In the midst of a pandemic, HR technology takes center stage.
By Marta Chmielowicz
Throughout 2020, HR leaders have had to be ready for anything. From navigating safety regulations across hybrid teams to responding to ever-changing staffing requirements, these executives are staying ahead of rapid disruption by embracing transformation. Technology has played a key role, allowing HR teams to streamline their processes while remaining connected with a newly remote workforce.
“Today’s CHROs are a key driver for digital transformation. They help bridge the gap between employee and technology and are essential in partnering with chief technology officers to make sure potential innovations are the right fit for the workforce,” says Melanie Lougee, leader of employee workflow strategy at cloud company ServiceNow.
According to Gallagher’s HR Technology Pulse Survey, most employers have continued to expand their technology investments in 2020 and over two-thirds (69%) expect to keep the trend going until at least 2022. Almost eight in 10 large employers planned to make these investments, but the increase is most notable among small employers, up 8 percentage points from 2019 to 58%. Overall, the top reasons for replacing or expanding HR technology investments include:
- automating processes;
- increasing employee productivity;
- supporting the human capital strategy;
- complying with regulations; and
- finding a more satisfactory provider.
This data shows that in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, HR technology continues to serve as a key asset for HR leaders, allowing employers to distribute information quickly, maintain compliance, track employee performance, and increase engagement. The crisis also revealed one important truth: Effective integration between humans and technology is essential to capturing the full value of any technology suite.
Employee Engagement is Top of Mind
In a business world fragmented by the coronavirus, organizations are finding ways to keep their workforce connected in the remote environment.
“HR technology is evolving dramatically to become more focused on people,” says Ronni Zehavi, CEO and cofounder of Hibob, a next-generation HRIS platform. “The big transition in our industry is the inevitable shift from systems that do administrative HR stuff to modern systems that make it easier to get work done. If you think about the evolution of the HRIS, for example, it shifted from a system of record to something more advanced. We call it a system of automation, built to streamline payroll, hiring, compliance, learning, and performance management in one place. And today, we see a new type of technology becoming more relevant: a system of engagement and relationships.”
In the new paradigm ushered in by the COVID-19 pandemic, Zehavi says that HR technology is more focused on the employee experience, company culture, personalization, social connection, and data-driven insights. HR leaders are increasingly using technology to fulfill distinctly human needs such as well-being, the desire for meaning, and a sense of belonging at work.
Doing anything less is a missed opportunity. “Employees log in to their workforce management systems multiple times a day, more than any other HR system. There is a unique opportunity to leverage that interaction point with employees to improve their overall work experience,” explains Joe Ross, vice president of global product management at WorkForce Software, a cloud-based workforce management solution.
According to Michael Cohen, chief product officer at Achievers, today’s HR technology capabilities can help employers fulfill four basic employee needs.
1. Feeling valued. Peer-to-peer and manager-to-peer recognition can help employees feel like their contributions are valued and respected.
2. Feeling heard. Pulse surveys can help employers understand employee sentiment, informing more intentional business decisions and making employees feel heard.
3. Feeling connected. The social elements of HR platforms can mimic watercooler conversations and foster casual connections between employees.
4. Feeling informed. Technology can be used to share announcements and resources that keep employees safe and in the loop during a time of uncertainty.
Tech is Guiding the Safe Return to the Office
Organizations are increasingly using these tools to navigate the safe return to the workplace. Josh Bersin, global analyst and dean of the Josh Bersin Academy, says that the past few months have seen a rapid growth of employee experience systems, including case management platforms and mobile apps, designed to help organizations understand employee well-being and readiness to work; distribute communication around office safety; and manage scheduling issues.
“Demand has skyrocketed for HR technology that helps employees get back to work safely and technology that facilitates collaboration and productivity from anywhere on any device,” says Lougee. “Products like ServiceNow’s Workplace Service Delivery solution enable enterprises to shift from crisis response to long-term planning, offering a single solution that enables employees to reserve workspaces, including desks, conference rooms, and collaboration spaces. This seamless delivery is essential for distributed work, which is becoming the norm for businesses and employees.”
The WorkForce suite is also offering support for the return to the office, with features like pre-shift health screenings, contact tracing questionnaires and reports, scheduling support, and compliance resources to help organizations as they navigate evolving pay rules, labor regulations, and scheduling needs, Ross says.
Other capabilities that are becoming increasingly common in workforce management applications include:
- seating arrangement tools that automatically arrange desk and room assignments to ensure proper social distancing in the office;
- self-service tools that allow employees to manage their schedules, request shift swaps, and request time off in case of illness;
- scheduling tools that ensure the number of on-site staff does not exceed COVID capacity restrictions; and
- communication tools to help HR leaders quickly find replacements for workers who call out sick.
Social Tools are Experiencing Growth
In a newly remote business climate, technology has been pivotal to tearing down barriers between people. According to Bersin, the hottest HR technology space this year is collaboration and video conferencing tools, with HR leaders leveraging platforms like Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and Facebook Workplace to connect with their teams and maintain a human touch in a virtual world.
“Technology is being opened up to invite people to share their personal lives at work,” he says. “Zoom is a good example—most people have never seen their CEO in their home, but now, leaders are online with everyone else sharing updates, leading town hall meetings, and having group discussions where employees can share their feelings. Companies are doing everything from online cooking classes to yoga, costume contests, and cocktail hours. All of this stuff is happening online now to enhance well-being and connect people in a high-stress time.”
Mobile capabilities are more important than ever as companies that previously relied on traditional communication channels, such as bulletin boards, in-person meetings, and paper memos, transition to digital solutions. Daniel Sztutwojner, chief customer officer at mobile communication platform Beekeeper, says that while COVID-19 may have sparked the move to digital, the transition is creating tangible, long-term benefits like centralized communication, increased productivity, higher agility, and better engagement across locations and languages.
“The use of digital workplace tools will extend far past the pandemic,” he explains. “Often, organizations default to using email as their main point of contact—but that doesn’t always deliver the best results for companies with large frontline workforces. Companies that digitize communication can now bridge communication gaps and boost frontline employee productivity, empowering teams with access to critical company information such as safety protocols, HR processes, training, and employee surveys.”
Even the social capabilities embedded into broader HR solutions are gaining popularity. Hibob’s Zehavi says that the platform has seen a spike in social engagements, with a 79% increase in social media-style posts; a 62% increase in shout outs; and a 173% increase in reactions to posts, including likes and emojis.
Performance Culture Inc., a cloud-based performance management platform, saw a similar trend. “The impact COVID had on remote working became evident with the drastic increased usage of our check-ins, or one-on-ones, between employees and managers,” says Co-founder and President Melissa Phillippi. “Additionally, the transparency and integration of employees’ goals to their check-ins has allowed users to not skip a beat though they are often in differing locations now.”
Surveying is on the Rise
Gone are the days of annual engagement surveys; organizations are using pulse surveys and instant feedback to gain valuable data about their workforce that can then be leveraged to drive business strategy during a time of dramatic change.
“While the pre-COVID trend was certainly for a more continuous feedback model versus a compliance-driven, once-a-year performance review, this has been solidified with remote workers. The need to have insight into not only employees’ goal progression but also their morale and engagement levels has never been higher,” says Phillippi.
From understanding employees’ home office needs to feelings related to burnout, Achievers’ Cohen says that organizations are relying on listening platforms and surveys to evaluate sentiment and course-correct for a better employee experience. Utilizing survey data in this way can make a huge business impact, with Achievers reporting that 90% of workers are more likely to stay at a company that takes and acts on feedback. Additionally, Salesforce’s The Impact of Equality and Values-Driven Business report indicates that employees who feel their voices are heard at work are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to do their best work.
“The big thing that’s new now is the frequency of data collection—all the time, every day, open surveys where people can constantly give information and suggestions and vote on other people’s suggestions,” says Bersin. “In terms of topics, the questions are much more well-being-oriented and focus on stress, belonging, and confidence in the company. And the survey vendors have created off-the-shelf surveys for well-being, workplace safety, mental health, physical health, and belonging that employers can use.”
ServiceNow’s Lougee says that her organization has introduced “Employee Readiness Surveys” as part of its “Safe Workplace suite” that continuously monitor employee sentiment to understand each employee’s personal readiness to return to the office. The surveys measure the level of interest in returning to work; gauge a potential timeframe for the return to the office; and allow employees to air any of their concerns about personal health, family obligations, and workplace safety.
WorkForce Software has also implemented surveying functionality in its platform, providing a “WorkForce Assistant” that can be configured to automatically reach out to workers at meaningful moments.
“For example, if an employee reaches a threshold of unplanned overtime, a survey can be triggered in the moment to ask the employee a few questions to check in with them about the unplanned work,” says Ross. “These interactions allow real-time feedback that managers can quickly act on to support a healthy employee experience. HR tech will continue to evolve and go beyond the basic day-to-day transactions to automate interactions that improve the lives of employees and managers.”
The Future is Consolidation
HR teams have long battled departmental silos that slow down processes and reduce productivity. Traditional approaches to HR cause too much friction, with organizations navigating numerous silos, manual processes, and legacy software systems that don’t work together. In fact, a survey from RingCentral reports that the average employee toggles between enterprise apps 10 times per hour, collectively equaling 32 days of lost productivity per year. Likewise, 69% of workers waste up to an hour productivity each day navigating their workplace communication apps.
Organizations are responding by investing in simpler, more reusable systems that handle a range of functions and deliver a more fluid experience. “It’s clear consolidating the many tools organizations use is critical to employee productivity and engagement,” says Cohen. “Additionally, from a data perspective, having just one platform allows HR leaders to leverage data from the entire employee ecosystem, driving true actionable insights that can help them move the needle on employee engagement.”
Some HR leaders are adapting by getting creative with the tools they already have. For example, Bersin says that companies are using their onboarding and payroll systems to handle communications, while performance management programs are used to coordinate meetings, updates, and change management.
Technology providers are also prioritizing cutting-edge automation, mobile capabilities, and platform integrations that shoulder greater administrative burden, provide decision-making data, and free up managers to focus on caring for their people.
“Companies today must elevate the employee experience with digital workflows that break down department silos,” says Lougee. “These innovations include things like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and automation capabilities in order to boost employee productivity and mobile capabilities to meet employees wherever they choose to work in a hybrid environment. With AI, chat features, mobile, and other intelligent technologies built right in, employees can quickly and easily get the answers they need.”
For example, ServiceNow breaks down departmental siloes by connecting products, departments, and legacy systems together under a single cloud solution. This allows organizations to leverage seamless, transparent, digital workflows rather than relying on emails and spreadsheets for collaboration, delivering better agility and resilience and enabling the organization to respond more quickly to disruption.
According to Ross, such platforms still need a personalized touch; HR leaders are prioritizing technology investments that allow them to streamline administrative tasks while managing unique requirements across employee groups—whether global, unionized, full-time, part-time, mobile, or seasonal. “This requires a flexible system that can automatically apply different rules to different employee groups and allow them to be easily changed at a moments’ notice,” he explains.
The Employee Experience is Everything
It is also important that HR tools are user-friendly and interactive—not just for HR but for the employee. “The tools HR leaders are looking for should be easy for associates to use and need little to no training to implement within their organization. With easy activation, employees are more likely to use and engage with the tools, thus delivering on the promises made when investing in the tools,” says Cohen.
Hibob is one tech company that has taken the employee experience to heart, building an HRIS that Zehavi says is “Instagram on the front end and Workday on the back end.” The platform is designed to integrate with external collaboration tools and be intuitive to employees, serving as a go-to resource for teamwork, feedback, video conferencing, recognition and shout outs, and more.
In addition to a consumer-friendly interface, automation is another key requirement for a positive user experience in today’s HR technology stacks. While AI was once a novel concept, it is now a feature in virtually every system, Bersin says. From recommending learning programs based on employee performance to identifying outliers in employee survey data, AI is table stakes across the breadth of the HR technology landscape.
For example, Performance Culture leverages AI to deliver automatic check-ins that ensure employees and managers are using the platform to its full potential. “Having a tool that integrates into managers’ and employees’ daily workflows is critical,” Phillippi says. “Forcing good habits and disciplines with regards to employee engagement and productivity is essential for an organization’s sustainability.”
But there is still room for growth; Cohen predicts that chatbots will evolve in intelligence to guide employees through self-service platforms, allowing employees to turn to technology rather than HR business partners with their questions and freeing up HR professionals to focus on more strategic requests.
Additionally, machine learning, natural language processing, and other emerging data science techniques offer an emerging opportunity for employers to better parse through the data and understand employee needs.
“The ability to understand relationships in the data; to understand implicit and explicit employee preferences; to parse through free form text comments and draw themes are extraordinarily valuable and can only be done at scale with AI-based technology,” Cohen explains. “While it’s still early days for this technology and its impact here, there is great room for opportunity within this space.”
While the COVID-19 crisis has created significant challenges for business, it has also ushered in a new era of opportunity where humans and machines can work together to create greater innovation for years to come.