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Three Key Takeaways From Spring HR Tech 2021

March 26, 2021

It’s time for action.

That was one of the overriding messages I walked away with from the four-day virtual conference Spring HR Tech 2021, held last week.

Sponsored by Human Resource Executive, the conference featured keynotes and various sessions for HR professionals on pressing tech-related issues after a challenging year, including recruiting, employee engagement, and employee wellness.

After a disruptive year, HR teams look ahead

In the half-dozen Spring HR Tech sessions I watched over the four days, many presenters acknowledged how disruptive the last year has been for businesses. In addition to moving entirely to remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic, employees were also dealing with concerns beyond work—fears for their health and that of their loved ones, layoffs and furloughs, nationwide protests for racial justice, and a divisive presidential election in the U.S. All of these events impacted businesses, and by extension, HR teams. 

However, a key theme in many presentations was looking forward—HR teams got through the year, employees shifted to working remotely, and businesses adapted. The teams know there’s more work to be done to prepare for a post-COVID-19 working world. So what steps should companies take now? 

Many speakers at the conference had advice for HR teams as they grapple with that question. Here are my three biggest takeaways from the conference on what HR leaders should be thinking about for the rest of 2021.

Taking steps to build more diverse and inclusive organizations

A number of speakers argued that it is past time for companies to take substantial steps toward making their companies more diverse and inclusive places to work.

Jackye Clayton, diversity equity inclusion strategist at SeekOut, closed out the first day of the conference by encouraging business leaders to seriously introspect their own implicit biases, rather than trying to rely solely on technology to improve diversity hiring. She led participants in a visualization exercise asking them to picture a janitor, a couple taking engagement photos, and a keynote speaker, then she asked them to consider—what did they look like? 

She said, “Visualization can be a way to see the future you want for your company. Visualize the people you never see but want to see on your team.”

In a powerful 20-minute keynote session on the conference’s last day, diversity strategist Torin Ellis argued that organizations need to commit to concrete actions that will build more diverse and inclusive teams. “Less allyship, more action.” he said. Ellis cited a recent Citigroup study on the economic impacts of racial inequality, which found that had racial gaps for Blacks in four key areas—wages, housing, education, and investment—been closed 20 years ago, $16 trillion would have been added to the U.S. GDP.

statistics on the economic impacts of racial injustice by CitigroupSource: "Closing the Racial Inequality Gaps: The Economic Cost of Racial Inequality in the U.S.”, Citigroup

Leaders must take firm stands supporting diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives, including devoting significant resources to them, Ellis continued. Technology, while it can help, “is nothing more than a tool and certainly not a silver bullet,” he said, emphasizing the need for having difficult conversations and building a culture of belonging.

Rocki Howard, chief diversity officer at SmartRecuiters, echoed the need to “humanize diversity.” She said that it sometimes makes people uncomfortable to acknowledge that bias exists in their organization or that they haven’t done enough to build more diverse teams, but it’s crucial to commit to addressing those issues.

Howard states:

“We have to go beyond our good intentions, we have to shake things up. We have to be committed to be accountable. We have to be willing to move beyond our focus on self-preservation and on being ‘good people.’ And possibly the hardest of all, we have to be willing to operate outside our comfort zones.”

Many CEOs signed pledges for diversity and inclusion in 2020, although Howard said many of those moves were a response to public pressure. According to her, those who were authentic will back up their truths with commitments that will lead to action and impact.

HR software can help businesses get there, with a focus on tools that reduce bias in recruiting. This can include rethinking what goes into job descriptions, masking identifiable information in applications such as a candidate’s name, and conducting hiring tests that focus on the employee’s skills. Such technology must be paired with honest conversations and human connections.

 

For organizations that are struggling to figure out their next steps, there are diversity and inclusion consulting firms that can help. But a D&I strategy paired with meaningful follow-through has become mandatory for companies that want to remain relevant in 2021.

Shifting permanently to a hybrid workforce

For many businesses, the days of most workers coming into the office every day are history. It’s still unclear to many companies how many workers will come back to the office full time, how many will stay home full time, and how many will choose a combination.

A big question for HR teams is how to effectively manage that new “hybrid workplace” split in where work is being done. Organizations will need to start redesigning and adapting processes that have taken place in person for years, such as recruiting and onboarding, said Gretchen Alarcon, a vice president and general manager at ServiceNow. “That’s an extra level of complexity,” she said.

Organizations need to start taking steps toward redesigning their workplaces for a post-pandemic future. Part of this shift will involve a continued need for technology to effectively keep remote workers connected with their office-dwelling counterparts. Companies have already been doing that to some extent as they increased their reliance on video conferencing software and instant messaging platforms when the world went into lockdown in March 2020.

To support hybrid work in the longer term, HR teams will need to consider further streamlining of communications through investing in their company’s intranet, HR support tools, and digital learning content for employee upskilling. Organizations realized over the past year that they have shortcomings in these areas and are still figuring out what to prioritize, said Melanie Lougee, head of employee workflow strategy at ServiceNow during a session on reinventing worker experiences. “The new workplace really is the digital workplace,” Lougee said. 

Flexibility will also be key. Businesses were largely unprepared for the global impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the workforce, the supply chain, and manufacturing, said Mimi Brooks, CEO of consulting firm Logical Design Solutions, during her keynote on Tuesday. She said that the pandemic revealed that many organizations lacked agility. 

Moving forward, businesses will need to determine how to maintain human connections and company culture while employees work from the office or remotely in different combinations.

Redesigning the employee experience

With all the changes and disruptions of the past year, companies are trying to figure out how to provide better experiences for their employees; top of mind for many such organizations is the realization that employees have been through a lot in the last year. 

Many workers are dealing with burnout or other stressors outside of work. Alarcon, of ServiceNow, recommended focusing on employee wellness first and foremost and pursuing measurable actions to improve the employee experience, what she called “those microchanges that will lead up to a big impact.” 

She says:

“They’ve been through a lot. They have a lot that they are still processing and it’s not going to be just flip a switch and we return back to normal.”

More companies are likely to look to HR technology for promoting employee wellness and financial health. This burgeoning market includes products that offer wellness challenges, educational materials on physical or mental health, and health assessments.

G2 Grid® for Corporate Wellness Software 

The importance of employee experience was underscored just a month ago, in February 2021, when Microsoft unveiled its Viva platform, marking a major investment for the technology behemoth in HR software markets for employee engagement, learning, and wellness, which are all integrated into its platform. 

In his opening day keynote, industry analyst Josh Bersin predicted that major human capital management (HCM) platforms will continue to incorporate more tools for employee engagement and talent management. Another key part of creating a great employee experience is listening to employee feedback. While this used to mean annual surveys from the HR department, many companies are shifting to more frequent feedback models through semi-regular pulse surveys, Bersin said.

 

New platforms are working to help companies capture more continuous feedback from employees. Employees know if something’s unsafe, or if something’s not working well, Bersin said. “If we’re not listening to them and giving them help and paying attention to (employee) journeys, we’re not going to solve the experience problem.”

Employees also want to feel like they are growing in their current roles and advancing their careers, so businesses will need to continue investing in employee learning and development. There is a glut of learning content out there, but a key challenge will be organizing it and personalizing it in such a way that it is easy for employees to access.

Much as learning will help employees transform, HR teams will use technology to help them take action and keep their businesses moving forward in 2021.

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