Part of InSync Training's Thriving as a Learning Professional Series
One of the most often used training interactions in the workplace is on-the-job training (OJT). You simply sit someone down and teach them what they need to know to perform work tasks or run through the procedures and policies for a particular job in the organization. It’s a very informal approach that we engage in all the time with colleagues, new team members, and others.
But if you talk to people about how they are onboarded to their jobs, you’ll often hear a tale of woe – with employees trying to put their best foot forward while feeling unprepared, not confident, out-of-place, lonely, and terribly nervous about making mistakes. In the new world of hybrid work, these problems are magnified by a perception of isolation.
While orientation and assimilation training programs are often organized out of Human Resources or the L&D department, many people are brought up to speed by their colleagues or supervisors – people who don’t necessarily have skill in instructional design. Still, most people have the experience of teaching others, and with a little planning and forethought, you can devise an on-the-job training process that covers all the bases and effectively integrates your newcomers onto your team and into the work environment.
If you approach one-on-one training with the mind of a coach, you can help people to become ready to contribute and glad to be on your team.
Define the plays
Start by listing the information and tasks that the newcomer needs to learn. Having that inventory up front ensures that you’ve covered everything over time. Keep a physical list on which you can indicate what phase of training the new person is in on each task (e.g., a checkmark that it’s been covered, another checkmark that the new employee is qualified and confident in the task).
Organize the playbook into categories so you can group like tasks, and consider teaching the easiest ones first. Go down to a level of detail that ensures you’ve captured everything the newcomer needs to know – don’t just list the system they need to learn, but the list of specific functions or tasks they need to perform in the system.
If your organization does not have a formal orientation process or onboarding programs, you might put HR tasks and orientation to the organization and its major departments on your list of plays to teach.
Teach the playbook
Make deliberate effort to clearly explain or demonstrate the task, being sure to talk about the context of the task, why it’s important, and nuances that need attention. Articulate your thought process, especially those decisions and mental steps that are impossible to see. Provide job aids and resources as needed, and have your learner teach-back their understanding of it.
That sounds easy, but all of those elements are necessary for employee success: knowing the why, understanding the task and its nuances, and having support for applying what they’ve learned. And tasks and topics don’t have to be taught all at once – you can extend onboarding out over months if needed to give each aspect of the job due diligence.
Practice and coach
Observe the new employee in their initial attempts to do the task on their own and gently correct or remediate as needed. If necessary, engage them in exercises or role plays so they can practice in a safe space. Plan to quality-check outputs and outcomes with the intention of giving feedback to fine-tune the new employee’s work. As part of that process, provide specific positive feedback to boost their confidence as their knowledge of and skill in each task grows.
In helping new employees get into the rhythm of the job, consider the importance of repetition and interleaving for correctly remembering information and procedures. Multiple practice opportunities or observation sessions help to solidify learning, and mixing up practice on different tasks solidifies recall and likely replicates the day-to-day challenges of remembering everything when needed.
Provide a pep talk and let them play
Deliberately verify that the employee has grasped each given task and is ready to perform on their own. In addition to making sure they are competent on the task, you want them to be confident. And confidence comes from repeated effort and praise.
Regularly go over the full list of tasks to be trained with the employee so they can see how much they have learned since day 1. When the list is completed and the last skill verified, do something to celebrate.
Attend to assimilation into the team
Learning key tasks is just part of what needs to happen for a newcomer to successfully integrate into your team. Good team coaches know that building interpersonal relationships is also critical to making people feel competent, confident, and welcomed. You can facilitate assimilation by assigning a buddy or mentor (an informal guide for tacit knowledge of the organization), designating specific people to train the newcomer on key tasks, assigning collaborative projects, and offering social gatherings (going to lunch, having group gathering spaces, planning team activities, etc.).
Supervisors need to be visible in this effort – don’t just delegate onboarding new people to senior members of your team. Be sure to check in, to take on teaching some of the plays yourself, to take an active interest in the employee and their early days on the job.
The importance of effective on-the-job training
Because it seems second nature to walk-through and show new employees the details of their jobs, people don’t often give the process a lot of thought. While it isn’t necessary to over-engineer your on-the-job training, a little bit of planning and careful delivery will go a long way. First impressions are important, and people who are uncomfortable in their jobs will leave in relatively short order.
This same playbook can be applied when you are cross-training peers on a task or process that is new to them. Organizing your approach ensures that you don’t leave out key points or forget any part of the effective training strategy that consists of teaching, asking for employees to teach-back (articulate their understanding), observing and providing feedback, and verifying learning.
In a hybrid learning environment, the principles of on-the-job training outlined in this playbook are not only applicable but even more critical. The challenges of blending virtual and physical workspaces heighten the need for a structured and thoughtful onboarding process that ensures newcomers feel supported, competent, and part of the team, even when they're not physically present. As we navigate this new era of work, it is essential to keep in mind that the fundamentals of effective training remain the same - clarity of instruction, opportunities for practice and reinforcement, and fostering a sense of belonging.
In a world where the 'job' is no longer a fixed location but a fluid concept, the value of a well-executed on-the-job training has never been more apparent. Every coach knows that teaching another person side-by-side is the kind of personal approach that develops solid working relationships and builds teams. Proper planning, deliberate execution, and a focus on fostering relationships are critical in ensuring that new employees not only stay but thrive in this new environment.
For more, see:
The First 30-Days: A Virtual Onboarding Learning Journey- Stephanie Goodell, InSync Training
Onboarding new hires: recognising mutual learning opportunities Debora Jeske and Deborah Olson, Journal of Work-Applied Management, 2021
Onboarding Primer Tara Roberson-Moore, Learning Guild, 2023