Interview with Corinne Sowar: Effective Employee Onboarding

talentlms_blog_idea_factory Today for the first time we have an interview for you. I had a great conversation with Corinne Sowar in the group “Instructional Design & E-Learning Professionals’ Group” on LinkedIn and asked Corinne for an interview to tell us more about what she does, the results and everything in between!

Corinne is a manager and responsible for eLearning and training at Safeway Inc. You can find her on LinkedIn.

Let’s start.

John: Corinne, you are a manager and responsible for eLearning and training at Safeway Inc. What exactly is it that you are doing there?

Corinne: I have a position that’s not quite the typical eLearning role. I work in an IT department, EBI, that’s in charge of developing business intelligence / reporting and analytics / ad hoc solutions (and corresponding applications) at the enterprise level. Our training group is in charge of creating the end-user training for the products we deliver, which is typically through eLearning, but it could also be train-the-trainer or instructor-led as needed. We work with all facets of the business – corporate finance, retail inventory and sales, marketing, supply, and distribution groups, and that’s just within the past 15 months.

It’s amazing how much our training group learns over the course of a year. While we focus primarily on the technical side, it’s also important that we fully understand the business processes to incorporate into the training. I almost feel like we will eventually know far more than any individual should for a company this size 🙂

Another cool aspect of this position is that EBI uses Agile methodologies to develop the solutions, so my team gets to incorporate training development into the actual project teams (Scrum and Kanban). We do not silo training development into its own project team. It has been a great way to incrementally develop and deliver value, collaborate with the business and other team members, ensure transparency, and be flexible to the changing business needs.

John: Sounds like a great company culture. It must be nice to work there. On our discussion in the group “Instructional Design & E-Learning Professionals’ Group” on LinkedIn, you mentioned that you took on the employee onboarding process as a “hobby”/side project, but it turned out that your new employees loved it. Would you like to tell us more about it?
Like what do you cover in it, how long does it take, etc?

Corinne: We have a hybrid program that goes over both online enterprise-level introductory information (as well as links to the compliance courses) and in-person department-level introductory info, where each track manager speaks about his/her area. There are also online self-discovery lessons that link the employees out to learn more about the concepts behind what our department does, and a welcome session that includes a tour of the building / campus among other welcome info.

Yes, it was a side project, but an important and fun one! I was happy to take it on.

EBI quickly grew from about 15 when I started, to 75 currently, and we continue to grow. With that growth, there was a huge need for effective employee onboarding. Our goals were (and still are) to easily integrate the employees into their new positions, and also to keep our team culture, which is very collaborative, team-focused, and business-driven.

Our onboarding consists of 3 parts which occur simultaneously – the initial onboarding delivered through a hybrid program, working with an “onboarding buddy” or peer coach who has a similar position, and observing team meetings and interactions.

The initial onboarding has both online and in-person sessions. The online portion introduces new employees to our company, our department, the business intelligence / data analytics industry, and Agile. Employees learn about the company history, structure, vision, products, etc., so that they can begin to understand how each business unit is dependent on the others. The online portion also includes the basics like how to connect to the printer, lunch options in the area, links to all websites / programs we use, how to navigate the intranet, a team contact list, links to compliance courses, and a lot more. There are even a few random fun things that have nothing to do with onboarding…

The in-person sessions are held by each track manager (Development, Data, QA, etc.) where they introduce their team’s responsibilities, tips for working in a more collaborative manner, our architecture, and how we interact with the business. We also have live, hands-on sessions including a welcome session, accessing the necessary tools, Agile, and our project development software.

All of this takes between 1 and 2 weeks to complete. However – the new employees aren’t sitting in front of a computer all day. They are also observing / participating in the scrum meetings, and working with their onboarding buddies and managers to learn more about their positions specifically.
After a couple of weeks, when the track manager feels that they are ready, the employees are assigned as an official member of one of the teams. We then hold regular check-ins for the next couple of months to make sure we provide any other training or support that they need, and they continue to work closely with their onboarding buddy.

John: Sounds like a very solid onboarding process. Actually, it seems that you are doing everything correctly! How did your employees react to this process? Do you see perhaps better retention rates and less turn over after implementing an onboarding process?

Corinne: The way our new employees speak about the benefits of their onboarding is great to hear, but at the same time it makes me wonder what other companies are doing. In any case, the biggest benefits are that it shows the employees that we are a collaborative team, that they’re not alone, and that it’ll take time for them to feel like they’re on solid ground – and that’s ok.

From everything I’ve heard, our employees really appreciate the onboarding program. They say it has helped them integrate into the department quickly, and that they feel like a welcomed and important member of the team.

We also provide a survey to give feedback on each session and the onboarding program as a whole. The only request so far has been that we add more sessions, which we were able to integrate into the program.
Out of the 60 or so employees that have participated in our onboarding, we’ve lost 1. I think that’s a pretty decent statistic. Of course, it’s hard to compare to earlier years because we’ve grown so quickly, but still, it’s great!

John: I think that’s awesome, 1 out of 60 employees dropping out sounds unreal. It is less than 2% and if you manage to stay around this percentage as you grow, it will be great. By the way, about how many employees do you have? Do you think onboarding would be applicable to businesses of all sizes?

Corinne: We have 75 employees in our department, and onboarding is extremely important.

At the risk of sounding completely cheesy, does size matter? When it comes to onboarding, I don’t think it does. It’s more about the learning opportunities and integration to the team, so that new employees can feel valuable during the early stages.

There’s also the balance between giving new employees enough meaningful work, and not overwhelming them during their first weeks. A structured onboarding program helps maintain that balance by providing plenty of time for learning and discovery, while allowing them to get their hands dirty when working with an onboarding buddy and participating in the team meetings.

Each company has its own dynamics, but it all comes down to feeling welcomed, knowledgeable, and valuable.

John: I will agree with you. In fact I was once hired by a freelancer and he had a pretty basic onboarding process, but it helped us both save time and be more efficient. Do you first put the new hire to go through the onboarding material on auto-pilot and then have a person-to-person welcome with him or is it hybrid?

Corinne: Our program is hybrid and the 3 parts that I mentioned earlier all happen simultaneously. The employees start their first day by checking their e-mail, where they’ll find a welcome letter outlining the onboarding program with instructions on logging into the online portion, and a lot of meeting invites for the live sessions. The first welcome meeting happens mid-morning of the first day. We try to start new employees every 2 weeks to make the process more manageable on our calendars. It is a time investment, but our department leadership sees the value and is willing to make that investment.

John: Indeed, it is an investment that pays off. Is the onboarding process applicable to all departments or only a few of them? Why?

Corinne: Within our group, it’s applicable to all tracks. Whether you begin as a developer, business analyst, or trainer, it’s important to learn about the company, our group, each track, and our processes to visualize how we work together toward a common goal.

On an enterprise level, I also think that onboarding is important for all departments. It should be two-fold – a general, company-wide program, then a more detailed program at the department level. At the enterprise level, all employees should have a basic understanding of the company organization and the responsibilities of each area, the company culture, mission, etc., compliance info, as well as useful basic information like lunch and parking options, and anything else that we’re too embarrassed to ask on our first day at a new job. Then, each department could integrate the department-focused onboarding.

John: I see, it makes sense. What’s your next plans from now on?

Corinne: As our department continues to grow, we’ll continue to improve our current onboarding process – based on the incoming feedback and requests, and based on changes to our company.

In addition, I’d like to set up a continuing education program. This would include more of the detailed learning that new employees should take in the first year, but don’t necessarily need within the first few months. It would also include track-specific skill learning (e.g. QA learning data integration) so that we can truly have cross-functional teams. Our development methodology believes in swarming to help out where needed within the team no matter your role.

Finally, training others in the Agile methodologies is something that our department is passionate about – whether it’s training the business units we work with, or other IT groups who are interested in learning more. As the Training Manager, I’ll have a large part in that.

John: Awesome! I think that the future will be bright and you are one of those few companies that work as a team and with a solid onboarding system in place. These are all the questions that come to mind Corinne, thanks a lot for your time and for providing all those amazing insights!

Corinne: Thank you! I enjoyed answering the questions!

I hope you, the reader, enjoyed it as much as we did and if you have any questions, feel free to drop them in the comments below. Now, 2 last things:

1) Would you like us to do more interviews in the future? Please let us know in the comments

2) If you would like to be considered for an interview, please drop Alex an email at alex[at]efrontlearning[dot]net along with a short description of your profile.

Don’t forget that you can start your onboarding process by using our cloud TalentLMS, with which you can start instantly and for free.

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