When employees at The E.W. Scripps Co. have a pressing question about a human resources issue, they don’t have to search endlessly through HR systems or endure the pain of a prolonged game of e-mail tag with support staff to find answers. Whether they’re requesting a leave of absence, instructions on fixing a computer problem, a health savings account balance or myriad other types of information, employees can send a text to a “digital conversation hub” to get answers quickly with the help of AI technology.
“The hub plays the role of traffic cop, either pointing employees exactly where they need to go to get questions answered or bringing that information directly to them,” says Kevin McDonald, vice president of business process outsourcing governance and HR operations at the diversified media company based in Cincinnati. “We look at the platform as a way to address all things that impact the employee experience, not just as an HR tool.”
The knowledge base provided by vendor Socrates.ai overlays disparate HR, IT, shared services and payroll systems at E.W. Scripps so employees can get responses or complete transactions without having to know which system to use to get what they need.
“We’re trying to reach employees where they are with the hub,” says McDonald. “All of the HR-related information we feel good about from a data security standpoint we want to put right at people’s fingertips.”
The system used by E.W. Scripps is an example of a so-called employee experience technology platform popularized within HR in the past year. Although definitions of these platforms vary, most work by creating an “experience layer” or interface on top of existing HR technology infrastructure, tying together disparate systems and applications with the promise of giving employees a more cohesive, simple and frictionless experience with technology in their organizations.
The best of these platforms create a single interface for workers and support most stages of the employee life cycle—from recruiting to performance management to career development—with an enhanced level of efficiency and user-friendliness. Many are also designed to bring frequently used HR apps and systems directly into employees’ daily workflows rather than keeping those tools orbiting beyond popular communication networks such as Microsoft Teams or Slack.
Josh Bersin, an HR technology analyst and founder of the Josh Bersin Academy in Oakland, Calif., believes one of the biggest trends in 2021 will be the accelerating convergence of HR technology and work technology. He says the trend is evidenced by the rapid spread of human resource applications into areas beyond payroll and employee administration in an effort to make HR a feature of daily work, not a destination separate from it.
“Employees don’t have the time, interest or attention span to log in to an HR system, poke around looking for the right page and then enter their vacation schedule,” Bersin wrote in his report HR Technology 2021: The Definitive Guide. “If technology fits into day-to-day work life, employees will find it valuable and HR will benefit. If employees find it to be an interruption and they have to learn how to use it, the verdict is simple: Companies won’t gain as much value from it.”
Defining the Platform
Employee experience platforms share common features, but not all are configured or applied similarly. “We believe there is no one platform in the market that captures the sum total of all the interactions employees have as they progress through the organization,” says Ron Hanscome, research vice president for human capital management (HCM) technologies with Gartner, a research and advisory firm in Stamford, Conn. “That being said, we’re certainly seeing the evolution of more continuous support for employees via technology through their full life cycle.”
Take, for example, Microsoft’s recently introduced Viva platform, which features HR-like modules for employee engagement, learning, knowledge discovery and well-being. Although it is a form of employee experience technology, Hanscome says, it doesn’t fully meet Gartner’s definition of an employee experience platform: “a diverse collection of employee- and manager-facing solutions.”
Regardless of how employee experience platforms are defined, says John Brownridge, a principal with Deloitte Consulting, the COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on the need to deliver a more streamlined and cohesive technology experience to employees.
“If you worked remotely during the pandemic, your digital experience was the entirety of your experience with your organization,” Brownridge says, noting how people worked and interacted solely through computer networks and smartphones. “Because of that shift, many companies discovered that the organizational technology they thought was working well didn’t always function the way it should to help people do their jobs more efficiently and effectively.”
Combating ‘Technology Creep’
As organizations continue to add disparate systems and applications to their technology ecosystems—a problem known as “technology creep”—employees increasingly are struggling to navigate and use them. For example, a study from Aptitude Research, a consulting firm specializing in HCM technologies, found that, on average, organizations are now using more than 10 different recruiting technology systems.
“Many employees are spending too much time searching for documents or answers to their questions and not enough time doing their daily work,” Brownridge says. “In many cases, it’s because it’s so difficult to navigate the spaghetti diagram of organizational systems to find what they need.”
In its 2020 HR Technology Survey, consulting firm PwC found that 50 percent of respondents are still focused on buying “best of breed” technology systems or stand-alone platforms, such as recruiting or performance management systems, that aren’t part of a consolidated HR technology suite. The PwC survey captured the views of 600 HR and HR information technology leaders on six continents.
“The numbers are still pretty high in terms of organizations not wanting to compromise when they want a certain technology from a niche vendor,” says Dan Staley, a global HR technology leader for PwC. “That suggests the problem of technology fragmentation isn’t going away anytime soon.”
A growing number of HR technology vendors have worked to resolve the issue of technology fragmentation by consolidating their products on one platform or by integrating their systems with the popular platforms employees use every day for work. HR vendors have integrated their systems and apps with platforms such as Slack, Microsoft Teams or Salesforce to make it easier for employees to perform common HR tasks within their daily workflows. Examples of such tasks include providing performance feedback to colleagues, checking on pay or benefits, conducting interviews with job candidates, swapping shifts with co-workers, and taking online learning courses.
“The past few years have seen a movement by HR vendors to intersect their systems with those technologies where employees live and work each day so people don’t have to think about logging in to separate systems to access HR apps and tools,” Hanscome explains.
Staley says PwC’s survey showed that the adoption rates of many HR technologies introduced to the organization continue to lag, making it vital that those systems be not only more user-friendly, but also more visible and accessible.
“Having that unifying employee experience layer on top of your technology infrastructure is one thing, but you still have to drive people to it,” Staley says. “When employees boot up their homepages, they should be able to see icons for HR apps they use most often or any HR-related tasks on their plate. For managers, that might be things like approving employee timecards or a need to give more performance feedback to a particular employee. Those kinds of HR dashboards already exist, but the problem is they’re often disconnected from other work technologies and employees have to go out and navigate to them.”
Reimagining the Employee Experience
While the employee experience has historically been considered the domain of HR, experts say more leaders outside of the function—increasingly led by the C-suite—are beginning to see that experience through a new lens as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Trevor White, a research manager specializing in HCM and talent management technologies for Nucleus Research in Boston, says the pandemic caused many executives to change their views of the employee experience from a “soft” issue to one with profound implications for employee well-being and the bottom line.
White believes top leaders now better understand how a poor employee experience in the organization—whether it’s the result of frustrating technology systems, an indifferent manager or a lack of connection to co-workers—can impact employee morale and ultimately worker productivity, performance and retention. As a result, he says, more executives now see the digital experience as a key lever in the employee experience.
Gartner researchers note a similar trend in a study the firm conducted this year that predicted more employers would shift their focus from managing the employee experience at work to managing the life experience of employees.
Gartner’s 2020 Reimagine HR Employee Survey found that when employers support employees’ life experiences, including their emotional and financial health, the organizations see not only a 23 percent increase in employees reporting improved mental health but also a 21 percent increase in the number of high-performers compared to companies that don’t provide the same level of support to employees.
Dave Zielinski is a freelance business journalist in Minneapolis.
Case Study: How One Company Built an Employee Experience Portal
One organization that implemented a form of employee experience platform is Nouryon, a chemical manufacturing company based in Amsterdam. Nouryon created a dedicated HR services portal for 10,000 employees across multiple countries with the goal of resolving employee issues faster, standardizing HR processes and enhancing the employee experience.
Rather than designing the portal solely around HR processes, Nouryon chose to focus on the broader employee user experience. By surveying employees to determine exactly what they wanted from the new platform, the HR function discovered that clarity and simplicity were the top needs of user groups such as office staff, factory workers and HR managers.
“We discovered that people didn’t understand how to self-serve or navigate easily on the old legacy system,” says Liesbeth van Dijk, a global HR technology manager at the company. Employees had been spending too much time searching for HR documents and were overwhelmed by 6,000 knowledge articles on the old system, the surveys found.
The new platform, which was provided by vendor ServiceNow, gives employees a single entry point and more-visible signposts so they can find the HR information or services they need faster. The sprawling knowledge library also was streamlined and reduced to only the most relevant articles.
Nouryon plans to integrate the new portal with its core human capital management system to align operations across both platforms, reduce redundant data and create a more seamless digital experience for employees. —D.Z.