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What is employee onboarding? A guide for small businesses

Employee onboarding is key to building a high-performing team. It is the main tool you have to give new starters everything they need to thrive in their new role.

This is, however, easier said than done, especially if you work at a startup where you don’t have a full HR team to own the onboarding of new starters.

With this guide, we’re putting together everything we know about onboarding from our experience as a small business in the HR space.

We hope this will arm you with the expertise you need to take your onboarding process to a new level, boost your employee engagement and increase your retention rates.

What is onboarding?

In human resources, onboarding is the process of introducing a new employee into the company. It starts from the moment a job offer is accepted by the candidate until the time they can perform all the tasks they were hired to do.

What onboarding is NOT

Be careful not to confuse onboarding with employee orientation.

It’s common for small companies to think of onboarding in terms of simply introducing the new hire to their teammates, showing them around the office and explaining how the coffee machine works.

This is what we call ‘orientation’ — it’s just a tiny part of a months-long onboarding process.

Also, as remote working is now quite common, orientation is less about showing someone around an office space, and more about getting them familiar with how you work as a business.

What are some common onboarding tasks?

The goal of onboarding is to get new starters to a point where they are an integral and entirely operative part of the team.

There is no set list of tasks that have to be completed, but they usually span across these areas:

  • Compliance tasks: completing all the necessary paperwork and ticking off all the legal requirements
  • Training: ensuring new hires have access to all the tools and knowledge they need to perform their day-to-day tasks and fulfil their role
  • Company culture and rules: having new joiners get familiar with your processes, company policies and ways of working (you can do this by sharing your employee handbook)
  • Probation period objective setting: setting the right expectations for their role with their line manager alongside milestones to be achieved during the probation period
  • Building good relationships: introducing them to their co-workers and ensuring they collaborate effectively across teams.

Why is onboarding important?

Onboarding has a vital role in launching a new hire’s career in your organisation and preventing employee turnover.

It is just as important as hiring and should never just be seen as an admin item to tick off a list. If you don’t get onboarding right, then you shouldn’t be surprised if three months after hiring someone, they suddenly decide to leave.

It’s during this time that a clunky and cold onboarding program can make the difference between keeping or losing your new employees.

This works both ways. Onboarding is essential for you to understand if the person you have hired is the right fit.

The hiring process alone will never give you enough context. You need to see the new joiner collaborate with the rest of the team, get accustomed to your company culture and contribute to business goals before you can tell if your first impressions were correct.

Check out our blog to learn more about why onboarding is important.

How long does onboarding take?

There are no legal requirements when it comes to deciding how long onboarding should take, but in our experience, it should last at least three months long. But it can be longer or shorter depending on your needs.

So, how do you decide how long to make your onboarding process?

1- Make it as long as your probation periods: onboarding usually coincides with probation periods — a new hire is not considered fully onboarded until they have passed their probation. This means that you may have different durations depending on the roles (for senior roles, onboarding can last up to six months).

2- Estimate how much time the new hire will need to prove they are a good fit: another way to do this is thinking about each role and how long it will take you to test if the new hire can perform the most important tasks on their role doc. For example, you’ll want to give a sales representative enough time to prove they can meet your revenue targets.

Whatever duration you decide to go for, make sure you set specific targets and milestones you want your new hire to achieve across their onboarding period. This will give them a purpose and direction as they familiarise themselves with working at your company.

Who owns onboarding?

Human Resources are not the only function responsible for delivering a great onboarding experience, quite the opposite!

Onboarding is a true team effort where stakeholders across the organisation come together to set new starters up for success.

  • The HR department is responsible for building and overseeing the process.
  • Line managers look after their new team members by crafting their job role doc and setting goals for the probation period and beyond. They also have to check in regularly with them to see how they‘re getting on.
  • Their buddy should be at hand in case they have any questions about how things work in the company.
  • The IT team should also help solve any initial hiccups with work equipment and help new starters set up their laptop and any other software they need.
  • The rest of the team is responsible for making sure the new hire feels included and welcome (for example by booking some time in their calendar for a chat, or by making sure they are invited to all social events).

The HR or Ops team should be there to give structure and guidance, but it is the line manager who should proactively work to make the new hire an integral part of the team.

What should my onboarding process steps be?

When welcoming a new starter into the business, make sure you have clear and effective onboarding process steps to lean on.

At Charlie, for example, our onboarding steps are organised around specific, time-bound milestones:

  • New hire’s first day: new employee gets access to all platforms and is introduced to key team members
  • First week: new employee is familiar with your team’s goals and current tactics
  • First month: new employee starts to contribute to team work
  • End of first 90 days (or more, if senior): new employee is successfully fulfilling all of his role responsibilities

Once you have that, you can create different employee onboarding checklists for each of these steps — a checklist of tasks to complete on your new team member’s first day, then another one by their first month, etc.

You can download our onboarding checklist template for some examples of what tasks we list at Charlie for each step of the process.

Click here to download our onboarding checklist

On one hand, clear steps and checklists allow you to give everyone the same, consistent onboarding experience. On the other, they let you delegate more effectively (the line manager will send a welcome email to the new employee, for example, while the Ops manager will add them to your HR software).

Employee onboarding should always be a team-wide endeavour and not solely the responsibility of whoever is in charge of Ops.

What is remote onboarding?

Remote onboarding is when the employee onboarding process is carried out entirely online rather than in person.

Today, many small businesses onboard new employees remotely. Some don’t have an office, others work in a hybrid model with team members across different cities and countries.

Whatever way you work, onboarding tools like Charlie mean that you don’t have to be in person to successfully onboard new team members.

For example, employee data collection can now be entirely automated: new hires can upload their documents and fill in their data directly in your HR software, with no need to hand in any papers.

Image of how to upload new starter details in CharlieHR

Find out more about remote onboarding or read on to see how HR software can help you onboard new team members, regardless of their working location.

What is onboarding software?

HR software helps you by automating your onboarding in a way that’s much more consistent and efficient than if you just did it manually.

You can use HR tools like Charlie to make your onboarding process more effective and to streamline all your onboarding tasks.

Easily collect information with self-service onboarding

  • New hires create their profiles in Charlie and fill in their details
  • No more chasing new joiners for P45s and passports
  • Generate a New Starter Form directly in the software – no need to print

Create tailored checklists for every new joiner

  • Easily create lists of tasks and assign them to yourself your team or new starters
  • Choose from set templates or create your own
  • Delegate onboarding tasks to line managers by making them ‘owners’ of checklists

Help new starters hit the ground running

  • New starters can access your company handbook directly on the platform
  • The people directory helps them put names to faces
  • Holiday entitlement is calculated automatically

Want to take CharlieHR for a spin? Start a 14-day free trial.

Click here to start a free trial of CharlieHR

Not sure what HR tool may be best for your company? Read our onboarding software guide.

Onboarding best practices for small businesses

Onboarding processes can widely vary across businesses and industries. However, in our experience, small companies should follow the following onboarding best practices:

  • Keep it light-touch: don’t overdo it when it comes to training. If your team is small, knowledge sharing will happen naturally
  • Have a plan: define your onboarding steps clearly and keep them consistent with every new hire
  • Don’t take it all on your shoulders: even if your team is small, do try to share onboarding responsibilities with hiring managers, your finance team, etc
  • Ask for feedback: if there’s one person who can help you improve your onboarding process, that’s who is experiencing it first hand. Ask for feedback regularly and act on it

Do check out our blog if you’d like to hear from other small businesses about what makes the best employee onboarding experience.

We hope you found our onboarding guide helpful! If you’re looking for more, you can check out our articles on startup onboarding and employee offboarding.