Onboarding and Best Practice
14th July 2021
When there is a need for their insight, what is the best process for bringing interested communities on board to participate? What needs to be covered and considered in these first initial vulnerable stages of engagement? How can you set up a relationship that is balanced and, potentially, sustainable?
‘Onboarding’ – which we define as identifying, acknowledging, or building a community network and formalising their intention to work on a project, individually or as part of collective action – is one of the most critical moments of engagement and there are several different approaches that can be taken to ensure it works well.
At Radar, we find it useful to consider different frameworks but also remain open to how this stage might develop for and be driven by different communities.
Thinking about onboarding
Onboarding is the step on from an expression of interest and, in our work, it is a process of understanding each individual’s contexts and what aims and intentions, challenges and assets they’re bringing to a project. It’s an opportunity to gather key details for remaining connected, establish the best channels for engagement, share a proper scope of work and listen to early ideas around impact.
We also combine this early scoping with safeguarding questions to help them establish whether they are in a secure and stable position to participate and look together at the consequences, both positive and negative, of their engagement.
The importance of safeguarding from the start
A good onboarding process will establish mutual parameters, boundaries and expectations and leave participants feeling like they are entering into a secure relationship and a scope of collaboration that is understood and accepted. While some of the outputs might be quite practical – contact data captured, consent forms filled in, engagement schedule agreed – the real outcome is a sense of mutual security and the beginnings of a lasting relationship that will mostly remain unseen. For a project focused on life experiences, testimony, and community voice, this outcome is critical.
But as we move forward with safeguarding questions within the onboarding process, it’s important to be mindful that these questions, in their own right, might be triggering or upsetting, or spark a disclosure before we’ve even established the full parameters of engagement.
For example, asking for someone to reflect on whether or not they feel like they’re in a secure place to participate may end up surfacing serious concerns about their safety and well-being. Therefore, signposting and safeguarding mechanisms need to be in place before the onboarding process, so that staff and those participating can draw on those mechanisms immediately.
Equally, as it’s the first time that a project representative may be in conversation with a participant, and the first moment of collecting sensitive information, there is a risk of malpractice and safeguarding issues relating to the project team.
Having systems set up to protect personal safety, dignity, and personal data from the off is essential.
Using the 5 C’s Framework within Onboarding
In the past, Radar has approached onboarding through questionnaires, SMS, voice notes, voicemails, community drop-in sessions and phone conversations. We’ve done it one-to-one, through peers asking peers, local partners asking participants, and participants self-reporting.
With many different ways of doing this stage, we find it helpful to draw on a part, if not all, of our 5 C’s framework, which reflects on barriers around connectivity, confidence, conviction, capacity, and craft.
It’s important to understand their connectivity. What device they’re using, what network they’re relying on, how expensive it is for them, if cost is a factor, and what accessibility challenges they face. This is not simply an issue for the project delivery and the reporting of their experiences but also for communicating safely with participants in case they have any questions, concerns, or crisis situations.
Establishing the best way to communicate with every participant is very important and should take into consideration both the practical issues mentioned above and also their preferences. As a busy working mother, I’m never in a good mood when someone calls me at 7:30 pm just as I’m settling my children to sleep! Each participant will have their own commitments and dependencies so establishing this and what’s possible is important.
Confidence and Conviction
Confidence and conviction are equally as significant – and we distinguish one is related to self-esteem, and the second is related to trusting the potential for change, as well as trusting the suggested vehicles for change. It’s useful to talk to them about this early on and establish how their attitudes and perceptions might impact their engagement, and what might be required to make the most out of that engagement.
Sadly, those who have lost their conviction in change processes, either by being let down or disappointed by witnessing a lack of relevant change, often don’t even make that initial step to express interest. Therefore, at the onboarding stage, we tend to find most people have some conviction that their engagement might have a positive impact. That said, many come with healthy suspicion, particularly around how that process might be managed and, therefore, these first discussions together can be an opportunity to listen to those concerns and address them together.
Questions around capacity can help to assess and address issues around time, skills gaps, and access to resources. It’s also a good opportunity to acknowledge other commitments that might impact the scope or debts of engagement. Though one of the benefits of self-paced and self-directed engagement is that people can choose their own time and patterns of engagement that can fit in with other commitments. This makes it distinct from having to turn up at a certain place and time, which might not be ideal.
A great way to assess skills and plan for capacity building is to use the onboarding moment to present a range of options – potentially a ‘menu’ of training and skills opportunities that they may be interested in exploring as part of the project. And on the other side, ask them to present a list of experiences, networks and assets that they think they could bring to the project. These don’t need to be formalised or related in any way to work or education but simply related to lived experience in community networks. This way, the onboarding can become a moment for both the practitioner and the participant to see what they might both gain from engaging with one another.
Finally, where appropriate, we may discuss craft. Particularly, looking at their ambitions for co-production – what mediums they might like to explore and use, and what audiences and information spaces might be relevant to them. As we are often working through mobile, we might discuss whether this is audio, video, text, or a mix? Is their interest in producing community news or global advocacy content? And critically, what producers, practitioners, tools and platforms might we be able to introduce or help them harness to make their productions more powerful.
This could be added to the ‘menu’ of choices, as the above will simply be an early conversation to express interest in a range of options. Sometimes we use this as an initial scan to get media platforms or communication specialists – such as animators, editors, podcast creators – interested in pairing up with particular community members to boost those levels of professional craft and ignite a cycle of co-production.
With all these conversations sparking thoughts and ideas, but also surfacing practical challenges and considerations, onboarding can be one of the most rewarding phases of a project. It can truly be the beginning of establishing relationships that, hopefully, will last throughout the project and beyond.
That said it can be tricky to scale this moment of the project cycle. We have experimented with trying to use technology to automate some of these conversations. By sharing surveys and polls and questionnaires, and to some extent that does help to speed things up, and it can certainly suit particular personalities and contexts. But for most people and most situations, nothing beats a conversation, so while it might take more time, it is incredibly worthwhile to do it well.
So in a nutshell
Onboarding isn’t distinct from the project cycle but, rather, a critical moment within it. In that way, there are both risks and opportunities at this stage. If we end up with a network that is in a safe environment and able to participate. Who understand the project risks and opportunities and how to manage both. And, too, if the support team understands those needs and any additional adjustments they may require to fully engage. If we have all that established, then we’re in a really strong position to be able to work well together.
Equally, good onboarding should help participants realise if they are not in a secure position or, perhaps, not the right fit for the project so they can opt-out and keep their data private. It is a great opportunity to set the tone of collaboration, and address the power dynamics in the room, as well as offering the chance to welcome each participant as part of the team.
If that all sounds daunting and ambitious, then we can fall back on the simple test of whether or not we feel we’ve established an open relationship with a clear roadmap and scope of work. so that each participant can come forward to express their needs, concerns, questions, ideas and concerns as the project progresses.