. We take you through how to create a solid onboarding experience and why it matters to your employee and your organization.

Words by Nikki Anderson, Visuals by Danbee Kim

Onboarding to a new company can be a painful experience for both the employee and the employers. It is particularly challenging if you are onboarding entirely remotely (thanks, COVID).

In my experience, onboardings have run the gamut, anywhere from absolutely no onboarding to a long list of exhaustive tasks. When onboarding was fuzzy (or non-existent), I found myself struggling to understand my role, expectations, and how to fit into different teams.

Remote onboarding can exacerbate these feelings of isolation and confusion. When organizations skip or devalue onboarding, new employees feel it.

As tricky as a well-crafted onboarding experience is, we must recognize that it is the first encounter and glimpse into what life will be like working at the company. As an organization, we have to treat employees as users, making the experience as seamless as possible.

Why does onboarding matter?

Start-ups or companies with fewer resources don’t always see the value in thorough onboarding. I have even seen huge companies overlook an onboarding process and throw an employee into a mess of things on the third day. While the whole sink or swim method might work for some, it doesn't work for everyone.

Whenever I notice a company is undervaluing onboarding, I always ask, "Would we let our users go blindly into our app/product/service?" Hopefully (and usually), the answer I get is a resounding "no." If we wouldn't let our users flounder as they get started with our product, why would we do so to our employees?

Onboarding is the first touchpoint employees have with your organization and can be the catalyst for a positive career. Here are some ways I have seen onboarding impact new employees:

They’re set up for success

If a new employee’s onboarding experience is positive, it can set them up to thrive in their new role. By providing the proper context, information, and focus, you will enable new employees to settle into their teams and start working.

Suppose you allow new employees to see how things work through a comprehensive onboarding experience. In that case, they are more likely to learn how to navigate situations independently and efficiently through the lens of your organization.

Someone who feels empowered in the first few months is more likely to be successful in the long run.

They start with clear expectations

For me, the worst part of starting a new job is the total lack of knowledge and context.

Suppose you start at a company and the entire structure of your day-to-day is unclear. You may wonder: How am I being evaluated? What should my daily schedule look like? What do my manager or colleagues expect from me?

In that situation, you may start to feel extremely unmotivated and overwhelmed. Not being able to grasp something tangible early on can make it very difficult to ensure you are doing your best and most impactful work.

They feel cared about

It is a nice feeling when an organization takes the time to care about you, especially if you are new. It's easy to jump into a new situation and feel like an outsider. So when people take the time to ensure you are invited and included in the most relevant meetings and given the proper context, you can start to feel like part of the team.

They will stay

If the first experiences are good ones, people are more likely to stay if work gets difficult later. If the experience fails to live up to expectations, your employee might regret their decision to accept the job offer and start looking elsewhere.

How to create a good onboarding experience

As I mentioned, it’s not easy to create a smooth and pleasant onboarding experience, but it is possible!

After onboarding at many companies and later onboarding others, I compiled a list of what I found to be the most critical aspects of successful onboarding:

Relevant introductions to teams and concepts

A good place to start onboarding is to give the new employee as much context as possible. But keep in mind this doesn't mean shoving them into a two-day onboarding with all the teams and people they need to know.

I remember onboarding at a company and having all of these crucial meetings my first week. I met dozens of people, learned how to use different systems, and ran through the team's processes...only to remember maybe one-third of the information.

Instead of trying to compress onboarding into one or two weeks, let the person take it all in slowly. Whenever I do onboarding, I try to have themes for weeks.

For example, week one is meeting the immediate team and talking through the organization's structure. Week two is learning about recruitment and meeting the next layer of teams. Week three is learning about the topics they will be working on, and so on.

Ideally, you can also record these sessions for people to refer back to if they forget.

An important information sheet

This sheet has all the essential company policies, people to know, messaging channels or mailing groups to join, who to ask for what, and new employee FAQs.

You can compile this sheet as you onboard people and have them comment on what is missing. Eventually, you will have a comprehensive go-to that allows new employees to look before asking.

For example, in a previous information sheet, I worked with HR to include all the relevant company policies (including sick days, vacation) and the most important Slack channels to join. I also recorded a video of how to use the new employee software and find things such as requesting vacation or uploading a sick note.

Role expectations, responsibilities, and levels

Every researcher should understand what leadership expects from them, their responsibilities, and the different levels (and their associated expectations/responsibilities). This information should be accessible to everyone, as it will be the evaluation criteria for promotions, raises, and bonuses.

I highly recommend creating this before you hire new researchers. If new employees can't orient themselves to how you assess their current and future skill sets, there may be tension in later reviews.

Having a standard way of evaluating all researchers is highly vital in cultivating a healthy culture. Sharing this information with new researchers empowers them to know where they stand and how to get to the next level of their careers.

Standard review cycle

Feedback is key for growth. Without feedback, we don't know how to improve our craft and further our careers. Set up a standard review cycle where your new employees can get feedback consistently. If you are in Europe, also consider mid-probation feedback to let the new employee know if they are on the right track.

A review cycle includes one or two reviews per year. Before each review, you ask the employee to pick two or three people they worked closely with in the past six months. These colleagues provide them with feedback, and you anonymize the input to share with the employee, including your own (as a manager).

Then, have a discussion and create goals based on the feedback. You can use this template to facilitate discussion and this other template to develop goals.

Regular 1x1s with a manager

The first question I ask my new reports is how often they want to meet and why. My default is a weekly 1x1, anywhere from 30-60 minutes (usually, we settle in the middle for 45 minutes).

I always let my reports know I am available outside of the meeting via chat, email, or video (or in-person when that becomes possible again!). This check-in is not a status update, but I am there to unblock the person, support them through any obstacles, and help them develop their career.

Virtual coffees and lunches with teammates

In the first few weeks, I always sprinkle a few (virtual) coffees and lunches with teammates the person will be working with regularly. These meetings shouldn't be about work, but more about getting to know each other. They are meant to simulate the lack of office chit-chat when working remotely.

Onboarding tasks for the first 1-1.5 months

These tasks of the new employee should be reminiscent of the job description you advertised, and there should be no surprises. Typically, I write down the type of work I expect them to start doing in the next few days, weeks, and months. I include these tasks in their initial onboarding package and note that we will discuss them in the next one-on-one to align.

I like to break down the tasks in the following timeframes:

  • First few days: Settling into the new company, meeting the most critical people (ex: manager, onboarding buddy), setting up technology, and troubleshooting.
  • 1-2 weeks: Meeting with critical team members, learning about the organization and where user research fits in.
  • 3-4 weeks: Understanding the team's processes and meeting other relevant people. Begin shadowing appropriate projects.
  • 4-5 weeks: Reviewing what they have learned, taking charge of a project with someone shadowing (usually the onboarding buddy).

An onboarding buddy

Onboarding buddies are great and give new employees an outlet for all their confusion and questions. As an onboarding buddy, I set up daily check-ins at the end of each day for the first two weeks of a new employee’s experience.

During this time, we review the tasks they completed or help walk them through processes (ex: recruitment). This is also a time for them to ask any questions that may have come up during the day.

The onboarding buddy is also the person's first contact with the team. They set up the new employee’s calendar, inviting them to the most critical meetings (ex: All Hands or Team Syncs), and then explain the purpose and format of each meeting.

This buddy also orchestrates things like virtual coffees, setting up email, and celebrating the new employee by introducing them in relevant team meetings.

The opportunity to shadow

Something I missed in a lot of my onboarding experiences was the opportunity to shadow people. Because of this, I fumbled through processes and ended up wasting a lot of people's time, including my own.

I always give new employees multiple opportunities to shadow people with the same or similar jobs to theirs. If they are the first researcher at an organization, they should shadow the person with the most user research knowledge or their onboarding buddy.

Although this may seem like a lot of work, I have watched people thrive when they have a positive onboarding experience. Not only do these employees feel empowered, but they also get started working much faster, bringing immediate value to the organization.

Nikki Anderson is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 8 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. Explore her research courses here or read more of her work on Medium.

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