Improv(ising) Your On-Boarding

Applying improvisational techniques to business, and specifically to on-boarding as a retention strategy, isn’t about “winging it”… it’s about evolving so you don’t have to.

Picture this…It’s “Johan’s” first day at a global tech company. He arrives and checks the lobby directory because no one gave him the office’s suite number.

After finding his way there, he enters a killer reception area: ping-pong table, gorgeous modern furniture, really cool reception desk … with no one behind it.

As Johan sits down beneath a large flat screen looping a perfectly polished company-culture video, he realizes he has the name of the person scheduled to greet (and presumably on-board) him, but has no idea what they look like. So as people wander past the reception area, happily going about their awesome jobs at said company, Johan smiles awkwardly, wondering each time if this is the person he’s supposed to be meeting. (It bears mentioning here that Johan is paralytically shy by nature.) He feels like he’s on a blind-date. Like, the worst blind-date ever.

For three hours Johan sits and waits.

Until finally … his greeter swoops in to save him from his now confused, irritated, anxious, getting-hungry, also-wondering-where-the bathroom-is state.

“That’s completely absurd!” you scoff—but I assure you, this actually happened, exactly as recounted (except that Johan’s real name isn’t Johan). Still, you’re right. It’s completely absurd—and yet not at all uncommon—that this took place. Hiring is expensive and retention can offset that cost, so it’s a safe bet that a positive experience from the start is an insurance policy worth investing in.

The “Why”

Plainly put, when we feel welcome and included, we’re inclined to stay longer. This idea envelopes human nature, and since we usually do business with other humans, it applies to all manner of business scenarios as well. On-boarding for example. Owing to stories like Johan’s and this overall concept of inclusion, it’s logically important to create an on-boarding program—an experience— that makes a great first impression. But good on-boarding is also effective in communicating the tools, culture and values of your company, right?

All that is to say, the quality of the getting-to-know-you period is vital for new hires, yes, but it’s also a pivotal opportunity to establish or refresh a culture of growth throughout the rest of your company.  The organization and its culture are new to the latest hire, and simultaneously the organization and its culture are themselves made new because of the latest hire.

A Show vs. Tell Approach

New is always good in improv because it exposes fresh perspectives and keeps things moving forward. By extension, improv techniques lend themselves particularly well to great culture-building programs because the core tenets of improv (which is all about experiential learning) mirror a harmonious, productive work environment, where people:

  • work as a team, value the ideas of others, and learn from mistakes
  • communicate, collaborate, and problem-solve creatively
  • develop the skills required to shift around unexpected changes

So how do you develop and implement an on-boarding program that earns a great first impression with new hires, and catalyzes an environment of continued, inclusive growth for the rest of your team?

Strategically, it’s helpful to imagine that you’re embarking on the construction of a flexible framework. You’ll want your on-boarding program to have room to grow and change with the company, and the space for check-ins to hear from new hires, talent development and others on how to continuously improve the content and delivery.

When partnering with companies to create or update their on-boarding, our tactical approach looks something like this:

  • Assess current process for strengths and gaps
  • Create experiential content for use in-person or remotely
  • Establish a mentorship program for new-hire support and internal professional development
  • Implement the program with communication training so multiple people can run it internally

Fun and Games

employee puzzle piecesNow that we’ve covered the general framework, let’s get specific with an example of how you can weave improv into a distinct, regularly occurring on-boarding scenario.

Take the simple act of meeting new people, which can be nerve-wracking in an unfamiliar work environment, even for the consummate extroverts among us … Aside from figuratively breaking the ice, a great way to celebrate similarities and differences (and to practice active listening skills) is an improv game called Commonality Boggle. Here’s how to play:

Step One: Divide the participants into small teams of four or five people.

Step Two: Equip each team with a pen and paper, and give them five minutes to develop a list of attributes that everyone on the team has in common.

Step Three: When time is up, the teams take turns reading their lists aloud. If any team shares an attribute read aloud by another team, they must cross it off their list. Each team totals the remaining shared attributes, and the team with the most points wins.

Because Commonality Boggle expedites and gamifies our basic human instinct to build rapport through verbal mirroring, it’s fantastic for quickly establishing a social foundation that can positively influence the rest of the on-boarding experience (plus it creates some team-bonding time). Including as many people as possible, regardless of department or role, is critical—you want to familiarize your new hire(s) with the literal faces of the company, and this format allows you to do that in a low-pressure way that can be done over a coffee break.

The beauty of applying improv techniques to business scenarios like on-boarding is that it gives you the opportunity to engender a real and lasting cultural shift centered around meaningful, experiential learning. Don’t just tell new hires about daily life at your company … show them, and let them live it for themselves.

Headshot_SaraPhipps(2)A California-born, Miami-raised, New York City transplant to Jacksonville, Sara Phipps has an extensive background in communications and consultation, having worked with clients and brands around the world in a multitude of industries. She is currently a corporate coach and trainer with The Improv Effect, which guides organizations and change-makers to energize, grow, and innovate through applied improv. The Improv Effect’s experiential courses, workshops, programs and challenges give participants fresh ways to reinvent the way they approach teamwork, effective communication and presentation skills, and creative thinking. Learn more at

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