Alternative On-Boarding: Getting Employees Happy on Day One

Imagine a job where the first day wasn’t focused on filling out paperwork, learning where the bathroom was or getting the low-down on the company’s file server system.

Now imagine a job where on the first day, after you learned where the bathroom was, you were given the chance to actually contribute to the job and not be forced to drown in an endless pool of mundane and hair-pulling procedural nonsense.

Well, at the Cheezburger Network, the company that produces what is, in my opinion, the very funny I Can Has Cheezburger blog, new hires are given the chance to do so.

For a newly hired developer with the company, the first day is encompassed by writing and committing code to its publication software — yes, an actual assignment, one that not only helps new hires get up to speed on some of their fundamental duties, but makes them feel more satisfied in the work they will be doing moving forward.

The result usually comes in the form of a happier, more  engaged employee, with an “attitude of ownership and a focus on productivity,” said Scott Porad, Cheezburger Network’s chief technology officer.

I had the opportunity to grab Porad, who is set to present the company’s alternative method to on-boarding at this year’s annual South by Southwest technology conference in Austin, Texas, for a quick phone call on this subject.

“The goal is to make the first day a more satisfying experience,” he said.

Aside from giving new developers the opportunity to write and contribute code on the first day — or “throw them into the fire,” as a blog post he wrote on this topic said — they are assigned a mentor with the firm who sits with them throughout the day to ensure new hires are comfortable with their new role.

Instead of spending most of the day filling out the procedural paperwork that is required of most new hires, Porad said that part is woven in during downtime.

The main reason Porad’s company approaches on-boarding as such is they thought traditionally the first day is often overwhelming to the new hire — filled with procedure, information overload and what feels at the time like endless work awaiting them. In sum, it is an extremely unsatisfying experience, Porad said.

By side-sweeping much of the procedural stuff during downtime on that first day and allowing the developer to engage by helping fix a small bug in production coding, the employer is making the on-boarding experience less overwhelming and nauseating and more satisfying and exciting, Porad said. This gets new hires psyched for Day Two, where more of the same occurs, gradually shifting the new hire into independence.

“On-boarding is an investment that pays off,” he said. “The companies that invest in on-boarding get results; those that don’t do not.”

While much of Porad’s take on such alternative on-boarding stems from his experience with working with new developers, he said the concept is transferable to positions in any industry.

He summarizes his scaled-down on-boarding process into three steps:

1. “Start with a small, specific task that you want the developer,” or a new hire, “to complete, such as a minor bug fix or a simple code change.” Perhaps for someone like me — someone with a journalism background — my first day might be writing a short blog post or editing someone else’s post for publication on our website through a content management system.

2. “Have a well-documented procedure so that the developer can install a development environment on their workstation.”

For this, Porad told me they produce thumb drives that say “on-boarding” on them, and they include all the necessary applications to be downloaded to company workstations with instructions on this drive.

This, he said, aims to limit the amount of time new hires spend struggling to set up their new computer with all the tools they need to do their job.

3. “Assign a mentor.” Probably the most important step, Porad said. Even the best developers — or new hires in any role — are not likely to figure everything out on their own. Therefore, assign a mentor whose job is to sit with new hires side by side at their desk and help them get through the first day.

“Most companies don’t want to waste a second of developer time … they want developers pounding out code,” he wrote in his post. The same could be said for any company — they might not want to waste an entire day of one employee just to help a new hire get up to speed.

But sacrificing that day’s worth of work to get a new hire up to speed is much faster, Porad contends. “In my view, that’s not waste because ROI on that day is spectacular!” he wrote.

In the end, throwing out the bulk of procedure might pay off by making that new hire more exciting about the work ahead. Further, having new hires get small taste of contribution early and have a mentor they can trust might give them the initial engagement and comfort that makes the rest of the on-boarding process a walk in the park.

Are there any other interesting alternative on-boarding methods? Please don’t be a stranger: