Connections, onboarding, and the need to belong

Connections, onboarding, and the need to belong
Few would disagree that relationships matter. However, when onboarding new employees, many organizations don’t do enough to help them make connections or foster a sense of belonging.

As a doctoral student, I started studying the process of onboarding newcomers by looking at freshly admitted research scientists. It wasn’t surprising to see that scientists with prior research experience and a better understanding of their organization’s culture were more productive, engaged, and committed after one year. What was surprising was that these effects persisted in the long term. We followed these scientists into their research careers and found that mentoring connections they made early on were related to their productivity and confidence levels five and a half years later.

In a recent study I conducted with my colleague, Sushil Nifadkar, we found that new software engineers in India who did not establish meaningful connections with coworkers sought out less organizational information, a behavior that's crucial to newcomer success. However, new engineers could overcome this information gap by establishing a strong connection with their manager. This suggests that what matters is the act of connecting, not necessarily the person to whom one is connected. The relationship with someone in the organization helps the new employee feel a sense of belonging to the organization and enables him or her to freely seek information.

The links between clarity, confidence, and connection have been confirmed in research across other occupations and settings as well. Organizations can help new employees maximize their chances for success by engaging in connection-based onboarding. After dealing with the basics (e.g., payroll, desk assignment, and email access), organizations should focus on specific ways to help new employees feel welcome. This could mean helping them build their networks even before they arrive on the first day. When individuals feel more accepted and connected to those around them, they ask more questions and gain confidence, which is something Google also found in its research on teams.

I’ve distilled some of these practices into an onboarding checklist you can use and customize for your organization. The practices are based on observations from our studies, feedback from new employees and managers at small, medium, and large organizations around the world, and research on new employee adjustment.

So the next time a new employee joins your organization, think about reaching out, introducing them to some other coworkers, and making sure they feel welcome. It could go a long way.

Talya Bauer is the Cameron Professor of Management at the Portland State University School of Business Administration. Her research focuses on recruitment, applicant reactions to selection, onboarding, and leadership.