Podcast: The ‘Wow’ Factor: Rethinking Employee Onboarding & Retention
Blog: The Process Street Blog
In a world where employees are increasingly treated as mere cogs in a machine, new approaches to onboarding can provide a much-needed breath of fresh air, and help to unlock the potential to transform the way companies view and treat their workforce.
In this episode of Process Street’s Employee Onboarding Podcast, we’ve got a riveting conversation between Erica Gordon Roberts and our host Erin Rice, who discuss a unique onboarding strategy that doesn’t just tick the boxes but also establishes a deep-rooted emotional connection with new hires.
We’ll delve into:
- The Importance of Buddy Programs
- How different companies implement it
- The unique approach to pairing ‘opposite’ employees
- The Role of Intentional Pairing
- Criteria for pairing, including different offices, roles, and personality traits
- The objective of fostering diverse perspectives and inclusivity
- The “Wow Factor” in Onboarding
- Personalizing the onboarding experience through gifts
- The process of gathering personal information to tailor the experience
- Impact on Employee Retention
- The link between personalized onboarding and longer tenure
- How even those who leave become brand ambassadors
- Company Culture and Onboarding
- The influence of these practices on overall corporate culture
- Real-life examples of the types of gifts given
- Emotional Connection and Employee Loyalty
- How small gestures can create a long-lasting emotional bond
- Examples of the kinds of emotional connections made
- Positive Experiences Upon Leaving a Company
- The concept of turning even departing employees into brand ambassadors
- Celebrating employees’ new opportunities
Join us as we explore the psychological underpinnings of this approach and its profound impact on employee retention and company culture. Discover why it’s the small, thoughtful gestures that can make the biggest difference, turning what could have been a forgettable start into an inspiring journey that employees will treasure for years to come.
Introducing Erica Gordon Roberts
Welcome to Process Street’s Employee Onboarding Podcast, where we are unpacking great onboarding ideas and best practices from the world’s top HR practitioners and thought leaders. At Process Street, that starts with our mission to make recurring work fun, fast, and faultless for teams everywhere. My name is Erin Rice, and I’m the people and operations coordinator here at Process Street.
Today, I’m joined by Erica Gordon Roberts. Erica is the director of Human Resources for LookListen, an Atlanta-based digital marketing agency that cures pain points with a solution-first mindset and plan of action. She is also the founder and principal consultant of TIE Solutions Group, a leadership firm that provides individual and organizational people strategy and support to elevate the employee experience.
This includes customized training, HR strategic planning and consulting, and career coaching for emerging and C-suite leaders. Erica has spent 15 years in the people space improving the employee experience so they can become ambassadors before day one. Erica is an author, speaker, and coach, dedicated to listening, learning, and connecting policies and progress that align with an organization’s values and culture.
When she’s not wearing the People Leader hat, she is cultivating relationships in her local schools and community organizations, mentoring future leaders, and creating experiences to expose them to career opportunities.
So before we dive in, I like to ask a silly icebreaker. And so this round, I’m asking: tacos or pizza? You can’t say both!
That’s hard. So since I can’t say both, I’m going to have to go with tacos because I can probably make every variety and even give the flavor of a little bit of pizza in a taco.
Oh yeah, in my house we like to make “pizzadillas” where you put pizza toppings inside a quesadilla. Have you ever tried that before?
Okay, I haven’t; I have to add it to my repertoire. We’ve got a whole taco station and we’ll line up the whole counter with all the assortments of flavors. And I think there’s probably more taco sauce and lettuce on the floor when we finish, but it makes for a good meal.
Discussing Employee Onboarding Experiences
Yeah, it sounds awesome. We love tacos at our house too. Awesome! Well, now what we really came here for: employee onboarding. So you have had lots of experience, it sounds like in the HR field. I would love to hear a little bit about your personal onboarding with your current company.
Oh, goodness. So it’s interesting because my current company, I actually joined right at the tail end of dealing with some of the COVID protocol. So I actually came in as folks were just re-entering the workspace and we had a scare the day before my first day because we’re going to meet in person. And my hiring manager said, I think myself or one of my kids may have COVID. So I really apologize because I know we’re scheduled to meet face to face, but I think we’re going to have to take on a virtual aspect. And so we reshifted the onboarding piece.
Unique Onboarding Challenge: Being the HR Leader
The irony of it is because I was their first official HR leader, I’m onboarding both from the perspective of a new hire and auditing the process simultaneously. So it made for a very interesting journey. Once we got beyond that first day and no COVID and we’re able to connect, I was able to meet with some of the staff and because we’re housed in both Atlanta and Denver, I even had a chance from an onboarding perspective to spend some time with both teams as a new hire, learning the team in the process, but also as the HR leader, understanding what’s important in the onboarding process.
Scaling HR in a Growing Company
So when you say you were the first HR leader, does that mean that there wasn’t anyone in HR before you?
So ironically enough, there are a couple of things in play. There probably was about a year and a half gap where there was no one even in the HR title process. Before then, there was like an HR person who was an office manager who kind of did a little bit of a dual role. The financial officer at the time was actually wearing double hats.
So she’s handling some of the HR pieces as well as the financial pieces. Which was great because you knew from an auditory standpoint and from a compliance standpoint, there were not going to be any challenges. So they had a lot of the administrative things in play because she is so detailed, but what she wasn’t necessarily able to get was really focus on the people, but bringing me in was to help make sure that things they were doing would help from where we were. But to also support scaling because we’re a small company and looking to scale and get larger. So they wanted to make sure the administrative things that were in play were in compliance, not only from a legal standpoint, but to make sure that the experience for the employees was right and on time. And so, because I came from a larger company, I was able to provide some of that insight as well.
Understanding Employee Needs: A Holistic Onboarding Experience
Yeah, so coming on board in that kind of capacity, how did you start contributing?
So from day one, I scheduled one-on-one meetings with every single employee in the company. So it was, “Hey, I’m Erica, and I’m here to help. Tell me a little bit about what you do, what has worked well in your journey as an employee, and what are some of your pain points?”
I also took the time to read through all of the documentation, whether it was old videos from town hall meetings, the digital employee handbook, or even some of the briefs for the clients to understand what the culture of the company was.
And then the fun part was taking the time to look at the previous survey results and understanding the successes, the challenges, the pain points, and where, as an HR leader, I could help support improving the overarching employee experience.
Dual Perspectives: Being Both New Hire and HR Leader
Wow, so it sounds like you were already an HR leader while you were a new hire, while you were onboarding.
Yes, the irony of it is I would have a one-on-one check-in with my supervisor at the time and she would go, “Okay, so give me your perspective as a new hire. Tell me how everything’s going.”
And we’d have that conversation. Then we’d flip the script and I’d have to put on my HR hat. I’d say, “So these are the things I’ve observed that we could work better on. These are the things we’re doing well.” And so, to be able to wear both hats simultaneously was a challenge, but I think it gave me a greater appreciation because oftentimes when you don’t experience the journey and you’re making changes to policies and practices, you miss the gap. And there’s a disconnect because you haven’t experienced it.
So to experience it firsthand allowed me the opportunity to recognize where we could really make things better, but also where we could celebrate the things we had done well.
Balancing Big Ideas and Current Culture
And I bet going from such a large company you mentioned before we started this that your previous company had 20,000 employees to a smaller company with just 20, I bet you had so many ideas to share.
Oh, tons. And I had to take a step back because while I know there are a lot of great ideas to share, you also have to recognize your current culture. So I vowed to spend the first six months understanding current culture. The challenge was understanding current culture in the midst of a recession.
So in the midst of preparing to scale and grow and understand culture, we were also shifting our culture due to layoffs and just transitions across the market. But also taking the time to say, what are some best practices that I’ve seen?
That we’ve discussed here at the company we want to improve upon, and how do I make those mirrors and match for the quantity of employees we have without it becoming overwhelming.
Customizing Onboarding for Individual Learning Styles
Right? So if you had a new hire join today, what are the tips that you would share with them to make their onboarding experience the most positive that they can?
The first tip I would definitely share is, “Tell me how you best learn, and allow us to modify the onboarding to fit your needs.” If you’re a visual learner, we’ll spend more time with the visual aspect. If you like to touch, taste, feel, we’re gonna get your hands dirty. So really, to understand what’s your best method of learning so that we can customize our training to support that.
Gathering Information for Onboarding
That’s awesome. And do they share that verbally? Do they share that in an email? How do you gather that information?
So a couple of ways, I actually do the pre-screening for all of our new hires. And so I’ve already connected with them that one time and I gauge it from some of the general questions I asked then, but even in the week before we start, I send a welcoming email and ask the question: “Hey, you’re a week away from joining us. Excited to see you. Here are the things you need to do to prepare.”
Usually, based on how they respond, I get an energy and feeling for where I need to move forward. But the day they walk in the building, I ask, “What’s your preferred method of learning?” We actually do some additional training and testing based on this. We use this information to help further develop the onboarding process.
Personal Evolution and DISC Profiles
That’s so interesting. I haven’t heard about DISC in a really long time. I used it back in my education career. It’s interesting how it has changed as I’ve evolved as an individual. It’s great that you all do that.
What’s really cool about the onboarding process for us is that we share everyone’s DISC profiles. As a new hire, you can go onto our web and see everybody’s profile. This lets you understand how to communicate with individuals and what their preferred needs are.
When we do collaborative work, we actually use some of the DISC profiles to help support partnering not with like-minded people, but with people who have different thought processes. This helps foster more creativity in the workspace, which is obviously critical in a creative space.
Importance of Diverse Viewpoints in Marketing
I was thinking about that in relation to digital marketing. Is that correct?
Yes, we’re in the marketing sector.
That would require lots of different types of viewpoints and cultural perspectives to really get to all the different target audiences you’re trying to reach.
Leveraging Diversity for Client Support
Absolutely, and because most of the folks who join us are not traditional agency folks, you already have a diverse group of thoughts at the table. Balancing these two aspects makes a difference. Leveraging those differences has made us stronger and better able to support our client base.
It sounds like you really take the individual into account when onboarding new people. How do you balance individuality and the need for consistent information?
That’s probably the hardest part of the journey. Check-ins play a huge role. We have a foundational structure built into a task builder. This outlines mandatory and necessary tasks for onboarding someone, whether it’s understanding health benefits, our project management system, or even basic things like where the restroom is located. We have a checklist for these items.
After covering these basics, the conversation turns to what the individual employee needs to be successful, which we determine from their previous experience, interviews, and the initial days of onboarding. This informs what subsequent days of onboarding look like.
Onboarding Timelines and Retention
That’s so interesting. Would you say onboarding lasts about six months, or does it start sooner than their first day?
I define the first phase as “pre-boarding,” starting from the time you post a job. How you communicate during this phase sets the tone for an employee’s long-term relationship with the company.
Real onboarding lasts about 120 days, during which time expectations vary. Training wheels don’t really come off until the 121st day, but even then, there’s still learning to do.
Continuous Learning and Adaptation
Absolutely. What about those who maybe leave and come back, or maybe get promoted? Is there another round of onboarding?
Yes, there is. We discuss expectations for new roles, especially managerial ones. We customize training based on an individual’s self-identified weaknesses.
If someone has been with the company before and returns in a new capacity, we treat them as a new arrival. We adjust the onboarding process according to their needs and level of experience.
Final Thoughts on Effective Leadership
That’s great. I love the idea of onboarding being beyond just learning about the company. It’s about adapting to a new role, even if you’ve been there for three years.
Absolutely. I mean, to have a reflection of what the company was versus what it is now is great. But you’ve grown and learned as an individual. If I come in expecting you to be the same person, then I’m doing you a disservice. I want to make sure we’re clear on both aspects—what’s successful and where we need to change.
Culture Fit vs Culture Add
Absolutely, and in HR we talk a lot about a culture fit versus a culture add. Ultimately, we want more culture-adds because we want people to continue with that evolution of growth to help our company evolve.
The Impact of Technology on Roles
Speaking of evolution, technology is changing very quickly. There’s a lot of talk around AI and the way that it will enhance or not enhance our different roles. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how things are changing.
So it’s ironic because AI also causes some scare, if you will, for the industry as a whole. You’re talking about creatives who are now hearing words about AI taking over certain roles and responsibilities. I think anything and everything in moderation is great.
Human Element in Technology
I firmly believe that you can use AI. It can give you foundationally the basics, and then you build from it. The challenge becomes if you don’t teach people how to do it right. Rather than running from it, say, hey, it’s here.
How do we leverage it? How do we use it? How do we become better at it? The diversity of technology, whether it’s VR or AI, allows us a space to connect with some employees who thrive in that space.
Onboarding and AI
Yeah, definitely. And is there anything that you all are doing that uses AI in the onboarding process?
Not at this time. Most of our onboarding is based upon things that we’ve set in play. But nothing necessarily in the AI space at this time.
Future Potential of AI in HR
Interesting. I’m very curious to see how HR leaders and people leaders figure out ways to leverage this in new different ways.
I think depending on where your space is, you’ll struggle with it. My biggest fear and worry for HR leaders globally is making sure the information is used as a tool, not as the sole resource.
Hybrid Work Environments
Yeah, that’s awesome. So we mentioned earlier that you are in a hybrid environment. I’d love to hear a little more about how that is determined in terms of how much is in person when you’re onboarding.
So the irony of the hybrid environment we’re in now is the employees helped determine this one. We operated in a hybrid capacity, meaning we have the tools and resources so that if you’re operating remotely, you have what you need.
But we also make sure that if I am at home and I’m working, and you’re in the office and you’re working, neither one of you feels excluded.
Feedback Loop and Continuous Improvement
Well, and I’ll tell you, at the end of the day, whenever we change a process or change a policy, the first thing I say is based upon your feedback from the last survey. Here’s what we’re doing. Don’t just give feedback lightly and don’t not give it because you think no one’s listening.
Human Resources to People Leaders
To create these small shifts, you get those people who are in the middle of the world. And from my perspective, that is the biggest shift from human resources to people leaders.
It really is, you know, that idea of leading the people, not doing the work for them, just leading them there.
Creating “Wow” Moments for New Hires
So I can’t take credit for this one, but I will say it’s one we’re doing in our current culture. We actually pair opposites for our buddy programs. So you have to be in different offices, different roles and responsibilities, and on opposite spectrums of the DISC profile.
The Power of Buddy Programs in Employee Onboarding
So I can’t take credit for this one, but I will say it’s one we’re doing in our current culture. I’ve always talked about the importance of buddy programs and every company I’ve been with, it’s had a different impact and influence.
We actually pair opposites for our buddy programs. So you have to be in different offices, different roles and responsibilities, and on opposite spectrums of the DISC profile. So we’re very intentional and make sure you’re totally different so that you can see the best in people who are not like you.
The ‘Wow’ Factor
The pairing is not what’s the interesting piece. The interesting part is, I send some communication to the new employee and I say, “Hey, I’ve paired you with a buddy to help you get used to the culture of the company. Here’s your connection. They’ll be scheduling some time to meet with you.”
The wow factor is while that person is scheduling time to meet with them, they’re also digging for information. What’s their favorite food? What’s their favorite color? What do they like to do when they’re not at work? Do they have kids? Do they have pets? Do they have a favorite sports team?
So they’re having this just casual conversation, but they’re actually digging in to find out what’s the one thing that really makes their heart smile. And so they take that information, they send me three gift ideas. And based on those three gift ideas, we send a gift to the employee’s home, compliments of their buddy.
And when I tell you that gifts have been everything from crochet purses to shot glasses to a Monopoly set for someone’s alma mater, and each and every time the person is just like overjoyed and it’s a gift from their buddy.
And when I circle back and talk to someone a year from now, they’re like, “You know what, the most important thing that stood out to me during my onboarding was my time with my buddy.” And it’s something so small and so simple, but it lends you to understand that someone’s taking the time just to listen.
Creating Company Ambassadors
And that’s how you create ambassadors because they recognize you actually listen. You took a water hose and plugged it to my face and said, “Here’s all the things about this company,” and were overwhelmed with all this information.
But in the midst of all that, you remember that I like college football with my kids and you bought me a small football for me to go in the front yard and play football with my kids.
That’s how you create ambassadors. You connect and you understand what is important to them and you remember.
And you remember it six months from now, a year from now, when football season comes, you send a Slack message like, “Here’s hoping your team loses because we are rival teams.”
Retaining and Reconnecting Employees
That’s amazing, and I can only imagine how that has impacted retention at your company.
Absolutely, absolutely. And the agency space is one that typically has frequent turnover. I am fortunate enough with the team that I’m with now, we’ve got folks that have been here a long time. And then we have folks that turn, but the folks that turn, they usually turn because they’ve got bigger and better things that we can celebrate with them.
And somehow we always manage to reconnect, whether it’s through clients or through work together, but that’s how you create ambassadors. So even when they move on, we celebrate those successes and there’s always an opportunity to reconnect.
Creating a Positive Employee Experience
Isn’t it amazing to be able to leave a company and have a positive experience in that kind of space?
That’s amazing. Well, thank you so much, Erica. This has been lovely. I have so many nuggets that I have written down that I plan to take back to my team as well. And I’m sure those listening would feel the same. So, yeah, thank you again.
Thanks, and I appreciate the time. It’s been fun.
Listen to The Employee Onboarding Podcast on your favorite podcast platforms!
Don’t forget to check out (& follow) Process Street’s Employee Onboarding Podcast on your favorite podcast platforms like Apple, Spotify, Google, Podchaser, Podcast Addict, Deezer, & all your favorite podcast platforms!
Let us know what you thought about this episode in the comments below – and feel free to offer suggestions for future topics and guests, too.