The generational shift towards demanding workplace satisfaction has real implications for employee turnover. These higher expectations are motivating companies to keep employees happy, and to get them off to a strong start.
Princeton researchers Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton studied half of a million people to determine the most important factors driving happiness and well-being. They predicted that money, material possessions, and a sense of social connectedness would be the leading results. To the surprise of the researchers, a sense of social connectedness— the quality and number of connections one has with family, friends, acquaintances, co-workers, and even strangers— was significantly more important in determining a person’s happiness than any other factor.
A sense of social connectedness was found to have a seven times greater effect on happiness than a four-fold increase in income. This finding is a mouth-full, but it distills to a simple message: feeling connected impacts our happiness much more than we think it does.
Cultivating social connections is huge for life satisfaction, and the workplace is not exempt. To have a greater impact on employee happiness, People Teams should focus their energy on strengthening social connections. This will not only create a happier work environment but protect their talent investment.
A successful onboarding experience can be the catalyst a new hire needs for faster integration into the web of social ties. Ultimately, this faster integration will expedite job satisfaction and bolster retention.
Reflecting on my own onboarding experience at my first internship, it’s not surprising that my welcome kit is still largely untouched, collecting dust in the corner of my house. It’s also unsurprising that a tour of the kitchen, stocked with up-for-grabs seaweed and crumbly mini-cookies, is not a glowing memory.
Despite my manager’s emphasis on perks, the most impactful part of the onboarding experience was the connections he allowed me to make with my co-workers, one of whom was Maddy. Maddy was a 26-year-old in my cubicle corner who had a deep understanding of my role. She was experienced and spoke in a tone that commanded respect. At the same time, she was young enough to remember the growing pains of having a new job and close enough to my age that we could relate beyond branded-merchandise marketing.
Getting to know Maddy was one of the best experiences of the internship. We found common ground in similar college and life experiences. I learned about the amazing intricacies of her past, took her advice to heart, and felt cared about. Back in the office, our friendship made it easier to ask questions and get the support I needed to become productive faster. It also made her more comfortable giving me much-needed feedback. Knowing that I had a friend at work was a significant part of why I loved my internship.
I did not realize at the time, but my experience was not unique. I was a data point, a drop in the bucket, of success stories supporting the use of onboarding buddies to acclimate new hires.
An onboarding buddy is an employee who is matched with a new hire to educate them about day-to-day processes, introduce them to the rest of the team, bridge social connections, and answer questions as they arise. Microsoft and other companies are revealing the concrete ways buddies have aided their onboarding process.
The real meat of what new hires need to know isn’t bound inside the employee handbook. Buddies can help new hires navigate unspoken social and cultural cues, and increase their confidence in social settings.
Buddies are proven to expedite the rate at which new hires become productive. For Microsoft, 73% of employees who met with their buddy two to three times in the first 90 days indicated that their buddy helped them to become productive in their role. This percentage rises to 86% percent for new hires that met with their buddy four to eight times and 97% percent for new hires that met with their buddies over eight times.
Because I had developed an early relationship with Maddy, I felt comfortable turning to her for feedback. When assembling a 30-page slide deck, she let me know what I was doing incorrectly after just one slide, saving me hours of wasted effort.
At Microsoft, new hires with assigned onboarding buddies were 23% more satisfied with their onboarding experience. This statistic transformed into a 36% increase in overall work satisfaction at the 90-day mark. New hires with buddies also reported higher confidence in connecting with their boss and the broader team, suggesting that onboarding buddies really do speed up the process of integrating into the larger organization community.
Dissecting success stories and drawing from my own experiences, core qualities emerge that lead to effective buddy programs.
Data shows that buddies are significantly more effective when:
The buddy needs specific knowledge and time to support the new hire. Microsoft, boasting 120,000 employees, uses a sophisticated internal system to assign buddies based on fit. For startups, an intentional conversation with employees to see who is willing and qualified would suffice.
Workflow idea: Consider a workflow that sends out an interest survey with the hire’s information, to scout for a good buddy.
No matter how fantastic the buddy or new hire is, without proper time carved out, ‘optional’ activities get swept aside.
Workflow idea: Once matched, trigger a workflow that sets up check-in meetings and bonding dates. Making these meetings a default, rather than an added task to schedule, lessons the likelihood of the pair forgetting to meet. Further, make these dates visible to managers, so that work can be re-prioritized if needed. Workflows like these also save time and largely ease the logistical burden of maintaining a buddy program.
Employees aren’t likely to buy-in to being a buddy if the process is rigid and prescribed. Give the buddy support, but also freedom, to welcome their new hire in the way that they see fit. Maddy and I ditched the prescribed activity and decided to go get acai bowls. Give the buddy the ability to expense the activity within reason.
Workflow idea: Consider a workflow that includes activity ideas in the bonding calendar invite, but gives ultimate freedom to the buddy and new hire to decide. Include guidelines for getting the activity expensed to eliminate financial stress.
If there’s anything that People Teams can take from academia and apply to the onboarding process, it’s that creating authentic social connections matters. While buddies are a fantastic way to accomplish this, there are many paths to this end.
The key question is: how can each company personalize existing onboarding buddy models to the specific needs of their organization and culture?
Some companies are experimenting with assigning multiple buddies to each new hire, one for culture and one for task-related questions. Some companies are matching two new hires into pairs so that they grow and learn on-the-job together, in addition to pairing them with experienced mentors. Consider crafting a buddy tradition that’s specific to the setting or culture of your organization.
Have a conversation with managers about the difference between orientation and authentic onboarding. Emphasize the ways that fostering social connection expedites productivity and protects your investment in talent. From a manager’s perspective, it might seem costly to send employees out to bond. If you have access to numbers, it could be helpful to show the actual cost of losing an employee altogether, which often can be prevented through fostering social connection.
I am so grateful for the initial six hours that my boss gave me to wander the office, shadowing each department, learning about my co-workers’ lives and backstories. During that time, I learned:
Those initial interactions during my onboarding week humanized the office, and I knew my co-workers first as people rather than fellow employees. This deeper connection in the office ignited my ability to ask for help and feel safe to take creative risks. The feeling of belonging underscored all that I did that summer, and it all began with a buddy.