Employee Onboarding in the Age of Culture Tech

Written by

Brigid Fox


January 23, 2020

As a company that’s obsessed with culture, I knew I was joining something special when I joined Totem and Play Consulting.  But three weeks into my new role and I can honestly say I’ll never look at pre- and onboarding the same way.

Let me explain.

The first days of a new job are usually a bit odd. Lots of polite hellos, and mental note-taking of names and roles. Some of which you’ll inevitably forget as you try to process the mountains of new information needed to get up to speed. Trying to work out whose mug is whose in case you make a brew in somebody’s favourite right at the moment they want to use it, risking the wrath of the PlayStation mug owner (side note: turns out you can tell a lot about the company culture by the mugs in the kitchen cupboard!).

Then there is the dual excitement and anxiety of working out your place in a new group of people whose dynamic is completely unknown to you. Who are my new work tribe and what are they like? Will we have similar work values and will we have anything in common beyond working in the same space? Will I make a good first impression? Will I belong?

All of these things ran through my mind before joining the Totem team. For those who haven’t seen it in action, Totem is a culture tech app that enables businesses to build and amplify authentic workplace culture. It does this through work social and in-app communication, recognition & kudos, people profiles and cultural insights that are fed by sky-high adoption and usage statistics that are more akin to social media and gaming than business software.

Knowing the importance of drinking one’s own champagne (preferred to dog food), I was welcomed onto our internal Totem app several weeks before my official Day 1. Though it didn’t make me completely immune to the new job jitters, pre-boarding on Totem transformed my experience as a new employee.

Thanks to Totem’s work social feed, I already knew enough about members of the Totem tribe to walk into the office on the 2nd January, my first day, with confidence that I’d have some common ground to start from.

I knew the name of the gent who answered the intercom I buzzed to access the office (thanks, Bobby) because I’d seen him posting office updates on Totem over the Christmas break.

I knew not just the names of my teammates, also something about them. Thanks to the Kudos feature I could see the kinds of projects people were working on and the recognition they received from their peers, be it for work or for living Totem and Play values.  This along with the mobile profiles of each teammate humanized those I’d only met through a screen.

Over Christmas, the team shared everything from company updates to pictures of their Christmas trees and festive decorating skills (it definitely got competitive!). And because Totem isn’t a place for performing work tasks (like Slack, email, Teams etc) but for sharing, communicating and celebrating success with one another, many of us even checked in on Christmas Day to wish our teammates Happy Christmas without getting inbox fear.

It wasn’t just the Totem team that logged on over Christmas.

Our usage figures show that one Totem customer had a 43% login rate on the 25th of December and 52% on New Year Eve (vs. 84% average daily login). Not something you’d see on a typical B2B app.

From a practical standpoint, despite no formal onboarding program I knew where to find the company policies, Playbook, and essential information about the office on my first day without needing to ask –  they were linked in the Totem app dashboard.

All of this is great for a new employee, but what about for business? Is pre-boarding new hires just more work, or could it drive real value and better retention outcomes?

Trusty Harvard Business Review surveyed 588 senior executives who’d transitioned into new roles and found that “organizational culture and politics, not lack of competence or managerial skill, were the primary reasons for failure.” They also advise that the best way of avoiding new leader churn is to help them with “navigating internal networks and gaining insight into organizational and team dynamics.”

Which is exactly what Totem enabled me to do as a new leader in the business.

What might the outcome have been for the 588 leaders if they’d been pre-boarded and integrated into the business culture earlier, to get a headstart on understanding their new workplace dynamic?

Time-to-productivity for new employees is another crucial metric for businesses given the costs of recruiting and retaining top talent. Again HBR found that when new employees are ‘integrated’ into their new culture vs. simply ‘operationally onboarded’ into the company “the average amount of time to reach full performance can be reduced by a third, from six months to four.”

This resonates with my own experience. Feeling part of Totem before I was on payroll meant I was comfortable jumping straight into business-critical projects from day one. Due in large part to the connections I made with my new workmates before I stepped in the door, I’m into my core responsibilities faster at Totem than in any previous role.

Beyond time-to-productivity for fulltime employees, Totem also extends workplace culture beyond the traditional boundaries of the company to freelancers, part-time workers or partners, all of whom need to understand and collaborate effectively with the teams they work with to be productive. Reducing ramp-up time is real money to a business. And ultimately, great culture really is everyone’s business, whatever their role, and wherever they sit in (or out) of the company.

What I’ve seen in my own onboarding experience is that Culture Tech like Totem is a great facilitator of meaningful connections between colleagues. It helps new employees understand and integrate into their new workplace culture fast. And while some might be sceptical about mixing ‘social’ and ‘work’ in one work-public place,  it’s our nature as human beings to want to show and be accepted for who we are, to be our full selves, at work as well as home.

Having seen first hand how that builds trust and connection, that’s certainly something to embrace.