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Onboarding as a Framework for Change Management

March 09, 2022 Talent Management
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By Sarah Fister Gale

Change management efforts are notorious for failure. One famous study of more than 100 companies found that about 70% of their change initiatives failed. The reasons vary but, most often, they're linked to poor communication, lack of training, insufficient support from leaders and not enough time or follow-up to ensure employees embrace the change.

Ironically, many of the companies that experience failure on change management strategies already have a fully formed strategy in place for making transformation efforts work: their onboarding programs. New employee onboarding is like a mini-change management program that is built around a single individual. It takes a promising candidate with all the skills and knowledge to succeed, and helps that person adapt their skills to a new environment.

If companies translated that existing strategy to their culture change efforts, these transformations would likely be much more successful. That's worth bearing in mind as a growing number of companies embrace new models for work, such as remote and hybrid work and distributed teams.

Why and How Companies Onboard

Onboarding programs are intended to pull new hires into the company culture. “Even if an employee has a lot of technical experience, every company has its own unique way of working,” said Matt Hoffman, partner and head of talent at venture capital firm M13. “Onboarding is about showing them not just how you get things done, but more importantly why you do it this way.”

It's also about building a sense of belonging, so new hires feel invested in the company, said Enza Artino, head of global employer branding and talent acquisition for GI Group, a global HR services firm.

“The real purpose of onboarding is to engage new hires with their team and the company,” she said. “That’s what makes them want to stay.”

Successful onboarding that achieves the intended outcome can’t be done in a few hours on the first day of work. The best onboarding extends over several weeks and features multiple players and activities.

New hires may be assigned a buddy or mentor, have meetings with new team members and executives, and receive training on company processes and procedures. Then, after 30, 60 and 90 days, a manager or HR leader will check in to make sure new hires have what they need to be successful on the job.

This formal approach to onboarding has a direct business benefit. Research conducted by the Brandon Hall Group found that a strong onboarding process can improve new hire retention by 82 percent and productivity by over 70 percent. The same could be true of change management efforts.

Related Article: How to Reimagine Onboarding for Remote and Hybrid Workers

How Onboarding Can Be Used for Change Management

When companies define a new set of values, implement a new technology system or change the way work gets done, they need to help employees transition into the new way of working — just as they would guide a new hire. In other words, companies can use onboarding as a framework for change, Hoffman said.

That means thinking about change management through the eyes of employees and addressing the issues that could prevent them from engaging in the transition. Change can be frustrating, time-consuming and disruptive for employees. They are being asked to let go of comfortable habits, learn new skills and embrace a future that may not feel as safe to them as the old way of doing things.

They have to believe the new way of working will add value, or they won’t do it. That starts with good communication. “The most important part of change management is taking employees on a journey and communicating to them where the company is going, and why, and how,” Hoffman said.

This communication process should begin before the change occurs. Just as companies “pre-onboard” employees before their first day on the job, promoting change before it occurs gives employees time to get comfortable with the idea and gain confidence about the transformation.

Related Article: Want to Improve Internal Communications? Pay Attention to These 2 Key Moments

Communicate Benefits and Then Communicate Them Again

Business leaders, HR executives and marketing teams can do that by crafting the right messages and promoting them via multiple channels as part of the change onboarding process. These messages shouldn’t just focus on the details of what will change but also why the change is occurring, and what value it will bring to the individual and the business, Artino said.

Will it make their jobs easier? Will they earn more money? Will it lead to a more diverse and inclusive workplace? Employees need to see how it will benefit them and why it’s worth going through the pain and uncertainty of transformation, she said, although she cautioned against overselling the benefits.

“If you overpromise something that doesn’t exist, you are setting employees up not to trust you,” Artino said.

Then once the change process actually begins, follow up with the stakeholders. The same 30-60-90-day check-ins that frame a good onboarding program will be critical to making the change permanent and dealing with any roadblocks or stragglers that get in the way.

“You’ve got to get everyone on the same page to make change work,” Hoffman said. “Overcommunication is the easiest way to make that happen.”


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