The University of Florida’s Warm Welcome: Designing a New Hire Experience That Fosters Belonging

Winter 2021-22
Honey Langford, Krista Vaught, Ed.D., and Monica Vosilla

Onboarding and orientation experiences vary by university, department, area of campus, team and manager. While some managers think deeply about how to onboard a new team member in a way that makes them feel valued and creates instant connections, others may not for a variety of reasons. This can lead to some new staff feeling isolated and disconnected from the community, particularly staff working at large public institutions, staff who started their role in a remote setting, and staff who relocated for the job. As human resources leaders, how can we initiate creating a campus culture that fosters a sense of belonging for new staff?

At the University of Florida (UF), human resources is both a centralized and decentralized function. Many departments and units have their own HR teams which report to central UF HR. For new employees at UF, onboarding can be confusing. New hires have asked what forms, training sessions and/or other tasks are required and by whom and by when. Protocols may vary by department or unit, and onboarding can seem like either a long list of to-dos or a first assignment with little direction. For many departments, the integration of staff members into the broader university community is often overlooked due to existing silos, frequently changing priorities, increasing workloads and/or systemic changes. So how can we as HR professionals humanize human resources processes such as onboarding? How can HR support both welcoming new staff and creating a sense of campus community? Is this a challenge that can be addressed in a way that’s both authentic and unique, and not just another HR to-do?

University of Florida At a Glance

  • Located in Gainesville, Florida
  • 2,000-acre campus with 1,000+ buildings, plus offices in every county in the state
  • 16 colleges, 26 residence halls and 7 libraries
  • 40,652 undergraduate students and 17,189 graduate and professional students enrolled as of summer 2021
  • Ranked #5 Public University by S. News & World Report in 2021
  • More than 5,000 full-time exempt staff

(Source: UF Institutional Relations and UF At a Glance)

Recognizing the Gap in New Staff Belonging

At UF, the Academic & Professional Assembly (APA), a volunteer-led staff organization, thought deeply about this question. The APA’s purpose is to enrich the professional lives of UF staff by fostering an inclusive community through advocacy, education and recognition, so the question of how to help new employees feel connected was particularly relevant. The organization, which is sponsored by human resources, is not a governing body like a staff or faculty senate; it serves as an advocate and connector for the more than 5,000 professional staff across the university.

The need for staff to connect was felt across the 2,000-acre UF main campus and beyond. Like many other institutions, new students at UF gather together during New Student Convocation and other welcome events during the first few weeks of the semester, which gives them an opportunity to meet their peers, foster community and learn more about different aspects and organizations within the university. UF’s new faculty gather together for New Faculty Orientation, which provides opportunities for them to learn about and interact with different departments that support faculty, as well as to meet their new colleagues from across the university. Unlike new students and faculty, who typically start at the beginning of each semester and mostly in fall, new staff join the university throughout the year. In 2019, APA leaders recognized this gap, based on feedback from deep involvement in staff life across campus and a survey of our members. Our staff wanted to feel welcomed, valued and inspired, and wanted to break the silos that tend to plague higher education.

Thinking about belonging and connection, we were drawn to Brené Brown’s words: “I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” This quote served as inspiration for several of our new initiatives, and for our approach to engaging with every staff member. The APA wants every staff member to feel connected to the university’s mission, to the university community, to their role and to each other. This quote also provided a litmus test of sorts by which to envision, plan and execute a new staff welcome experience.

Designing a Welcome Experience for Staff

In designing a welcome experience, the APA board engaged in deep thinking and purposeful decision-making. Our goals were to officially welcome new staff, to foster sense of belonging and community among all staff, to offer inspiration from leaders and to spark connections.

With each decision — from the venue to the seating arrangements to materials on each table — we revisited these goals and considered what would offer the most value and meaning to participants.

Our Warm Welcome event format involved two components: a panel of high-level leaders who would share their experiences and insights, both personal and professional, and a facilitated networking session to spark connections among staff. For the venue we selected a smaller unique space that most staff would not have access to. To maintain an intimate environment that provided opportunities for participants to connect with each other and feel like they were co-creating the event, seats were limited to 100 and arranged around small tables to facilitate interaction.

Our leadership panel involved our president, vice president of human resources, chief diversity officer and deans of different colleges and was moderated by a former APA president and staff member. Panelists were seated at the front of the room without a table as a barrier like you typically see at conferences and large-scale events. Questions for the panelists encouraged storytelling around their experiences at UF. Our leaders reflected and shared personal stories and insights around leadership, diversity and inclusion, and the value that staff bring in the pursuit of the university’s many goals. This storytelling approach drew out our leaders’ personalities, camaraderie, sense of humor and transparency and allowed staff to see them in a more humanized way.

Following the leadership panel, we partnered with our Training and Organizational Development colleagues to facilitate a connection session composed of facilitated, paired and small group conversations. As participants departed the event, they received a small memento specially created for the Warm Welcome event to remind them of their experience and connection to the university community.

Our messaging strategy set the context for the event as an exclusive opportunity for staff to hear from university leaders and to connect with each other. We wanted staff to feel inspired, to feel connected, and to feel like they were part of something special. And we wanted each participant to co-create the experience with us. They would be part of the experience, not simply a passive attendee watching a performance. Our messaging involved targeted, personalized invitations to staff who joined the university in the previous 12 months, as well as an invitation to all staff through a newsletter and other communication tools. In the invitation, we shared our goals for the experience and our APA president shared her hope that the experience would provide every staff member with the opportunity to make meaningful connections.

This storytelling approach drew out our leaders’ personalities, camaraderie, sense of humor and transparency and allowed staff to see them in a more humanized way.

What We Learned and What Shifted During the Pandemic

Our inaugural Warm Welcome in August 2019 was wildly successful. All seats were reserved within hours of announcing the event. Participants raved about the event, sharing feedback such as “It was refreshing to see executive leaders humanized,” “The appreciation for the staff/faculty relationship articulated by the panel was outstanding,” and “I left the event feeling more like a part of something.” This feedback was proof that participants felt welcome, inspired and connected.

Because of the success of the event, we soon met with our vice president for human resources to discuss hosting the Warm Welcome twice a year. In fact, Warm Welcome was positioned to be the signature event for the APA. We planned the next Warm Welcome for spring of 2020, in yet another unique venue at UF, and then the pandemic forced a shift. For the October 2020 experience, we pivoted to a virtual format via Zoom. Pivoting to a virtual experience that October revealed that attendees were still thrilled with the experience, and the ability to connect virtually appealed to those who would normally shy away from in-person events due to logistics like navigating campus and dealing with parking and travel time.

With the pivot to a virtual format, we realized that we could reach a broader audience — both in terms of geographic reach, as UF has offices and staff in every county in Florida and beyond, and in terms of number since we didn’t have a venue dictating seat capacity limit (although we still aim for an intimate environment and limit participants to around 100). As a virtual experience, the Warm Welcome became more accessible to more staff. From a planning perspective, it greatly alleviated the lift of an in-person event in terms of time, volunteers and cost. The APA will move forward alternating between an in-person and virtual format. In fact, the fall 2021 Warm Welcome was hosted on October 27 as an in-person event in the newest residence hall on campus with state-of-the-art accessibility features.


Designing a Welcome Experience for Your Staff

While it may seem easy to replicate our Warm Welcome design, this is not a cookie cutter experience. What worked well at UF may not be successful if copied and pasted for other universities. The creation of a welcome experience will involve deep thinking, conversations with stakeholders and purposeful decision-making. The event must resonate with both the reality and aspiration of how staff are viewed at your institution.

We would love to see a welcome experience at every university across the country — a unique experience at each university that draws upon its culture, its personality and its mission, as well as its community of staff. Here are some questions we recommend contemplating:

  • What is the current welcome experience like for staff at your university?
  • Would a designated welcome gathering align with your institutional and HR priorities?
  • What might a designated welcome experience look like at your university?
  • What pieces of UF’s welcome experience model are most useful to you? What can you tweak?
  • Are there any employee affinity groups whose involvement would add value and connection for new staff?

To get valuable answers to these questions, we recommend getting curious about the new employee experience. This might involve creating focus groups of recent hires, as well as hires who started one year or five years ago. What was their welcome experience? What would have added value for them? At what point did they feel like part of the university community, and what exactly made them feel a sense of belonging?

Once you have a gathered this data, consider the following exercise:

Create two mind maps: One about what “welcoming” means at your university, and one about what “community” means at your university. Brainstorm and build out a mind map for each word. Let each additional mind map point bring you to the next, and then continue. Then, zoom out and intentionally discuss what that could mean for a welcome experience or initiative. What is the deeper purpose of a welcome experience? As Priya Parker wrote in her book The Art of Gathering, “Take the reasons you think you are gathering — because it’s our departmental Monday morning meeting; because it’s a family tradition to barbecue at the lake — and keep drilling below them. Ask why you’re doing it. Every time you get to another, deeper reason, ask why again. Keep asking why until you hit a belief or value.”

Once you’re clear on the purpose and goals, move to decisions on the structure of the event, venue, messaging, and other details. However, remember that events evolve — get started and see what you learn, what feedback you receive and what resonates with your first few events.

At the end of the day, it comes down to how we make our new colleagues see the “human” aspect of a large institution.

Two Sources of Inspiration for HR Leaders:

  • The Art of the Gathering by Priya Parker. This book guided our path in making those purposeful decisions to create a truly meaningful and memorable experience for each staff member who participated.
  • Dare to Lead by Brené Brown. This book offered inspiration around considering how to involve our university leaders in a different way — how to add an element of vulnerability to create more connection, trust and inspiration.

At the end of the day, it comes down to how we make our new colleagues see the “human” aspect of a large institution. At UF, the Warm Welcome harnessed the power of a staff organization to meet a need specific to staff, both new and established. It is our hope that more institutions will reflect upon what belonging and connection mean in terms of culture, both current and future. And, at its heart, the event acknowledges a universal truth that we want to be valued not only for what we do, but for who we are, and that’s where the fulfillment is for our attendees, panelists and the APA planning committee.

About the authors: Honey Langford is human resources generalist II at the University of Florida College of the Arts and advocacy co-chair of APA; Krista Vaught, Ed.D., is assistant director of employee learning and engagement at Vanderbilt University and former president of APA, and Monica Vosilla is digital communications director at University of Florida Advancement and president of APA.


UF APA 2018-20 President Krista Vaught, UF APA Past President Alicia Turner, Dean of the College of the Arts Onye Ozuzu, UF President Kent Fuchs, Vice President for Human Resources Jodi Gentry, and Chief Diversity Officer Antonio Farias at the inaugural 2019 APA Warm Welcome, hosted at the F Club at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.


The CUPA-HR national office will be closed July 4 in observance of Independence Day.