Imagine: It’s your first day of a new job. You’re excited to get started and prove yourself to your team, but you’re also a little nervous. You’re wondering if you made the right decision to accept your new role, curious to learn more about what projects you’ll be working on first, and a little worried over whether or not your brown bag lunch is a dead giveaway that you’re the newbie in the office.
By the time the day is over, you’ve had a constant firehose of information blasted at you, and everything feels like a total blur. Sound familiar? We’ve all been new at some point, and most of us can relate to having an overwhelming first day.
It may seem like having a crazy first day is just par for the course at a new job, but it doesn’t have to be that way. A buddy system is that simple-yet-elegant solution that can help new hires adjust easily and ramp up quickly.
The concept is basic: pair a new hire with a buddy or mentor who can provide guidance and support during their first few months. Ideally buddies can do everything from pointing a new hire in the direction of the restroom to introducing them to other colleagues, and most importantly can serve as a link between new employees and the institutional knowledge of your office. Which conference rooms are up for grabs any time of day? What’s the etiquette for communicating across departments? A buddy system can help address most of your hard-to-know specifics in a friendly and accessible way.
Where to start? We asked these partners for insights on what makes their buddy systems impactful.
Distinguish Between Buddies and Mentors
Buddies and mentors both have a place in the onboarding process, but they serve different purposes. Buddies are typically friendly faces that can help a new hire find the bathroom or acclimate socially, while mentors usually help new hires with role-related advice and longer-term career development.
At Culture Amp, Senior People Operations Manager Stacey Nordwall incorporates two different roles to help new Culture Ampers (Campers for short) get acclimated: Camp Guides and Mentors. A Camp Guide is someone who serves as a critical link during their first few weeks. They support the new hire by helping them learn the ins and outs of Culture Amp, and begin to develop relationships across the company. Essentially, the Camp Guide is there to help new hires learn all of those little cultural things you might not get in orientation, like favorite lunch spots or places to grab a cup of joe.
Mentors help guide a Camper’s development through personal conversations and questions. Their goal is to help the new hire outline their development goals. Because Mentors often have more experience and hold senior roles, they’re able to provide context that helps mentees think about the track for long-term career growth and goals.
“The idea was to provide an informal buddy who could cue new hires into the cultural norms they might not initially be comfortable asking about with team leads or mentors. It was an attempt to foster relationships outside of the person's team.”Stacy Nordwall
Culture Amp, Senior People Operations Manager
New employees are purposely paired with Camp Guides outside of their immediate orbit, which helps them get a pulse on what other teams are doing, something Culture Amp wants to prioritize early on. New hires will inevitably need to collaborate with people in other departments, so making those connections from Day 1 helps to “build empathy between the new hire and those other teams.”
Camp Guides are picked from a pool of eager volunteers, and Stacey has an ingenious trick for always ensuring the supply is plentiful: she sends every new Camper a Donut message asking if they’d be interested in becoming a Camp Guide in the future. It’s a great way to build excitement, and to ensure they have Camp Guides who still remember what it feels like to be new.
Offer Training to Help Buddies Succeed
Want to take your buddy system to the next level? Communicating clear expectations and offering training to buddies could mean the difference between good and great. At Cockroach Labs, becoming a Roachmate is an opt-in process that involves attending a training session. These sessions offer a snapshot of onboarding from the new hire’s perspective, lay out the program’s expectations, and offer tips to Roachmates on what makes for a great buddy experience.
“We've found most successful pairings come from those who truly want to be Roachmates. It gives those employees an opportunity to become mentors and take on a leadership-focused role.”Chelsea Lee
Cockroach Labs, Culture and Office Experience Manager
Though Roachmates are chosen from a pool of volunteers, they’re not assigned randomly. Teams at Cockroach Labs are working together to build a sophisticated cloud-native database, and Roachmates in particular are responsible for answering questions and serving as networking links to other departments. Because of the nature of the product and Roachmate system, Chelsea prefers to match new hires with Roachmates who have a similar level of technical experience and are very familiar with the product.
As the Culture and Office Experience Manager, Chelsea wears many hats—and she’s found it “a relief” for new employees to have a designated point person that answers questions. New hires find it similarly beneficial to know who they can go to, without feeling like they’re being a bother or distraction. Another benefit: Since Roachmates assist with connecting new hires to other departments and teammates, they’ve been able to fill in some of the gaps that naturally occur when scaling.
Learning and Iterating
The buddy system has been a part of Cockroach Labs’ onboarding process since very early on, so they’ve had some time to look for areas of improvement and iterate. Chelsea regularly collects feedback and updates processes and expectations. She also remains sensitive to the fact that Roachmates are essentially assuming a part-time role in addition to meeting their own role’s goals and responsibilities.
This process of iteration has led to the creation of a structured system that calls for Roachmates to meet for weekly 1:1s during the new hire’s first 30 days. Pairs are given discussion prompts that cover everything from team dinners to tips on how to collaborate with other departments. During their final Roachmate 1:1, new hires are asked to pick a topic of their choosing. Chelsea has found that this kind of structure helps keep everyone accountable, but also encourages an open dialogue on company culture and everyday questions.
Encourage Genuine Relationship Building
For other teams, the focus of buddies is less on talking through specific topics or tasks the pairs need to complete, and more on building friendships and peer relationships within the organization.
At Cloudbeds, for example, the team has intentionally left expectations for their buddy system very open. With a diverse group distributed across 24 countries, they are always looking for ways to help their team feel more connected with one another across distance and time.
“I wanted the buddy system to be exactly that: a friendship, where they get to know someone from a different department and location. I want them to fly by the seat of their pants and have fun.”Jennifer Johnson
Cloudbeds, Director of People and Culture
Every new hire receives a buddy outside of their team, a system that encourages both new hires and tenured employees to foster new relationships, and interact with people outside of their immediate orbit. Cloudbeds is a mostly remote company, and so Jennifer encourages pairs to think about the natural conversations that occur over a cup of coffee or at the water cooler as they’re chatting on Slack or Zoom.
The buddy program has been a positive experience for new hires onboarding at Cloudbeds because it’s provided newbies with an extra touchpoint when they need help as well as a connection outside of their own team. Plus, Cloudbeds has a dedicated Slack channel where buddies can chat about everything from general expectations for the program to how their meetings are going with the new hires.
The Bottom Line
If you’re in the early stages of building a buddy system, reach out to your team to find out what their challenges were as new hires, and what kind of resources they would have liked to see. That feedback is a great starting point in structuring a buddy system to your advantage.
Whether you just want to connect your new hires to more team members early, or want to fill in gaps where your onboarding process isn’t hitting every mark, a buddy system can help you improve your office culture and integrate new hires more efficiently.