Our perceptions of life and work, of purpose and the value of time have been forever altered by the global pandemic. Work and personal life have been fused. Bringing our “whole selves to work” has moved from the conceptual to the real. And, HR leaders and professionals have been at the forefront — marshaling their resources and leading their companies and employees through continuous and massive waves of change.
While the outfall from the pandemic has sent a series of shockwaves through the labor market, there is a silver lining in the challenges that HR continues to face and address: Pivoting people to new ways of working and helping them cope through extreme stress and uncertainty had laid bare the need for humanity and greater care, along with a clear understanding that technology is an enabler of empathy and connection. As strange as that may sound on the face of it, it’s true because only technology can deliver these at scale to a distributed workforce that is hybrid or remote.
As the pace of change continues to accelerate, both agility and empathy have become buzzwords of sorts to describe the current and likely future characteristics needed at work. And, both rely on interpersonal connection that’s often made possible by technology. In light of the many changes for companies and employees, what is the future of the CHRO in the organization? This question was at the center of a panel discussion among current and former CHROs in the closing HR Tech 2022 session, “Meet the Future CHRO…a technology expert.”
Be curious and informed
“Our role is about problem solving and there is no way to move forward today without technology,” says Deborah DeVerna, CHRO at Qontigo. “I think about tech from the perspective of… what is the business strategy, where are we trying to go, and how do we use technology as an enabler of that.”
Though CHROs do not need to be technologists, per se, they need to understand how technology can automate certain processes and be fluent when working with technology partners inside and outside the organization according to the panelists. Being technology savvy gives HR leaders a leg up in asking the right questions in an RFP (request for proposal) situation, for example. And, the right technology implementations will help HR spend more time focusing on the “human element” according to DeVerna.
Partnering with your internal technology organization is number one because of the array of competing priorities facing HR, and especially the war for talent that has elevated the importance of the employee experience, says Lisa Buckingham, former chief people, place and brand officer at Lincoln Financial and the 2017 HRE HR Executive of the Year.
Christy Pambianchi, EVP and chief people officer at Intel, says her core responsibility is to ensure her company has the talent that it needs to compete. “This extends over the arc of the employee life cycle and company business processes,” she says. “Since technology is ubiquitous in people’s lives outside of work, they expect the same experience at work. As HR leaders, we have to be attuned to what that is and to how we create as great and fluid an experience at work as people have in their private lives.”
The pandemic has accelerated digital transformation and forced companies to reimagine their business processes. Paper-based processes have been automated, leading to such changes as a democratization of data, greater employee ownership of their own careers, and greater speed and transparency for managers to engage directly with employees across the company.
“Your human capital strategy has to include enablement features of technology and a good understanding of what your tech can do,” Pambianchi says, adding that while CHROs don’t need to be able to write code, they do need to be technically curious. “We need to be lifelong learners and to rely on strong partnerships with the CIO and HRIS team.”
Never stop innovating
The past few years have driven home both the challenges and opportunities in digital transformation. The panelists described having to stand up tens of thousands of employees to work remotely, retrain staff for new roles, and develop apps to help workers better serve their customers in a remote environment.
“The solutioning for all this was crowdsourced,” Pambianchi says. “That’s what allowed us to move so fast. So, we need to keep challenging ourselves.”
The silver lining from the recent upheaval has been the democratization of the employee experience, which has been delivered through such tools as Zoom, Slack, and Teams.
“Being remote brought us [emotionally] closer,” DeVerna says. “We saw people’s private lives — what their homes looked like, their dogs — and we saw people being interrupted by their children during meetings. These things became acceptable and to some degree, even welcome. … It’s personalized and humanized our employees and our interactions with them…. We have to think about how we build on that so that as people come back to the workplace, we continue to be human.”
The way technology was used during the height of the pandemic, and even since, has torn down hierarchy and leveled the playing field, spotlighting the importance of equity in the workplace.
“With Zoom and Teams, senior executives became way more accessible, even if it was for 15-minutes for a quick mentoring or a call,” Buckingham says. “We were seeing other people’s homes and seeing some employees working off of ironing boards. We realized we had to fix that.”
This humanization led Buckingham’s company to give employees the right tools to function at home.
The pandemic also gave rise to a host of new wellness apps and services, as companies like DeVerna’s began to see the importance of helping employees with wellness, mindfulness, meditation, and telemedicine.
Technology has also equalized the workplace. While those in offices were once perceived by colleagues as having more power than remote co-workers, tech has removed much of the inequality, Pambianchi says.
“Imagine the power of human capital that we will unlock so that we can find all kinds of people through remote work and have everyone contribute equally,” she posits.
Managing priorities with a technology roadmap
All the panelists agreed that having a technology roadmap is a prerequisite to people and business success because it allows HR to maintain priorities and focus. Whether that plan has a 3-, 5-, or 10-year horizon, it should incorporate the following characteristics and elements:
- Agility: Maintains the vision but is flexible enough to be changed as needed when priorities change.
- Tied to business strategy: What is the company trying to achieve?
- A vision for the employee experience: The employee experience and culture you’re striving to achieve to help employees flourish will drive the technology solutions you choose. This includes thinking about the experiences that new employees will want.
- Risk: Risk mitigation may include compliance, such as GDPR, and other data and privacy regulations.
- Change management: Consider how HR will help employees understand and value new technology. What capabilities are most important for employees? What are the implications of using the tools in terms of things like transparency and the use of data and analytics? Which capabilities of a technology tool should be turned on to promote adoption, and which should be rolled out over time so that employees don’t reject the technology or suffer change fatigue? How will change be communicated so that employees see the value of the technology to them?
- Journey maps: Prioritize resources and funding, clarify roles, and identify moments that matter to employees by visually mapping the steps and emotional states that employees experience when interacting with the company. What experiences and technology capabilities matter to them and what outcomes do you want to achieve?
- Benchmarking: Identify gaps and areas for improvement in processes and technology by gathering and comparing quantitative data.
Become a storyteller with data
HR often has a lot of data, but if it’s not packaged well, it can’t deliver the insights that will help business leaders understand the business case for a certain technology adoption. While it’s essential for HR to partner with its internal data analysts, Buckingham says, that doesn’t necessarily mean business partners will read the resulting reports.
DeVerna says that data, no matter how good, can often be poorly packaged because it exists in pockets in the organization. It must be pulled and integrated.
“We need to make sure that the data that we’re pulling together actually tells a story,” she says. “I think about everything through the lens of storytelling. How do we tell a story that will engage employees, such as showing managers why employees are joining or exiting, or where we’re finding our best talent? It’s about taking the data and curating those stories.”
Making the business case for tech investments
For Pambianchi, making the business case for a technology investment incorporates long-term strategy, total cost of ownership (TCO) — which is driven by the data — and a talent component.
“The value of your talent, the value of understanding your talent pools, being able to attract talent, being able to grow and scale the talent you have — technology is such an enabler of that.”
For DeVerna, whose company is in the middle of rolling out an aggressive business plan for which they need to hire for very specific skill sets, technology not only helps them find those pockets of talent, but also reduces risk, a factor that folds into making the business case. The company needs to ensure it has the right people in the right places, and that they are excited about their work.
Another core consideration in making the business case for a particular technology or platform has to do with minimizing the burden of implementation and use.
“How taxing will it be on the IT team and the leadership team?” says DeVerna. “How can we do this in a way that demonstrates value to all users — employees and managers — without creating more bureaucracy, but simplifying what they do?”
Using tech to create better employee experiences
The better part of a person’s life is spent at work. Creating manager-employee relationships and improving the overall experience of work in light of the disruption of the last few years requires using technology to help employees stay motivated and engaged.
“It comes down to, how do we create compelling experiences for our talent so that they want to be a part of our company?” Pambianchi says. “Research says that comes through alignment with the mission and fulfilling work. How should we be thinking about our HR practices and technology tools to create that for people?
“This is where technology and HR knowledge will come together to create compelling experiences for talent.”