A Step-by-Step Roadmap To Running An Effective Onboarding Focus Group

Posted in Talent & Onboarding

So… you’re in the process of improving your onboarding. (WoooHOOOO! 🪅🎉) A focus group can be a super valuable part of that process, shining a light on what you’re doing well, what you could be doing better, and opportunities to take onboarding to the next level.

Perhaps you’re here because you’re a new Enboarder customer wanting to track progress (*waves*), or maybe you’re earlier in your journey (no judgement).

Either way, you’ll hopefully find this a handy resource for running an effective focus group – to start progressing your onboarding (and realizing all the awesome biz benefits that come with that).

Here’s a step-by-step roadmap.

1 – Set your focus 🔍

selective focus photography of woman holding clear glass ball

A focus group can be an invaluable tool to answer questions, surface issues, test ideas and drive engagement – or they can become an unfocussed, spiralling time-suck that achieves little apart from driving disengagement.

To make sure your focus group does the former, it’s critical to define a clear goal upfront. Why do you want to run a focus group? What are you hoping to learn?

Are you…

  • …Investigating problems or roadblocks?
  • …Identifying bright spots and wins?
  • …Generating and road-testing ideas?
  • …Proving impact to scale buy-in?
  • …Enriching your understanding of stakeholders?

It’s typically better not to multi-task – you can always run multiple groups, but each group should only have one focus. For example, you might run a focus group to understand how to improve manager participation, or to explore ideas to take onboarding to the next level, or to assess your buddy scheme.

Keeping discussions focused helps keep attendees engaged and makes drawing (and acting on!) conclusions easier afterwards. Plus it makes keeping to time much easier – an hour is a good baseline, and you’ll typically see waaaay diminishing returns after that.

2 – Design your questions 📝

person in blue denim jeans using macbook pro

Depth of discussion unearths more value than breadth here, so don’t bombard attendees with too many questions. You’ll typically want several minutes (at least!) to discuss each question, to give the conversation a chance to progress beyond superficial observations.

The real gold comes from in-depth insights into pain points, gain points, frustrations, and motivations. Keep your questions open-ended (why, what, which, how, who) not closed (yes/no).

For example, say you’re running a focus group around the new hire experience. You could ask:

  • How did onboarding here compare to other onboarding you’ve experienced?
  • What were your favorite and least favorite parts of onboarding and why?
  • Where could we improve your onboarding experience?

Remember – a focus group isn’t a catch-all survey. Keep it focused on your original goal or you mightn’t get valuable insight where it matters most to you.

3 – Choose your attendees 👋🏻

three women sitting beside wooden table

Most focus groups have around six to eight people, plus a moderator who’ll facilitate discussion. Many more and you’ll struggle to create space for everyone to have their voices heard; many less and you’ll struggle to provoke valuable discussion and debate.

Your objective should guide your decision. For example:

  • If you’re investigating manager participation, a combination of highly engaged and not-so-engaged managers would be great.
  • If you’re exploring improvement opportunities for new hires, invite new hires with recent experience to share.
  • If you’re aiming to prove value and build buy-in so you can scale, a combination of new hires/managers who’ve experienced your process and established hires/managers who haven’t would make a compelling before and after.

4 – Tell attendees what to expect 🧩

pen on paper

Focus groups are most successful when participants are relaxed and engaged, so they’re more likely to be honest and vulnerable. Setting the right tone happens from the moment you invite people. Be clear about what you’re doing, what your goal is, and why the session is worthwhile.

Otherwise, managers might think they’re in trouble for low participation, for example. Or new hires mightn’t see the value in attending when they’re already busy enough trying to make a great impression in their new team.

You could try something like:

Hi Sarah –

We’re exploring ways to make our new onboarding process easier and faster for managers – would you be willing to attend a one-hour focus group session to discuss? It’ll be an informal chat with around six other managers (and as many biscuits as you can eat…)

Dates we’re considering are:

  • Monday 15th PM
  • Tuesday 16th AM or PM
  • Wednesday 17th AM or PM

Would any of those work for you?

5 – Facilitate don’t dominate 💬

woman in gray and white striped long sleeve shirt using silver macbook

An effective focus group demands a facilitator. Whoever’s facilitating will put participants at ease, introduce the session, guide discussion, ask searching questions, moderate/draw out speakers, resolve potential conflicts and ultimately, listen without judgement.

(On listening, recording sessions is often the best way to make sure you don’t miss nuance. If not, designate a separate notetaker so the facilitator can be completely present and engaged).

You should be talking less than 20% of the time, realistically. Start the session with a warm, personal introduction and re-emphasize your goals for the session. Then dig straight into your questions.

Some pointers:

  • Some relaxed, authentic humor makes a great icebreaker to start the session. Horror onboarding stories, anyone?!
  • Make “Why?” your new favorite question. The more you dig, the more insight you’ll unearth.
  • Don’t be afraid of silence. Participants taking time to think is a good thing; rushing to fill “awkward” silences will mean missing valuable insight.
  • Recap important points. Phrases like, “it sounds like you’re saying…?” ensure you understand, and prompt clarification if needed.
  • Give equal airtime. It’s normal for some participants to talk more than others but encourage everyone’s input with lines like “Sophie, what do you think?”
  • Close the session with a summary of next steps. And follow-up when you do act, to close the feedback loop.
  • Finish early!! As you approach the session’s end people are likely be clock-watching and getting tired, bored, and frustrated – not conducive to insight.

6 – Take action! ⚡

person using MacBook Pro

Focus groups themselves aren’t valuable – it’s what you do with the insights that’s valuable.

If you let the session recording and/or session notes gather dust in your Google Drive, you aren’t just leaving valuable input on the table. You’re also sending the message that you wasted participants’ time and ultimately cultivating cynicism about HR’s ability to drive change (and about your onboarding program as a whole). Not good.

Taking action might look like:

  • Circulating a wider questionnaire to gain further data around issues surfaced
  • Organizing 1:1 follow-up discussion to dig into points of particular interest
  • Making immediate improvements or piloting new ideas based on feedback
  • Analyzing responses and trends; presenting upwards to stakeholders
  • Creating a short explainer or scheduling extra training to clarify uncertainties
  • Writing up or making a short video case study to show on-the-ground value
  • Reviewing onboarding software vendors (if you’re not already using software)
  • Re-booking participants into another future focus group, to discuss changes
  • Creating a roadmap for change and publishing for company-wide input
  • Scaling onboarding into other biz areas, like parental leave and offboarding

We’ve said a million times – don’t let perfection hold back progress. Your journey’s bound to be iterative, if you’re learning and moving forward you’re golden.

We’re Enboarder. You might already know that but if not, here’s a little more about us. If you need a hand stepping up your onboarding game, we’d love to help. 

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