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Onboarding for startups: building a low-effort, high-reward process

As soon as I started my journey as founder of CharlieHR, I realised that our HR needed to be as low-touch as possible.

Back then, we had no HR team. I was the HR team but also acted as the COO, marketing manager, finance director… you name it. I was responsible for building a functioning Ops machine — but for it to work, I knew I needed to pick my battles carefully.

This challenge will be familiar to anybody working at a startup: you want your HR processes to be high-impact, but also take as little time and effort as possible to run.  

Is that even possible? In my opinion, yes — in this guide, I’ll share some tips on how to make employee onboarding a low-effort, high-reward process at your small company.

1 - Make your employee onboarding process repeatable

When you’re just getting started at your business, it can be tempting to approach onboarding on an ad hoc basis: every time you hire someone, you create an onboarding plan that is specific to them.

This strategy may seem like a good fit for the flexible business that you are, but it turns out to be very inefficient and time consuming. It forces you to start from scratch with every new hire, and opens the door to all sorts of inconsistencies, forgetfulness and mistakes.

In my experience, it is worth investing some time building a repeatable onboarding process that can be used in all departments and for all sorts of roles at your business.

Don’t go overboard though — for a startup of less than 100 employees, I’d recommend focusing on:

  • Key onboarding steps: split a new hire’s first 3 months into stages (i.e. employee’s first day, first week, first 90 days)
  • Onboarding tasks: list what needs to be done for each of the above stages, from day one to the end of probation
  • Give each task an owner: specify who in the team will be responsible for each task

While you build your onboarding process, make sure it can be applied to any role you may hire for in the future.

Once you have all your steps, tasks and owners defined, the onboarding process will be there for you to roll out whenever you need, and your new hires will get a much better and more consistent employee experience.

Find out more about building an onboarding process that makes sense with our complete guide on what is onboarding.

2 - Delegate, delegate, delegate

I know myself well enough to understand why you (founder, CEO, Ops manager, etc. ) may feel the responsibility to own every stage of the hiring and onboarding process. But, truth is, no one wins if you spend most of your time completing onboarding admin.  

Start by taking a closer look at each stage of your onboarding process: who is the best person to take responsibility for each of your onboarding tasks? This is an example of how the work can be split:

  • Ops team: order laptop, create email address for new joiner, collect new starter’s details, share handbook with new starter
  • Line manager: add new starter to relevant meetings, prepare information pack for new starter, set goals for probation period, book regular check-ins with new starter
  • IT/Engineering: add new starter to any onboarding software you use

Successful delegation also means you’ll have to trust your team members to perform all of these tasks efficiently by themselves. If you want to supervise the process without micromanaging, it’s a good idea to use online onboarding checklists like the ones in Charlie’s platform.  

Simply create your checklists in Charlie and assign tasks to specific members of your team — automatic reminders will trigger when a deadline is coming up, and you’ll be able to oversee the progress through the dashboard.

Screenshot of onboarding checklists in Charlie

3 - Document the way you work with a company handbook

Startup leaders tend to assume that everybody in their team knows everything about the business — from the ins and outs of your company policies and the purpose of every meeting to your business goals.

That reality however will crumble very quickly as soon as you start bringing new people into the business. That’s why an important part of onboarding to start documenting the way you work very early on.

Instead of having a lot of different documents scattered around, consider incorporating the most important information into a company handbook. This will usually include:

  • Your company policies (time off, parental leave, flexible working, etc.)
  • Your benefits and pension package
  • Any information about the use of the office or remote working best practices
  • Your mission and/or vision, and your company culture
  • The story of your company

If you’re short of time or resources, you could have a Human Resources expert help you write your handbook. And once it’s ready, all you have to do is share it with every new employee — to give them a complete overview of the way you operate.

While this may look like a time-consuming process, it will save you hours answering the same questions over and over with every new hire’s onboarding.

If you use HR software like CharlieHR, you can even store your handbook in the platform, to make it super easy for everybody to access and browse.

Screenshot of the handbook feature in Charlie

4 - Normalise frequent, timely feedback

When your startup’s team is just a handful of people, there is no need for a fully formalised performance review process — people tend to feel a tangible sense of progression quite naturally.

However, with the probation period being a key part of the onboarding process, you need a system to assess whether the new hire is fit for the job.

I’d recommend going for a system that is lightweight enough for you to keep up, such as one-to-ones.

Have the hiring manager meet as regularly as once a week with the new joiner to reciprocally exchange feedback on how the onboarding is going and to remove any obstacles to them passing probation.

This way, you’ll make exchanging feedback a habit in the business — which I believe is one of the most powerful tools to build a high-performing team.

Want to go a step further? Set goals for your new hire to achieve during their onboarding, and discuss progress towards them on every one-to-one you have with them.

Screenshot of the goals feature in Charlie

5 - Automate the most repetitive onboarding tasks

If you work at a startup, you’ll be very familiar with the term ‘multi-tasking’. Small, fast-paced teams are often stretched across multiple responsibilities, and time is always scarce.

That’s why it’s very important to reduce manual work to the minimum and look for any opportunity to automate time-consuming tasks.

This is the reason why I founded Charlie: looking at how much time startups wasted in HR admin, we built a platform to automate and streamline all of it.

Here are a few examples of how you can automate onboarding with a tool like Charlie:

  • Give new hires access to a self-service onboarding platform: they can upload all their documents, without you needing to chase anyone via email
  • Create onboarding checklists and delegate to the right people: pick from expert-backed templates or create your own (think about offboarding checklists as well)
  • Smoothly sync data across all your HR tools: Charlie integrates with the most popular ATS and payroll systems, so you don’t have to spend days copy-pasting information

If you’d like to take CharlieHR for a spin, we offer a 14-day free trial:

Click here to start a 14-day free trial of CharlieHR

I hope you found this guide useful to set the best foundations for your startups’ onboarding process.

You may also be interested in reading about the best employee onboarding experiences at other startups like us, or how to build an effective onboarding program.