Beyond the dotted line: Onboarding new hires to set them up for success
Christina Lai

Beyond the dotted line: Onboarding new hires to set them up for success

Free meals. Complimentary yoga and gym passes. Flexible working hours. Huge training budgets.

Despite the seemingly endless perks of most companies in the tech sector today, it takes more than just fringe benefits to attract and retain the best talent. In fact, engaging a new team member starts way before day one. At Canva, our full onboarding experience begins as soon as a candidate has signed their name on the dotted line.

As part of Team Happiness (Canva’s HR Team), creating a newbie onboarding experience that’s both informative and exciting has been a huge priority for me. My team and I have been working on our goal of revitalizing the Canva onboarding program to make sure we’re setting our new Canvanauts up for success from the day they decide to join the team. In this article, I’ll share what we’ve learned from our experience with creating a new onboarding program that truly resonates with our new hires.

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Onboarding starts before hiring

Set clear goals for the role

Onboarding begins before you even start hiring for a role. For a new starter to be successful, it’s critical to know exactly what the goals for the new role are, the skills you require, and how this person will be expected to work with others on the team.

This is why every season—three months—Team Happiness works with the different teams at Canva to help them plan for resourcing. We then set expectations for our Talent Acquisition team who are able to plan out the recruitment process. There are a few key people involved in this phase:

  • Coordinators. Supervise the day-to-day activities of the team to ensure that the team has a good strategy, is aligned and are able to get things done. They are teams’ first stop for all questions, concerns and context, and are responsible for the daily productivity and well-being of their team.
  • Talent Acquisition. Look after all the recruitment activities at Canva. They work with the team to make sure our new starters align with our company goals, vision and culture.
  • Team Happiness. Ensure teams and individuals at Canva have everything they need to succeed. As well as supporting teams through their planning process and overall effectiveness, they also support the company as a whole in achieving everyday tasks such as onboarding newbies, supporting mentors, ensuring cross-collaboration across all teams, and looking after employee happiness and productivity—making Canva the world’s best place to work.

The teams at Canva complete a hiring strategy and pull together some challenges (those that relate to the role in question and can be completed either in-house or as a take-home task) which are used to assess candidates.

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Align expectations early on

Hiring someone is the start of a relationship—it’s a two-way street. While it’s important that we get all the necessary information we need from the candidate during the interview process, it’s also important for us to give the candidate as much context as possible.

Some things that candidates will want to know:

  • What are the expectations for them in this role?
  • Why would they want to work here?
  • What are we offering over other companies?
  • What benefits or perks do we offer?
  • What is the culture like?

NOTE: It’s important to open up about your company and engage the candidate on what it’s like to work at your company. It’s crucial to remember that not everyone works for a salary. People have different motivators and working out what they are will enable you to make an educated hiring decision, resulting in the perfect match for the role you are filling, and for the company overall.

Create an onboarding plan

Grounding new starters in our company culture is just as important to us as making them feel welcome and empowered to do their best work on day one—and for the rest of their tenure with us. This means having a plan—letting them know what to expect, introducing them to the right people, and showing them where to go.

Our onboarding plan provides every new starter with overall clarity on their team, including information such as who they will be working with, their initial goals, key contacts, systems and tools they’ll need, Slack channels and even a list of all our social clubs, ranging from wine club, board games club, music club, to name a few.

An outline of our onboarding document:

  • Intro to Canva. This section provides a history of Canva and provides more context on how we’ve evolved and our values. We also explain our team structure which as a matrix can take some time to understand. Additionally, we give them an outline of their group such as their key achievements to date, and key contacts within the company.
  • Intro to their role. This section provides an outline of their role, their upcoming goals and projects they will work on to achieve these goals, as well as their measures of success.
  • Systems and tools set up. This section outlines a list of all the programs we use at Canva, what they are used for and how they help our workflow. We also suggest a list of people to meet for extra information, once their onboarding workshops are complete.

Alt text An example of an onboarding doc.

Kick off onboarding before someone starts

Provide context before day one

Once someone has made the decision to join, there can often be weeks or months before they start—resigning from their previous role, moving countries, etc.—so you want to ensure you’re keeping them engaged. Think about the questions a new starter wants answered or what they may be uncertain about:

  • What is the company culture like?
  • What are the biggest priorities for Canva right now?
  • How can I learn more about what I’ll be doing and who I’ll be working with?
  • What forms do I need to complete and return?
  • How do I get set up with the systems and tools I’ll need?

When I first started Canva there were 116 people working in our Sydney office. Since then, I’ve been a part of onboarding more than 90 Canvanauts to date.

Our biggest newbie cohort

Our CEO Melanie (bottom row) with our largest cohort of newbies in our Sydney office in March 2018.

It’s important when you’re onboarding this many people through such a complex onboarding program that you leverage the right tools.

Before their start date, we send out an email drip campaign using a great tool called Enboarder. This sequence of emails welcomes them, provides links to company videos about our culture, shows them what to expect, and allows us to ask a little about themselves.

Alt text An example of an email sent through Enboarder before the newbie’s first day that let us get to know a little about them.

Get the paperwork out of the way

We assign our newbies with a set of tasks to complete before their start date using our HR system BambooHR. This means they can hit the ground running from day one and get all the trivial tasks out of the way.

Alt text Example of tasks assigned to a newbie before day one.

Organize an epic first fortnight

Helping newbies feel less anxious and stressed so that they can focus on their work and goals from day one is an important part of our onboarding program. At Canva, we like to start our newbies on a Tuesday morning, so they have a shorter first week, and can take time to digest new routines and information without feeling overloaded or overwhelmed. This also means their teams can finish setting up on a Monday, ready for the newbie the following day.

Have a plan for day one

What to expect. A few days before our newbies’ first day, we send them an email with practical information on what to expect, such as details on when to arrive (10am in Sydney), what they might want to wear (jeans and a T-shirt, or whatever they feel most comfortable in), and who to ask for. We find this extra information makes walking through our front doors a little less scary on the first day.

Arriving. When our newbies arrive, we ensure there’s someone there to greet them with a welcome drink while we set them up on our WiFi. We also encourage them to get to know the other new starters in their cohort before their first day activities start.

Our starter pack

Office tour and orientation. Canva has grown from being a single room office, to being across four levels, multiple buildings, and across oceans. So, before we show our newbies to their new desks, we take them on an office tour with the Vibe Team, followed by an orientation with Team Happiness where they are shown a little about what working at Canva is like, how teams are structured, important systems and tools to set up, and who to reach out to for further questions.

Starter packs. All newbie desks are set-up with a new starter kit so there’s no need for newbies to go hunting for supplies. Standard items such a MacBook, keyboard, mouse, notebook and pens are accompanied with fun swag such as Canva stickers, a box of chocolates, and a helium balloon tied to their seats—providing a very unique first day experience designed to make the newbie feel extra special. “You can walk in the door empty handed and you’ve got everything you need to get started waiting for you at your desk,” says Linda Lin who is also part of Team Happiness. “We’ve all worked in places where we’ve just started, and we find ourselves sitting around well past lunch just to get our laptops sorted!”

Our starter pack

Relocation support. Canva is an international and diverse company. Many of our Canvanauts come from all over the world and we like to ensure that we’re making their relocation process as exciting and stress free as possible. At the end of their first week, we like to tee up some time to have a chat and ask how they’re settling into the company, and also into Sydney. We also provide a little pack of Australian goodies for them to enjoy, and organize regular social events for them and their families to meet new people.

Structure workshops to build knowledge

During their first two weeks at Canva, we schedule several onboarding workshops for our newbies across design, product, growth, engineering, people, culture, public relations, finance and legal.

In your first weeks

These presentations give newbies visibility and context on how decision-making is distributed throughout the team and company, and how each group works. We encourage our newbies to undergo these sessions together as a cohort, so they can bounce off learnings and observations with each other, and also be there to support one another—no one will understand their thoughts and feelings as much as the people who started on the same day.

Architecture onboarding workshop

David Hearnden (R) running through Canva’s engineering architecture.

Hearing from every team also reinforces Canva’s belief that onboarding is a company-wide responsibility. We are showing our newbies how each team works to achieve their goals, and how this fits with the overall Canva vision. These workshops are also centralized on our Canva team page for anyone who wants to revisit them on a later date.

Workshop presentations

Team presentations stored on our Canva team page.

Introduce the newbies to the team

Newbie, everyone. Everyone, newbie. Intros are an important part of familiarizing new people to the team but are also a great opportunity for the team to get to know a little bit more about our new recruits. We have several ways in which we introduce newbies into their new environments.

Balloons. At Canva, we celebrate everything—a team member’s first day is no different. We like to make our newbies feel special with a big helium balloon tied to their desk. This makes it easier for newbies to find their desks and for others to know who and where the newbies are, so they can introduce themselves. We like to say that as long as someone’s newbie balloon is up, there are no silly questions. This gives them a bit of confidence if they are ever in a situation where they need to ask a question but feel like they shouldn’t.

Newbie balloons

Welcome email. Using Enboarder, we send out a set of questions to all our newbies, the answers from which, are then turned into a little scripted ‘bio’ email that goes out to everyone at the company. The idea behind this is to quickly introduce newbies to the whole company, including those in different offices.

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Introductions. Newbies from the same cohort are invited to join forces to create a fun presentation using Canva for our Friday Show and Tell meetings. These presentations are saved onto our Canva team page, so people can go back and view them for direction, a reminder of something, or just a good laugh—often they include hilarious photos and interesting stories about our team members. Introductory presentations are a modern, inclusive way to get everyone involved, and they’re also a great way for newbies to use Canva at work!

Newbie presentations

Newbie presentations stored in Canva.

Meeting the founders. There’s no better way to engage our newbies than by showing them how important they are to us. Every newbie is invited to meet with our three cofounders. Melanie and Cliff, our CEO and COO, walk them through Canva’s history, current goals, product roadmap, and everything we want to achieve in the future, while Cameron, our CPO takes them out for some casual conversation over gelato and give newbies a chance to learn more about our product and design process. These chilled, informal meetings are often a favorite among our newbies because it gives them a strong sense of being part of something bigger, connects them to our goals, and grounds them to our mission.

Meeting the founders

Some of our recent Manila newbies meeting with our cofounders for an update on our business growth.

Pair them up with a mentor

A newbie’s first day can be extremely nerve-wracking. Setting them up with a mentor can help ease their stress and give them the confidence to ask questions—no matter how big or small they may be—such as something as simple as where can I find X, or how do I go about X so I can achieve Y. Mentors also help newbies adjust to our company culture quickly and in turn sets them up to be a valued member of the team.

Some of our mentor duties:

  • Act as a safety net and provide them with moral support.
  • Introduce them to the project they will be working on, helping them navigate through any specific challenges.
  • Provide training on specific tools and processes.
  • Set up daily check-ins in their first week (which then turn to weekly check-ins) to make sure they’re on track. Also, be across their calendar (where to go, who to meet).
  • Be there for their intro presentations at Friday Show and Tell.
  • Celebrate their wins—their first peer review or starter task.

Mentors are expected to spend about 20–30% of their time on these duties.

Schedule time for casual conversations

On top of meetings and workshops, we like to jumpstart relationships to help newbies integrate into the company effortlessly. Leaving time for opportunities of casual conversation are a great way to induct new team members to our company culture.

Lunch. Chef-cooked lunches where we eat together and catch up on work, goals and hobbies/interests outside of work.


Some of the Canva team eating lunch together.

Coffee dates. Three scheduled coffee dates in the first week with different Canvanauts who have been here for some time and can show them the ropes. Gives newbies a chance to learn about others’ backgrounds and roles within the company, and a little more about who they are outside of work.

Coffee dates

An example of a newbie’s invite to their first three coffee dates.

Organize team outings on their first day

We advise our mentors to reach out to their mentees before they start so they can get better acquainted. This could be done over Friday night drinks or a club event, so they can break the ice before day one. We always make sure to stress this is optional because we’re just as happy to meet them in person on day one.

On their first day, teams will take a newbie out for coffee or lunch, so they get to meet everyone in a casual setting. We find this to be the most relaxing way to get to know the new person and the team, personally and professionally.

Some of the teams at Canva.

Make time for check-ins

According to research it’s more likely for new starters to actively search for a new job within their first six months when they have a poor onboarding experience and companies with an engaging onboarding program are able to retain almost all of their first-year workers. At Canva, we want to make sure our retention rate is 100% and that’s why we know that onboarding takes time and is an ongoing effort. It is important for us to make our employees feel constantly valued, supported, and challenged—even after their first two weeks.

Maintain mentor catch-ups

Passing on their knowledge about Canva by guiding our newbies isn’t a task that ends in a fortnight. We expect our mentors to consistently give feedback on how their mentees are doing, be approachable, answer any and every question, support their mentee to join clubs and get involved, live Canva’s values and generally always be there for them.

Coffee dates

Some of our ongoing mentor responsibilities include:

  • Scheduling monthly check-ins to ensure they are comfortable—up to six months, beyond if necessary. At their three-month milestone, we collect some feedback from the wider team on how they’re progressing with their role (more about this later).
  • Elevating any major issues the individual may have to their Coordinator, Specialty Lead or Team Happiness.
  • Encouraging the new starter to discuss their skill development at Canva with their Specialty Lead and try to understand the tasks the individual is most passionate about, so we can align their interests with the right opportunities at Canva.
  • Speaking up if they have any challenges with their mentee—it is equally as important that we support our mentors.

Survey key milestones

Surveys are a great way for us to collect feedback along the way from newbies. During week one and two, we use the information collected through these surveys to address any potential challenges or red flags, and to make sure a newbie is getting the support they need. We also use this as an opportunity to check-in with their mentor too—to see how they are going with the program.

Alt text A week one check in email sent to our newbies.

Provide 360 feedback

Our 360 process—run through CultureAmp—is a way for newbies to reflect on their time at Canva and obtain constructive feedback from the people they work with closely. This process complements the regular and immediate feedback they receive from their mentor from day one. As part of this, newbies complete a self-review. This is an important step in helping everyone identify blind spots and differences between their perception of their strengths and areas of improvement, against the perceptions of their reviewers.

Once all feedback has been submitted, mentors schedule a 1:1 catch up with their mentee.

Alt text An example of a 360 feedback email.

Ensure Team Happiness catch-ups

Four to six weeks after our newbies start, we organize a one-on-one catch up with either myself or someone else from Team Happiness. This half-hour session is designed to allow us to identify how we can improve the Canva onboarding experience, which we share with our cofounders and Specialty Leads. I also share positive feedback with mentors or anyone the newbie highlights during this chat and use this opportunity as a touchpoint to follow up on any poor feedback from the week one, week two and month one feedback forms that newbies fill out.

Here’s an example of one of my recent chats:

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An example of one of my Team Happiness catch-ups.

Welcome aboard

Like all first impressions, we want to get it right from the start—so that everyone can reap the full rewards. If we don’t, this may impact how someone new feels about Canva, which in turn may have a negative effect on their productivity levels and how they make decisions at work. While it’s not a simple one-off task, we believe that the time and effort required for a multi-step onboarding experience will pay off in the long run.

Like everything at Canva, our onboarding program is a work in progress, and we will need to continue to review and update it as we grow to 500 people and beyond!

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