Want a new hire who’s confused, uncertain, and unproductive? Throw them right in and tell them to learn on the job. Want a new hire who’s knowledgeable, confident, productive, and empowered? Have them spend their first two weeks learning, THEN put them to work.
Understaffing Creates a Perverse Incentive for Underinvesting in Training
These days, well-run companies are somewhere between lean and understaffed. Revenues and the availability of equity or debt financing are all uncertain, so companies are conserving cash and avoiding hiring. This means that people only create a new position when they absolutely have to because they are truly buried in work. As a result, a manager who is bringing on a new employee has almost by definition been tired and overworked for a long time. This creates a temptation to immediately give work to a new hire as the manager seeks relief from a long period of being overstretched.
That’s exactly the wrong thing to do. When a new employee joins a company, they start off knowing almost nothing about the company and its products, technology, tools, processes, plans, and employees. Therefore, their productivity at the outset is extremely low. Throwing them into the fray when they don’t know anything wastes their time and potential. The wise manager toughs it out for just a couple more weeks to provide the new hire with a two-week training period to learn as much as possible before they are assigned day-to-day responsibilities. Except in the most extreme situations, I do this with all my new hires.
Benefits of Training Newly-Hired Employees
When you give a new hire two weeks to learn:
- Trained employees have fewer questions. They learn a lot of the obvious things by studying and using the product, reading the product documentation, online help, company web site, wiki, frequently asked questions, product requirements documents or user stories, product road map, and so on. Therefore they waste less of the time of other employees in asking questions they could have answered simply by reading and studying.
- Trained employees ask better, more interesting questions. Being interrupted to answer a question that a person could have answered on their own by reading the manual is never a person’s favorite activity. The person doing the asking feels bad for interrupting, and the person answering has to remind themself that it’s a new hire who doesn’t know anything yet. Being asked the well-informed, perceptive question of a person who has mastered the basics is more interesting, thought-provoking, and fun for both people.
- Trained employees learn more efficiently. Because they were given a couple of weeks to search for and discover the available resources, they are able to find information when they need it in the future more quickly. As a result, their productivity continues to grow faster than that of untrained employees even after the training period ends.
- Trained employees are more productive once they start working. They have a baseline of knowledge about the company and product that enables them to make better decisions faster. As illustrated by the notional productivity chart below, they have higher weekly output and quickly surpass the untrained employee on total work accomplished since they joined. (UPDATE: To clarify, by “notional,” I mean that the data and chart below are a “notional graphical illustration” of the CONCEPT of productivity returns on training, similar to what you’d see in a college textbook, using notional, i.e. invented, data. This is not actual data or a research study finding.)
- Trained employees are happier and more confident. Not knowing anything and being forced to get things done your first day on the job is an intimidating, unpleasant experience. It makes new hires uncertain and unsure of themselves. Giving new hires a couple of weeks to see how the company works and get familiar with it enables them to dive in with greater confidence in themselves after the training period is over.
|Untrained Employee||Trained Employee|
|Work Units Accomplished This Week||Work Units Done Since Hired||Work Units Accomplished This Week||Work Units Done Since Hired|
Product management is a knowledge-intensive activity. By giving new hires an opportunity to develop useful knowledge up front, you can quickly make a permanent improvement in their performance.
It’s much easier to train new hires this way when you have been diligent about creating documentation and resources on an ongoing basis. This is one of the situations where “working smart” by creating a wiki, frequently asked questions pages, knowledge repositories, and training videos, archiving FYI emails in the wiki, and a discipline of writing down important information really pay off.
Is two weeks the right length of time for every employee? Of course not. If they’re going to be working at mission control doing manned rocket launches, you probably want to train them for a much longer period of time and do formal tests and certifications to verify that they’re ready to start work. If they’re an experienced executive assistant focused on supporting an executive, they may need less training. But two weeks seems to be a reasonable length of time for typical business administrative staff like product managers and product marketing managers. It’s long enough that they have the opportunity to do 70 hours of study, assuming two hypothetical forty-hour work weeks (does anyone work just forty hours anymore?), but not so long that it’s indulgent.
Train your new hires. You only have to survive as you have been already for an extra couple of weeks, and it will make them and you more productive thereafter!