Evolving Onboarding to Play Nice With Our Brains

Onboarding is complicated because new hires need to take on massive amounts of information coming at them from multiple vectors. You need to get the new hire inculcated with knowledge about culture, performance, and how your business runs. The new hire wants to understand expectations, their team, and the responsibilities and limits of their position. And they want to begin building personal relationships with their new work colleagues.

Atomic is no different; we might even be more intense than other companies. Because everyone contributes to the bottom line of the company, no one has six months to get comfortable and start making a difference. We expect new hires to get up to speed quickly and start making an impact on product teams in short order.

The Old Way

Onboarding was constructed at Atomic, like many other companies, during a different time in the organization’s history. Early in our company’s history, our leadership was very concentrated in one very busy person: Carl Erickson. To make onboarding sustainable for Carl, his role in the process was concentrated to one day. It was easier for everyone if he set aside the day and imparted the ethos of the company to the new hire.

This resulted in a long day of orientation sessions in which the subjects ranged from company culture to engineering processes, business, Human Resources, benefits, marketing, organizational history, and establishing personal connections. I wasn’t with Atomic to experience this mode of onboarding, but I’m sure it was tiring for everyone!

That process has changed a bit between the early 2000s and the present, but not a lot. We have organized onboarding content in a common repository, operationalized the process, and distributed some responsibilities according to functional areas. But the first day and week are still an onslaught of varying pieces of disparate information.

As a manager, I’ve seen team members I onboarded missing key pieces of information that I’d painstakingly shared with them just days earlier. They’ve all been smart, ambitious, hard-working people, and I truly don’t feel it was their fault they weren’t remembering the information they needed. It felt like we were missing something, pushing the limits of human comprehension and absorption of information too far.

About three months ago, I undertook an investigation that led to a redesign of the onboarding process in our Ann Arbor office. I’d like to share what I learned and the changes I made as a result.

How Does the Brain Learn New Concepts?

First, I jumped into a little bit of neuroscience research. How exactly does the brain learn new concepts? How much can the human brain absorb at a time?

I discovered that there is a specific part of the brain called the hippocampus that, among other things, is in charge of transitioning information from short-term to long-term memory. This sounds like the part of the brain we’re working through during the onboarding process. Although intelligence and information retention vary greatly among humans, it seems there are limits to what the hippocampus can do. Many sources suggest that the hippocampus can only effectively pass four new concepts at a time from short-term to long-term memory. That means if the brain senses many things coming through the senses at any given time, it will discard most of it. This could prove to be problematic, given how onboarding is commonly structured.

I also learned that the brain prioritizes the new concepts it’s learning about according to higher-order importance. How does the brain decide what’s important and what isn’t? By its drive to survive. Significant neuroscience research shows that although few of us are actually fighting for survival on any given day, our brains are still wired as if we were. Because our brains are survival machines, it’s my assumption that we learn about things we deem important for our survival before we learn other things.

The brain prefers to understand the connection between bits of information and a higher-order cause like survival. For example, your brain remembers how to start a car because it understands that without that information, you won’t be able to get to work. If you can’t get to work, you might lose your job. And if you don’t work, you won’t have money for things like shelter and food. Therefore, anything that has to do with the functioning of the car will be pretty important to the brain if it understands the connection between survival (higher-order) and turning the key in the ignition (lower-order).

Applying Brain Learning to Onboarding

Armed with my new knowledge, I asked questions and found ways to adjust onboarding at Atomic.

1. How can we make an employee’s first day at Atomic less intense?

Before their first day, we give new hires a global view of the entire process and onboarding content.

  • Create a Trello board with all our subject matter guidance and links to our internal employee manual.
  • Share the Trello board with the new hire before they start.
  • Work through the “backlog” with the new hire during the first week, the first month, the first three months, the first year, and the first two years.

2. How can we leverage the brain’s capacity for learning and retention to our advantage?

We’ve reduced the information given on the first day to a bare minimum — survival level.

  • We spend ten percent of the day on how to track time, when to show up, and when to go home.
  • We spend ninety percent of the day getting to know the project team and starting work on their project.

3. How can we focus more on relationship building?

We increased the amount of time the new employee has with their first team and project on their first day.

4. How can we lessen the number of things new employees are learning to three or four per week?

We extended the time horizon of the onboarding process from six weeks to two years. We still impart the same information but at a much slower rate of transmission. This gives more opportunity for Q&A and decreases the amount that the new hire just sits and listens.

We’re also attempting to line up the right information at the right time. For example, we talk about ownership and governance after someone has been at the company for nine months, a short time before they become eligible to buy into the company.

5. How can we organize the information to help new hires associate it with higher-order functions?

We’re grouping onboarding information by higher-order subject matter.

  • We tackle only one subject per meeting.
  • We tie any minutiae to the larger picture.
  • We reinforce how these things are good and necessary for them and good for the company.

Have you experimented with onboarding at your company? What have you found beneficial?