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How we dramatically improved 18F’s onboarding process in 3 months

Three months ago, my colleague Andrew Maier and I were tasked with reimagining the way 18F onboards our new hires.

The need was obvious: 18F is rapidly growing. In the past year and a half, we’ve grown from a team of 15 to a team of more than 160 people distributed across the United States.

Every two weeks, a new cohort joins our team. Members of the cohort may live in different places, and have different skillsets, backgrounds, and learning styles. No matter what their job is, they need to learn about working at 18F, in the federal government, and on their specific team and projects.

Over the past three months, we’ve released several products that help new hires acclimate to our organization. In this blog post, we’ll detail what we did and why it works really well.

Building a castle of onboarding blocks

From the beginning, we conceived of onboarding as a series of interlinking blocks. Here’s the way we drew our mental model of these blocks back in September:

An early sketch for onboarding modules

Every 18F employee needs to know certain general stuff: what the Hatch Act is, where to file their health insurance, and how to add their biography to our website, for example.

Then there’s location-specific information that new hires need. A person who works remotely needs to know how to dial into our weekly all-hands staff meeting. A person living in Chicago needs to know where the bathrooms and printers are in the Chicago office.

But wait, there’s more: every 18F employee is on a team. Someone on the Design team needs to learn the software the Design team uses, whereas someone on the Talent team needs to know how the Talent team tackles recruiting.

Finally, 18F members are staffed on a particular project. They need to be acclimated to the project so that they can begin to work on something like betaFEC or Every Kid in a Park.

We knew these basic categories — 18F stuff, location stuff, team stuff, and project stuff — but we didn’t know what specific bits of information each category contained. So we spent two weeks researching what other organizations did to acclimate new employees and then interviewed 17 people across 18F. We asked directors and team leads questions like:

  • What do you want every new hire on your team to know?
  • When is the first time you talk to a new hire on your team?
  • What tools do you use to share information with your team?
  • What should 18F teach every new hire, regardless of team?
  • Who does onboarding well outside of 18F?

We also talked to people who recently came onboard. We asked them what they wish they’d known before arriving, what they were confused about, and how they learned certain pieces of information.

We measured how many questions were asked across our chat platform Slack. If people asked the same questions over and over again, we wanted to develop ways to capture and document that knowledge to make it easier for new hires to discover.

Lastly, we ran a workshop with people who work with new hires from the minute they accept our offer through the end of their first week. We asked them what new hires needed to know before they started, during their first week, and during their first month. We asked which teams handled which tasks and when those tasks needed to be completed. (For example, our Operations team acquires a computer for each new hire two weeks before their start date.)

Armed with our research, we set to work on creating intentional and thoughtful tools that would help new employees learn the ropes.

Intentional, comprehensive, and human-centered

Now, when new hires arrive at 18F, they receive:

  • A buddy from their team who helps answer any and all questions they may have.
  • A schedule of Slack-based classes that take place bi-weekly or monthly and cover 25 topics ranging from professional development to learning more about open source software. This gives new hires a chance to meet their colleagues and learn who to go to for questions, without overwhelming them during the first week.
  • A comprehensive handbook that details everything an employee at 18F needs to know and covers everything that’s mentioned in the Slack-based classes.
  • Access to Dolores Landingham, our onboarding Slack bot, which trickles out information to new hires over their first month.
  • A series of checklists that tell them exactly what tasks to complete, in what order. (We also created checklists for teams, directors, and others who work with new hires so that they also knew what tasks to do for each new hire.)

This may sound like a lot. But we make it clear to new hires that we don’t expect them to do everything on their checklist in their first week or even month, and that we will help with particularly tricky tasks.

Documentation early and often

Instead, we recommend that new hires spend their first day or two setting up their computer, setting strong passwords, and acclimating to working with colleagues all over the country.

On day two, they begin taking our Slack-based classes. The classes cover more than 25 topics and are scheduled on a biweekly or monthly basis. They cover everything from benefits to legal considerations to how to use GitHub. Everything a new hire needs to know about 18F is covered in these classes, each of which takes about 20 minutes and introduces our new hires to folks across our team.

We chose to hold the classes via chat for a few reasons:

  • New hires can go back and find the information at any time.
  • We wanted to document best practices for the handbook. It was much easier to ask a colleague to lead a short seminar on benefits and then copy the information directly into the handbook than transcribing a verbal interview.
  • Current 18F staffers are used to working in Slack and it wasn’t a burden to ask them to run a class every month for 20 minutes.
  • New hires were located all over the country and chat made it easy to account for different time zones. (New hires are encouraged to attend these at the same time but occasionally have other meetings. They can check back in via Slack at any time.)
  • We didn’t want to overwhelm new hires during their first week. Starting a new job is stressful and new hires don’t need to know everything on their first day or week or month. Spreading the classes out helped pace expectations.

The classes have been wildly successful. We’ve measured their success by again measuring the number of questions people ask across Slack. The number has gone down and people who were receiving a lot of questions, like our travel lead Ethan Heppner, reported receiving many fewer basic questions. This freed up Ethan’s time to work on his travel-related activities.

Here’s to you, Mrs. Landingham

In conjunction with the Slack-based classes and a checklist, new hires were also signed up for Mrs. Landingham, our Slack-based bot. Named after a character on the West Wing, Mrs. Landingham disperses bits of wisdom to new hires over their first 30 days.

We based this approach on something we saw at thoughtbot: they trickle out new information to new hires over a period of time via email. We liked the idea of trickling out information so that new hires were not overwhelmed. But we primarily use Slack to communicate and wanted new hires to become accustomed to the platforms we use at work.

Mrs. Landingham releases one message per day to new hires over their first 30 days. The messages are prewritten: when new hires are signed up, they begin the 30 day cycle of messaging. They look like this:

A test conversation with Mrs. Dolores Landingham, the onboarding chat bot.

We find that Mrs. Landingham is a fun, easy, and efficient way to provide information to new hires. She helps them learn about Slack by sending messages through Slack. She also sends daily tips and tricks about the way we work, and provides helpful advice from current 18F employees.

(My colleague Jessie Young, the lead developer on Mrs. Landingham, talks more about the bot and how it works.)

Onboarding begins before day 1

Mrs. Landingham, the handbook, and classes help new hires after they arrive at 18F, but onboarding our new hires actually begins well before the first day.

There are a whopping 53 specific tasks that members of our Talent and Ops teams complete before a new hire arrives at 18F for their first day. Our Talent Team coordinates many of these tasks with the General Services Administration’s (GSA) Human Resources department. They also send new hires a series of emails that help new employees navigate the forms they need to fill out, the tasks they need to complete, and their first day of work. Our Operations team is then responsible for getting new hires a laptop and phone, and ensuring that they have an email address.

This first day of work is somewhat tricky from an operations standpoint: Our new hires take orientation all over the country at the GSA building closest to where they live. There are different protocols for different locations: Chicago orients new employees in the afternoon, Washington D.C. in the morning.

We released template emails and checklists that help everyone at 18F keep track of this information. We’re also developing a way to make it even easier for our Talent Team to send out emails to new hires before their first day.

Iterative and open onboarding

We used the same techniques for onboarding that 18F uses on every project. We worked iterative and openly. We asked new hires and people across 18F for feedback continuously, and integrated changes into the process as we worked.

And it’s worked. The length of time new hires take to acclimate to our organization has been trimmed by a significant amount, and the number of questions they’re asking on Slack has dropped. Directors report that their teams are able to work more quickly and efficiently, and teams report that new hires already know the material they’re sharing.

But the best feedback has come from the new hires themselves. They love Mrs. Landingham, and have praised the classes. One even said, “This is the most efficient, comprehensive, well-organized onboarding I’ve ever seen. Of course, I’ve only worked at about fifteen companies in my career.”

As 18F grows, we plan to continue to tinker with onboarding and improve it even more. We’re also aware that what we’ve learned internally can be applied in other areas: vendors working with the Agile BPA process, or other Digital Services agencies, for example. We will continue to share as we build new blocks that help 18F grow.

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