The Back to School Guide for Grown Ups

Categories: Winnthinks

So this week it’s back to school for our youngsters. What are your memories of the new school year?

For me it meant a trendy new pencil case, an Oxford Maths Set, pastel-coloured exercise books that smelt crisp and clean, new felt tips that still had pointy ends. Slightly scratchy school shirts, hard new shoes and jumpers with over-long sleeves. As I attended an all-girl secondary there was also amazement at how tall/brown/busty one’s classmates had become – no social media in those days, so classmates disappeared at the end of one term to emerge all grown up at the start of the next. Oh yes, and the rush to bagsy a ‘good’ desk in the new form room next to your best friend.

The grown-ups’ equivalent of going back to school is starting a new job, with many of the same emotional bumps to be ridden out. This is true of all new starters, from the brand new apprentice through to the top executive. So how can we make sure our new joiners at every level, like our children, arrive confident, equipped and ready to hit the ground running? Here are some thoughts.

  • 1. Take away as much mystery as possible. The more information you can give ahead of time, the more confident your new starter will feel on Day One. Assume zero knowledge – about the dress code, where to park, how to access the building, what time to arrive, who to ask for at Reception, whether there are lunch facilities on site… It sounds basic, but someone I know hadn’t been told she would be based in a different building to the one where she was interviewed.
  • 2. Have their workspace ready. If the new starter is desk-based, do make sure the last occupant’s debris has been cleared out. It isn’t remotely welcoming to find someone else’s old paperclips and curled-up printouts in the desk drawer. If your workplace has a different type of workstation or hot-desking, make sure the new joiner knows where to store their stuff and the base they should report back to.
  • 3. Provide the basics, plus a little extra. As a stationeryphile (is that even a real word?) I derive immense joy from being given a notepad, pens and those teeny-weeny bulldog clips in bright colours. Oh, and Post-Its. Your organisation may, as many do, tightly control the stationery budget, but every new starter should be given a basic kit. And that’s new stuff – not someone else’s chewed down biro. Really great workplaces include something fun too, like a branded pen mug (still boxed), a desk buddy or a bar of chocolate. Use your imagination! It sends a great message about how warmly you’re welcoming your new team member.
  • 4. Help them with the technical set up. When I used to temp it was common to be literally left to my own devices on arrival. One place, where I was covering switchboard for a week, didn’t think to show me how to get past the login on the locked PC, where to find the online directory or how their telephony worked. They expressed great surprise when I asked someone to show me.
  • 5. Show them around. One of my earliest ‘proper’ jobs, in the 1980s, was in a huge local government building. I was told the corridor where the senior leadership team and councillors were based was a ‘no go area’. It was panelled with dark wood, had soft carpet and reeked of superiority. I became lost running an errand in my first week and couldn’t navigate my way back without going through The Corridor. It felt like being drawn into the belly of Jonah’s whale, but I was powerless to go anywhere else. Since then I’ve given every new starter in my charge a tour round the building. Or, if there’s a group starting together, you can send them out with a map to find marked locations (fire exits, café, meeting rooms) and key people they can introduce themselves to. After all, who wants to ask for directions to the toilet on their first day?
  • 6. Don’t expect them to remember everyone’s name. Most of us would struggle to remember six new names and faces in one go, so pity the new starter who is paraded round an open plan office and expected to take in 40 or more. At that stage your new starter has no idea how important or relevant these people are going to be to them, which piles on the pressure all the more. Far better to introduce them to a small number of immediate team members, who can help them acclimatise and gradually introduce them over the next few days.
  • 7. Give them a Buddy. Having a Buddy system is not only reassuring for the new starter, it gives the Buddy a chance for some development. Showing someone how to do a job forces us to revisit our own knowledge and practice, helping us identify where we may have become ‘unconsciously incompetent’ over time.
  • 8. Have a New Starter Checklist. If all this sounds like a lot to remember, well, you don’t have to. Produce and regularly review a Checklist so you can make sure you have everything covered without having to reinvent the wheel each time.
  • 9. Give them a plan. We all feel more settled when we know what’s coming up. Great organisations have a timetabled induction programme, whether for one new starter or one hundred. Give them an outline showing where they need to be, who they will be with and what they’ll be doing. Build in lots of variety and practical learning as well as the factual stuff.

Next time: Designing a great Induction Programme.


  1. What a great article! When you’ve been with the same company for a while it’s all too easy for memories to fade on how we felt on our first day. I’m fortunate enough to work somewhere where induction is taken seriously and a proper plan is put in place. Looking forward to the next instalment!

  2. Hi Hazel – yes, we’ve all been there haven’t we! I shall make sure I put some good induction pointers in the next exciting instalment – watch this space! 🙂

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