Chapter 5

Building a Pandemic-Proof Onboarding Process for Southwest Airlines

Employees forget 50 percent of the information presented in a training session within one hour. Learn how Southwest Airlines leverages the best of in-person and virtual to create efficient, effective, and engaging onboarding programs that drive retention.

I remember walking into Southwest Airlines’ headquarters on my first day. There was a red carpet running through the main door and music blaring from every speaker. Hundreds of existing employees had come down to the atrium, and they cheered us in. My jaw hit the floor. It was amazing.

I later learned that this is everyone’s first experience at Southwest Airlines—whether you’re a pilot, ground crew, or a customer relations representative like me. It’s just the beginning of a world-class onboarding program that supports people from their very first day all through their career at the airline.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, my career would take me behind the scenes of the airline’s onboarding program. There, I would help shape the wider learning and development processes for a brand new business unit: Southwest Business.

A startup inside a company

Like many new Southwest employees, I got my start in customer relations. I was on the frontlines, answering customer queries and solving problems. I learned a lot about the business and rose through the ranks quickly—from representative to senior representative, to specialist. In the last of those three roles, I took on training responsibilities and helped create a training curriculum for special technology projects.

As it turned out, I was good at it. When Southwest Airlines launched a new business unit focused on corporate travelers, I joined them to run the sales training programs. I had to develop materials for all new hires and content for ongoing training. Along with a small team, I led the implementation and weighed in at a strategic level, helping design the long-term training roadmap.

But this experience was significantly different from life in the customer relations sphere. Southwest Business felt like a startup. It was constantly growing, evolving, and pivoting. Month to month, things were different. Year to year, they were unrecognizable.

Southwest Business felt like a startup. It was constantly growing, evolving, and pivoting. Month to month, things were different. Year to year, they were unrecognizable.

Running a training program amidst this change was immensely challenging. After all, how can you design an onboarding program when you don’t know what your organization will look like in six months? 

I relied heavily on our experienced senior leadership. We briefed them on the current state of Southwest Business and asked them to share their knowledge with new employees. They had decades of experience and could adapt their training sessions on the fly. It was the perfect solution to a changeable environment.

There was just one problem: It wasn’t scalable.

There was a finite number of times I could call on our VPs to help out. They were busy people with packed schedules.

I knew we needed to replicate their impact without their presence. We began capturing what our senior leaders were doing. We documented everything and adapted it into a digestible, scalable onboarding format that we could repeat on our own.

 


 

Building a flexible onboarding program

Our onboarding program has two layers: company-wide and departmental.

The company-wide onboarding is all about setting the foundation and introducing the Southwest Culture, and that starts with our welcome. We want to welcome new employees in the true Southwest fashion. So no matter what someone’s new job is or where it’s based, we fly them out to our headquarters in Dallas, Texas. They walk along the same red carpet I did with hundreds of people all cheering all around them. 

For the rest of that day, the focus is on Southwest more broadly: the company’s history,  mission, vision and operations. 

After we’ve set that foundation, we divide people into their departments and layer on department-specific onboarding programs. That’s where we take over for Southwest Business. We get them set up with technology, introduce them to their team, and give them a sense of their role and how the department operates.

We’re careful not to overload them early on. Our philosophy is to build up knowledge and skills gradually, slowly layering on pieces of someone’s day-to-day work on top of their foundational knowledge.

Our philosophy is to build up knowledge and skills gradually, slowly layering on pieces of someone’s day-to-day work on top of their foundational knowledge.

We take advantage of the flipped classroom model by sending people home with self-study materials. We let them know the content we’re going to cover the following week and leave them to read and digest it on their own.

The next week, we bring people back and start building skills and knowledge. We work in short, sharp sessions of no more than one hour, and cover the material issued the week before. So we’re layering knowledge and repeating it. They study at home, and we’re recapping in the classroom. We have a couple of additional reinforcement tactics, like mentoring and one-to-ones, as well. Throughout onboarding, no one ever learns something just once. We teach, repeat, and reinforce.

At the six-week mark, we switch from foundational knowledge to higher-level skills: storytelling, presentation skills, negotiation, among others. We knew these ideas would overwhelm people on day one, so we delayed them until later in the onboarding process, after fundamental knowledge is cemented. As before, we reinforce everything at multiple points—at home, in the classroom, and with a mentor or a leader.

As we’re repeating ideas, knowledge, and skills, people become more confident, assured, and capable. Session by session, they turn from fresh-faced new hires into hotshot sales reps.

As we’re repeating ideas, knowledge, and skills, people become more confident, assured, and capable. Session by session, they turn from fresh-faced new hires into hotshot sales reps.

Embracing the future of learning

Our training and onboarding team is lean. It’s just me and my boss. That puts huge demands on our time, especially when a new hire class has recently joined. No matter how good training materials are, people will always have questions, and they rely on other people for answers. In the past, we’ve leaned heavily on human trainers to handle these queries—but not anymore.

We introduced Spekit, a digital enablement tool, as our third teammate. It’s an always-on overlay for our tools, allowing employees to access training content on their own. Frequently, someone will forget how to fill in a particular form or field in Salesforce. Before Spekit, they would have asked me for help, and I may end up answering the same question 10 times a day. Now, they can access a pre-recorded walkthrough within Salesforce. It’s the help they need, when they need it, in their workflow. It’s accessible, scalable and located right where it’s needed.

Before Spekit, they would have asked me for help, and I may end up answering the same question 10 times a day. Now, they can access a pre-recorded walkthrough within Salesforce. It’s the help they need, when they need it, in their workflow. It’s accessible, scalable and located right where it’s needed.

Although we see huge potential in Spekit, we’ve implemented it with intentional care. Instead of overloading it with all of our training material, we use it to communicate small snippets of information, like the justification behind a new field or how to use a new form. Our goal is to use Spekit to connect the dots between tasks and outcomes, helping employees understand the why behind their work.

Our goal is to use Spekit to connect the dots between tasks and outcomes, helping employees understand the why behind their work.

Moving forward through COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted a lot of our work. The airline industry shut down, our hiring plans crashed to a halt, and in-person training became unfeasible. But we adapted, learned, and improved. As the world returns to normal, I’m excited to see where our onboarding strategies go.

We’re likely not getting back to in-person only training for a while. But the emergence of hybrid presents a real opportunity. By leveraging the best of in-person and virtual, we can create efficient, effective, and engaging onboarding programs. And it’s tools like Spekit that are going to get us there.

The emergence of hybrid presents a real opportunity. By leveraging the best of in-person and virtual, we can create efficient, effective, and engaging onboarding programs. And it’s tools like Spekit that are going to get us there.

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