The Three Levels of Onboarding πŸŽ’

Why onboarding matters, and a simple framework to make it 10x better.

Like Joni Mitchell said: β€œI have looked at life from both sides now.”

I have been onboarded and have been responsible for onboarding others, multiple times. I can tell β€” also from my own mistakes β€” that onboarding is one of those overlooked processes that sometimes are expected to just happen.

I suspect this is because of a couple of reasons:

  • It feels like a commodity. Once you get past a baseline of quality β€” that is, here are some docs, here is your team, here is what you have to do β€” it doesn't seem there is much room for improvement.

  • Performance is hard to measure, making it hard to assess how the process is actually doing. Which in turn makes it hard to improve.

Let's address both arguments, and see how and why we should make onboarding 10x better πŸ‘‡

πŸŽ’ What is Onboarding

If we trust the Oxford Dictionary, onboarding is "the action or process of integrating a new employee into an organization".

This integration requires alignment between both sides:

  • The employee should learn what is expected from her, and how to actually perform her job.

  • The company should learn what the employee's needs are, and do its best to fulfil them.

Why are these elements so important?

➰ Hiring Cycle

The onboarding process makes up to 50% of the overall hiring cycle.

It might take 3 months to search and hire for a position, and other 3 months to properly bring that person up to speed.

But while on the search & hire part you might be constrained by market and budget, onboarding is totally under your control. The easiest way to shorten the overall hiring cycle is by doing a good job on the onboarding side.

That initial period is also the best opportunity to align with new people's needs, and set them on the right trajectory from the start.

🎯 Make it a Project & The Three Levels

To make onboarding better, there are two angles you should consider:

  1. Treat it as a project β€” projects have a goal, a beginning and an end. Onboarding should make no exception. Create a series of activities that, once completed, have covered the basics to allow new people make a positive contribution. Pretty much like the introductory chapter in a videogame.

  2. Work on the three levels β€” technical, managerial, and cultural. Make sure you don't cover just the basic needs for the everyday job (technical), but clarify people's role within the company (managerial) and help them feel part of the team (cultural).

I borrow the levels from this great talk by James Stanier, which discusses them in the context of engineering β€” but I believe they really apply to any profession.

Combining the two advices means that, for each level, you should design a series of activities to be performed by new employees, in a given time frame.

Let's see them more in detail.

Onboarding effort decreases over time as the contribution value of the new employee increases. In my experience, cultural onboarding is the one taking the most time.

πŸ”¨ Technical Onboarding

Technical onboarding is about individual contribution. It includes what you have to know to properly do your job. It roughly corresponds to the basic needs from the pyramid of engagement.

Take developers, for instance. They likely need to learn about the dev cycle: docs, development, review, deployment and monitoring.

To complete their technical onboarding, you might define a mini project to be completed in a few days. It doesn't matter what the project is about, the goal is pushing to production and experiencing the whole flow.

🀝 Managerial Onboarding

Managerial onboarding is about the employee's broader role within the company, the relationship with her manager and what she is going to achieve in a longer time frame.

As a manager, you might want to cross off these points:

  • Discuss career tracks, processes and whatever is needed to work together.

  • Establish a clear path for her first 90 days β€” what will she be working on?

  • Schedule the weekly 1:1s, and use them to deep dive into the first two points, and answer any other questions she might have.

🎨 Cultural Onboarding

Cultural onboarding is about developing a sense of belonging, and becoming an integral part of the wider company.

We are human beings, and as such we all get a sense of fulfilment from participating to something bigger than ourselves. We want to share a mission, develop friends, and feel our opinion matters.

In my experience, this is at the same time 1) the most challenging part of onboarding, 2) the most overlooked one, and 3) the one that takes more time, no matter what.

As a manager, these are a few things you can do to accelerate this process:

  • Share values and mission β€” both at company scale and at smaller, team scale. Let people understand why we do the things we do, and how. Create identity around the way we do things here.

  • Setup a buddy system for the first weeks β€” this is a proven way of accelerating cultural integration. A buddy helps you understand social dynamics like lunches, internal memes, and all that stuff that doesn't come with documentation. Keep a list of people who wish to become mentors, and choose from that every time.

  • Have a place and time for sharing non-work stuff β€” people create a real bond by sharing interests, hobbies, and pieces of their life outside of work. We should encourage it by making room for it, with dedicated space (channels) and time (virtual coffees, celebrations).

πŸ“š Resources

The three levels are a useful angle for approaching onboarding, but they are not the only possible one.

There's been a good conversation on Twitter, where Pat argued there is a business & domain onboarding that might deserve its own category. I agree with him, and I suspect much of it depends on the business itself. There are businesses (and skills) where domain knowledge is crucial for your contribution, and others where it's less relevant.

Here is a list of other great resources I have used for this article:

  • πŸ“Ί James’ talk about Engineer Onboarding β€” this is a must see. I have taken many ideas from it β€” it's short, dense of insights, and presented with clarity.

  • πŸ“– GitLab wiki section about Onboarding β€” GitLab is a full remote company that is well-known for having thorough, public documentation about its processes. Onboarding makes no exception, and it's super useful to read all the nuts and bolts, from high level stuff down to the names of the single slack channels.

  • πŸ‘―β€β™‚οΈ Every new Employee needs a Buddy β€” this is a great study by Microsoft, published on HBR. It elaborates on the importance of a buddy system, and backs it with actual data about employee's satisfaction and engagement.

πŸ“Œ Takeaways

For all you busy people, here is what you should absolutely remember:

  • 🧠 Investing in good onboarding is a no-brainer. It's the most reliable way to make the hiring cycle faster, and it vastly improves engagement and retention.

  • 🎯 Create mini projects around things that should be learned, to make onboarding measurable and more engaging.

  • 3️⃣ Define the Technical, Managerial, and Cultural topics to be addressed, to make sure you cover the most important things people should get in touch with.

That's it for this week! What's your experience with onboarding? Do you have a formal process for it? Let me know in the comments πŸ‘‡ or via email


Hey, I am Luca πŸ‘‹ thank you for reading this through!

Every week I read tens of articles and draw from my own experience to create a 10-minutes advice about some engineering leadership topic.

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