On Wednesday 30th June our very own Becky Statham joined Matt Phelan, Global Head of Happiness at the Happiness Index and Felix Mitchell, Director at Instant Impact, for Instant Impact’s webinar: 'What’s next in HR tech?'. As a Principal Consultant at Veran Performance, Becky advises businesses and HR and Finance leaders on which technology delivers the biggest benefits as well as completing research as to how AI has been used to improve HR and Finance teams and processes. Meanwhile, Matt focuses on creating a happier workforce by combining neuroscience and market research to identify the global drivers behind engagement and happiness. Their vibrant personalities alongside their differing and nuanced perspectives on HR tech made for a dynamic and fascinating discussion which really emphasized the need to use data to understand people rather than to control or manage them.
To kick off the session, Felix asked the huge question of how important technology is to the success of an HR function. Both Becky and Matt agreed that for big organisations
"tech is an essential means of collecting valuable data to better understand or improve retention rates or to measure general employee wellbeing. "
Despite pointing out the importance of tech, both experts were very clear in highlighting that whilst tech is needed to help and enable, it isn’t the be all and end all. Rather they approached the question from a more humanistic point of view and stated that tech is a data driven means of helping employees to thrive and to achieve happiness. It is widely shown that the people who are happier at work are more productive and efficient at their jobs so employee wellbeing and happiness is essential for achieving business success. Matt then went on to point out the issue with the term 'employee engagement' in his statement:
"The term employee engagement was coined by William Kahn in 1990, you have probably all heard of the business term 'if you can measure it, you can manage it'. I think that's part of the problem... that term needs to evolve so it becomes 'if you can measure it you can understand it'. Technology should not be used to measure and control, but rather to understand and help people."
The conversation then veered towards what the first things HR directors should look at when putting a technology plan together for the business. Essentially the take away from this was that many organisations make the mistake of seeing software that they like the look of and just trying to ‘fit’ it in. Rather than worrying about tech, Becky pointed out that HR directors should begin by thinking what business problems they cannot solve and which business objectives they cannot achieve without data/AI/automation. The next step from there is getting business buy in. Alluding to her own experience with transformation programmes, Becky pointed out that sometimes businesses that think they are going for transformation don’t want to make those huge transformational changes at all. In this sense it is always crucial to test the business case, and to continuously show the risks and benefits to the people impacted in order to get them cooperating. Only after a rigorous process of testing and showing can transformation be genuinely achieved.
How has tech and HR changed post-pandemic?
Of course it's impossible to talk about HR and tech at the moment without alluding to the pandemic. To kickstart this conversation Matt pointed out how miserable HR people can be due to the fact that they absorb so many of other people’s feelings and that naturally, the crisis has been very hard on the HR population. Drawing a similarity between HR and teaching, Matt went on to highlight that having so much responsibility for how other people feel can take a serious toll on mental wellbeing. The fact that the pandemic has also meant HR have had the responsibility of keeping people physically safe and well means the mission of HR has shifted in quite a significant way as previously this was not something HR professionals were trained to do. As a means of combatting this level of unhappiness Becky emphasized the fact that if HR are going to look after a business and its employees then a business equally has to look after its HR professionals and understand the strain that they are under.
Speaking more generally, Matt also suggested the pandemic created a huge problem of emotional deficit. Whilst stats show employees wanted to communicate four times as much as they had done pre-pandemic, leaders were less inclined to communicate because they didn't know what to say. This caused a detrimental schism and a culture of frustration and mistrust. In a superb summary Matt pointed out that
"employees can handle you saying you don’t know, what they can’t handle is being ignored".
Becky, Felix and Matt then agreed that leaders need to work out how to communicate back and forth and that employees generally respect and prefer leaders who regularly stand up and communicate. Essentially people appreciate transparency and truth. On the subject of transparency, Becky mentioned Veran's use of stay surveys for employees who have worked at the company for 2 years or so and how this data could be used to retain employees and to prevent employees from leaving. Speaking about our fortnightly company wide calls, Becky also suggested employees really appreciated being told about the financial and survival realities of the organisation during the pandemic and plans for the future of the business. Off this example all three experts agreed that rather than protecting or sheltering employees away from business issues, organisations should 'keep the umbrella down', and open up to people in order to collaboratively address problems. Fundamentally, being vulnerable and transparent as an organisation is seriously valuable and beneficial.
To conclude the discussion Felix changed the angle a little and asked at what point tech becomes detrimental to business culture. In a nutshell Matt stated:
"if you think tech will replace sitting down with people and listening to them you're on a total route to disaster".
Instead, the focus should always be how to create a thriving company culture and how tech can be used to support that. Becky also drew on the example of predictive analytics which is when companies use previous data to predict things in the future. The suggestion here was that companies need to move away from predictive analytics tech because it stifles innovation and creates a predictive model that restricts agility, flexibility and dynamism. The overall take-away then is that people always come first and that when you create more data you can use it to inform decisions regarding employees and employee wellbeing. In a brilliant analogy Matt compared tech-produced data to a weather report. If it says it's going to be sunny, one could make the decision to pack sunscreen and some shorts; in other words data isn't the solution, it's the stepping stone to a human-made decision. Similarly data produced by HR tech in companies is not there to tell HR leaders what to do but rather it is there to inform them and then it’s up to them what they do with that data. Effectively data creates empathy because it shows how people are feeling and provides the basis for resolving issues. In this sense HR tech can enable collaboration, innovation and improvement in order to better understand people. HR tech therefore does not replace people but actively helps to make people's lives better within the workplace.