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5 ways to strengthen your onboarding and boost ‘time-to-productivity’

Elissa Tucker, APQC
Elissa Tucker
Elissa Tucker is Principal Research Lead, Human Capital Management, at APQC.

New hires need time. They not only need to learn their role, but also need to become familiar with your organization’s culture and understand how their work fits within the bigger picture of the business. An efficient and effective onboarding process is critical for helping employees gain this knowledge and for maintaining workforce productivity, engagement and retention more broadly.

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Time-to-productivity, which measures the number of days until a new hire is producing at the expected level for their job or role, is a good indicator of whether onboarding is running smoothly or in need of improvement. After breaking down cross-industry data for this measure, we provide guidance for how you can interpret your own benchmarking results and what to do if your onboarding process isn’t where you need it to be.

Why time-to-productivity matters

The risks of rushing employee onboarding—or dragging it out—are greater than many people might imagine. When onboarding takes too long, new hires may experience boredom, make mistakes and feel inadequate, which can lead to stress, job dissatisfaction and turnover. Hiring managers and their teams can experience stress, become disengaged and even leave the organization if they are left bridging workload gaps while the new hire is developing.

Onboarding and time-to-productivity, APQC
Source: APQC

Moving too quickly carries its own risks. New hires may be overwhelmed, overworked and prone to making mistakes, all of which can lead them to quit. The hiring manager and team can also experience stress and dissatisfaction as they struggle to keep up with their roles and support a new team member at the same time. The organization will experience waste (related to resources used for hiring and onboarding) if the new hire leaves prematurely or makes costly mistakes because they didn’t have enough time to learn their role fully.

APQC finds that at the median, organizations take around 35 days to bring new hires up to productivity in their role. The fastest organizations (those at the 25th percentile) take 25 days or fewer, while the slowest organizations (at the 75th percentile) take 50 days or more.

Interpreting time-to-productivity

If your time-to-productivity looks high right now, your goal shouldn’t necessarily be to reduce it to as few days as possible. Instead, the aim should be to design an optimal onboarding process with the right cycle time for your organization. The optimal number of days will vary from one organization to another, based on factors like:

  • Industry, which influences the type of talent an organization needs;
  • the degree to which employees need organization-specific knowledge;
  • the employee’s function, profession or role;
  • the employee’s career stage—for example, an employee early in their career may require basic work skills and capabilities that take longer to adopt;
  • budgets, staffing levels or other constraints; and
  • the organization’s talent management strategy—for example, whether they primarily hire “ready now” versus “ready with development” talent.

For a comprehensive assessment of your onboarding performance, don’t benchmark this measure alone. Use measures like engagement, retention rates and employees’ performance ratings over time to help you determine if your onboarding is optimized or if there are areas for improvement. For example, if your onboarding process only takes two weeks but you are having trouble retaining employees beyond their first year, you may want to take a closer look at your onboarding practices.

Optimizing time-to-productivity

The five practices below can help you strengthen your onboarding and work toward the optimal cycle time for your organization.

Takes a proactive approach to onboarding

The best way to ensure a smooth and efficient onboarding process is to be deliberate about what that process looks like. Integrate your onboarding process with your workforce planning strategy so that you understand the volume of new employees coming in as well as the type of onboarding that these employees will need. Similarly, decisions about whether to build or buy talent and whether you will hire employees who are “ready now” versus “ready with development” will all play a role in shaping what your onboarding needs look like.

Provide formal onboarding programs

Formal onboarding is critical for optimizing time to productivity. Especially for your organization’s most common and critical roles, you should develop a formal, role-specific onboarding program that includes:

  • A roadmap with a timeline, milestones, and assigned roles and accountabilities;
  • training and support materials for all onboarding stakeholders like HR, the hiring manager, the new hire’s team and the new hire;
  • development programming that is available in a variety of formats to cater to different learning preferences; and
  • a method for monitoring onboarding progress and intervening if progress is lacking.

Use informal approaches to support onboarding

Some aspects of onboarding, like building networks and institutional know-how, are best done through informal approaches. For example:

  • Learning paths and nudges to help the new hire access relevant learning offerings;
  • knowledge management approaches like expertise location systems, knowledge repositories and communities of practice; and
  • voluntary mentor and/or buddy matching.

It’s important to put infrastructure in place to ensure the effective use of these less formal avenues for the development of new hires.

Apply learning technologies

Learning technologies can be used to enhance both formal and informal programming for onboarding. For example, technology can be used to:

  • Establish and maintain a development timeline, training schedule and accountabilities. Many learning management systems provide real-time status updates and proactively remind learners of approaching deadlines to keep learning on track.
  • Provide customization and personalization. Self-service capabilities available in many forms of learning technology allow new hires to adjust the pace of onboarding and help them discover other relevant learning resources.
  • Build learning communities. Online communities of practice and discussion forums provide spaces where employees can connect with experts, share knowledge with peers and search for guidance related to their role.

Assess and continually improve onboarding

To continually improve onboarding, it’s important to capture data related to employee learning outcomes as well as the performance of your onboarding process itself. Many learning management systems can automatically capture key learner data like usage statistics and the average time to complete courses, where users tend to have pain points and more.

You should also conduct interviews and surveys with stakeholders, including new hires, to gather information on what worked well and what could be improved. Document your findings from these interviews, along with any other lessons learned, to continually improve the program and understand what it looks like when employees reach productivity in their role.

Key takeaways

The goal of onboarding is to provide new employees with the practical, technical and cultural knowledge they need to perform effectively in their roles. The number of days it takes to provide employees with that knowledge can vary based on factors including your industry, the specific role for which an employee has been hired and more. However, a deliberate plan for onboarding—along with the right structures, resources and technology—helps ensure that onboarding proceeds as efficiently and effectively as possible.

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Data in this content was accurate at the time of publication. For the most current data, visit apqc.org.