How We Used Design Thinking To Redesign Our Recruiting & Onboarding

The past three-plus years have been a time of major growth for Bresslergroup. Since 2014, we’ve more than doubled in size, from 28 to 65 employees, and growing.

This expanding number of humans demanded a person dedicated to human resources. … That would be me — I came on board about halfway through 2016. As the company’s first full-time HR person, I had the opportunity to fully focus on matters like recruiting and onboarding.

Welcome to the design thinking zone.

Happily I felt empowered to do so — Bresslergroup’s culture is one of constant improvements and iteration. As I quickly learned once I got here, we’re always being encouraged to ask how we can make things better, and even non-designers get into the practice of applying design thinking to achieve goals. (What can I say — design thinking is contagious.)

In fact, that culture was one of the reasons I wanted to revamp the experience of our recruits and new hires. Our brand adjectives — clever, curious and nimble — came through clearly in our office space and on our website and blog, but not in our HR communications. Things like job descriptions and onboarding materials are a person’s first impression of Bresslergroup, so it seemed important for these to reflect the company’s personality.

We assembled a project team made up of content, design, and UX experts, and got to work. Our first step was to do some research and think about the different touchpoints that make up the whole hiring and onboarding experience.

People had a lot of questions.

A little over a year ago we hired a talented interaction designer who is such a stickler for user experience design, it’s like the whole world is his usability lab. (He’s perfect for us, right?)

He gave us some great feedback about our offer letter, namely that it raised more questions for him than it answered. My curiosity piqued, I went around and talked with the directors of our different disciplines and got consistent feedback that they were fielding a lot of questions about health insurance and other benefits after sending out offer letters.

That was a problem. If someone receives an offer letter from us, that means we really want them to work here. The last thing we want to do is confuse them. Ideally an offer letter puts a prospective hire at ease and inspires confidence in us as an employer.

This raised another important issue — when a company grows past “family business” size, more process needs to be put in place. The directors can’t spend all their time answering questions about benefits. And there were too many versions of our offer letter in circulation, which caused more work for our directors and inconsistent communication with new hires.

Luckily this interaction designer gave us a chance despite his lackluster offer-letter experience, and his feedback along with thinking through some other HR pain points helped us formulate objectives for our project:

1) To design recruiting materials that attract people who are a good fit for our culture.

2) To design onboarding materials that make new hires feel welcome, comfortable, and secure.

3) To instill more process. Once you surpass 25 to 30 employees, more process is needed to bring efficiency and consistency to hiring and onboarding.

We defined the three categories of people we were “designing” for — pre-hires, new hires who haven’t started yet, and hiring managers — and got to work on the following tactics.

1. We redesigned our job descriptions.

Challenge: Our job listings, especially for senior-level positions, weren’t attracting the kinds of candidates we wanted.

Solution: We rewrote our job descriptions to paint a picture of the candidate’s experience at Bresslergroup and to attract people whose traits complement our brand personality.

Our job descriptions were straightforward and professional, but they were more about what the person would do for the company than vice versa. After looking at job descriptions for similar companies in the design, tech, and innovation space, we reworked ours to shift the focus to the experience of working here. (What can we do for you, versus what you can do for us ….)

Our listings were always written in the second-person, but now we use the present tense (“You use…”, “You participate…”, “You lead …”, etc.) to place the candidate in the role. Short sections entitled “You are clever”, “You are curious”, and “You are nimble” illustrate how these particular qualities are essential to succeeding in each position. Reading a description that describes you and puts you in the job is much more exciting than reading a dry list of responsibilities and qualifications. As a side note, these days we’re hiring mostly (not exclusively) millennials, who find this style appealing.

The result? Our posts are getting more action, and the quality of candidates has changed drastically. Particularly for the senior strategy roles we’ve been looking to fill — since the new postings went live, it’s like a light switch turned on.

2. We redesigned our offer letter.

Challenge: The previous offer letter raised more questions than it answered, and it didn’t reflect our brand personality. There were also too many versions of the letter floating around.

Solution: We designed an offer letter template that’s easy for each hiring manager to customize, clearly communicates the info people are seeking, and entices them to accept our offer and come work with us! 

Like our old job descriptions, our offer letter was stiff and straightforward. It sounded professional but cold, and it didn’t clearly communicate enough details to effectively help a prospect make an informed decision.

Again, we looked at some comparative firms’ offer letters and researched human resources best practices. We redesigned the explanation of benefits to be more concise, easier to skim, and to include graphics. For health insurance, we came up with a plan to lay out three different employee scenarios (pictured below).

We also added our day to day perks (weekly yoga, frequent happy hours, sports clubs, Monday breakfast) which weren’t included in the previous offer letter (a selection are pictured below).

And the template now includes a prompt for the hiring manager to add a sentence or two explaining why they’re confident the prospect will excel. This personal touch goes a long way toward making someone feel valued and welcomed.

3. We created a series of onboarding emails.

Challenge: New hires are bombarded with paper work and not much else between accepting the offer and their first day on the job.

Solution: We designed an automated series of emails for new hires that provides a countdown to their first day. Paper work is folded into dynamic messages about company history, culture, and day to day life.

A friend of mine had gotten an email from her new workplace a few days prior to her first day that listed some of the things she had to look forward to. I really liked how they made that transition as pleasant and positive as possible.

I’m sensitive to the need to make good on our promise that we actually have the culture we say we do.

I brought the idea to our project team and it made us think, how can we make people feel more prepared for their first day so they’re “in the know” before they get here? It would be great if a new hire showed up and already felt like one of the group. Could we do it in a way that makes the wait more exciting? I was already sending new hires one or two emails to impart information and attach paper work. While I tried to sound upbeat and friendly in those emails, I felt badly about bombarding them with boring administrative stuff.

We came up with the idea of sending a series of emails to 1) ration the paperwork and 2) introduce new hires to our culture in a way that’s more organic and delightful than me sitting and talking at them about it for an hour on their first day.

Here are our onboarding emails, with the top of each email pictured. (You’ll have to apply for a job and get hired to see the rest.):

Email #1: Oh, the Thinks You Can Think … at Bresslergroup!

Graphic design and Dr. Seuss-like subject lines tie the four onboarding emails together. This first one is an official welcome email that includes links to help get better acquainted with our people, our space, our blog and our social media channels — tools for a new hire to dive deep into our thinks! This email also introduces the series by letting the new hire know there is more to come.

Email #2: Oh, the Places You’ll Go… at Bresslergroup!!

Every new hire needs to figure out their commute — this email maps out the daily trips of Bresslergroupers traveling from different points and by different means (by foot, by bike, by regional rail, etc.) and serves as a reminder that we offer Transit Checks for SEPTA.

Email #3: Green Eggs and Ham … at Bresslergroup!

Frankly, few things are as important as food — and there are a lot of great options around our office. This email illustrates three favorite BG lunch spots via colorful GIFs showing BGers on lunch breaks (and even inside our favorite spicy chicken food truck). It also delivers three forms — our policy manual, arbitration agreement, and confidentiality agreement — to sign.

Email #4: If I Ran the Circus … at Bresslergroup!

Our last email features some of the fun extracurricular activities we do together at Bresslergroup — drone racing, Skee-Ball, broom ball, Escape the Room, etc. — and attaches an I-9, direct deposit, and W-4 forms to fill out and bring in on the first day of work.

We launched this series in March, and I really like them as an onboarding tool. I’m sensitive to the need to make good on our promise that we actually have the culture we say we do. And leading new hires through this process of discovery where they get to click over to the video of Mathieu giving a TEDx talk and scroll through pictures of us playing paintball and building drones, makes the wait more thrilling.

The Results

Here are some exciting changes that have happened in the short amount of time since we’ve revised these HR materials:

1) We get way fewer questions from recruits about health insurance and other benefits.

2) We’re attracting more qualified applicants for our job openings.

3) People are showing up for their first day of work a little less nervous.

Now when I sit down with someone on their first day to talk about HR stuff — hours, scheduling and billing software, how to use Outlook, etc. — I feel like we can have a more casual conversation because they feel more prepared. I’ve noticed they’re generally more laidback and more apt to talk about themselves. It’s easier to get to know people right off the bat.

What changed? It wasn’t them. It was us! But some things don’t change. We still ask for feedback on these new and redesigned pieces, and we use that feedback to make improvements.

That act of asking someone for feedback on their first day has proven to be a nice cherry on top of this new onboarding experience — it makes new hires feel valued, and it reinforces the fact that they’ve entered the iteration zone.

Now let me at that policy manual ….