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Onboarding: A Valuable Investment

Retaining new talent long term begins with interactive training

by Sara Goudarzi
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Hiring competent personnel is the first step to successfully filling positions in a laboratory. The next measure to ensure that person’s expertise can be fully utilized and integrated into the existing environment involves providing an onboarding experience that gets new hires up to speed efficiently. Setting up rigorous, interesting, and ongoing onboarding programs can lead to higher retention of quality employees, and thus, fewer turnovers for a lab or organization.

Watson Clinic LLP, an outpatient clinic with nine laboratories in Florida, is an example of such a program. With approximately 100 employees, the multi-specialty, high complexity labs experience a turnover of between just five and 10 employees each year. Director of laboratory services Michelle Preston attributes this partially to their initial and ongoing onboarding programs, which ultimately financially benefit the company.

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With less turnover, “you don't have the employees leaving, so you're not having to spend more time in the hiring and training process, because that's a lot of downtime for people and a lot of extra work,” she says. “So it's always going to be a positive on the financial side because you're keeping the employee and reaping the rewards of having them stay.”

Onboarding for success

Watson Clinic’s success lies in a customized program for recent hires, based on their level of expertise. New employees are paired with experienced staff members and work side-by-side until they are comfortable with the laid out responsibilities. Seasoned techs will inevitably move through the program much faster than say technologists right out of school who will need more time and opportunities to gain confidence and grow. “Something else we have also implemented that we find helps quite a bit is a 30-, 60-, 90- day review,” Preston says. At the end of each of those designated time periods, a new hire’s supervisor sits down with the employee and goes over how they’re doing and what areas they need to improve upon.

Such an approach ensures the lines of communication are open between staff and management. If either party has concerns, they can use the opportunity to convey them. Further, if management feels the new employee is not picking up the skills they need fast enough, they could opt to switch that employee’s trainer. Because sometimes, all it takes is another person explaining the same procedures in a different manner or on a level that makes more sense.

“We are really trying to work with that new employee to give them as many of the tools as we can,” Preston says. “There have even been times where we have hired for a specific location and as we're doing the training, we realize it may not be as good a fit as we thought. So if we have open positions in other locations, we'll go ahead and move that employee to another location and that has worked very well for us.” This ensures the new employee is placed in a location where they are a good fit with their co-workers and surroundings.

At Draper Laboratory, a non-profit research and development and engineering innovation organization in Massachusetts, the human resources team manages recent hire orientation and takes new employees on an interactive tour of the organization. Each lab, however, may have its own additional training, as many disciplines exist within the organization. For example, at the Model Based Engineering Lab, system group leader and lab manager Fei Sun, who runs a 30-person work team, approaches onboarding of new employees similar to Preston. To Sun, it’s pertinent to supplement the general, group onboarding with resources that fit individual employees, especially because everyone’s learning process is different. “We created a buddy program in which newcomers are paired with a current employee based on their mutual interests,” Sun says. “They might both be interested in system engineering or a sector like aerospace.” After a month, she explains, the buddies switch with someone else in the group, giving more people an opportunity to get to know each other.

“When I designed the buddy system I was thinking about technical orientation, but over time I found some pairs talked about daycare or health benefits as well, which is an important form of information-sharing,” she adds. Further, because there are many disciplines and core competencies under one roof at Draper, it helps recent additions to learn about the other areas of the organization.

“A new employee hired into the software directorate will be introduced to our machine shop, additive manufacturing area, Biomedical Solutions Lab, Microfab, or electronic system assembly facility,” says Justin Medernach, group leader, System Assembly at Draper. “The tours are specifically tailored to provide new hires with exposure to other functional areas.”

Employee retention

A solid onboarding program is more than just getting a new employee to perform a specific set of duties; it’s also a chance to have them become an integrated part of a team with an overarching goal. Working to help new employees understand that goal and know they are part of a valuable mission allows them to better perform and contribute to the overall mission. Effective onboarding also communicates the history and pedigree of the organization, a sell that could have lasting effects on a recent hire.

“When I was new here, it was almost surreal to see artifacts of the Apollo Program’s fault-tolerant flight computers,” Medernach says. “It doesn’t take long for an individual to realize that they can be a part of something special.”

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Further, onboarding is a chance for a company to provide in a new hire a sense of confidence in their choice of employer—that the employer has a strong mission and is organized and thoughtful.

“If employees are confident in their employer’s operation, they are far more likely to stay,” Medernach says. “Good employees are always sought by other organizations. As a management team, it’s our responsibility to project competence and keep that talent here.”

Proper communication of policy and procedure changes and the demonstration of the effectiveness of those changes is also a means of portraying organizational competence. “This has an impact on retention and, in turn, bolsters the organization’s financial position,” Medernach adds.

Involving new employees is also important: managers can do this by giving new hires a chance to contribute and connect with the group and provide them with opportunities to make contributions. “Why not ask them to suggest book titles for the resource library?” Sun suggests. “Employees are more likely to stay if they contribute.”

An engaging experience

Despite the excitement of joining a new team, employees often find the onboarding process dry or boring. In effect, those in management positions are always looking for ways to make training more agreeable. One way to do this is by speeding up the process.

“With a seasoned tech or a seasoned lab assistant, we have found the faster we can work with them and get them going and on their scheduled shift works best,” Preston says. “That way they're not getting quite as bored.”

With new employees right out of school, streamlining the process can be a bit more difficult, however. For those hires, Preston finds it helpful to involve them in the work. For example, if an issue does come up, ask how they would handle it. This kind of interaction creates bonds with mentors and keeps them involved in the process as opposed to being just an observer.

Another way to make onboarding more interesting is by having more interactive training sessions. “Read and sign methodologies are simply ineffective when it comes to grabbing an individual’s attention and promoting retention of information,” says Medernach, who’s an advocate of online training modules. “Interactive training videos with embedded quizzes grab the individual’s attention and require thoughtful consideration.”

Additionally, managers who lead tours can ask new hires to talk about themselves—their backgrounds and interests—and to allow them to see aspects and capabilities of the company they are working for that may not be directly related to their job.

“When I give a tour, my primary goal is to get the new hires excited about life at Draper,” Medernach says. “To let them know that we’re special and we can provide a service to the American people, and the world, that makes a difference. We try to get them interested in areas that may not be a focus of their normal job functions but are a core competency at Draper. Who doesn’t like to watch robots in action or see how things we use every day are made?”

Lastly, it’s important for those in management positions to appreciate that onboarding is an ongoing endeavor through which both recent and senior employees are continually growing. Part of this means that not only should recent hires be learning the ropes, they could also provide perspectives that the senior staff could take advantage of.

“New employees, even employees just out of college, can bring a fresh perspective,” Sun says. “Recently, Draper was consulting with an automaker to provide an architectural review. Senior members of our team worked closely with junior members trained in the latest visual display software, giving the group a new understanding and perspective of the automaker’s systems.”

As organizations extend their reach into new areas of technology, including artificial intelligence and machine learning, we are seeing the same information sharing and cross-training between newcomers and existing employees, Sun adds.