Welcome to Breather: a case study in better onboarding (PART 1)

Welcome to Breather: a case study in better onboarding (PART 1)

PART 1: What is onboarding and why is it important

Hi! I’m Katie Brioux, a Graphic Designer on the Creative Marketing team at Breather. I’m also the Department Ambassador (kind of an AMA title for new hires), and have a seat on the Culture Committee as an Advisor on the Values Team.
I got involved with onboarding because as a designer, I care about brand. But as a human, I care about people. Combined, it means what I care most about in my work is creating a meaningful and emotional takeaway.

1. What is onboarding?

Onboarding is the process in which a new hire is introduced for the first time to the company internally. This means that you have officially accepted the company’s offer (Woohoo! New job!), and are meeting the HR team, your coworkers, maybe the execs, getting a tour of the office, having intro meetings with people from all around the world, and finally, sitting down at your new desk. Phew!

Onboarding also involves educating each new hire about the company’s inner workings such as insurance information, communication tools, working remote, traveling, and other important processes that are in place. It’s usually pretty basic introduction stuff—but it’s also very important to get it right the first time.

One of our core values at Breather is Service—“treat everyone like it’s their birthday.” In the Breather context, it’s about delivering a consistent and seamless experience to every single person who walks into a Breather for their reservation.

Onboarding is the first step to making someone happy, and keeping them happy, starting from their very first introduction. It’s the element of #surpriseanddelight that really makes your effort go above and beyond a person’s expectations and makes you memorable (in a good way!).

When I first started at Breather almost two years ago, there were only 26 employees (I was hire #27), operating in five cities across North America. We’ve since grown to approximately 130 people, operating in 10 cities globally. While we certainly had our growing pains (like all companies who go from 1 to 150) we are now well past the threshold of no longer being a small start-up and getting deep into holy-shit-we’re-a-real-company territory.

Feb 2015 VS. Dec 2016 — When I joined, the Montreal team was small enough to all pretend to be sailors on a couch boat. Now, they make us sit on the floor and ponder our existence, Julien-style.

Here is the problem with onboarding when scaling a company:

When you’re a small company, it’s easy to meet, hire, and work directly with every single new person who joins your “tribe,” as our Cofounder and CEO Julien likes to say. You don’t need to explain processes and give them documents because… there are none! If you’re a small enough company, chances are that there aren’t processes in place that need to be explained. You quickly foster emotional work relationships with everyone since you all depend on each other and do everything in this hustle-phase and each person is moving and working at light speed.

May, 2015 — For birthdays, we were small enough to just bring a cake to a person’s desk and sing Happy Birthday at them.

When the company reaches a certain number of people it becomes increasingly difficult to meet each new employee and develop the same close bond that naturally happens when you work in close proximity. You no longer all fit into one room, sitting on the couches in the main office area for weekly town halls. You’re group is too large for the maximum number of Google Hangout capabilities! You see a new face in the office and ask yourself wait, who IS that? But most importantly, you lose the closeness of working together as a small team.

That’s when onboarding becomes important.

The bond that’s naturally created in working and hustling together in the early phase needs to be established in a different way. You still need to create connections with your new coworkers—even if you’re not work directly with them. It’s so important to recognize when this changes, and start to develop an onboarding process for scaling.

Dec, 2016 — Our largest Town Hall to date! Special December Holiday Edition with CEO Julien Smith and CCO Luca Rinaldi doing “Who’s on First?”


2. Loyalty. Retention. Growth.

While there are a number of reasons why onboarding is important, the biggest reason (and the most expensive) is keeping employees happy. Onboarding helps foster loyalty, employee retention, and company growth. In other words, if you don’t deliver great initial training (or as we like to say, less-than-cake-worthy), you are hurting your company.

Here are ALL THE FEELS people should feel when they’re hired:

  • I feel welcome here (sense of belonging)
  • I am important in the growth of this company (sense of community)
  • I was hired for my unique set of skills (sense of individuality)
  • I understand and believe in what the brand stands for, and feel like I can contribute in a meaningful way to its growth and to its people (sense of purpose)

Oof, seems like some heavy stuff, right? I mean, that’s a lot of pressure! But don’t despair—onboarding does not need to be complicated or extravagant, even if the takeaways seem loaded.

Squad goals, amirite? This is basically how you should feel when you get hired at a good company.

Katie’s onboarding hot tips! 🔥
  • Create a welcoming space for the new hire so that they feel appreciated, proud, and like they are a part of a team—right from Day 1.
  • Educate the new hire with all the information that they need to get started and feel confident and comfortable in their new environment.
  • Take them out for lunch! That should get to know their individual team and who they will be working closely with.
  • Give them COOL STUFF. (Stay tuned for more info on cool stuff in PART 2

The last point of “Cool Stuff” seems like it would just a fun swag bag—with gummy worms or whatever. But this is actually an amazing opportunity for your new hire to experience what the brand looks like from the inside AND how you want it to be reflected on the outside. Is your company the kind of company that gives generic Post-It notes and a Dollarstore pens? What does that say about your BRAND? The point of giving a new employee COOL STUFF, is to show them how much you value quality and thoughtfulness.

If you want your company to be successful, to be amazing… you need to invest in it. It’s as simple as that. Invest in your people.


3. Work your Core (Values)

I wanted to make a Welcome Kit that really embodies all of our wonderful values and represents this holistic view and are at the core of Breather, strengthening the company from the inside out.

An important part of that was to integrate our Core Values into the Welcome Kit. Highlighting our values right from the beginning, and making them a part of each employee’s daily work and thought process. Core values are super important by helping people to feel connected to a company that isn’t their own, and by allowing everyone to grow together, under the same guiding principles. Without values, a company is like any other and the employee might feel disposable, or like the job is disposable (see section 2, Retention).

Last November, we launched the Breather Culture page to make a (virtual) space that every employee could go to to see a bit of our history, our values, our company mission, and show off our hard working team! It’s really a page to show how far we’ve come, and to remind us to stay on track.


In the Breather Welcome Kit, I wanted the values to almost be collectible pieces. Each to feel special and to resonate with the new hire. (If you think that this sounds like a lot of kool-aid, you can get lost.)

I made each value into postcard-sized pieces, meant to be placed on your new desk, or somewhere near your thinking area, and to serve as a small reminder of how we’re all in this together.



Over the past year, I have been slowly but surely building up the onboarding stuff with A TON of help from of other great people who also care about this as much as I do. Special shout-out to @frances, @phil.miller, @daveb, @audrey, @christophe, @sacha and @vanda—THANK YOU! I could not have worked on this crazy thing without your support.

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