Successful teams are built on smart onboarding

Main illustration: Nate Treme

Hiring great people is expensive. Losing them because you didn’t provide them with enough support to get up to speed will cost you double. Good employee onboarding saves time and money.

Before joining Intercom’s Customer Support team, I never really thought about onboarding. I prided myself on learning things the hard way, taking the road less traveled, and every other startup cliché you can think of.

But even if I could do it all on my own, did I really have to? That’s where onboarding comes in. Instead of letting employees sink, it teaches them how to swim.

Shortening the learning curves

In customer support, the stakes are high – you’re the face of the company. But when you’re scaling quickly, it’s tempting to take a few shortcuts. Sure, a lot of people will get up to speed without formal onboarding, but at what cost? Just ask any engineer who’s spent an evening cleaning up someone else’s code.

The same goes for support – guessing how the product works because you don’t know where to ask for help is embarrassing at best, and reputation damaging at worst.

That’s why we set out to redesign our employee onboarding – to shorten people’s learning curves. The less energy new hires spend trying to find answers to problems that have already been solved, the more time they can spend fixing problems you didn’t even know existed.

Break information down into thematic units

Our product team ships fast. In 2015 we shipped over 100 features. Working on the support team means knowing how each of these features work and when it’s relevant to the customer. With so much product knowledge to be passed on, it’s easy to overwhelm new hires.

The key is to break the information into small pieces. When you present small, digestible blocks in an intuitive and linear way, it’s easy for new hires to make connections between the parts.

Balancing teaching and independent learning

Raw curiosity is a powerful thing. But focused curiosity is what productivity is built on. Here are some tips on helping new hires achieve that.

  • Provide breadcrumbs, but don’t spoon-feed solutions. A desire to help new hires can easily turn into micromanagement. Instead, provide them with enough help to lead them down the right path, but make sure they own the problem at the end of the day.
  • Transfer implicit knowledge. The knowledge gained from experience is hard-coded, and can be hard to pass on. What you can do is talk new hires through how you would approach a problem, and ask them to do the same with you. Think of it as rubber duck debugging.
  • Provide resources for independent learning. A list of resources (articles to read, demos to watch, features to test) lets hires learn at their own speed and through their preferred channel.
  • Use teachers for high-value activities only. Anyone can read off slides in a dark room and call it teaching. Presenting information in such a way it raises questions and spark discussions is where the true value of education comes in.

A mentor and a buddy aren’t always the same person

Each new hire should have a personal point of contact during their first 2 weeks – a “buddy” who can answer their questions and introduce them to the team and expected workflows.

However, as your team grows, it’s impossible for one buddy to have the resources to teach new hires about every aspect of your product or workflows. If each buddy is expected to carry the full weight of responsibility, things start falling through the cracks.

That’s where mentors come in. A team can have multiple mentors leading different workshops and lectures, depending on their area of expertise. It also means new hires can familiarise themselves with other members of their team and get exposure to different working styles.

Just make sure buddies and mentors have allocated time for both. Mentoring shouldn’t be seen as a task any less inferior to your day-to-day work. It might not look high-impact immediately, but the impact of good mentoring reveals itself over time.

Getting culture across

Onboarding new hires into the culture of a team is one of the biggest challenges of any growing company. Culture spreads easily when you’re a team of 10 people in one room. It’s more difficult when you’re a team of 40 spread over multiple timezones.

Early hires implictly know it’s okay to walk over to anyone in the company, regardless of their title or tenure, and be radically candid with them. They’ve witnessed firsthand how feedback helps shape and improve our work, our product, and ourselves. They have an incredibly rich context, the kind you build up after months and years of working closely with your team. New hires don’t have that context. They don’t know what makes your company unique, so honest feedback can look like a personal attack, not something that’s done for the greater good.

That’s why it’s important to teach new hires not just how to do their job, but why they’re doing it. A lot of onboarding focuses exclusively on functional training, but you should devote equal attention to showing new hires what the driving force behind your success is. Teach them how and when to communicate feedback, how to show ownership, and how their own position overlaps with other parts of the company.

And whatever you do, make sure you lead by example. Anyone can put a poster on a wall, but culture is really how people behave when others aren’t looking.

Onboarding never stops

Even if you nail every item on this list, don’t expect to have fully self-sufficient hires in a matter of weeks. Make sure they are comfortable with not knowing everything and admitting when they’re out of their depth. It will save time, and in customer-facing roles, it will definitely save face.

But new hires aren’t the only ones that should keep an open mind to change, and focus on ongoing learning. Once you built a great onboarding flow, your job is not done and here’s why:

  • Fresh eyes bring new perspectives. There’s a reason why engineers review each other’s code. Getting feedback from new hires is the best way to ensure you don’t end up with a stale process.
  • Your product will change rapidly. Your product does not stay the same. So neither should your onboarding. Do regular reviews of your onboarding flow to make sure it’s always relevant to right now.
  • Your team will diversify. As a team grows, new roles will be created. Make sure that you include custom elements in onboarding flows for these new roles. The foundations of your onboarding should be the same for everyone, but specific responsibilities require specific training.
  • Onboarding is just one piece of the puzzle. It should live in harmony with great internal documentation on best practices, well-thought-out performance reviews, as well as a long-term career growth plan.

Onboarding – never easy, always valuable

Onboarding shouldn’t be an afterthought. If you’re serious about building a successful team, onboarding will reduce turnover and improve success of new hires, and retain and engage existing employees by offering them opportunities to mentor. Does onboarding require time and resources? Yes. But nobody said building a great team was easy.

We’re hiring for customer support in Dublin, San Francisco, and remotely. A good onboarding, guaranteed : )