When you post a help wanted ad for people to cuddle baby goats, expect to get swamped with applications and onboarding requests. That’s what Caromont Farm learned last January, when the Virginia cheesemaker posted a Facebook request for volunteers during spring “kidding” season to help the newborn goats bond with humans.
The post immediately went viral via social and mainstream media, and 300 slots filled within days. “It was overwhelming,” says owner Gail Hobbs-Page. “We were like deer in the headlights. Then we just hunkered down and said let’s see where it goes.” The ad’s success meant that Caromont suddenly faced the challenge of bringing hundreds of volunteers up to speed quickly for their three-hour shifts.
Volunteers, interns, new hires—how can you get the most from an unskilled and sometimes temporary workforce? Caromont and other small businesses share some of the onboarding tips they use to get their new workers up to speed and productive right away.
Start With Pre-Boarding
Consider starting groups of people together, if possible, to save time on repeating information. And rather than waste time having employees read materials and fill out forms while in the office on their first day, you may want to share that paperwork in advance. For example, Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Park’s staff is primarily volunteers. The organization manages their constant onboarding by creating an online portal that provides advance information including work applications, calendar, email and business card request forms, handbook, code of conduct and parking details.
Better Late Than Never
Never start a new worker first thing in the morning, advises Craig Bloem, serial entrepreneur and owner of online marketing company Free Logo Services. “First impressions matter,” says Bloem, who brings on several contractors and new hires each month. “You don’t want the new person to come in and the boss is running around doing 15 things, which we know is what typically happens.”
—Craig Bloem, owner, Free Logo Services
Instead, you may want to give yourself time to handle the fires that popped up overnight or to have quick check-ins with managers so they can move forward on their projects. Consider scheduling the newbie to arrive an hour after your team on that first day. “Make sure you make time for the new person to have your full attention,” Bloem says.
You may want to think about pairing the new person with someone more experienced. At Caromont, manager of sales and events Isabel Zechini coordinated the volunteers. For onboarding and leadership, she leaned on Caromont's volunteers for help. “Some of them had worked at a wildlife rehabilitation center, some already had a few goats and wanted to learn more about them, others came back multiple times,” Zechini says. “I targeted them as ‘lead’ volunteers and they helped a lot by answering questions and overseeing while I kept running the rest of the farm.” Designating a work buddy also creates a good “go-to” person for a new team member who doesn’t want to bother the boss with questions about details like refrigerator policy or nearby lunch spots.
Draw the Big Picture When Onboarding
Craig Bloem likes to start off by defining the new person’s role in the company at large, explaining why their work is important. “We are a small business so everyone has an impact here,” he says. “When they know what they are responsible for—what they own—they get excited about it. It gives them motivation to start moving quickly.”
Bloem even goes to this trouble with interns and contractors—temporary workers who may or may not have a long-term commitment to the company. “Two core members of my management team started as interns,” Bloem explains. “And with contractors, even if they are here a short time, they are still part of our culture.”
Make All the Mistakes
E-commerce growth companies are used to moving quickly and cleaning up the messes later. That process works well with new hires, says Jeremy Levi, director of marketing for online medical supply company MarsMedSupply. The company brings on 10-15 new hires for seasonal work. “When that time hits and you’re floundering, you have two options,” he says. “You can fall behind, and then your customers are upset. Or you can bring people on, throw them into the fire and let them make mistakes. Then you have only a few customers upset instead of all of them.” The key, Levi says, is to be willing to manage those errors in sales, shipping or customer service by doing whatever it takes to make those few upset customers happy.
Caromont Farm’s successful volunteer onboarding translated into their best kidding season ever, with a much lower mortality rate and happier baby goats. “We had people come from Florida, New Jersey, [Washington State],” Zechini says. “One pair of volunteers came back I don’t know how many times and then adopted two goats." Caromont now has a 2,000-person email list and is exploring opening a farm-therapy nonprofit for more goat cuddling.
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