The Impact of (Good) Onboarding

A friend who’s expert in learning and a fellow behaviorist took a new job last year to help a company reduce turnover among seasonal employees. The company he joined is in the business of maintaining high-traffic commercial spaces, and is in a highly competitive market, so the firm will go unnamed. My friend, however, is not anonymous, and his name is Peter Engstrom.

 Peter was hired as Training Coordinator about a year ago with no team and no budget to support his initiatives. He took the lone wolf position to prove he could positively impact turnover by adopting behaviorally-focused onboarding.

The turnover problem was exclusive among seasonal staff – hundreds of people employed to clean buildings under contracts lasting no more than 9 months. By reducing turnover, which was historically over 100%, the firm could save money, improve efficiency among the teams, and improve relationship stability with clients.  Although the firm’s leadership believed that proper changes to onboarding could have an impact on turnover, they’d not figured out how to make it happen. Until Peter arrived.

Here’s the payoff: In the course of his first year on the job, Peter implemented a variety of interventions which led to reducing turnover by over 50%. And he’s still going. This article highlights key parts of his story.


1. The Power of Observation.

Without a clear understanding of the situation, it’s impossible to identify relevant improvements. So, his boss gave Peter license to research and observe the old hiring and onboarding processes. Peter listened to team managers in the field, employees who recently joined the company and seasoned vets.

He noticed that between the back-to-back half-day onboarding sessions, nearly 20% of the new hires didn’t return. Some of them spent more than 2 hours commuting (each way) to a half-day session that, even though the orientation was paid time, was not worth the effort.

From discussions in the field, Peter heard how the old training session relied on checklists with mentions like “clean the toilets” without any particulars on how to clean a toilet in a massive, high-traffic commercial facility.  He noticed how the mostly male, young, and energetic group of new hires grew restless by the third PowerPoint slide. And, on a broader scale, he realized the training leader simply looked like an old white guy telling a bunch of young non-white-guys what to do.

Data also revealed that high percentages of new employees didn’t show up for their first day of work. Peter discovered that many were unable to find the correct entrance to the facility, got frustrated, and went home. Although a simple phone call could have remedied the situation in the moment, the new employees had no phone number to call and no one available to answer the question, “How do I get into the building?” Fundamentally, the old system created a revolving door, so the team never gained momentum or rhythm. And turnover led to frustration among employees who stayed.

Fortunately, Peter’s boss provided air cover to be curious. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Francesca Gino, PhD argues that giving people time to explore new approaches leads to greater efficiencies. She explains that “curiosity propels us toward deeper engagement, superior performance, and more-meaningful goals.” The license Peter was given to explore new approaches absolutely led to greater efficiencies.


2. The Power of Tweaks.

Because the new-hires would likely end up in teams, the first changes were focused on three things: 1. Help them to get to know each other, 2. Build trust, and 3. Create a foundation for a cohesive workgroup.

To help them get to know each other and move beyond the siloed experiences many employees have when they arrive at work, Peter began a conversation with “we all have stories,” and told the group about his own life, with some of the tremendous challenges he’s faced – and how he dealt with them. Then he encouraged the rest to share a story to bring an equilibrium to the group. In a paired exercise, new employees shared a bit about themselves. It worked well and with signs of vulnerability, the new employees got to see each other as complicated fellow humans not just widgets preparing to clean toilets.

The sharing exercise was followed with Peter’s proclamation that he would be their advocate. He created Reminder Sheets with a detailed map for the first day and a short list of what to bring and how to dress. The Reminder Sheet included Peter’s name and personal mobile phone number. He urged them to use it if they ran into any trouble. He said, “I’m the guy who’s going to help you navigate the challenges of being an employee at this firm,” and he pledged to live up to it.

To build trust and create cohesion, Peter introduced tried-and-true methods including the Group Juggling Ball to loosen up the new employees. By passing the ball back and forth with names or other attributes about the new faces, they began to relax with each other. It’s easier to like someone if you know their name.

Then he introduced the Helium Stick, a lightweight rod like a tent pole, that’s not really filled with helium but feels that way because of the challenge. Peter had the new workers hold the Helium Stick with just the sides of their horizontally extended fingers and tasked them with lowering the stick to the ground without losing contact. Without fail, every team that engages in this exercise begins by raising the stick, not lowering it. But the challenge causes the group to congeal quickly over what appears to be a simple task. Eventually, everyone succeeds, and they do so with increased trust in each other.  

As the newly-onboarded entered their jobs, they received gold lanyards, which were different from the regular employees to signify, “Hey, I’m new.” The plan was to notify tenured teams that the newbies would be easily recognizable by their gold lanyards and to offer them a tip or some coaching if they needed it.

The group was coming together as a team but were still in need of the fundamentals of how to do the job.


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3. The Power of Practice.

The training needed to be more than team building. It needed to prepare these people for a job that many of them had never done before. Sure, cleaning a toilet sounds like an easy task if you’re thinking of your own home and the toilet in your own bathroom. But cleaning commercial toilets in high-traffic facilities comes with a whole different set of challenges.

Rather than reading a checklist on a PowerPoint slide about the hazards of handling commercial cleaners, Peter asked each of them to read the labels on each of the containers. This way, the newbies could see exactly what to do in case of ingestion or a splatter in the eye with the various chemicals.

In all, Peter removed 10 pages of check-off sheets from the training ‘manual.’ Trash handling, strains and sprains, slip-falls were checklists not required by OSHA, but considered important by the company so demonstrations were created in the garage to show new employees how to deal with the issues.  They worked on how to empty the trash, how to clean the window, how to deal with a wet floor, etc. Companion safety booklets (in English and Spanish) were created to reiterate the safety checks in simple bullet form that the employees could easily stick in a pocket and carry with them.

The experiential element of these training methods is critical and too often overlooked with maintenance jobs. If you’re being trained as a surgeon, you’re not allowed to go into the operating room to lead a procedure until you’ve practiced under the coaching of an experienced surgeon. While cleaning buildings is by no means a surgical endeavor, learning is more effective when practice is involved.


Closing Thoughts

The natural outcome of communication, it’s often said, is misunderstanding. Running through PowerPoint slides and lengthy check lists was simply ineffective at helping the new employees learn how to do the job and therefore engaging them to remain in the job. It took Peter’s outsider’s view to figure it out. And kudos to the leaders who recognized the deficiencies in the onboarding process as they were the ones to set the pendulum in motion.

It’s worth noting that some of Peter’s interventions were not immediate successes. One of the team building exercises, pairing new employees, included binding their wrists in a common rope, then asking them to walk as pairs for 2 minutes. It led to embarrassment among the tough, inner city guys who made up the new employee pool. It went over like a lead balloon. Somewhat ironically, the teams who went through that exercise stayed together the entire season. 

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Also, the gold lanyard didn’t have the desired effect of giving the new hires a leg up in part because new hires didn’t get it. One of the company leaders decided to only offer it to employees who worked 250 hours. Because the symbolism of the lanyards wasn’t communicated to the entire workforce, no one understood why one group of employees got the new gold lanyard and others didn’t. Another fail.

Peter may be whip smart, but he is not trained as a scientist. However, his approach was basically the scientific method. This enabled him to understand the impact of his tweaks as he went through the year.

Peter’s in the process of developing a makeshift lab in the garage to help the new employees with basics such as toilet cleaning, lifting and handling chemicals used in the cleaning processes. He’ll be bringing in rope to demonstrate the importance of lifting with your legs by asking the new employees to construct an improvised net and lift one of the employees off the ground with it. He will also bring in a commercial toilet to demonstrate the proper cleaning techniques before asking each new employee to replicate the motions required for the job.

And he’s not stopping there. His wants to engage employees in the scheduling software (app and browser-based) and he wants to improve leadership development, team building, and the effectiveness of meetings.

What we say, when we say it, and how we say it all make a difference. Equally as important is what we do and Peter’s behavioral approach to training new employees was foundational in reducing turnover by over 50% in the first year.


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Onboarding Comparison: Old vs. New

This overview of the changes demonstrates that Peter grew the onboarding process in size and scope. But not in budget. The old onboarding process was originally a single half-day session and the new one is delivered in 2 half-day sessions. Other than the paid time for the new employees, there is nearly a zero* impact on the budget.  

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*NOTE: The water bottle and the lanyard were the only recognition expenses added to the onboarding process. Also, the second session (1/2 day) was added to expand the hands-on training and continue to build rapport between the new team members.