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April 2019
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TD Magazine

Virtually Terrific Employee Orientation

A virtual, animated co-facilitator has increased effectiveness and efficiency and eliminated travel costs.

On their first day, new employees simply want a positive experience that enables them to rapidly engage with their team and contribute. However, for Domino's, supplying the compliance, clarification, culture, and connection is a multidisciplinary challenge, calling for extensive knowledge of HR, company policy, and operations as well as holistic knowledge of the entire enterprise. While it would be great to have highly trained facilitators from different functions carry out each person's orientation, it's far too expensive and logistically difficult to execute in a growing company with thousands of locations.

Solution

Thus, making the decision to experiment with our orientation program was easy. We decided to try moving new team member orientation from a large-group classroom experience that a senior supervisor conducts in a central location to an individual or small-group in-store experience that a store manager facilitates. It would save everyone involved travel time, enable supervisors to take on higher-value activities, and create a more useful, enjoyable first day for new team members.

Executing a big change is never easy, so we prepped Natalie, a new change agent, and sent her to a group of stores to help. Natalie isn't a trainer, though. In fact, she's not even human.

Natalie is a virtual, animated co-facilitator that has tackled two inefficiencies of centralized orientation: deploying leadership at the right level and geographic inconvenience. Domino's typically had placed orientation accountability with multistore supervisors who had acquired the skills and knowledge to capably represent the company while providing a welcoming experience. However, the skills that make supervisors capable of executing orientation are exactly what make them more valuable and in demand elsewhere—that is, solving problems and leading teams.

The other aspect we needed to address was that orientation takes place outside team members' work environment, often at a greater distance from their home, isolated from the leader and team with whom they will be working. Faced with a competitive labor market segment, we want to retain the best new team members. Anything that causes inconvenience or delays in building a relationship with their new boss and getting acclimated to the work environment risks increasing turnover.

Changing our orientation program put pressure on store managers. Usually promoted from driver and in-store roles, these hard-charging operators weren't, like many trainers, selected and developed for their speaking and learning facilitation skills. To compound the challenge, the range of information and messaging in orientation is demanding even for experienced facilitators. We had to support the managers in one of two ways: Build their facilitation skills and company, culture, and procedural knowledge; or supply a support mechanism to fill in any knowledge or skills gaps.

Because an omnipresent team of HR specialists, company spokespeople, and trainers was already ruled out, we rounded up the usual suspects. We quickly eliminated the dreaded handout with details about culture and policy due to the boredom factor, poor usability in a busy pizza store environment, and paper cuts. E-learning was a possibility, because it's used for other aspects of training, but we didn't want to lose the human interaction and real-life adventure of a good orientation. Our thoughts turned to PowerPoint, the often-abused corporate information dump truck. But the last thing we wanted was to saddle store managers with reading an on-screen presentation, back turned to a new team member.

Typically, character animation in e-learning is used to liven up boring narration or convey text documents via audio. We were curious about stretching the format to serve as the facilitator or, in this case, the co-facilitator component of instructor-led training. If we could embody the experts in one friendly, highly skilled, virtual facilitator who could take the reins of orientation, all parties will drive many fewer miles. New team members could spend their first day in their workplace, store managers could take on new accountability with minimal disruption, and supervisors could get back a chunk of time in their busy schedules.

A graphic design studio built the reusable animation puppet, decking out one of its stock figures with a Domino's uniform. Simultaneously, a collaborative team of real people in operations, HR, and learning populated Natalie's "brain," distilling their intelligence into succinct, clear messages.

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Over the phone, we recorded an outstanding voice talent sourced from an online provider. Using Adobe Character Animator, we brought Natalie to life by lip-synching her to the vocal track and using motion triggers keyed to our expressions via webcam and gestures from keyboard shortcuts.

Though the external components cost less than the price of a first-class plane ticket, we now had a facilitator ready to go anywhere, who is endlessly cheerful, reliably consistent, and never late filing expense reports.

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Results

Natalie delivers her orientation session from inside a tablet in a pizza store. To begin, the manager taps a button and Natalie springs to life with a warm welcome and introductory information. She stands to one side of the PowerPoint screen, explaining the images, information, hyperlinks, and directions on display next to her. At intervals, she calls out and beckons to the store manager or the new team member to take over. For example, she asks the manager to take the new team member on a store tour, explaining the work stations and introducing the team members in the store.

Later, Natalie directs the new employee to grab the tablet and serve as game show host, trying to stump the boss with company trivia questions she supplies. When the manager and team member return from a real-life activity, they simply tap the Resume button, and Natalie rolls on. Natalie has human characteristics; she facilitates an exchange of favorite pizza types and other conversation starters, enabling the manager and team member to start building a connected professional partnership.

"Though operations of every store are the same, the personality of each general manager and the culture they create with their team varies store to store," says Madde Evasic, specialist in learning and performance. "Natalie allows the GM to provide the new team member a realistic view of the store environment and an easy way to initiate a strong work relationship from day one. In this setting, the team members are more interested and engaged in the information provided in orientation."

The experiment delivers straightforward efficiency outcomes: reducing travel time, getting team members into their home store faster, and enabling store managers to quickly start executing and enjoying the benefits of a strong in-store orientation. Supervisors, too, leave behind a routine task to pursue higher-level goals.

The more important outcome, though, is a better new-hire experience. Though she's only a cloud of pixels, Natalie serves as a helpful co-facilitator to store managers and a virtual substitute for supervisors. By extending their capabilities, she helps create a consistent, engaging, highly interactive first day that connects new hires to their workplace and team.


Savings

The solution cut travel distances because new team members could report to their workplace, typically closer to home than the central training location. Prepping store managers for a major operational change usually requires extensive, repeated training sessions, but because the virtual facilitator handles content and structure, the new process required only a brief meeting with practice and follow-up visits.

Tools Used

An online graphic studio built the character, and we animated it in-house using a character animation application. We sourced the narration through an online marketplace of voice talent.

About the Author

Eric Kammerer is a lead specialist in instructional design for Domino’s Pizza.  

6 Comments
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Good read- would love to see a sample also- will touch base with you on LinkedIn
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This sounds like a very fun and creatively interactive spin on an age old challenge. I'd be interested in seeing a video of your character in action.
kudos! exciting stuff - we have issues onboarding so many new hires that it takes 4 days every location every week m-th across 18 locations are all going on at the same time providing mostly the same information with the exception of login to the computer for first time to do mandatory HR policies. I love hearing about this. thanks for sharing. Last year I looked into a character animation software I learned about at a Litmos conference but I couldn't afford it - which one did you choose?
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Hi Richard, Thanks for reading the piece. Feel free to get in touch with me on LinkedIn and I can share a sample.
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Eric, thanks for sharing this fantastic experience with us. Is there any chance we could take a look at a video of this somewhere? Would love to see this in action.
Hi Ross, Thanks for the kind words. Feel free to get in touch with me on LinkedIn and I can share a sample.
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