A 5-step system that will help you create and hold onto great employees–strategies for effectively onboarding new hires, setting success goals, and tips for retention.

Your agency is on fire.
You’re getting glowing reviews from all your clients, and your incredible reputation is spreading.
It’s one new client after another, referral after referral–to keep up, you need to start hiring new staff members.
But at first, new hires can feel like more of a burden than a blessing. It can take a long time to bring someone up to speed, and when they’re making mistakes in the learning process, it can feel like you’re doubling your own workload.
To fix an ad campaign that misses the mark, you have to pretty much redo the whole thing.
An effective onboarding process should make your new employees integral players in your agency as quickly as possible–and keep them that way for years to come.
To help you achieve those goals, we’ve designed a 5-step system that will set your agency’s new hires up for success.

Step 1: Help New Employees Become Experts on Each Client

Agency colleagues discussing ideas
Most jobs require learning the ins and outs of one company.
But at an agency, new hires need to learn the ins and outs of each client the agency has, which can be five, fifteen, or even more than twenty.
Perception is everything. This learning stage for a new hires is crucial because the onboarding process can get bogged down if they feel unprepared. If new hires aren’t confident in their client knowledge, they’ll be afraid to speak up with their ideas–and you want them doing their best work ASAP.

Solution: Create a checklist for client research

Most agencies send a casual “Do some client research” email before their new hires start, which can make them feel like they’re drowning in information.
There’s a lot to take in, and it’s hard to know what to focus on. Giving new employees a structured research project formalizes the learning process, so they know exactly what to look for.
Once a new hire checks off every part of their structured research project, they’ll be confident that they have the information they need to succeed–and excited to hit the ground running. Creating a tasklist in Teamwork Projects for new employees provides them with clear outline of your expectations and a sense of exactly what information they need to know about your agency’s clients.
Once you make the initial template, you can duplicate it automatically for every new hire. This easy-to-make, structured client prep work empowers new employees to be an integral, knowledgeable part of your agency from day one.

Step 2: Define “Success” For New Hires

onboarding tips
It’s hard to measure what makes “good work” at an agency.
Even though you have success metrics-email opens, click-through rates–a lot of what your agency does is unquantifiable. There’s no natural way to measure good networking emails, client calls, and press releases, which can make it hard for you to set clear expectations for new hires. It’s important to standardize what ‘good work’ looks like at your company.
While there are different opinions about what makes a good press release, it’s important to standardize what “good work” looks like at your company. Otherwise, your new hires won’t know whether they’re succeeding or failing.

Solution: Create company-wide guidelines

Eliminate guesswork for everyone in your company by creating guides for any type of task that is regularly handled.
This could be how to deal with client queries, the research process for new clients, the key features of successful email campaigns or even setting up all-hands meetings. When your agency can specify how to carry out a task and how to measure its outcomes, new hires will have a clear direction for producing quality work.
Once you’ve set those standards, make sure they’re in a searchable database that’s visible and easily accessible to everyone. You can link to that database on your Teamwork Projects Dashboard, where team members will see it every time they log in.
Teamwork Projects Dashboard Message
If your guides get a bit lengthy, use a tool like ReadMe, which lets you search and navigate between sections. This tool keeps team members from having to scroll through an impossibly long document to find the information they’re looking for.
ReadMe also lets you handle updates to these documents as needed. The “suggest edits” feature lets anyone recommend revisions or corrections, so your documents will always be up to date.
Some team members may question whether it’s worth taking time away from billable projects to create these documents, but we see them as a valuable investment. Top employees no longer have to stop their work to answer the typical stream of questions from new hires because they can direct them to check these documents for an answer first.

Step 3: Emphasize Your Agency’s Team Values From Day One

It’s easy to feel like a lone wolf at an agency when you’re siloed off and focused almost exclusively on your specific clients.
A new hire can get lost in the shuffle–or not even meet half the office because of the individual project structure.
To keep an employee invested in your company, you have to make them feel like an important part of the team. At a project-driven agency, that doesn’t come naturally–you have to take steps to make your agency’s team values known on a day-to-day basis.

Solution: Introduce new hires to your core values

Teaching your core values to new hires immediately immerses them in team-thinking.
Instead of just focusing on day-to-day responsibilities, they can focus on team-wide goals and understand their part in the whole agency’s operations.
But it’s not enough to just state those core values. At a project-driven agency, you have to take steps to implement them. Here are a couple of ways we suggest for familiarizing new employees with your team’s core values:

  • Schedule an all-hands meeting on their start date. Not only is this a great opportunity to introduce everyone, but it also involves new employees in team-oriented strategy from their very first day.
  • Cement company values with swag. This means more than just giving out t-shirts. You can use a “Welcome Package” as an opportunity to introduce new hires to company culture. This Cape Town Ogilvy and Mather office gives new employees a beautiful box with an employee handbook, a notebook, and a letter stating David Ogilvy’s eight values to strive for at work.

Cementing these core values doesn’t happen in a single day, but through consistent daily efforts. If your agency is structured around individual projects, taking the time to build and reinforce personal connections is essential.

Step 4: Make the New Job a Career Move (Not Just a “Resume Builder”)

It’s no secret that there’s an agency turnover problem.
A lot of new hires-especially entry level–see their jobs as “skill builders,” and are easily poached when someone offering a bigger salary comes along.

In order to become invested for the long-term, new hires need to see what your agency can do for them.

They need to understand the part your agency plays in their long-term growth, and that it isn’t just a stepping stone to a bigger paycheck.

Solution: Implement a buddy system

onboarding buddy system
Social network managing software Buffer uses different kinds of “buddies” to acclimate employees during the onboarding process. New hires can look to more experienced employees as models of success to see what advantages the agency can offer them in the long run.
While Buffer’s buddy model isn’t an exact analog to agency life, we suggest assigning two kinds of buddies to each new hire:

  • A culture buddy, who helps new employees understand agency culture–to see where they fit in and how they can benefit from your agency’s unique work lifestyle.
  • A growth buddy, who’s been at the company for several years, can act as a model and a mentor for your new hires. They’ll help newer employees see how they can benefit from your agency’s growth trajectories, rather than moving somewhere else to advance.

The buddy system can be especially helpful for each hire’s first 2-3 weeks.
Going out to lunch or playing a game on the office ping pong table with a buddy during that time can pave the way for larger conversations about how a new hire can benefit from working for your agency–and keep turnover rates low.

Step 5: Discover and Fix Any Hidden Day-to-Day Issues

A lot of agency work is individual, so new hires are often working without much collaboration and interaction with others. If they’re too isolated, their everyday problems can go unnoticed.
Even if a new hire is acing every project you throw their way, in an individual work environment, it’s almost impossible to know how they felt doing each project. They could be getting tripped up in the research phase every time, or frustrated using a new tool–even though they finish the project eventually, they could finish a lot faster with a little advice.

Solution: Weekly employee check-ins

Check-ins are opportunities for you to solve any problems your new hires may be having but might not know how to voice.
Oftentimes, new employees are afraid that concerns and questions might make them sound uninformed, so they keep them to themselves.

Having a structured, designated check-in system signals that you want an ongoing feedback loop – so they’ll be less hesitant to open up.
The Harvard Business Review published an artibcle on how to solicit employee feedback using Valve Software’s model for one-on-ones: You want employees to feel like you’re checking in on them, not that you’re checking up on them. Here’s how they define each term:

  • Checking up is asking how your employees get their work done. When you ask questions about when they finished specific tasks, whether they’re done with certain projects, or how they did those projects, you’re micromanaging their workflow–and risk shutting down their creativity.
  • Checking in is asking how you can help employees achieve their goals. That means asking questions like, “What do you need to get this project done?” “Is anything getting in your way?” or “What can I do to help you out?”

In short, according to HBR, “Checking in is really about collaboration, checking up is about suffocation.” When you present check-ins as a collaborative way to achieve each employee’s goals, they’ll be more open to telling you how they truly feel–and what you can fix.

Start Smoother Onboarding Now

Onboarding new employees expertly takes a while, so give yourself some time to discover which of these five steps you should implement first and which makes the greatest impact in your agency.
There’s no wrong way to start.
Investing in new hires right from the beginning gives you the advantage of having well-trained employees in weeks, not months. When they realize that company success means their own success, they’ll be more engaged in doing good work–and more likely to stick around.