From Philipp & Katherine: Onboarding into a new job can feel overwhelming and confusing. Never more so than during Covid-19. Typically new employees are handed thick folders of photocopied documents: the reimbursement policy, the (invariably outdated) org chart, the mission statement. They are given the basic set of information that is needed to navigate their new job, supposedly. But these documents don’t really capture how organizations work, how people talk to each other, or if it’s ok to email after hours (or not). Those are things we pick up by observing, and by asking questions, which is much easier when there are opportunities for informal conversations. A good onboarding process covers not only the required content, but it creates the connections that make it possible to feel like part of a team. We recently added a new member to our team, and she wrote a great post about the experience. We are sharing it here, because we think onboarding can be a powerful tool towards building healthy organizational cultures and we would love to start a conversation about how to do it well. Over to Michelle—and welcome to the team ;-)
Our current, awkward global situation (a.k.a. life-threatening crisis) has given me a wormhole through which I can rejoin the Media Lab, my intellectual home that I reluctantly left about 17.5 years ago. A few onboarding processes and tools have made my travels through that portal a little easier during my first week with the Digital Learning + Collaboration Studio or DLCS (which Avery Normandin and I, inspired by a quip from Dan Novy, read as “delicious”).
What and How
It’s more than a little weird to be starting a new job without leaving my house. Luckily for a newcomer like me, my group cares deeply about not just what we do and know, but how we do and know it, and that has eased my transition. This insight comes from a conversation with our group’s admin, Lori Ledford, who shared with me her theory that the group cares about the onboarding process because they conduct research on how people learn things. At heart, every good workplace is a learning environment, where we all teach one another, for better or worse, until we graduate onto other projects.
As one might expect of a group with the word “learning” in its name, I’m surrounded by epistemologists who turn their curious eyes on the workplace itself. Epistemologists study how we know what we know. (Note that DLCS’s ancestry includes the Epistemology & Learning group, so my use of the word is a nod to the history of the Media Lab.) My colleagues have documented how they know what they know. At a time when we’re not working face-to-face, unable to lean over to our desk neighbor for a quick answer or just to keep our ears open to absorb a new group’s common knowledge, being really explicit about how we as members of the Lab know what we know—and where to find things—is especially helpful.
So my group wrote it down. They wrote it ALL down.
I felt particularly welcomed by a tool that the group has used for a while: an onboarding template. It ensures that each new member of the group has gone through all the detailed steps to have access to the institutional knowledge the group shares. Providing such a thorough list welcomes new members with warmth and hospitality, and makes it less possible for a group to overlook a critical step that has unintentionally locked a new member out of its day-to-day operations. Arriving to a tidy, comprehensive list is like getting a hand-written note of local activities from a friendly innkeeper, who also placed a delicious chocolate mint on your freshly laundered pillowcase. “Aah! I could stay here a while,” I thought as I worked through the tasks my new colleagues had assembled.
Take a look at DLCS’s comprehensive template (accessible to all as as a Google doc, and also to the Media Lab community in its original form of Dropbox Paper) which we encourage you to adapt to your own group. We update it based on what’s appropriate for each new team member, and the best part is the final assignment at the bottom of the page:
[ ] Improve the onboarding checklist template to be ready for our next hire.
The list has contingencies. For example, one needs an mit.edu account before getting access to institute-wide licenses to software like Zoom and LastPass. I am tempted to structure this as a giant flowchart, but on the other hand I guess that each person’s experience will be unique, and I don’t want to dictate the learning path too much.
After signing up for different accounts and services, I began to lose track of all the different platforms and software we use and how to access each one. So I started a table in a new doc, the DLCS Software Tools Overview, with these properties listed for each platform:
- Log in using
- How / why / who on the team uses it
- Link(s) / Where to find it