Activities for Onboarding & Orientation
September seems to be “the” season for onboarding and orientation. Grade schools, universities, and corporations welcome new students and new employees. Those of us who celebrate Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, in the early Fall are also accustomed to celebrating the harvest and time of renewal. We have a tradition of dipping apples in honey, symbolizing hope for the sweet new year. We atone for any wrongdoings in the previous year, so we can start with a clean slate. And, we eat round challah loaves, symbolizing the continuity of the seasons (or some might say, the spiral of upward progress). As exciting as these new opportunities might be, however, stress and anxiety tend to surge.
In an attempt to dissipate worries, teachers and trainers conduct loads of orientation games and onboarding activities to help their incomers become familiar with their new surroundings, build relationships, set expectations, and build a positive foundation upon which to grow. While many of the activities* listed here are designed to be conducted in person, many can be adapted for remote workers or learners.
Orientation and Onboarding Activities and Tips
The broad range of creative games, activities, and approaches to new hire orientation (curated from a variety of sources), fall into five basic categories:
- Introductions – getting to know who’s who through playful conversation prompts and games
- Greetings – make a splash when a new employee starts
- Culture – modeling and sharing the company culture with welcome greetings and surprises
- Environment – learning about the workspace and locale
- Job Training – specifics regarding job expectations and performance
Let’s look at the plethora of ways to allay fears and enhance the onboarding experience through each of these approaches.
One common source of onboarding stress is the fear of not knowing anyone, uncertainty about where to go for help, and loneliness. Assist new hires and new students in meeting other newbies and fostering connections with the veterans who have been on campus for years (or decades) before them.
Get Conversations Flowing
- M&M Intros –“Pass around a pack of M&Ms and ask all participants to take a random number of M&Ms (between 1 and 5). Once they all make their choice I tell them that each m&m stands for something they have to tell about themselves. For example, red – favorite vacation spot, green – favorite food, yellow – dream job, blue – favorite thing to do outside of work, brown – wild card (can talk about anything). You can modify the questions based on the purpose of the exercise. Posted by Mykola Soldatenko
- Thumball Conversation Prompts – Every Silver Series Thumball is pre-printed with 30-32 conversation starters. Just toss the ball, pre-printed with conversation starters, and let the fun and connections begin! You can choose to let everyone respond to the same prompt, asking if others might have a similar or different reply, or choose to toss the ball quickly from player to player. Feel free to welcome reluctant players to take a “pass” or answer any question they find on the ball. The purpose, of course, is to break down barriers, not raise defenses! However you choose to facilitate the experience, you’ll likely find a ball that suits the needs of your group:
- Balloon Burst – Using darts and balloons, insert a simple question into the balloons, fill them with air, and have participants toss a dart to burst a balloon and answer the question (i.e. who was your best boss, what is your favorite fun activity, where was your first job, what did you like/hate about your first job, etc.). Tell participants in advance the types of questions to expect and also insert some gift cards to add some excitement and reward for participating. Make it fun! Bill Mars
- Discussion Topic Shuffle – Introduce a handful of icebreaker discussion topics found in a card deck to get folks talking.
- Two Truths And A Lie – This classic game calls on players to make three statements about themselves (one of which is a lie). See if others can guess which one it is.
- Where In The World – Learn something about the cities, towns, or countries that your new hires have called home.
- Puzzlers – Introduce puzzler questions that teams can try to solve together.
- Team Experiences and Challenges – Create bonding opportunities among smaller teams by setting them up to experience a meaningful challenge together (i.e. ropes courses, cooking a meal, community service, song or artistic creation, etc.)
- DISC, Strengths Finder, or Color Assessments – Help people get to know each other at a deeper level, and understand which team members bring which skills.
Meet Others Around the Office
- Guess the Baby Photo – gather colleagues’ childhood photos and current photos and have them match them up.
- Coffee or Lunch Dates – Pair new hires with veterans and tell them to visit a local coffee shop together or grab a bite for lunch. Or, if the pair is remote, they could meet for a virtual coffee.
- Trade-Up – In Trade-Up, each person tries to trade the low-valued item (i.e. pencil, pin, sticky note) they’ve been given for something of a higher value, by visiting others around the office. Once each person has completed this task within a time frame, all the teams/members will put an agreed value on each item that they have traded up to determine the highest value and the winner. The idea is to help new hires to step out of their comfort zone and get to know people within their new working environment. As they have to return the item(s) back to their owners, new hires would have to remember the person they got the item(s) from. This exercise also leaves lots of room for discussion. You might ask:
- Why did you choose that person to trade with? (First Impression)
- What did you do to allow a complete stranger to entrust you with a valuable item just for a Post-it? (Organisation Relationship)
- How did you approach others? (Body Language)
- Name Cards – Help out newcomers by posting name cards on doors, offices, or desks to help people remember who’s who.
- Email Announcement – Announce the new hire to the whole team so they can help, greet, or introduce themselves to the new addition.
- Org Chart Meet-up – Distribute an org chart to new hires with names, positions, and maybe even photos. Charge them with the task of meeting each person and learning a unique fact about them. This helps break down barriers and sends the message that they are welcome to introduce themselves to the higher-ups.
- Bingo – Create bingo sheets containing experiences or qualities. Have new hires locate colleagues who have had those experiences listed on the card and collect their signatures.
- Photo Wall – Include fun pictures of team members on a wall so that newcomers can get to know the names and personalities of who’s who.
- Buddy System – Match new employees with a veteran to show them around, take them to lunch, introduce them to others, and encourage them to attend meetings..
- Activity Sign-up Sheet – Create sign-ups for a local walk, hike, restaurant visit, pick-up game, etc. This can help the newbies feel welcome to participate in an activity and know who else might be attending.
- Go To List – Distribute a list of who to turn to for answers to different questions
- Show and tell about an interesting item found in your home and share its importance to you.
- Share your fridge – share a fridge photo and let the conversation flow.
- Trainers Exchange – pick from a variety of conversation prompts on the Trainers Exchange to help groups get to know each other
- Pick a Card – Try the Climer Cards experience for a creative icebreaker or conversation starter.
- Address people by name – Call people by the name they prefer to be called. Need an assist, use name tents or name badges.
- Video Greeting – At a healthcare facility where I previously worked, we created personalized welcome videos for new hires from their supervisor. It was a good way for the candidates to put a face to a name and feel like part of the team even before they started their first day. —Ben Crenca, graduate student, University of Baltimore, former HR specialist
- Post Their Photo – Prior to new employees starting, we ask them to send us a photo and write a paragraph about their background so we can post those on our intranet site. It shows up in the “featured news” section so everyone sees it when they log in. In addition, we give the new workers a tour of our office and introduce them to everyone. —Ashley Weiner, SHRM-SCP, HR manager, MG2 Architecture, Seattle
- Sweet Start – Our onboarding process begins with a questionnaire that we send to employees before they start. We find out interesting facts, including what their favorite candy is, and on their first day they arrive to a bag of that candy on their desk. We have a three-day orientation that includes every department. New hires receive a staff directory with everyone’s picture, e-mail, and phone number. —Karen Sharp-Price, HR manager, VoIP Supply, Amherst, N.Y.
- Swag! – Leave a shirt, mug, or other swag with the company logo at the new employee’s workstation. “We gave new hires company shirts that were all the same color, so other employees knew from afar who they were and could help them get on board.”—Claudia Rozo, International HR consultant, Miami
Send the message that you mean business when it comes to creating a positive corporate culture or learning environment. Playful welcome packages and habits of peer recognition can send a strong message:
- “Positivity” Welcome Pack – playfully communicate company values. Give each colleague a “Positivity Pack” with key icons that reflect your organization’s values and personality. It’s fun to include both a memento and a list indicating which value it represents. For instance:
- Team Squeezy Toys: support and respect the team
- Smile Ball: Make customers happy!
- Mini-Sneaker: go the extra mile to improve quality
- Learning Mo-Mints: keep growing and learning
- Party Blowout horn: have fun (Fun)
- Stretchy String: be flexible and open to change
- Mirror Ball: embrace diverse perspectives
- Crayons: express your creativity
- Paper Cut – Each person brings a unique perspective – Give each person an identical piece of paper and tell them to close their eyes. Then, give a series of instructions to fold and tear the paper in specific ways. When you instruct them to open their eyes, have each person unfold their paper and share it with the group. You will see how each person interpreted the instructions differently. This quickly shows that everyone has their own way of processing the training and brings their own unique perspective to the job. Maryanne Muigai
- Peer-to-Peer Certificates – Build morale and encourage individuals to take notice of one another’s efforts. “For longer orientation events, have the learners prepare certificates for each other. To make the activity work, At the start of the session, randomly distribute certificates that are blank, except for another participant’s name. Allot a few minutes each day (after lunch or before closing) for them to jot down their observations and/or make the certificates using markers, stickers, glitter glue, and other creative tools. At the end of the session, have each person present their certificate to the recipient. The activity reminds everyone of key learning concepts and helps them meld as a group.” Posted online by Julie Biddle
Help new hires find their way around the building or the town, with these creative approaches:
- Scavenger Hunt – Create an in-office and/or neighborhood scavenger hunt, to get the group accustomed to their new surroundings. “On their first day, new hires take a property tour with our Hawaiian cultural advisor to learn the history of the Grand Wailea Resort and the locations of key areas, including pools, restaurants, and the spa. Then we send them on a scavenger hunt on the second day to confirm they understand the layout of the property. They have to solve 10 riddles that reveal the names of various places where they find small baskets of gold coins. The goal is to collect a coin from each basket and make an extraordinary lifetime memory for a guest while on the hunt. —Kristi Millhiser, SHRM-SCP, director of learning and development, Grand Wailea, a Waldorf Astoria Resort, Wailea, Hawaii
- Go outside! – Meet at a local spot for lunch or a walk outside to learn about the area.
5. JOB TRAINING
- Jeopardy – “Using Jeopardy games for orientation is fun and competitive. After a week with HR and other departments, our new employees learned all they needed to be productive contributors.” —Claudia Rozo, International HR consultant, Miami
- Trivia Quiz for New Hires – Test their knowledge while quizzing them on what they’ve learned.
- Coworker Feud – adapt the familiar TV show, with fun facts about the company and/or employee community.
- Create Accountability – Onboarding should be a visible element of the organizational strategy, and managers must be held accountable for consistently executing an onboarding plan. A critical disconnect is to not establish performance metrics for hiring managers that address their role in onboarding, talent development, and talent retention—three critical drivers of employee engagement. In the absence of some strategic alignment, managers will focus on what they are held most accountable for. —Zeb G. LeVasseur, HR consultant, Houston
- Workday Update – In the style of SNL’s “Weekend Update,” ask teams of new hires to give a report from their broadcasting on what they’ve been up to.
- Discover Company Stories – Pair people up and do a mini-appreciative inquiry by interviewing a cross-section of people who work for the company and some customers. Have them ask and learn about the company by asking: “What is great about this place?”, “Why do people enjoy working for it?”, “Why do customers return?” See who can turn up the best stories.
- Broaden New-Hire Training to Include Long-Term Employees – Leverage your new employee training by extending the training to long-term employees. Those who have been with the organization for a long time might benefit from thinking about, designing, or learning new approaches. This also helps get everyone on the same page and evolve as a larger group.
Tips for the New Hires Themselves
Kim Marshall summarizes great articles in his Marshall Memo. Some time ago, he found Keith Rollag’s Harvard Business Review article, “Managing Yourself: Success in New Situations,” where he explored how new hires can help themselves when onboarding into a new job. Making a new hire’s experience successful is a joint effort that requires effort by both the company and the employee. Below are tips for both the new folks coming into a new job and for the managers and trainers who are welcoming them. Rollag suggests these three skills are critical:
“Many people hesitate to do this because of worries about interrupting or bothering people, fear of making mistakes during an introduction, and the possibility of being brushed off. But if you don’t introduce yourself to strangers up front, he says, there’s a strong possibility you will fall into “a pattern of awkward smiles, nods, and waves and never forge critical relationships.” Some pointers:
- Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If it were you, you’d probably be delighted to meet the new kid on the block.
- Practice your opening lines. “Write down, rehearse, and experiment with what you will tell others about yourself,” suggests Rollag. “Note what sustains interest and what causes other people’s eyes to glaze over.”
- Make the other person feel heard, valued, and respected. “Great first impressions rarely hinge on what you reveal about yourself,” he says; “What matters is how you make your counterpart feel.”
- Write things down. “Don’t trust your memory,” he advises. “As soon as you can, write down everything you have learned about the person’s background and interests.”
“More than 80 percent of the leaders Rollag has worked with confess that they have trouble retaining names in a new situation. A British study found that people’s worst fear is forgetting the name of someone being introduced. Doing better at this is a priority since “People feel more warmly toward those who remember crucial information about them, including their names, and that amity can serve as a springboard to fruitful conversations and deeper trust.” Rollag suggests:
- Commit to focusing and paying attention when being introduced to a new person.
- Repeat the name up front, and reinforce your recall by retrieving it during the conversation.
- Write it down afterward.
- Study and retest your recall, matching names with faces.
- Use vivid imagery, associating each person with a mental picture and some memorable detail or mnemonic.
- Use cheat sheets before a meeting to refresh your memory.
“I didn’t ask enough questions,” confess many leaders as they think back on their early days in a new organization. Why? Fear of interrupting busy co-workers, not wanting to seem dumb or incompetent, and general insecurity. Try this:
- Be clear on what you want and why. Information? Advice? Feedback? Assistance?
- Is this the right person and the right time? “One trick is to ask people during introductions if you can contact them later for advice,” he says. Another is an open-ended question like, “Who might explain how to…?”
- Use short, to-the-point questions, for example, “Can you show me how to format this report? Five minutes of your time, and I’ll be good to go.”
- Say thank you and close the loop. “Don’t underestimate the power of gratitude,” says Rollag. It makes people feel valued and more likely to be helpful in the future.
- Cultivate a go-to buddy – preferably a veteran who still remembers what it’s like to be a newbie.”
Find the Right Experience for Your Group
With so many options, the biggest challenge is selecting the ones that are best for your group. Always consider your goals and the importance of balancing company-specific learning, with job skill development, and getting-to-know-you activities. Also, remember that September is not the only time we welcome cohorts of new students. Draw on this broad range of resources any time you need to make an individual or group feel welcome, integrated, and included. In addition, consider these approaches for merging organizations or “re-boarding” – that is, bringing long-term employees up to speed on new approaches and practices so that everyone is on the same page.
* [NOTES: 1) The games and activities listed here were gathered from a variety of sources including online discussions and Carri Helman’s “Fun Onboarding Activities and Games,” posted on SnackNation.”; 2) this was originally published in 2017 and was substantially updated and reposted in 2023.]
How To Promote Your Company’s Core Values
18 Games and Activities for Onboarding New Hires
Onboarding Mistakes to Avoid And Some Creative Ideas to Adopt (From a SHRM blog)