First days can be tough on newbies

The first day at school can be tough for children and parents, but with a little preparation it’ll be easier for you to cope. So reads the blurb for an article titled “The First Day At School”, published on the official website of the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (nhs.uk). It’s not much different with work.  

According to Dr Shaun Ruggunan, a senior lecturer in human resources management at the University of Kwazulu-Natal, the importance of effective onboarding - the mechanism through which new employees acquire the necessary knowledge, skills, and behaviours to become effective organisational members and insiders — should not be underestimated.  

“The onboarding process is when most employees feel their most vulnerable and are most likely to become disengaged. It’s at this point that employees form first impressions about the organisation especially its softer cultural aspects,” he explains.  “A company with an effective strategy will make sure that employees are highly engaged at this point by providing both formal and informal types of support, such as a structured programme and maybe facilitating internal networks of employees to prevent alienation and isolation which lead to disengagement.”

According to Ruggunan, continuous and appropriate support is an important factor in getting onboarding right.  “Companies that are doing this right are adopting three to six-month onboarding processes, while companies that don’t take it seriously usually want onboarding to consume only a few days of their time,” he says.

How seriously companies take their onboarding programmes depends on the company and sector as well as the resources available Ruggunan adds.  “Usually multinational companies, or established companies with in-house human resources management departments have strong on-boarding programmes that facilitate the socialisation of employees into the organisational culture of the organisation. In South Africa, it’s usually taken more seriously at the upper end of the skills spectrum, where employers don’t want to experience high turnovers of skilled staff that can be notoriously fickle to retain. However, for most other types of organisations, the socialisation of employees is an ad hoc process resulting in high turnover and lack of motivation among staff.”

Pule Mothibe, the human capital leader of PwC Southern Africa, says:  “(We approach) onboarding with the view that it’s a process and not an event. Over the first six months of a new joiner’s career with us, we ensure they’re equipped with the skills and knowledge to easily assimilate into the PwC environment.”

In fact, says Mothibe, for PwC the onboarding process starts even before an employee formally joins the company — and this is where technology comes in.  “We get to know them before they’ve even joined us, using a new joiner portal that enables them to complete their details online. They are therefore registered on our systems and part of the PwC family long before their first day with us.”

According to him, once employees join they are taken through two thorough welcome days, followed by a six-month period in which they’re exposed to various training programmes, enabling them to develop the necessary skills and understand the basic requirements for performing their job at PwC. “We focus on ensuring that they know how to deliver value as a PwC professional, and ensure that they have the confidence to successfully complete their roles. Human capital (PwC-speak for the HR department), their buddy and their coach all play an integral role in ensuring that new joiners always have access to people who can guide them in the right direction. Through all of the above, we start to create the opportunity of a lifetime, by reinforcing a new joiner’s belief that they’ve made the right decision to join PwC.”

Mothibe says that technology is used at various states of the new joiner process.  “During our welcome days, new joiners are taken through interactive videos and simulations. They’re also required to complete various e-learnings during the six-month onboarding period, which ensures that they understand various working methodologies as a PwC employee. After the first and sixth month of being with us, we also send electronic surveys to our new joiners, asking them for feedback on the process. This ensures that we’re consistently and constantly improving.”

However, he points out, mobile telephone and tablet technology have significantly reduced the need for a laptop, which means PwC is now in the process of ensuring that all its onboarding programmes and tools are tablet and mobile friendly.  “This is proving to be a challenge, as we pride ourselves on our extremely tight network security,” he admits.  

According to Rugganan, although the use of technology for onboarding is more prevalent in western and some Asia-based organisations, it is increasingly becoming the norm in South Africa. “Of course this is organisation-dependent as well,” he says.  “The new technologies are mainly software based that are targeted at the administrative aspects of onboarding as well as the acculturation or socialisation aspects of onboarding.”

Rugganan says that there are numerous software applications available that automate the onboarding process, tracking and tracing the progress of new employees and customising communications with them.  

“Strategic onboarding software is targeted more at development and career pathing, as well as socialisation of new employees,” he adds.  “For example some software provides instant feedback on employees’ progress, sets and monitors goals, provides customised insights into organisational culture etc. Younger employees expect instant feedback as opposed to annual performance appraisals and new software allows for this. The new software also allows for integrated talent management from the inception of the employment of the new worker.”

But as Jenny Greyling, the human resources director of EY’s Africa Talent Team, points out, when it comes to technology, within the African context issues like bandwidth and lack of infrastructure can pose a challenge in some countries.  Greyling says that her department is continually working with EY’s global IT infrastructure team to improve user experience.   “EY is developing a global portal to enable all new employees to successfully transition into EY and support the onboarding period. This will significantly enhance the learning experience of our new joiners and help them to build their global networks and increase their knowledge base,” she explains.

Greyling says that at EY, technology is used to share resources after the induction programme, as well as for web based learning. “At EY onboarding is personalised and the firm focuses on ongoing personal interactions from the leadership, line managers and mentors. We encourage our new joiners to participate in global online discussion forums to increase their knowledge of our clients and the sectors we serve,” she says.

EY has been awarded Top Employers Africa 2015 certification and according to Greyling the company takes its onboarding programme seriously.  “Today’s business environment demands nothing but the highest level of performance from EY and its people. It is imperative that EY works alongside our people to transition them effectively at pivotal junctures in their careers — from joining EY, to being promoted, to moving to a new role,” she explains.  

She says that EY has a globally consistent new joiners programme to ensure that all new employees experience consistent onboarding no matter where in the world they join the company.  “The programme includes messages from our leaders around the world and focuses on making the EY strategy come alive. The Africa region has localised the programme to ensure employees understand our unique values-based culture, as well as what they can expect from us in order to build successful careers,” she says.  

“At EY we believe the sooner new hires feel welcomed and prepared for their jobs, the faster they will be able to successfully contribute to the firm’s success.”

But often it isn’t a new hire who feels lost. People who are promoted to senior positions may also feel overwhelmed and EY provides them with a transition coach and a structured transition support programme. “To support individuals moving into new roles, newly promoted employees attend global milestone programmes to assist with their onboarding and expectations of their new roles,” says Greyling.

This article is part of a larger supplement which can be found here.

The supplement has been made possible by the Mail & Guardian’s advertisers and the content has been vetted by the Top Employers Institute.