3 Structural Changes the New Workplace Requires of HR Technology

Future Technology Code

Businesses will face a stunning challenge at the end of August, when their employees with children are, as they were in the spring, forced to juggle child care and education with their responsibilities on the job. That will significantly change the way work gets done, and HR technology providers will be called on to provide more powerful tools for managing, serving and even recruiting employees.

As the virus persists, business leaders and parents have begun to recognize that the pandemic may not end anytime soon. Despite pressure from the federal government to fully reopen, a significant number of school districts are opting to hold classes online or through a hybrid on-site/digital approach.

3 structural changes COVID-19 will bring to HR technology: Think remote workers, touchless interfaces and in-the-moment apps. #HRTech #HR Click To Tweet

At the same time, many employees are reluctant to return to their workplace, especially when social distancing is difficult or they’ll risk exposure through contact with loosely regulated customers. A survey by PwC found that half of them would stay away from their workplace because they fear exposure to COVID-19

In March and April, the pandemic was regarded as an acute crisis—dramatic, deadly and fast-moving. Now, in mid-summer, more employers consider the virus an acute challenge that will require structural changes to policies, procedures and operations.

Just as the virus continued to spread across the country through the hoped-for Memorial Day reopening, it increasingly appears that anyone pinning their hopes on a close-to-normal school year will be disappointed. Public health officials suggest a vaccine might be available late in 2020 or early 2021, but they’ve said little about how it will be distributed if and when it’s approved. Even then, they’ll face a skeptical public. A Tufts University survey found just 57% of Americans would get a COVID-19 vaccine if one were available now.

Change the Workplace; Change it Again

All of this means the workforce is in flux. A number of employers say they’ll maintain or expand remote work, business travel remains subdued and the economy’s prospects are uncertain. The situation has put an enormous strain on HR departments: Besides re-setting their operations for the requirements of remote work and epidemiologically safe workspaces, they must manage massive layoffs, rebuild or maintain culture, remake their payroll processes, keep up with compliance and sort through a tsunami of applications for every open position.

Since the pandemic appeared in February, HR technology vendors have pursued a variety of efforts to help manage and recruit workers amidst the crisis. Many offered new learning content or made aspects of their LMS available without charge. Others provided no-cost solutions for recruiting, surveys and engagement. A few created entirely new applications to address issues that have become acute since the spring, such as working from home or hiring contingent workers.

In many cases, vendors adapted existing products to accommodate new demands, or increased support to help customers confront unanticipated challenges. In some cases, solutions providers accelerated features that were already in the pipeline. In most, they tweaked existing features to address the needs of customers.

Now, however, it’s become apparent that the demands on HR will require fundamental changes to the way solutions are imagined and developed. In some cases, this means digging below an employer’s technical needs to address challenges in their processes. In others, it requires understanding how the human need for connection and communication can be met when workers and managers must keep their distance from one another.  

We’ve examined product announcements made by vendors since March, asked HR professionals about the challenges they face, and sounded out almost everyone on what they believe the future holds for HR. After digesting all of that, we believe these challenges will become central to the development of successful HR technology solutions:

The Distributed Workforce

Maintaining a remote workforce involves more than properly designed and implemented networks and technical support. Already, employers realize how important it is for them to maintain culture and organizational structure when workers are geographically scattered.

However, technology hampers their efforts with several layers of complexity that get in the way of efficiency, performance and satisfaction. So, the use and navigation of communication and collaboration platforms must be streamlined, with more apps embedded in other products. Scheduling must become seamless and transparent, for example, with employees able to easily check their manager’s availability and set up a touch-in. Managers should have the ability to message team members without interrupting their current workflow.

In talent acquisition, we’ve already seen movement toward this kind of feature. Interview scheduling has been a notoriously clunky process for years, for example, but a number of vendors have introduced tools to eliminate much of the back-and-forth that goes on when employers and candidates begin arranging a conversation. More tools are needed to eliminate, or at least minimize, the distraction of little chores.

The Interface That Isn’t There

Even before the pandemic, a number of tech companies were developing products that, for lack of a better term, were “interface-less.” Their goal was to present tools and/or information when they’re needed, without users having to proactively request them.

In introducing its HXM concept, for example, SAP SuccessFactors portrayed a system that offered flight schedules as soon as users entered a meeting in their calendar (Ah, the days of travel). Oracle HCM has been pursuing a voice-powered interface, where users interact with their system much as they would with Amazon’s Alexa.

Such efforts have been driven by “a relentless focus on user experience, user interface, usability of the tool,” in the words of one analyst. “Platforms and solutions are being designed, at the core, to be user-friendly, earn high user adoption and specifically focus on user needs versus process needs.”

Process optimization, this analyst said, is increasingly being built into systems with an eye toward making them as engaging and simple as possible. In many cases, this is accomplished by integrating one solution’s capabilities into the workflow of another, allowing users to divert their attention from their primary task with a minimum of disruption. As minor annoyances take on added weight under the conditions of remote work, look for more vendors to pursue interfaces that require a lighter touch. The workflow may become the master chart of the user experience.

The Touchless Interface

Personal safety has put new momentum behind the development of touchless products such as timeclocks and ID checks. However, streamlining access to facilities and movement within the workplace offers additional advantages, as many employers are now learning. For example, monitoring body temperature through passive monitoring avoids the traffic jams created at office entrances when physical temperature checks are necessary. Facial recognition can eliminate the need to have workers scan or display ID cards.

Analysts and HR leaders expect the use of such technologies to increase. However, they say employee discomfort with the idea of “being watched” is sure to put a brake on its adoption. Other issues, such as HIPPA, also come into play when systems are used to monitor health, HR professionals add.

While concerns about privacy and discrimination may slow down the adoption of touchless solutions, the advantages they offer in the workplace are quite real. While HR wrestles with the ramifications of these products, their development will continue.

To satisfy HR’s evolving needs requires applications that extend more deeply into solutions used throughout the organization. Managing and engaging a distributed workforce at a time of ongoing upheaval requires solutions that are smart, seamless and designed the life’s workaday realities in mind.

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