Implementing a buddy system in the workplace

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John Cooper, IT Project Manager, National Institutes of Health

Judy Wight, IT Project Manager, National Institutes of Health

Have you ever started a new job and felt completely lost on the first day? Were you able to “hit the ground running,” or did it take a long time for you to come up to speed with your new company's work environment, workflow processes, and unspoken rules? Starting a new job can be exciting, but it can also be very stressful and overwhelming. Project managers who are new to an organization have the essential skillsets to succeed in their new roles; but they are unfamiliar with their new coworkers and the company's’ culture and business processes. Assigning a workplace buddy who can help ease the transition into their new roles can be very beneficial for all involved, especially during the onboarding process.

Introduction

Implementing a buddy system in your work environment not only provides benefits for the new employee, it can also be valuable to your organization. Providing a workplace buddy ensures that your new employee has someone to talk to, which is important in the first nerve-wracking weeks of a new job. A formal buddy system can also become an unstructured knowledge share. For example, it can lead to a more efficient project management office (PMO) by helping a new project manager get “up to speed” faster as well as allow him or her to bring new ideas and technologies to the existing PMO. If done well, providing a structured transition process leads to better employee retention especially if it is part of the first few days on the job. If the new project manager has had a positive early experience, he or she is more likely to feel comfortable in his or her new role, maintain a confident attitude, and stay with your company for a longer period of time. Your new employee will understand workplace systems and processes and culture better, resulting in a quicker settling in period—and ensure they are productive sooner. This paper will provide project management professionals with tips and tricks for transferring knowledge among experienced project managers and those new to the organization using a “buddy system.

What is a Buddy System?

A buddy system is an onboarding and knowledge sharing method used to orient new employees. It involves assigning him or her to a workplace buddy. The buddy is an existing employee who guides the new project manager through the first few weeks or months on the job. It should include a formal documented process that outlines the buddies’ responsibilities as well as what items they should cover over the first few weeks or months of employment. The buddy system should also encourage the new employee to share project management tips, tools, knowledge, and techniques they learned from previous work experiences. The knowledge sharing goal is to incorporate new ideas and technologies that enhance the organization. Finally, a workplace buddy gives the new employee an opportunity to offer confidential feedback about how the onboarding process is going.

Why Implement a Buddy System?

There's a famous story in the recruiting circles that goes something like this:

A young woman died accidentally and appeared at the gates of heaven. Saint Peter, the guardian of the gates, asked if she would like to come in, and she asked what her alternatives were. Saint Peter said he could offer her a three-day trip to hell to find out what it was like. She agreed and ended up having three of the most exotic and wonderful days she could ever imagine. After the three days were over, she went back to Saint Peter and pleaded with him to let her go to hell. He agreed and in the next instance she was back in hell. But this time, she was forced to exist in unbearable conditions. After describing her three-day visit to one of the other souls living in hell, she asked what had happened. He responded, “Ah, now you know the difference between being a recruit and being an employee.”

The last thing you want hear from a new employee on their first day is “Nobody knew I was starting today.” At the end of their first day and in subsequent weeks, you want new employees to confirm internally that they made the right decision to accept the position. Most new hires begin their first day on the job with anticipation and eagerness. This early enthusiasm can be either boosted or ruined, depending on a first impression. What happens during the first few days will determine the new hire's long-term perception of the job and the organization. A weak or non-existent and stopgap onboarding process may leave a new worker with bad first impression that in turn, may lead to negative long-term business impacts, such as unexpected turnover or poor performance. For example, a project manager may be asking themselves “What's up with a company that can't get it together enough to assign a new employee with a desk, a computer, and a login?” Arranging for a desk and login are easy, but recovering from a bad first impression—that's hard.

Regardless of whether you have a formal orientation process or not, onboarding is going to happen; the real issue is the quality of the experience. According to a study that the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) conducted in 2011 covering onboarding practices, more than 80 percent of organizations polled said they had formal or informal orientation programs for new hires using a variety of methods. According to a review of large-scale US companies, Watson Wyatt Worldwide, Inc., concluded that organizations that focus on job orientation experience significant differences in financial performance and employee engagement from what those that do not do. Ilene Gochman, an organization effectiveness expert with Watson Wyatt Worldwide, reports that, “Few things are more important to a company's long-term performance than choosing the right employees and ensuring they have the proper outlook from day one.” Watson Wyatt found that “those with highly engaged workers spend an average of 35 weeks grooming new employees, compared to only 15 weeks that employers with low employee engagement spend.” Hom and Griffeth (1995) determined that role conflict (experiencing conflicting expectations and demands) and role ambiguity (doubt about the expectations others have of you) are significant predictors of turnover (which is costly and something to avoid). Onboarding of a new employee is something that is always done, and yet it is not often done well.

When onboarding is well executed, it sets the foundation for long-term success. If your orientation consists of handing the employee a pile of forms to fill out on their first day, you may open yourself to future problems, which is where the buddy system comes in. Implementing a buddy system can be one part of an effective onboarding program that provides new employees with a reliable, motivated, on going, single point of contact for questions regarding work processes. This socialization and support can make an enormous, positive difference in early performance, social integration, and long-term retention.

New project managers typically bring with them functional skills and industry knowledge to perform the job—that's why you hired them in the first place. But the new hire needs to understand your company culture, your specific product(s), and how you use tools and technology before she or he can become a truly productive employee. A buddy program ensures that newly hired project managers are quickly and effectively integrated into the organization. In addition, it can help already capable staff members apply their skills and adapt to the culture quickly. The socialization goal is to ensure the new project manager feels comfortable and accepted by establishing rapport with a buddy on their first day at a new job.

The buddy system is not only valuable to your new employee; you can also use it to develop existing staff members’ skills. By talking with the new hire, the buddy will learn tools and techniques that other companies use, develop mentoring skills, and improve leadership know-how that is ultimately useful within your company.

What Is a Buddy?

A buddy is someone who partners with a new employee during his or her first few months of employment. He or she is a colleague assigned to assist the new hire to get through the first nerve-wracking time period of being in a new position. He or she provides insight into the day-to-day activities of the company and is there to help the new project manager fit in more quickly. Typically, a buddy would make him- or herself available to show the new hire around the office, go over procedures and policies, and generally help the new hire become familiar with the company's inner workings and culture. Ideally, a buddy is a great communicator who can easily provide information and encourage the new hire to express their thoughts and concerns in a safe setting. He or she should be the type of employee the organization wants to duplicate.

Buddy Responsibilities

Knowing “what is expected of me” is one of the most important questions that contribute to employee satisfaction, according to a Gallup Q12 study. New employees face a steep learning curve when they start with a new company. If your organization approaches orientation strictly based on job-related information, this provides little opportunity for communicating information that socializes the new employee. Building cultural competence is a process, not a one-time event. The good news about the buddy system is that you do not need a large staff or a great deal of time or funds to launch an effective program.

Relationships matter. Current employees who act as buddies must want new employees to succeed and be committed to helping them. A workplace buddy may be the first point of contact for your new employee and should be capable of establishing rapport quickly. You want the new employee to feel comfortable and safe asking questions and bringing up issues with their buddy. An effective program primarily requires a culture of openness and teamwork.

The hiring manager should take buddy selection almost as seriously as the hiring decision itself. The buddy becomes an ambassador for you, communicates your company culture, and relates non-job specific —but important—information. Make sure the buddy employee has time to perform this work and is not on the critical path for urgent deliverables. Consider reducing assignments that could keep the buddy away from the new hire. A buddy should be accessible to the new project manager, so position him or her near the new hire (e.g., in the same physical space, if possible).

Buddies should have the skills and knowledge to perform the following types of tasks:

  • Teaching/or tutoring, such as explaining unfamiliar tasks;
  • Explaining how to use office equipment, obtain office supplies, make travel arrangements, and the like;
  • Socializing the new employee on company's guidelines, norms, culture, and unwritten guidelines;
  • Sharing insights on how things are done in the organization;
  • Involving the new employee in social or informal activities, such as lunch, coffee, and such.

To add structure to the system, the supervisor and the buddy employee should outline what to cover with the new hire and create a planned timetable or checklist to follow (see Appendix A: Establishing a Buddy Program).

A buddy provides moral support during the first few crucial weeks by introducing the new employee to staff members and showing them around their new workplace. He or she should have a good work performance history and be someone whom other employees like and respect. Ideally, buddies are also rewarded formally through performance appraisals and/or gestures of appreciation and respect.

Characteristics of a Good Buddy

When selecting a buddy it is important to choose an employee who has a well-rounded knowledge of your company and its mission and value. It is equally important that he or she have a positive outlook and is willing to be the face of the organization. Additional characteristics to look for when selecting a buddy include:

  • Has a willingness and ability to mentor others;
  • Has demonstrated strong past performance;
  • Has the time to be accessible to the new employee;
  • Is skilled in/has knowledge of the new employee's job;
  • Is a peer of the new employee;
  • Has excellent communications and interpersonal skills;
  • Is well regarded and accepted by current employees.

A buddy should epitomize your company's values and be familiar enough with the formal and informal organizational structures to be a reliable source of information. An appropriate buddy will possess a positive outlook on the company and be able to use their perspective to encourage a sense of pride and loyalty in the new employee.

What a Buddy Should Not Be

A buddy is not a substitute for the supervisor or mentor. They are available to answer relatively straightforward questions about operational issues. This is in contrast to a coach who seeks to increase the individual's job-specific performance, or a mentor who is focused on personal and professional development. To be clear, a workplace buddy is not someone who is involved in the new project manager's individual development or job performance. The buddy is not being asked to develop the new project manager and should not be held accountable for the new hire's performance.

If someone does not want to do this extra work, then don't assign him or her the buddy role. Some people simply don't want the responsibility, or they are not well suited temperamentally for the role. Be sure to discourage gossip and speculation within the buddy/new employee relationship.

Typically, organizations choose veteran employees to fulfill the buddy role. An employee with less than one year of service may be more empathetic or closer in age to a new hire, but they may not have the full breadth of knowledge needed yet because they are still learning. While seasoned employees are best, the buddy should not be a disgruntled employee or someone who is exactly “two years, three days, and six hours” away from retirement. You don't want new hires to learn bad work habits or become a part of the culture that damages productivity.

Unless requested, a buddy does not peer review work products that the new employee creates so he or she should avoid giving unsolicited advice. Nor should he or she take over the work of the new project manager; doing so may short-circuit the new hire's learning experience. Do not assign a buddy who will be on vacation or has a trip during the first critical weeks. Doing so may leave the new hire feeling stranded. Also, if the new hire and the buddy have already created a relationship, the new hire may feel less trusting and not ask as many questions of a substitute buddy.

Tips for the Buddy

If you are asked to be a buddy, here are some tips that can help you to make the most of the experience:

  • You are not expected to be an expert on everything, so don't worry about living up to this ideal;
  • Focus attention on the new project manager and what he or she needs to be comfortable and productive in their new role;
  • Remain patient—relationships take time to develop;
  • Don't try to cover everything right away. Remember, the new project manager more than likely feels overwhelmed during the first couple of weeks in a new job and will need time to digest all the information they are taking in;
  • Stay positive. New employees will grow into their roles in time with appropriate support;
  • Don't try to force a relationship. Be available, but give the new employee time to adjust to you and feel comfortable with using you as a trusted source;
  • Try to identify the new employee's personality and communication style and adapt accordingly
  • Keep an open mind and don't be too judgmental. The new hire is relying on you to be a safe place to get answers to their many questions;
  • Maintain a positive, teaching attitude.

Also, remember that there is an underlying assumption that the new hire will be receptive to the buddy. He or she shares the responsibility for successful integration into the organization. The buddy should encourage the new employee to ask questions, ti be open and willing to learn, to share knowledge from previous jobs, and to give feedback on their experience with the onboarding process.

Knowledge Share

The International Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Lausanne, Switzerland, estimates that businesses lose $37 billion annually because employees do not fully understand their jobs. According to their white paper, “$37 billion: Counting the Cost of Employee Misunderstanding,” IMD calculated these losses occur as a result of “actions taken by employees who have misunderstood or misinterpreted — or were misinformed about or lack confidence in their understanding—of company policies, business processes, job function, or a combination of the three.” The purpose of a buddy system is to help workers understand their roles and the company they work for, which may significantly cut these losses.

As such, beyond orientation, the buddy system can also be used as a technique for knowledge sharing and cross-training. By functioning as a buddy, existing staff members will gain valuable mentoring and leadership skills that will be useful within the organization. If the process allows your new employee to share previous experiences, this may lead to new ideas and technologies that can enhance your organization. Long term, the buddy relationship could turn into an unstructured peer-to-peer learning community that evolves into a way to sustain learning beyond formal training events or product development projects.

Summary

Creating a buddy system for a new hire requires some investment and should be handled with care. However, it isn't difficult or expensive to implement this type of program. The rules are simple—make sure you've chosen a willing and competent buddy; create the minimum set of documentation; and revise it as you hire new people. Set an end date for the formal buddy relationship. Watch for the things that do not work so you can guide both the experienced and new employees. A new hire will need to ask questions anyway, so make sure you have an effective system in place to deal with those questions. A buddy system can dramatically reduce the time a new hire requires to be productive and lead to greater retention. A side effect of a buddy program is that it provides a forum for knowledge sharing and positive recognition for the buddy. Providing the new hire with a workplace buddy can also supplement the PMO and team members by freeing them up to focus on substantive work rather than take time to answer simple administrative questions. Appendix A contains steps and an example of how to establish a Buddy Program.

Appendix A

Establishing a Buddy Program

You do not need ti hire a large staff or to spend a great deal time or funds to launch an effective buddy system. Draft a simple and formal document that outlines what the buddy role is about. Find an appropriate staff member to act as a buddy and make sure he or she understands your intent. Finally, evaluate how well the program worked.

STEP 1. Decide on and document how the work buddy program will work, such as purpose, roles, ground rules, length of time, and so forth. For example, see “Exhibit 1: Sample ‘Buddy Program’ below:

Sample Buddy Program

Exhibit 1: Sample Buddy Program

STEP 2. Identify the buddy, confirm that he or she is willing and able to play this role and review the buddy process with him or her.

Workgroup peers greatly influence behavioral norms, values, and beliefs in the workplace and as such, the selection of a compatible buddy is vital. Consider the current employees’ qualities, physical location, availability, willingness to play this role. For example, do not assign the new employee to a buddy who has a major, career-impacting deadline in three days, or is about to retire, or is your most unhappy, negative, company-bashing staff member. The buddy should hold a job similar to that of the new project manager and possess a full understanding of the work environment. He or she should be well regarded by peers, have good communication and interpersonal skills, and have a strong sense of discretion. Review the responsibilities with the selected buddy and provide a list of topics to cover.

STEP 3. Provide a template of topics the buddy should cover with the new employee. For example, see Exhibit 2: Sample ‘Buddy Checklist’ below.

Sample Buddy Checklist

Exhibit 2: Sample Buddy Checklist

STEP 4. Encourage knowledge sharing.

The new employee arrives with a wealth of previous work experiences. Advise the buddy to take advantage of this opportunity to share project management knowledge, such as how other companies executed the operational readiness process when systems went live. As the buddy explains company methods used in this organization, he or she can make a point to ask how the new hire how he or she instituted or managed the same processes in prior positions. All new employees may not be receptive to these questions in a formal setting, such as a staff meeting. The buddy relationship is more conducive to this type of informal knowledge sharing and can later be introduced to the PMO, if it makes sense to do so. Choose subjects that are easy for the new employee to share and that could also benefit the organization. Over time continue to ask the new employee about tools, techniques, templates, and the like that they may have used. Doing so will not only open up a dialog for knowledge sharing but will also build confidence in the new employee and give them the feeling that they can add value to their new organization right away.

STEP 5. Evaluate and debrief with the buddy and the new employee

The orientation process, in general, needs to be evaluated to determine its effectiveness. At the end of the buddy relationship, the program coordinator or hiring manager should ask the buddy and the new employee to complete a brief questionnaire aimed at improving the buddy program. To evaluate the buddy part of the orientation, you can use a variety of methods, such as:

  • Interviewing new employees and buddies who have gone through the process
  • Sending a questionnaire to new employees and buddies at a prescribed time
  • Conducting a focus group session with a representative sample of new employees and buddies.

The questionnaire should not include the specific issues discussed between the buddy and the new employee. Instead, ask the new hire open-ended questions such as those in “Exhibit 3: Sample New Hire Questions after Orientation.

Sample New Hire Questions after Orientation

Exhibit 3 Sample New Hire Questions after Orientation

Questionnaires should be easy and quick to complete. Their purpose is to help the PMO review and re design the buddy program so that you can continue to improve it. See Exhibit 4: Sample Evaluation Questionnaire” below.

Sample Evaluation Questionnaire

Exhibit 4: Sample Evaluation Questionnaire

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This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2014, John Cooper & Judy Wight
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Phoenix, Arizona, USA

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