Did you study Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in Psych 101? In case you didn’t, here’s a quick summary that also sheds light on an onboarding best practice that we use at my knowledge transfer consulting firm:
Maslow’s basic thesis was that people have to worry about things in order. They need to start by making sure that they have air, food, and water, because, well, survival is pretty important. After their basic needs, they look for a roof over their heads. Then, once they’re warm and dry, they can go on to the finer things in life. He called this stage “self-actualization” and for sake of illustration I’ll equate it to a really nice car, or whatever else makes you happy. In a nutshell, Maslow said that it doesn’t matter how nice your car is if you can’t breathe.
If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, picture your new hire walking into your office and hearing you say:
“Oh good, your timing is perfect. I’m working on developing the budget for the Walker project. I wanted to explain it to you so you can take on the Adams project. Have a seat and I’ll walk you through the basics… [blah, blah, blah]."
This doesn’t sound too bad at first, but while you’re delivering the content, the new hire is wondering:
Who is Walker?
Who is Adams?
I develop budgets?
How often do I do this?
Is there a template, or do I just wing it?
Do I have access to that database yet? Is there any documentation on this process? What software do I use? What if I screw it up?
With all of that noise going on in her brain, it is no wonder the new hire doesn’t get the details the first time through. Chances are she has a limited vocabulary, doesn’t get the “big picture,” and is stressed because no office space is available yet.
Best Practice: Start With Air, Food and Water
Returning to Maslow’s hierarchy, we know that the new hire needs air to breath, food to eat, and water to drink. What are the equivalents of those in a business setting? The first step is to think about all the foundational tools, resources, language, access, relationships, and general information your new hire is going to need to survive. It is the checklist of stuff she needs to get before anyone teaches her any skills and before any knowledge transfer can begin.
- Office Setup
Don’t underestimate how disorienting it is to have no place to sit, no e-mail, and no phone. Does your office have a complicated phone system? Does your new hire need approval from someone to get supplies? Anything that can be done to have the proper tools available before your new hire arrives will pay dividends in earlier productivity.
How many people did you meet on your first day on the job: the entire team, or perhaps the entire company? How many of those people did you remember? If we consider Air, Food and Water to be only the people you need to meet to survive, how many people does your new hire really need to meet during her first week? There are probably just a few key people in addition to her manager.
- Documentation and Web Resources
In my experience, if it has been written down, it is already out of date. Usually it isn’t completely out of date, but how will your new hire know which parts are current? If your company is large, chances are the entire corporate network is too much information initially. Instead, you might say: “Let me show you the internal web site, and tell you which parts are the most useful for you to look through.”
Setting up access to all files, labs, tools, databases and so on is Air, Food and Water because you can’t do anything without it. While you’re at it, don’t forget parking passes, cardkey access, and permissions to enter certain areas of the building.
- Software or other tools.
If you work in an environment with proprietary tools, think about how many versions of those tools exist, and what happens when someone uses the 3.04 version when everyone else is on 3.05. The icon on the desktop is the same. The interface is the same. If you start using the old version, it blows up your system. Make sure that all is in order with the new hire’s workstation, or you can create a step-by-step plan for the new hire to prepare the workspace.
- Team Meetings, Team E-mail Addresses, and Core Work Hours
Every team has a way of staying in touch. Air, Food and Water includes connecting your new hire to this new network, setting up recurring appointments for meetings in her calendar, enrolling her in the team’s e-mail distribution lists, specifying the hours of the day when everyone tends to be together, and so on. Look at your own plans and if your new hire is connected to it in every appropriate way, you’re on the right track.
Making A List & Checking It Twice
This Air, Food and Water checklist is one of those things that can get lost when onboarding a new hire. I suggest that you have your most recent new hire read through this and draft what he thinks would be a useful list, as that person probably knows exactly what should have been included. Make it a policy that each new hire uses the list and then update it for the next. In that way, the list will always be as up to date as the last person hired. For more on this topic, see a detailed discussion in my book Teach What You Know: A Practical Leader's Guide to Knowledge Transfer Using Peer Mentoring.
SUMMARY: With Air, Food and Water, your new hire will get up to speed faster and spend less time solving set-up problems that she’ll never encounter again. The less time she spends as a net negative on the team, the quicker she can focus on learning the skills necessary to do her job and increase team productivity.