How can you ensure your new employees show up ready to work on their first day?

Fresh Tilled Soil, a Boston-area design firm with 28 employees, has devised a practical solution to this challenge, which most growing companies confront on a regular basis. It's a 44-point onboarding checklist, along with an eight-week onboarding calendar that varies from position to position. 

It sounds--and it is--like an HR version of surgeon Atul Gawande's best-selling The Checklist Manifesto. But it didn't happen overnight. Like many small businesses, Fresh was accustomed to what you could call seat-of-the-pants onboarding: There were a few formal procedures, but it was largely an impromptu affair, a sensibility that newbies would figure things out as they went along. That began to change last July, when Emily Powers came aboard as director of operations. With the headcount entering the high twenties, Fresh recognized that it needed to become more formal about its HR procedures.

Specifically, Powers' first task from Fresh's founders was "Please survive our onboarding process and then fix it," she recalls. So in her first few weeks, Powers took feverish notes about what was working--and what was broken--about her own experience on the welcome wagon. She also kept track of important information that no one formally told her about.

As it turned out, there were swaths of new-employee knowledge that she stumbled upon by accident. For example, there's a gym in Fresh's building in Watertown, Mass. Employees are entitled to free memberships. That's kind of a big deal. But no one told Powers about it. She found out through a casual conversation six weeks into her tenure. 

There were also several key areas of onboarding which were in the hands of non-HR staff. For instance, a developer handled the computer setups for new employees. Someone who worked in business development handled signups for Dropbox. None of which is atypical for a small, 10-year-old company that has grown organically. But Powers was charged with centralizing the many scattered and unofficial onboarding procedures under one HR umbrella.

From the notes of her own onboarding journey, she devised the first draft of the checklist and the eight-week calendar. Since then, four new employees have joined Fresh. Each time, Powers has used that new employee's experience to refine and modify the calendar and checklist. "Every time I walk someone through it, something else sticks out," she says.

For example, the first employee who joined Fresh after she did helped Powers remember to add headshots and bios to the list, for staff profiles on the Fresh site. The second employee who joined after Powers helped her realize that the headshots could also be put to use on Enter, an iPad app that Fresh uses to notify staffers of office visits. Thanks to one of the new employees, Powers realized that the headshots could be added to the Enter app, too--making it more warm and personal. 

For C. Todd Lombardo, who joined Fresh as chief design strategist last December, the onboarding procedure was a welcome relief to what can be the sometimes vacant, often worrisome period between accepting an employer's offer and actually starting the job. He appreciated how most of Powers' requests were small things--nothing time-consuming--but nonetheless requests that could make his first day at Fresh a little easier. "It was things like, 'What kind of laptop would you like,'" he says. He also gave his electronic signature to a few documents necessary for payroll or benefits purposes. He liked how the process was personalized to him. He wasn't part of a formal onboarding cohort with 20 other newbies working in different departments.  

Below is the Fresh onboarding checklist--all 44 points of it, broken into three chunks: Pre-first day, first day, and post-first day. Keep in mind it's just part of an eight-week onboarding schedule, which varies depending on the employee's role. Powers' success in creating the checklist--by taking notes on the details of onboarding experiences, including her own--should serve as a reminder that it's not rocket science to make your company a more welcome place for newbies. You just have to pay attention to what others are going through--and change accordingly. 

Fresh Tilled Soil Onboarding Checklist

Pre-First Day - 2 weeks in advance (17)

  • Salary & benefits info shared with new hire
  • Signed agreement received
  • Create Fresh Tilled Soil email address & aliases
  • Add to company's group email list 
  • Add to emails lists for employee's particular groups
  • Intro to benefits partner Brady
  • Benefits enrollment meeting scheduled
  • Access to WordPress as Subscriber--for Team Portal viewing
  • KIN HR Onboarding welcome
  • Set reminder for 401(k) eligibility at 6 month anniversary
  • Slack: New account
  • Know Your Company: New account & send an icebreaker
  • Equipment purchase - computer, monitor, keyboard, mouse, etc.
  • Enter all equipment into our inventory system
  • Mantra IT Partner: Deploy all apps & software 
  • Dropbox: New account
  • Adobe Creative Cloud: New account

First Day (5) 

  • W4, I9, Welcome Sheet completed and uploaded to KIN
  • On-Time Payroll set-up and employee self-service login
  • Assist in phone set-up if needed
  • Space walk-thru, building keys, & culture overview
  • Commence custom 8-week onboarding program

Post-First Day (22)

  • Complete and submit fitness center forms
  • Distribute building key card
  • Give dental insurance card, if applicable
  • Add to Scrum google event and any other relevant events
  • Add to Company Events calendar
  • Add to Team Portal contact page
  • Add to our Organizational Chart
  • Complete KIN profile
  • Harvest: New account
  • Basecamp: New account
  • New account
  • Order business cards
  • Schedule photoshoot
  • Add headshot to Enter application for guest check-in
  • Write bio
  • Bio & headshot onto
  • Bio into Client Welcome Packet Drive folder
  • Signature saved in Drive Doc (if Client Services or Sales hire)
  • Bio & headshot into Statement of Work template
  • Add headshot & signature (CS & Sales) to Dropbox
  • Join relevant Slack channels: EntryAlerts, Wellness, etc.
  • Update KIN w/ headshot & bio