How to Cut Onboarding Time to the Absolute Minimum

Why does onboarding time matter?

Can’t we skip it?

As managers, we have a lot on our plate. There never seem to be enough hours in the day.

Why worry about onboarding time at all? Won’t new employees eventually figure it out anyway? Aren’t there more pressing problems to deal with?

I’m always elated when the signed offer letter comes in when filling an open role.

Then I realize how much work it’ll take to onboard them properly. I look for any excuse to avoid it.

But as much as I want to skip onboarding entirely and let new employees onboard themselves, I know I’m leaving a huge opportunity on the table. I force myself to run a real onboarding program.

Why?

Because cutting the time that it takes to onboard a new employee has a major impact on my team’s ability to hit their goals.

Let’s say it takes me a month before a new employee is running full speed. When combined with the rest of the lead time on hiring, that’s about five months between identifying the need for the new hire and getting a tangible impact from their output:

  • 1 month to get approval for the new role.
  • 2 months on recruitment.
  • 1 month onboarding.
  • 1 month for work to go live and have an impact.

That’s a pretty long delay after I made the initial decision to fill a role. By the end of this process, I’m desperate for the impact of the new hire. The team is well past the point of needing an extra set of hands.

Cutting onboarding from a month down to 1-2 weeks frees up several critical weeks, helping the entire team get the relief that they need.

For me, onboarding can’t happen quickly enough.

What’s the typical amount of time spent on onboarding?

CareerBuilder completed a study that included 2300 hiring managers and found these results:

Onboarding Time

So about half of the companies onboard in a week or less.

I’ll be honest, I’m a little skeptical of these numbers. I believe the data, I’m just skeptical of how people define “onboarding.”

I suspect that most “one day” onboarding programs are just orientation days, the real onboarding work of getting the employee plugged into the organization hasn’t been factored in. For us, orientation includes the welcome events that are one step of the larger onboarding process. If you don’t have a deliberate onboarding program, it typically takes 1-2 months before an employee is truly onboarded and fully productive in my experience.

We consider 1-2 months to be the norm to get an employee completely onboarded. Orientation is typically completed in a day, possibly a week at most.

How much time should onboarding ideally take?

With a strong onboarding process, the entire onboarding time can be reduced to 1-2 weeks.

That includes all the orientation activities, getting to know the team, shipping the first few projects, and becoming a fully productive member of the team by the end of the second week. This doesn’t happen by accident, you need a tight and thorough onboarding process for this.

While I typically recommend that companies implement an entire onboarding process to reap the full benefits, there are a number of tricks that I use to shorten onboarding time.

4 tricks to reduce onboarding time

Here are my 4 favorite tricks to reduce onboarding time. When I use them, I almost always get a new employee fully onboarded within 2 weeks.

1. Cut out busy work

The most powerful lever to reduce onboarding time is to cut out as much of the busy work as possible during the onboarding period.

Here’s a trap that I’ve fallen into as a manager multiple times:

  • New employee starts, I haven’t really given the onboarding program much thought.
  • I run through the basic orientation as best as I can.
  • I assign some trivial project that at least gives the new employee something to do. It’s usually the first project idea that pops into my head.
  • I get back to my real work.
  • Several days goes by before I remember to check in with the new employee.
  • Repeat for several weeks until the new employee figures out how to provide value themselves.

Instead of maximizing the impact from the first few weeks, I end up giving work that amounts to fake projects so that the employee at least has something to do.

By taking a little time up front to come up with a valuable project that the employee can jump into right away, I’ve been able to shorten my onboarding time by several weeks. This alone can cut it from 4 weeks down to 2 weeks.

Once all the orientation tasks have been finished, get the new employee focused on real projects.

2. Pick the right difficulty for the first projects

For all of us, there’s an ideal difficulty on any given project. If it’s too easy, we’re bored and don’t learn anything. If it’s too hard, we’re overwhelmed, fail miserably, and don’t learn anything either.

We learn the fastest by hitting the sweet spot on difficulty. Every project needs to be just difficult enough that we’re forced to focus and learn. But not too difficult that we spend all our time just trying to survive. That maximizes our learning. When we stay in this sweet spot for long durations, gradually increasing difficulty as we go, we progress exceptionally quickly.

One of the most supportive things that a manager can do for a new employee is to give them a project that’s right in this learning/difficulty sweet spot. That accelerates their onboarding pace.

For every role and person, it’ll be a little different. You’ll need to use your best judgment when picking that first project. The point is to pick the first project deliberately and scale it to the capabilities of the new hire. If the first project is a little off, that’s okay. If the candidate is more experienced than you thought, make the second project more difficult. And if they struggle on the first project, go easy on the next one. Calibrate to the new employee to keep them learning as much as possible without them getting overwhelmed.

3. Build bonds beyond the new employee and key colleagues not on their immediate team

One thing that we don’t have to worry about as managers are the bonds between the new employee and their immediate team. Those will form naturally once the new employee starts on their first few projects. As long as the team is healthy, this will take care of itself.

Bonds outside of the immediate team don’t happen quickly though. During the normal course of a week, there just isn’t enough time with other teams to build those bonds. These bonds tend to get built over the long term. In most cases, that’s fine. But for any given role, there are usually a few key people that a new employee really needs to know outside their team. If the employee depends on workflow from outside their immediate team or hands their own work off to other teams, focus on these bonds.

Remember that new employees are trying to prove themselves and want to avoid doing anything embarrassing. That means they’ll avoid asking questions out of the fear of sounding stupid. Since it takes much longer for bonds outside the immediate team to develop, it can take several extra weeks to finish the first few projects while the new employee guesses at what to do next. Many new employees prefer to flounder around instead of asking directly for guidance.

As a manager, I have the ability to give my new employee the extra context that they need. By making a few introductions to those key folks outside their immediate team, I can cut a bunch of time out of the onboarding process. Here are a few easy ways to get those bonds building:

  • Make sure the new employee announcement goes out to all the teams that the new employee will be working with.
  • Invite some of these key folks to the new employee lunch or happy hour if do either of these.
  • Give the new employee a list of these folks, tell the new employee to reach out to them and schedule a 30-minute meeting. The new employee’s assignment is to learn as much about that other person’s role as possible.
  • During the second week of onboarding, check in with these folks and see if they have any feedback on the new employee. Then guide the new employee as necessary.

4. Shorten feedback cycles with the new employee

This is an old management trick I learned during one of the many fire drills I’ve been pulled into.

As a company, most of our feedback cycles follow monthly or weekly cadences. Weekly check-ins, monthly all-hands, weekly and monthly reports, weekly kick-offs and wrap-ups. This is the norm.

In most cases, these cycles work perfectly. They’re enough time for tangible progress to be made and short enough to course-correct as needed.

There are a few situations where a tighter cycle makes an enormous difference. A crisis situation is a perfect example. Whenever I find myself in one of these, I immediately move the team to daily check-ins. Note that these meetings are more involved than the standard daily check-ins of a scrum workflow.

Another place that daily check-ins work really well is during onboarding. If I really need an employee onboarded as quickly as possible, I’ll play this card. Instead of meeting 2-3 times during their first week and then meeting on a weekly cadence after that, I’ll immediately schedule daily one-on-one’s for as long as necessary until the employee is fully onboarded.

Work with the new employee each day to figure out exactly what they need to have completed by the next call. Then repeat the next day. Keep in mind a few things:

  • Since there’s only one day to complete the work, de-scope projects substantially so the employee has enough time.
  • Tell the new employee that this is an opportunity for lots of feedback. Whatever they bring to the next call is fine, everyone expects lots of iteration.
  • Recommend that the employee keep a running list of questions as they work through the project, then you’ll answer all the questions during the next call.

Be careful though, I consider this a bit of a sledgehammer management tactic. It’s a great way to add urgency and get everyone on point. But the longer that people operate under this extra pressure, the more drained they’ll get. I always try to cycle back into a weekly cadence as soon as I can. This is probably too intense for onboarding most folks, I only do it for extremely urgent roles.