Onboarding Effects on Employee Engagement and Retention
Delivering a welcoming and engaging onboarding experience can positively impact your organization’s effectiveness and retention. Wendi Walker-Schmidt, Assistant Vice President of Learning and Organizational Development at National Life Group, shares best practices that will change the way you think about new employee orientation and onboarding.
Wendi Walker-Schmidt shares advice on delivering effective orientation and onboarding programs that engage new hires and improve retention. Her key points include:
- Acknowledge that new team members may have anxiety, fear, and excitement when they start at a new company. L&D professionals can boost their chances of success with a strong and welcoming experience.
- Don't overload new hires with too much information during orientation. Consider rolling out information over a defined period of time to make it more digestible and relevant.
- Onboarding is not a one-time event. Think about it as creating a first-year experience that builds engagement in stages as employees performs their jobs.
Read Wendi Walker-Schmidt's article: Onboarding Effects on Employee Engagement and Retention.
Powered by Learning earned an Award of Distinction in the Podcast/Audio category from The Communicator Awards and a Silver Davey Award for Educational Podcast. The podcast is also named to Feedspot's Top 40 L&D podcasts and Training Industry’s Ultimate L&D Podcast Guide.
Susan Cort: How you onboard team members can directly impact engagement and retention but how do you build that connection with new hires and see results?
Wendi Walker-Schmidt: When we think about onboarding, it's more about that long-term assimilation for the new employee into the organization. That's where you're really starting to create that emotional connectedness for them with regard to engagement and retention. You're also providing them with the knowledge, tools, and resources to help them be successful in that first year and beyond. The best onboarding programs can last up to that employee's first year.
Susan: Our guest today is Wendi Walker-Schmidt, assistant Vice President of Learning and Organizational Development at National Life Group, and an expert on employee orientation and onboarding. She'll offer best practices and research that can help you improve the way you engage new hires. Next on Powered By Learning.
Speaker 1: Powered by Learning is brought to you by d'Vinci Interactive. [00:01:00] d'Vinci’s approach to learning is grounded in 30 years of innovation and expertise. We use proven strategies and leading technology to develop solutions that power learners to improve quality and boost performance. Learn more at dvinci.com.
Susan: Joining me today are d'Vinci’s client Solutions consultant Angeline Evans and our guest, Wendi Walker-Schmidt, associate Vice President of Learning and Organizational Development at National Life Group. National Life Group offers a diversified family of financial services including life insurance, annuity, and investment products. Wendi, thanks for joining us today.
Angeline Evans: Hi, Wendi. I'm so excited for you to chat with us today.
Wendi: Absolutely. I am as well. Thanks for inviting me.
Susan: Wendi, you've written a lot on the topic of onboarding and how it impacts employee engagement and retention. Why don't you share a little bit about your background and your role at National Life Group before we get started?
Wendi: Be glad to. I have been in the learning and organizational development space for the past 25 years. [00:02:00] I love it, clearly, or I wouldn't have stayed with it this long. My background, my parents were both public educators and we always like to say it's just been in my blood and always had a passion around helping others be their best and get to whatever success looks like for them. I have been with National Life Group for the past six months. It's a relatively new role for me but I do have multi-industry experience all in learning and organizational development. Again, it's all about helping people to do their best.
Angeline: Perfect. Before we even really dive in, I thought it would be great if we could just level-set for our audience. We're going to be talking about onboarding today, but so often you hear orientation and onboarding being used interchangeably. Can we just talk about how we would differentiate the two?
Wendi: Absolutely. And you are absolutely right, you hear those words used interchangeably all the time but they are two different and very unique words. When we think about orientation, it's more of that transactional event. [00:03:00] It's bringing on employees. It's a one-time event. Normally people think about it is just coming in and filling out your paperwork. However, with swanky new HRS systems, we can actually do that before they even hit the door on the first day, which is greatness. What I usually like to say is making that a very welcoming event and that's where you start to create that emotional connectedness for engagement and retention of your employee.
When we think about onboarding, it's more about that long-term assimilation for the new employee into the organization. That's where you're really starting to create that emotional connectedness for them with regard to engagement and retention. You're also providing them with the knowledge, tools, and resources to help them be successful in that first year and beyond. The best onboarding programs can last up to that employee's first year.
Angeline: I love that you mentioned the emotional connectedness because I think we often overlook that this person that we just hired just made a really big [00:04:00] life event change. They've decided to switch jobs or switch careers entirely and join the company. Onboarding plays such an impactful role on their success and just their joy in life. Like, "Did they make the right choice?"
Wendi: You want them to stay too so that you don't have to continue to recruit for their positions. So it's so important.
Angeline: Exactly. When we previously met, you shared a little bit about your dissertation on employee engagement. Can you walk us through your research and findings?
Wendi: What I noticed was there's really no conclusive solution in the data evidence that extending onboarding will increase long-term engagement and retention. It was really a niche area for me that had been a longtime suspicion for me. In my past 25 years, done a lot of engagement surveys. The thing that I always found just absolutely interesting is, usually three key areas that surfaced from engagement surveys aligned with exit survey [00:05:00] data. People say that they need that onboarding experience so there was a lack of onboarding, a lack of training, or a lack of career opportunities, and again, ironically, lines up perfectly with exit interview data that we see.
And so knowing that as I went into my doctorate program, I decided, "There's no definitive solution in the evidence, so let's make one." I actually conducted a convergent mixed-method study over a three-year period. My experimental group, we applied an extended onboarding program to them, and our control group obviously did not receive the extended onboarding program. For nine months with the experimental group, they engaged in an 85-15 split, 85% of their time doing their daily thing. 15% of the time, which equated to about 6 hours a week, they were with us or their mentor or their manager or even their teams doing some extended training [00:06:00] there.
When we looked at the results overall, some of our qualitative results, we did focus groups and individual interviews and the number one theme that came out was the training made the difference for us. We were like, "Great. We go back to engagement results and exit surveys." Lack of training is part of the reason people leave. Our quantitative numbers, we actually look at engagement and retention with a Chi-Square differential. Our engagement scores actually surprised me. As a researcher, you always have to say maybe where the numbers didn't match what you thought.
Our engagement surveys showed minimal difference between the experimental and the control group, which actually surprised me because I thought, "We're going to see a big difference here." But they were both, the experimental and control group, were still higher than the national average which is great. Retention though, that was where we started to see a big difference. Retention of our [00:07:00] experimental group was 90% as opposed to 47% of our control group. That's where we got to see a big difference. And when we think about it can cost anywhere from 90% to 200% of an employee's annual salary to replace them, that retention piece was huge.
Especially when we started to do our readout to executives because they started to put the numbers behind what does just extending onboarding do for us over time with our return on investment.
Angeline: That is really interesting. Thank you so much for walking us through that. How have you taken this information and applied it to your career? What approach do you take when you're creating onboarding now?
Wendi: You said it best when we talked about it in that intro. When people come to a new job, they've got huge levels of anxiety. "Did I do the right thing? Am I in the right position?" It's new. It's different. It's change, and people have to transition to that change. Making sure first and foremost [00:08:00] in orientation, and usually what I suggest is orientation needs to span a couple of days, and day one needs to be all about creating that emotional connectedness for people. Pull them in, reassure them, "You know what? You did the right thing."
What are those things that attracted them to your company when you were talking to them in the interview? Is it about culture? Is it about diversity? Is it about the uniqueness of your company? What are those things that pulled them in? And make sure that you really bring those out in orientation on day one. People also have a lot of anxiety over, they have families, "What do my benefits look like and how soon do my benefits kick in? How do I sign up for benefit?" Making sure that you take care of people's basic needs is really critical to creating that emotional connectedness day one.
They're going to go home that night and they're going to have a smile on their face and go, "You know what? I did the right thing and this company looks great and I'm so glad I'm here." Then day two, a second kind of [00:09:00] anxiety's going to kick in of, "How do I do my job and what does success look like here? What are their expectations?"
Angeline: "Now what do I do?"
Wendi: "I'm glad I'm here but I don't know what to do."
Wendi: Day two should be all about providing them with those tools and resources that they need to be successful on the job. Now again, knowing that in an enterprise orientation program we can only do so much, but that's where the extended onboarding kicks in with the team manager, with the team itself. Hopefully with a mentor, because that's a real key engagement lever for people and making sure that they understand that the ins and outs of their job and what does success look like for them.
Susan: Wendi, you mentioned the importance of tying back into those factors that attracted the person to the job in the first place. That could be challenging, especially if you're doing orientation for many people at a time. What role does maybe the manager play at giving that more personal level of orientation and onboarding [00:10:00] to make sure that it's really relevant for every team member?
Wendi: I think that the manager, first and foremost, if we back up, I know now I'm talking about other areas of the employee life cycle. If we back up and we look at attraction and the manager has done a really, really good job in the very beginning of writing the job descriptions, it's very clear and concise. People know what they're walking into. As we walk into the recruiting and hiring phase, making sure that the manager is asking those questions that connect to the job description and setting that employee up for success so, again, they know exactly what they're walking into. As the new employee goes into the team dynamics, making sure that we've set those managers up for success.
I highly recommend you're doing a monthly boot camp with hiring managers of, "This is the things that you need to do to ensure success of your employees." Providing the managers with those toolkits. They're learning too, and making sure that there's three really huge engagement levers. Dr. Byam and Dr. Wellens [00:11:00] talk about in their book, Your First Leadership Job: How Catalyst Leaders bring out the Best in Others. They talk about creating individual value, meaningful work environment, and a positive environment. If new managers can really focus on those three key elements, they've got it made with their new employee.
Angeline: They are. I'd love to dive a little deeper into the type of training and materials you give managers and mentors. How do you select a mentor?
Wendi: All great questions. We always like to think of boot camps. We don't necessarily put the hiring manager and the mentor in the same boot camp. Now, there may be some similar information that we disseminate to them, but they have two very, very distinct roles. The hiring manager probably is not going to be able to spend a lot of time with the new employee. Our expectations always are they're at least checking in with them weekly. Best practice is to bookend that. Check in with them Monday, check in with them Friday, make sure that any questions are answered, right? [00:12:00] The mentor though is going to be their go-to person. There's a lot of different research out there on what makes a good mentor.
Some people say it needs to be one of the senior most people on the team, other people say it needs to be somebody with at least a year experience, but they're new enough to be able to create that emotional empathy with that new employee. I would just say whatever works best for you and your organization. But the mentor needs to be their go-to person, the person that they are able to ask any question of, even to the point of, "Hey, this may be a silly question but--". We've all had those. We've all had those when we joined new organizations. I always like to say the mentor is their guide on the side. Making sure that whatever questions they have are answered and making sure that they feel comfortable.
The mentor needs to carve out really safe space for that employee to ask questions and to make mistakes and to fail forward in that environment too. We all have learned from mistakes that we've made. [00:13:00] The mentor's job is to guide them through that, even to tell that new employee how they're showing up in the workplace. We know that all organizations have different cultures, making sure that we're aligning with it, because no one wants to step on a political minefield in their first year.
Angeline: Absolutely. To prepare mentors, do you typically recommend a formal training every so often or just something as simple as a checklist or toolkit for them?
Wendi: I couldn't make my answer short and say yes all the above, but yes, all the above. They do need that formal training, they need those toolkits, they need those resources. They also need to have that area in which that they can provide feedback to the learning and OD team on what's working and what's not. I feel like evaluation is a huge piece of this because you don't want to throw out a one-and-done solution, whether that be orientation or onboarding. Making sure that they have that evaluation time. Me personally, best practice, [00:14:00] I like to set up one-to-ones with the hiring manager and the mentor and check in with them kind of monthly. Can be a quick check-in of, "How is everything going, what's working, what's not working, and what can we do and change to help you be more successful?"
Angeline: That sounds like the perfect, all the pieces to the puzzle, right? I love it.
Susan: Wendi, when you're looking at the modalities that you offer for orientation and onboarding, what works best? What have you seen? I'm assuming it's a blend of instructor-led and custom learning, but in your experiences from what you've seen how can our listeners really figure out what the best mix is for them?
Wendi: That's a wonderful question. Had you asked me that prior to March, 2020, I think my answer would've been far different, because we were all in the office and it all looked different. There was no question, everyone came together for orientation, even if you were a remote employee, we flew you in. Whatever that looked like. [00:15:00] Now the world has changed. I think that that answer, to be honest, is ever evolving. Our current state is if you are assigned to an office, we actually have you in-person live for orientation. However, again the world's evolved and hiring models have evolved, and we have a lot of remote employees so we have them join us in orientation.
For me it's all about being inclusive and making sure that what you do for one, you do for all. This is a simple thing but it's something that we learned over time. If we've got employees in offices and we're bringing in lunch for orientation, making sure that we're sending a GrubHub gift card to our remote employees. It's something so simple but it's an inclusive measure that needs to be looked at. I think that that's critical and you're right, a blend of in-person training and e-learning is going to be critical. We do a lot of the going forward with that emotional connectedness. We do a lot of the [00:16:00] in-person stuff upfront and that's the orientation.
The onboarding is where we slowly drip to them some of that customized e-learning. I always like to use Dr. Ruth Clark's word of chunking, making sure that we're doing that knowledge transfer slowly to make sure it's moving from short-term to long-term memory. So we're dripping that content to them over time. I usually like to say don't drip something more than once a week, it can be overwhelming for people. With our new hires, something that we're going to be starting soon, it's going to be called Mail Monday. Every Monday we will drip them a little piece of content that's relevant to where they are in that onboarding cycle.
Best-case scenario, we will drip them content every Monday for a year, but again, that content can't be long or they're going to disengage pretty quickly. Three to five minutes max.
Susan: I'm curious, we talked a little bit about how you prepare [00:17:00] managers and mentors to provide a successful orientation and onboarding experience. What sort of materials do you prep your new hires with? I mean obviously they engage and participate in the new hire orientation, but as they're moving forward, do they have milestones they have to hit or a checklist? I'm curious what you would recommend that looks like.
Wendi: Actually in the manager toolkit, the last few pages of the manager toolkit are the new employee checklist. The reason we embed that in the manager's toolkit is we want them, again, it goes to that piece of setting expectations and making sure that my expectations match what we're being asked to do. We actually asked the manager to give the new employee the checklist and so they're all on the same page. But we also have set up a site on our intranet that walks them through everything, their milestones, everything that they need to do in that first year. It's always available for them to go back to if they have [00:18:00] questions. Again, it is cognitively overloading to get all of this information.
Even if you drip it to them in small pieces, Mail Monday. It's not just us that's giving them new information, it's their mentor, their team, their manager. I'm always a big proponent of never put anything in long-term memory that you have a resource for. That's why we create that page for them to be able to go back, go, "Oh yeah, that's what I need to do to enroll in my benefits or sign up for my 401k, or whatever that looks like." Again, just making sure it's their safety net. I always have that place I can go back to.
Angeline: You have painted a picture of just the optimal onboarding experience. I love it. How can our listeners gauge the effectiveness of their current onboardings? What metrics would you maybe have them start with?
Wendi: That's a great question. Again, being a data nerd you know I love this one. First and foremost what we see in the HR space [00:19:00] and the data is, you see high turnover rates in the first year and then that second drop off point seems to be at about the 18-month mark. Before you put any kind of new performance intervention with your orientation or onboarding program, what's your current metrics? What's your drop-off point within the first year? What is it within the first 18 months? Get that as your baseline. What is your current engagement scores?
If you're using a company like Nexus or Gallup, they can actually cut that data where you can see what does engagement scores look like for people in their first year or in that 18-month to 2-year range. I would use those as your engagement and your retention metrics. Then after you put your performance intervention in place of your new orientation and onboarding program, what does that look like at that a year from implementation, two years from implementation? Then does it start to not just turn the ship for those two data sets of people within the first year in 18 months, but does it start to turn the ship for the rest of the organization as well. [00:20:00]
Angeline: Thank you so much, Wendi. That's really helpful,
Susan: Wendi, great information. Just before we leave you, if there is a listener thinking that they need to maybe refresh their orientation and their onboarding program, how can they get started? So many companies probably just continue to do what they've always done, or maybe they've given a refresh since the pandemic, but how could you approach that so that you could re-imagine your orientation and onboarding?
Wendi: There's a lot of organizations out there that still do the Monday morning, three and a half hours fire hose and go. Sink or swim. Because you've got managers out there that are like, "I can't have somebody spending two days in orientation or a week in orientation," or whatever that looks like. The more HR analytics you can throw behind it, the more numbers that you can throw behind it of what is that return on investment. You've got to build your business case up front. Making sure that you build a business case, making sure that you can say, my favorite one is when leaders are like, [00:21:00] "I can't afford to have somebody in orientation for two days," and what does this look like?
I go and look at their engagement and retention scores and then I do a mathematical calculation and go, "You know what? You have a team of 20 and last year you replaced 12 of them, so you actually cost the company X, and we can make that money back for you in two days." You know, so…?
Susan: I can't afford to do that.
Angeline: That's a good sales pitch.
Wendi: Right. Because again, a lot of organizations, they're going to be in that space. "I can't afford to have somebody." You can't afford not to have somebody in orientation and onboarding.
Susan: Excellent. Thanks for sharing your insights, Wendi. We're excited to publish this and we're also going to put some links to articles that you've written in the show notes and the books that you referenced, so really appreciate it. I think our listeners are going to enjoy rethinking their orientation and onboarding programs for sure.
Wendi: Well, thank you guys, so much for having me today. A little shout out too. I love obviously talking about this and so if anyone needs to connect with me [00:22:00] on LinkedIn, I'd be glad to carve out time to talk.
Susan: Perfect. Thanks, Wendi.
Angeline: Thank you so much.
Susan: Angeline, what great advice Wendi gave about creating successful orientation and onboarding programs.
Angeline: She did. It was so wonderful to talk with her, and one thing I really took away from what Wendi shared is it takes time. Onboarding is not a one-time event, and we need to be realistic that our new hire employees are not and really should not hit the ground running. I was super-happy to hear her acknowledge all the feelings and emotions that go into joining a new company. A new hire might have anxiety, fears, the excitement. And one way that we as training and development professionals can boost their chances of success and help ease that transition into a new role is to have a really strong and welcoming start. So, during orientation, we don't want to overload them with information.
As Wendi shared, we want to meet their needs by answering the essential questions, showing them that they made the right choice by joining the team. Then as that onboarding continues beyond that initial orientation, I love the term Wendi used [00:23:00] as drip out content. I'm always thinking, pacing out that content weekly so they're continuing to get the knowledge, the skills, the tools they need to be that rock star employee that you hired. Then finally, as you know, the trainers, the L and D team, the HR professionals, whomever's putting on that orientation and onboarding, remembering that we're not the only ones that play a part.
Angeline: Making sure we also set those managers and the mentors up for success will really help to create a well-rounded and holistic onboarding experience.
Susan: Terrific advice and something that all companies are challenged with every day, but if you can orient your employees and onboard them properly, you're going to keep them engaged and retain them longer, and you'll have fewer to onboard in the future if you can do a good job of it right out of the gate.
Angeline: Without a doubt.
Susan: Well, thanks Angeline, and thanks to our guest, Wendi Walker-Schmidt. If you have an idea for a topic, please reach out to us at Poweredbylearning@dvinci.com.
By Angeline Evans, Client Solutions Consultant
d'Vinci Interactive is an award-winning comprehensive learning solutions provider for corporate, government, medical, non-profit, and K-12 target markets.