Let’s Stop Treating Onboarding Like a Checklist

Most onboarding experiences I’ve had were brief and packed with information lacking immediate relevance. They were often detached from the plethora of new situations happening around the new hires. Onboarding is an important aspect of the broader employee experience, but it rarely takes into account the full picture, and I empathize with people on both sides.

Simply put, onboarding is a tricky thing to get right. It balances subjectivity and objectivity, and it’s an intense personal and professional challenge. It consumes not only the new team member’s time, but others around them as well – especially that of the manager or mentor. Here’s a little perspective for individuals who are also onboarding as a new hire or an employee new to a team.

What is onboarding, anyway?

On one hand, onboarding has a clear purpose, desired outcomes, and standard activities that will make it successful. New hires need to get up to speed ASAP and ideally be delivering value to the client and the organization almost immediately. On the other hand, it requires personalization, adaptability, and regular, not-so-standard methods of interaction (i.e., checking in, meeting for coffee, walking to get lunch, etc.). It is hard to navigate and even harder to measure your success in any standard way.

Part of this struggle comes down to a misconception of what onboarding is. Certainly, it is a period where you are getting acquainted with your role, the people you work with, the clients you work for, and your organization at large. But it is much more than a brief introduction to “the way things work around here.”

It’s tempting to view this time in your life and career as a few-week phase driven by a multi-step checklist or an abundance of explicit goals. Instead, it’s helpful to zoom out and expand on what is happening. You’re living through an extraordinary moment of transformation in your life, often navigating situations that are uncomfortable and uncertain, and loaded with new information that is impossible to retain in one sitting.

Onboard for the long term.

Essentially, it’s as if you’re traveling down a road in a foreign country and simply trying to find your way. You’ve traveled before, you’ve found your way before, and you’ve been down new roads in other places before. But when you stack it all on top of one another, typical instructions and instincts don’t cut it. Rather than feeling overwhelmed and lost, acknowledge that this is your first time going down this new path. Also, remember that it will get easier over time. You don’t need to find your way perfectly or have the route memorized after your first — or even fifth — time traversing it, so don’t set that expectation for yourself. Be realistic, attentive, and patient.

Onboarding is often a journey of unfamiliarity. It is not simply a phase or a routine process, but a dynamic human experience. It is a mode of operating that requires patience, flexibility, shared understanding, and, most importantly, a substantial amount of time. You can reduce pressure and stress by thinking long term, allowing yourself to focus more effectively on the task and information at hand.

I’m not onboarding just to “offboard” in a year or two. I want to stay here for a while, so it makes sense that I put that into perspective while getting familiar with all the new things. Since joining Atomic Object in mid-May, I’ve been delighted with the ways that onboarding here is both structured and fluid. I felt the need to share some personal reflections that have helped me navigate the winding, upward journey of entering a new role and company.

Onboarding takes time.

First, let’s start with the most fundamental difference in Atomic’s approach to onboarding: an elongated timeline. The experience simply takes time. Make sure you understand that onboarding will last longer than a few weeks as you head into the new role. Then, support your experience over time with the dedicated attention and energy it needs. If you can stretch out the duration overall and expand the experience of onboarding beyond days or weeks, you’ll retain information more effectively and feel better about the progress you’re making.

Whether you’re a new hire or a manager, the onboarding mindset should start before the first day, formally continue through the first few months, and evolve over the first couple of years. For example, during my interview process, I was able to meet about half of our Ann Arbor office through various meetings and social interactions. I would say my onboarding experience unofficially kicked off the day they hired me, with additional opportunities to casually meet some of our awesome people before actually starting.

Regular 1-on-1 meetings with my manager and different team members provided structure in the early days, and they continue to support my development as an Atom. Looking ahead, these meetings and interactions will evolve into deeper discussions about increasingly complex topics or responsibilities. But, that’s not the expectation right now, and those conversations will come in due time. Don’t get ahead of yourself too early in the game.

Onboarding Requires Personalization.

As the timeline gets stretched out, you can mix other, less formal touchpoints in with standard onboarding practices and traditional, orientation-style meetings. While some aspects of onboarding need standardization (legal forms, company policies, equipment setup, etc.), other parts of the experience can — and should — be more unique and informal.

This will make the experience feel more personalized and will help round out the onboarding journey on the whole. In these situations, you’re still onboarding, even though it might not feel like it. Getting to know people on your team or better understanding the company are valuable aspects of the experience. They don’t always need to happen through a formal meeting or by reading a manual, though.

Every individual is unique. I would encourage any new hire or manager to leverage and apply that. Take advantage of different types of touchpoints based on what that person might enjoy, in addition to the regular meetings needed to properly acquaint someone with a new position, team, or company. When I came aboard, I had a healthy variety of interactions that were personally more stimulating, memorable, and enjoyable than sitting across from someone mutually staring at a screen. I had a handful of meetings that were part of onboarding but were held over a walk, a beer, or a meal. This is intimate and personal. It shows me that we don’t need information or technology in front of us to have a meaningful and productive conversation. That to me is an essential part of connecting with other people, especially in today’s screen-filled, information-overloaded world.

Onboarding is Multidimensional.

The most important perspective I’ve gleaned while onboarding at Atomic (and from prior experiences) is that onboarding is a multidimensional phenomenon. It’s layered with interconnected insights and breakthroughs. It’s important to remember that (when possible).

One way to break this down is to view your experiences as macro-onboarding or micro-onboarding. In one situation, you might be reading about company values or organizational structure. In another situation you might learn about a client’s offering or product ecosystem. Then next, you find yourself looking into a specific tool or process pertaining to your role. Oh yeah, and there are awesome humans right next to you! Whenever possible, try to ground yourself in the moment and reflect on what dimension you’re onboarding to. This can help relieve some of the uncertainty about what’s happening.

Grounding yourself helps you separate the different types of onboarding a little easier. For example, onboarding to a role or company is (and should be) different from onboarding to a project or client team. You should layer one on top of the other rather than blurring them together. Again, give every onboarding scenario the time and attention it deserves. Continued reflection will help you make sense of where you’re at in the journey and how to approach each situation.

Lastly, it’s important to reflect on where else in life you might be “onboarding.” This isn’t just something that happens at work. We also experience it in our lives nearly every day on different scales. For example, I moved in with my partner six weeks after starting this job, and it was challenging to keep these learning curves separated. Everything felt new and in constant change. I was only able to make sense of it when I separated and layered these different onboarding experiences on top of one another.

Onboarding Is an Experience, Not a Process.

I’ll never forget some words of wisdom my manager, Jonah Bailey, shared with me on my first day: “Just focus on what you need to know right now.” I still reference this line regularly and will continue to reflect on my experience through this lens. It has led me to better understand myself, and allowed me to make sense of the complexity around starting a new personal and professional chapter in my life.

If you walk away with one thing, I hope it is this: onboarding is a dynamic experience, not just a moment in time, or a brief phase of bringing someone into a new role or team. Here are a few tips to summarize my experience and perspective.

    • Don’t view onboarding as a simple checklist. There are steps, processes, and standards that make for effective onboarding, but it’s much more than that.
    • The full experience just takes time, and it works best when you spread it out over months and years, not days and weeks.
    • It starts before your first day and doesn’t simply end after a certain period. Rather, it evolves into new levels of onboarding.
    • Rather than relying too heavily on standard processes or a strict onboarding guide, those essential aspects of onboarding can intermingle with personalized interactions.
    • The experience can be broken down into different dimensions and re-framed as macro-onboarding and micro-onboarding.

Learning from Onboarding Experiences

What have you learned about yourself in your onboarding experience? Have you zoomed out to reflect on your journey, and considered what dimension you might be onboarding in? It is never a straightforward process, but you can find ways to navigate the experience by giving it time, making it personal, and reflecting on what level of onboarding you’re going through.


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