How Salesforce design has kept their onboarding experience human (even in the midst of a pandemic)

4 min read
Rachael Kleinman
  •  May 20, 2020
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Onboarding new employees is a crucial, yet delicate process. After weeks (and sometimes months) spent recruiting, those initial days lay the foundation for turning the hypotheticals discussed during the interview process into a successful reality. The checklist of hiring managers is long, from the administrative (ensuring security clearance and access to necessary equipment and applications) to the intangible (clearly communicating the expectations of the role, connecting them to the larger company engine, and making new hires feel welcome on the team.) But, when that process is designed well, it can lead to big payoffs, like higher performance and talent retention.

So often overlooked in the onboarding process, though, is a focus on the human experience. New team members most likely aren’t dealing with the excitement of a new job alone, but a mixed bag of emotions. They feel trepidation that they won’t make a good impression or perform as promised, or they’re anxious that that their jokes or cultural references won’t land with their new team. Imposter syndrome usually enters into the equation, too.

And if creating the perfect blend of business needs and human-centricity wasn’t challenging enough, let’s throw a pandemic into the mix. Previously co-located teams are now not only figuring out how to tailor their onboarding processes to address the topics mentioned above, but also to help new employees feel connected in an uncertain time. Some companies may even wonder if it’s worth investing in a well-designed remote onboarding experience as they wait for the world to reopen and business to continue as usual.

Currently working through this challenge is a newer team dedicated to unifying and elevating design at Salesforce, internally referred to as Salesforce Experience. Back in 2018, Justin Maguire III, chief design officer, and Teddy Zmrhal, global vice president of design and innovation, partnered to integrate the company’s design capability. There were more than 750 designers working across multiple different organizations and touching different points in the customer journey–marketing/creative, design strategy and innovation, product design and development, and design services. The fragmented nature of the set-up meant each individual team struggled to get support for their needs.

Adam Doti, Wendy Smith, Lauren Peters Lague, and Teddy Zmrhal having fun as “Designers.”

A leadership team was formed to tackle this challenge. Teddy was joined by Wendy Smith, executive producer, Adam Doti, vice president and principal design architect, and Lauren Peters Lague, creative strategy director. After a year spent building a new program that would break down silos between design teams, evangelize the business and social value of the work within the organization, and scale the mindset across the ecosystem, the Salesforce Experience team was set to bring on its new hires in March and start the hard work that lay ahead.

But then the COVID-19 crisis struck. Rather than holding off until things had settled, knowing that “settled” was an uncertain future, the team put on their design thinking caps to dig deeper and refashion how everything—their work, their design, etc.— fit into the new world order. While many companies may feel compelled to answer all of these questions right now, Teddy says his team is trying to balance solving business challenges with the personal challenge of navigating this moment.

“Right now, instead of jumping to solutions or to answers, we’re really trying to understand the questions,” Teddy says. “All we can do is be patient, be compassionate, and be humbled by how much bigger this crisis is than any of us.”

The Salesforce Experience team, then, is focused on what they can control: How they connect with each other as people, and how that can reverberate through culture, product, and external influence. The most high-impact opportunity started with onboarding their new employees. While work processes and projects were important, it was clear that collaboration and relationship/culture-building were top priorities. This led the team to take a deep breath and think about how they could more intentionally engage and align with their vision, an approach that echoed Salesforce’s overall thoughtful and relationship-centered approach during the crisis.

Adam brings his authentic self to team standups.

The implementation of the new onboarding strategy appeared in fun ways: Adam created a shared Spotify playlist for everyone on the team to add new songs weekly. The team has a virtual coffee catch up each morning and a happy hour on Thursday nights. Team members schedule video-chat dates to check in and see how the new hires are doing, and encourage goofy backgrounds/filters to help bring levity, humor, and a sense of fun and play that comes more organically in person. Knowing physical movement is harder and yet more important than ever, team members are encouraged to take calls while walking so that they’re getting out and moving their bodies.

The team’s shared Spotify playlist.

Just as virtual happy hours and shared Spotify playlists help the Salesforce Experience team bond, the team’s leaders acknowledge that everyone responds differently during a crisis. Many are looking to their jobs as a way to take control amidst the uncontrollable. The team has prioritized a few large, meaty projects that offer new and existing team members a different way to bond. The real business challenges at hand–such as turbocharging the design enablement curriculum or developing a research program to measure design’s business and social value–allow the team to practice their craft, use their creativity, and they build relationships. New team members are being given a chance to bring their skills and unique backgrounds–from behavioral economics, social justice activism, brand strategy, or design systems–to relevant and motivating work.

Josh Sirchio, one of the team’s newest members, says that the human-centric process has made him feel welcome not just as a new Salesforce employee, but as a fellow human in a strange world.

“In the Time of the ‘Rona, I’ve found this job to be a cozy little obsession,” Josh says. “I go to bed late and I wake up early, not because I have to, but because I’m enamored by this world. It’s been delightful to dive into my work. I don’t think there was any way I could have expected such a positive experience in this new job. But boy do I feel lucky.”

While every company uses different tools to onboard new employees, for Salesforce its primary tool is Trailhead, a gamified learning platform that anyone can use to build their skills and land a job. With everyone working from home, it’s being leveraged more than ever. New hires are onboarded to the culture of Salesforce, learn about the company’s products, and even get a baseline understanding of how Salesforce approaches design through the “Design at Salesforce” TrailMix.

According to Adam, “one of the team’s goals is to completely reimagine our design education offerings later this year. So this ‘test drive’ approach to experience it all first hand before breaking it down and building it back up was a perfect opportunity for us.”

Onboarding to design at Salesforce with

The COVID-19 pandemic has put everything into sharper focus, making individuals, companies, and governments scrutinize what’s most important. As life feels more precious, so do personal bonds. This is materializing not just in the way communities show up for each other–choosing to shelter in place to help flatten the curve and so that hospital workers aren’t overwhelmed by an influx of patients–but also in the ways that teams are coming together.

The Salesforce Experience team’s mission is to bring more humanity into technology and business. While they’re still focused on supporting companies in building great customer relationships, the team’s intentional process for bringing on new team members at this moment offers a new approach to not just onboarding, but culture-building overall. They’re applying human-centeredness inwards, realizing that the uncertainty that’s gripped the world demands that individuals find new ways to be nimble and flexible without letting go of what matters most: building trust, strengthening relationships, and using design as a means to do both of those things.

Collaborate in real time on a digital whiteboard