There are many different facets to onboarding a new hire at a startup— a new hire needs to sign forms, set up accounts, and learn how the company operates day-to-day. For high-growth companies with rich cultures, there’s an additional aspect— understanding the context of the team they’re joining.
This is the story of how one People Ops Lead built a holistic onboarding program that encompassed not only the Day One necessities of the job but also the context of the greater company at large.
Caitlin Cuskley is the former Senior People & Business Operations Lead at Imbellus, an interdisciplinary team of learning scientists, game developers, artists, data scientists, and AI engineers. Even before COVID, Imbellus operated as a distributed team with 40% of the team in their Los Angeles office and 60% elsewhere.
When she arrived at Imbellus, Caitlin was the second hire to the People Team. At that point, the company was only a few years old and the Head of Talent was focused on recruiting and building compliance-focused HR processes.
The task of onboarding sat with each individual manager. With no foundational program, the onboarding experience was different for every new hire. Managers also tended to only focus on new hire productivity, rather than providing a comprehensive overview of the company.
Caitlin’s first duty at Imbellus was to standardize the onboarding process, turning it into a holistic experience that married three elements:
Caitlin knew better than to jump in and blow up the current process. She recognized that there were probably great elements of the current onboarding process that she would want to keep.
As a first step, Caitlin chose to document her own onboarding process. She had detailed discussions with her own manager — the Head of Talent— about each of the tasks that they were doing together.
The Head of Talent also helped Caitlin identify the questions that candidates asked the most during the interview process. Caitlin used these known topics as a jumping-off point for her onboarding program since they wouldn’t be addressed for everyone during the hiring process. Questions included:
Building on her own experience, Caitlin then turned to the three most recent hires before her. She interviewed each of those employees to find out what was most painful in the process and what left them feeling confused.
The last part of Caitlin’s research phase was sitting down with the COO— also a stakeholder in this process. The COO had a deep understanding of the company’s history and culture and what was most important for every employee to know. Caitlin drew on that expertise as she considered the organizational history she would need to build into her program.
The fact that Imbellus was a distributed team had implications on Caitlin’s onboarding program. In every step of her program, Caitlin needed to make sure that it did not rely on some kind of in-person dynamic to be effective.
Imbellus was also an ed-tech company full of team members passionate about education. When she considered the structure of her onboarding program, she incorporated elements pulled over from the ed-tech space. She structured onboarding as a curriculum to be completed with interactive materials and video modules talking about different parts of the company.
Caitlin didn’t worry about getting everything perfect at the very beginning. She was able to launch the first version quickly because the plan was to continue to iterate.
As a part of the onboarding program, Caitlin built checks for understanding— quizzes to see how much the new hire had retained. When people consistently missed the mark on these checks, Caitlin saw it as an opportunity to improve the content around that module.
Whenever someone completed their onboarding, the new hire had the opportunity to give feedback in the form of a survey. Caitlin read every survey to see if the new hire presented opportunities to improve the process.
Every four months, the company held a town hall. For Caitlin, she saw these moments as opportunities to boost the content in the onboarding program. She would use the presentations in the town hall to update modules with new information and visuals.
Building with the intention of iterating had an added bonus— it allowed the onboarding program to evolve as the company evolved. In the beginning, Imbellus didn't have a full history of all the teams and departments. Over time, as the team changed and shifted, her cadence of updates ensured that the onboarding program educated new hires about an increasingly complex organization.
At Imbellus, the team never got too big for Caitlin to have a hands-on approach. However, were she to build an onboarding program again, she would automate more of the manual pieces.
But Caitlin would still keep things simple with any future onboarding program she builds. No over-engineering. Instead, she would continue to focus on what elements of onboarding made the biggest impact for new hires and focus all of her attention on those places.