4 tips from sports on how to improve employee onboarding

Oct 24, 2022
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When people start a new job in the corporate world, they often get a laptop pushed into their hands, a quick ‘good luck’, and after that, they’re expected to simply start doing the job. At Trengo, we decided to do things differently.

As a people business partner at Trengo, I am responsible for the onboarding of new employees; from their very first day at Trengo until their first months and beyond. Every month, I onboard groups of up to twelve people. I’ve onboarded more than 32 nationalities, heard even more languages, came across many different cultures, and it broadens my horizon. Every. Single. Time.

Besides being a people business partner, I also work in sports. I am a dedicated field hockey player and coach and my educational background is in sports- and performance psychology. I have been coaching selection teams at both a professional and amateur level for more than 10 years. I've been through promotions, played championships and I've helped players reach the Dutch National Youth Team.

In this article, I’ll explain how I used my experience as an athlete and coach to improve employee onboarding at Trengo (thanks to my manager Laura for encouraging me!)

What is employee onboarding and why is it important?

Employee onboarding refers to the process of introducing a newly hired employee to the company. During onboarding, you guide new employees to understand their roles and prepare them for their tasks and job requirements. It helps them to integrate with the rest of the company. Ideally, employees will feel more confident and competent when the onboarding process is complete. At some companies, onboarding takes months; at others, there is almost no onboarding.

Research shows that there is a positive relationship between onboarding, employee retention, engagement levels, and how fast someone is up to speed. And if that is not enough; it also ensures a faster return on investment.

But don’t take it from me. Here are some real reactions we have received in the past:

  • “I’ve never had an onboarding where you put so much emphasis on the welcoming of employees.”
  • “I appreciate you organizing a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion workshop, it shows you really care.” (shoutout to my colleague Josy)
  • And for me the most shocking comment: “This is the first time I don't get a laptop pushed in my hands with the words “good luck”. And that’s just it.”

How sports and business are (not) alike

The worlds of business and sports can seem so far apart. And believe me, it took me a while to see what they can learn from each other.

Athletes sometimes train up to 5 times a week before they are expected to perform in competition. They prepare for every possible situation, set goals, evaluate, deal with setbacks, receive constant feedback, drop out, work together in teams, and often have to perform under pressure.

When a new player from abroad joins the team, they usually don’t make the starting lineup right away. And if they do, it’s unrealistic to expect them to hit their peak level right away.

But in the business world, that’s often how it goes. How is it possible that in sports, we constantly prepare everyone before they have to deliver a performance, and in business, we want employees to start performing right away?

Shouldn’t we invest more time in onboarding, education, and training if we want to take our employees to the next level?

How we onboard new employees at Trengo

Delivering an extraordinary performance requires extraordinary preparation. At the beginning of every hockey season, I go on a training weekend with my team. And there's one rule: no field hockey. The focus is on getting to know each other, making agreements, and setting expectations and goals for the season, both at a team level and individual level. Above all, we spend a lot of time on team building. This creates the basis for how we will train for the rest of the season and how well we will perform.

At Trengo, we do this in a similar way. On the first day, you hardly touch your laptop. We focus on making everyone feel welcome, getting to know each other, and setting expectations. Everyone (yes, really!) follows the same onboarding for the first week, no matter how experienced you are. After that, you get a team-specific onboarding.

Our three pillars are:

  1. Getting to know your team
  2. Getting to know our product
  3. Expectations of your first weeks and months for your position

Four things that companies can learn from athletes/sport

Here are four things that businesses can learn from the world of sports.

1. Put yourself in the employee's shoes

During this hockey season, my team welcomed a new player. He was used to always being the best, having a leading role, and now he suddenly found himself struggling with the level. He didn't always understand our tactics and had to work hard on his fitness. And what many people don't see: he also went from cycling for 10 minutes and living with his parents, to getting up early, going to college, and traveling by train for an hour to get to practice.

As a coach, it is your job to ensure that this player is guided as well as possible to fit in with the group and the level. This takes time, but it ensures that someone eventually performs well and feels at home much faster.

We also saw this happen at Trengo. Some employees immigrate to work here. They literally get off the plane on Sunday and start their new job on Monday. I noticed they were — aside from being excited — tired and overwhelmed. Instead of some product workshops, we have been working on tips about transport, housing, and the well-known 'Buienalarm' app in the Netherlands. I noticed a weight was lifted off their shoulders when they experienced they can also ask these kinds of questions.

The biggest highlight for me was that two of my team members just wanted to show some colleagues around Utrecht. This resulted in a group of 20 people doing a tour through Utrecht. No one ever asked them to do it. It is not in their job description. If that's not employee engagement… (shoutout to Danique and Onno!)

2. Give compliments

This one seems obvious, but it’s so powerful.

As an athlete, you are drilled so hard every practice to focus on what needs to be improved. This is necessary on one hand, but sometimes you forget what that can do to someone. I noticed that some players played a lot less well than usual at some point. We had lost a few games and kept focusing on the areas for improvement until a player lunged at us and said 'is there anything that we are doing right?'

And he was right. The next day, we only trained in things we were good at. We agreed that both players and coaches could only name things that went well during that practice. I have never seen so many smiling faces so quickly. You really felt the atmosphere change and we got back into the flow. Now we alternate much more often with positive and constructive feedback. It's much more balanced.

In the workplace, you also take a lot of good things for granted. We simply forget to name them. Some colleagues just make you happy. They go the extra mile, want to help the business get further, or are always there for you. How many times do you ask people to do this? Because I’ll be honest; I did not do it that often ‘cause I thought they already knew. When I started noticing the effect of compliments, I decided to do it more often.

Recently, during feedback training, we spent 2 minutes on a speed date in which teammates were simply allowed to compliment each other Someone even said 'I felt this in my stomach, I have such a big smile. We should do this more often'.

I repeat; 2 minutes! For those interested; google what 'contagious emotions' are and how they affect performance. In short: it works like crazy.

3. Let people talk

Players often expect the coach to have all the answers. What tactics are we going to play and what are the focus points? However, once the players are on the field, they have to do it themselves. If the situation during a match suddenly changes, you hope that the players can solve this by themselves. Because there is not always time and space to intervene as a coach at such an important moment. You then depend on how autonomous your players are. How well can and dare they make their own choices at such a moment?

One game, it was raining so hard that it was hard to pass the ball. My tip was to simply play harder so that the ball wouldn't be slowed down by the water on the field. Unfortunately, this didn't work.

I realized I should not forget how many years of knowledge are often in one room. With ten 20-year-olds you already have 200(!) years of knowledge. Instead of figuring out a solution myself, I asked during halftime what they wanted to do. They thought of playing the ball through the air. As it turned out, this went much faster and the opponent didn't know how to deal with this. This way, you not only teach people to look for solutions themselves, but they often come up with more creative ideas.

During the training I give at Trengo I also don't always know the answers to some questions. I decided to dedicate more time to letting people find the answer themselves, discuss, exchange experiences and just talk. This is often much more useful than the training itself.

4. Focus on the process, not the outcome (and great outcomes will follow)

We tend to be so preoccupied with the end result that we forget about the path to get there. The journey to a certain outcome or goal has a major influence on the final performance. A lot of research has been done on sports as well as the business world and performance.

If you only set outcome goals, such as winning the match, it can be very demotivating if you are 2-0 down or if you end up losing. It feels as if you have worked hard for nothing and have not developed yourself. Or the other way around, if you're ahead with 2-0, why go the extra mile to score more goals?

That’s why it’s important to set process goals. An example is to keep up the pace by only holding the ball for 3 seconds. Whether you are 1-0 behind or ahead, players will continue to maintain a high tempo which can ultimately contribute to the outcome goal: winning. This keeps motivation higher and you can experience that you have achieved your goal regardless of the outcome.

To make the translation to onboarding; I don't just focus on making sure they can perform as well as possible in their role. I also emphasize what it takes to do that. Such as following training courses on communication and feedback, product workshops, and team building. I also challenge them to look for what they think they need to do their tasks in the best possible way. This encourages them to take ownership of their own development.

Now what? A take-home message

For those who read this and think 'thanks, captain obvious', I’d like to repeat that so many people feel unprepared for their role. For their future. And with the right onboarding, you can improve their performance by a lot.

Are you interested in this topic, do you want to know more or just spar? You can always send me a message on LinkedIn.

PS: We're hiring! 💡

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