Don’t Make an Employee Handbook: Make a team site instead!

Picture this: It's your first day in a new job. Your boss hands you the team's "employee handbook" and says you're expected to read it. "Sure" you say, it's only... 30 pages. "Give me a day or two" you say. But do you ever finish it? And if you do, would it help you do your job?Let’s talk about employee handbooks, and why they're just not nearly as helpful as they seem.

What they are

Employee handbooks are usually a document (made in MS Word or saved as a PDF), some sometimes they’re a slide deck or some more unusual format. They’re often many pages long; typically 10 - 50 pages in my experience.

They’re usually given to - or presented to - new team members during the onboarding process they go through when they first join the company, during their first day or week.

While most of these new employees are told to read it within a few days, let’s be honest; it’s rare that this is actually expected, and rarer still that it’s checked. So very few team members ever get around to properly reading their company’s handbook.

Getting to their content, employee handbooks typically have several sections, all of which apply to all team members. Here’s a quick run-down of sections they usually have:

  • Whos' who on the team
  • Where you work (physically and in the corporate ladder)
  • Equipment you get
  • Parking, lunches, taking leave
  • Sometimes it has aspirational things like co's vision / mission / values / points of culture, etc.
  • Sometimes even office rules disguised as "guidelines"

This all sounds great right? So much useful information in one document! Perhaps you wish you were given one when you started working your current job. 

But thinking about this a bit more carefully should get us to ask, “Will a handbook like this help us to learn how we’re expected to do a new job?” Chances are, no, it won’t. But we’ll come back to that after we take a look at a few examples.

Great Handbooks That Still Aren’t Enough

A couple of years ago, Valve - a company well known for it’s popular video games - created its iconic employee handbook. It’s full of character in both the way it’s written, and in its hand-drawn illustrations.

Trello is an extremely popular app that helps people stay organised, so naturally their own handbook is impressive. What makes it unique is that they use their own product - a Trello board - for their handbook. It’s really comprehensive, with "cards" for each handbook topic.

Hubspot - the globally-recognised CRM (customer relationship management) “software as a service” - has a pretty good slide deck for its employee onboarding. It mostly covers their culture, but serves a similar purpose to most other handbooks.

Pronto - a great little website design agency in Seattle - has an epic single-webpage handbook. It has a great layout, though it covers the same content as others.

As great as these are, they all have the same problems. So let’s discuss those.

The Problems with Employee Handbooks

The first issue with these employee handbooks is that most of what’s written in them doesn't apply until much later - when the new team member is several weeks or several months into the job.

Sure, it might be comforting to know how to apply for maternity leave, or what the company’s 5 year vision is, but what is the chance you’d need to know that within the first week or two? Almost none. So with a handbook, it's cram-cram-cram in the first few days in the new job, then forget it all within a month, then later on we realise we need to know those details, and have bug a colleague or HR to explain it to us.

Looking at it a different way, learning is great. It’s like levelling up in real life. But you know what the worst kind of learning is? It’s being forced to learn something that you don’t yet value, which you then forget long before you actually need it.

We might say that printing the employee handbook to keep in the office for anyone to read at any time solves that problem. Unfortunately, in almost every case, they simply get put in a pile of papers (or filed away) and are forgotten. And that doesn't solve the next problem.

Even if our team members were able to remember everything in the employee handbook, there’s nothing in it that’s specific to anyone's role; nothing that helps them learn how to do a new part of their job, or improve on something they’re already doing.

As you take on a new job at a new company, sure you probably studied this profession, or perhaps you already have years of experience in this industry, but the reality is that this same job is done differently at each company, and knowing how it’s done here is what’s missing. Do handbooks tell you any details of your role? No, they can’t, because they’re simply a document that everyone is given.

The gist of these issues is that handbooks appear to be “enough”, because they're large and impressive documents, but in reality they don’t help team members do their jobs.

To get these right - to provide the right information, at the right time, in a way that will be easy to remember - we need to instead create team knowledge sites.

What’s the Solution Then?

We mentioned earlier that a solution to these issues is to instead create a team knowledge site. These can contain the same sort of information as the handbook examples, as well as all other helpful insights and tools that each team member needs to do their job well.

For instance, if a team member is unsure about how to create a specific type of report, they can simply visit the page in the team site that explains how to create it. If it’s done really well, it will even have a link to a template that the person can use to get a head start on it even more quickly.

A more important distinction though isn’t what they contain, it’s how they’re used. Team knowledge sites should be integrated into the software and other tools that your team uses daily, so they can quickly refer to them only when they need to know a specific thing.

Lastly, here are two quick tips for making team knowledge sites that are actually used (and loved) by your team:

  1. Make the team knowledge site really easy to find; put a link to it in all the platforms and tools your team uses, and bring it up in meetings whenever a team member needs to do something for the first time.

  2. Link the team knowledge site to all the important documents your team uses, and provide the next steps following each task.
    For example: “When the meeting is finished, within 1 day, create a meeting report using the Meeting Report Template, and send it to at least 2 colleagues for review”.

We hope you’re now inspired to go capture your team’s knowledge, so they never again have to bug someone else to explain how things are done around here.

Team sites