HR Data Analytics in the Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Nicole Lewis September 21, 2020
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woman analyzing data

​HR data analytics have become more critical to the human resources team at Humana Inc. as the health insurance company learns more about how its employees are coping during the deadliest pandemic in 100 years.

Roger Cude, senior vice president, human resources at Humana, said that while HR data analytics have always been critical, the ability to use or analyze the data is often an under-resourced capability. The COVID-19 pandemic might change that, deepening the approach used prior to the pandemic—having a knowledgeable team of analysts, a strong process for using data and insights to make decisions, and a solid data infrastructure—and compounding the scale, depth and scope of these necessary capabilities.

"You will know quickly whether your data analytics capability can handle the demand, or if it needs improvement. If you have not invested in this capability, it will soon become apparent that this is an essential capability for success," he said.

Understand Employees Better

Company executives say that the COVID-19 pandemic has raised awareness of the need for data analytics capabilities at Humana, headquartered in Louisville, Ky. Leaders have used several strategies to find out more about what their workers' needs are at a time when more than 90 percent of Humana's workforce of approximately 46,000 currently works from home.

They've used measures such as:

  • Creating open-ended survey questions and continually sampling employees.
  • Leveraging behavioral data like meeting hours, e-mail and network collaboration.
  • Running natural language processing and machine learning algorithms on internal social media platforms.
  • Collecting and merging facility utilization, safety and security, IT (network/system) data, and risk and compliance data into their existing HR data warehouse.

Cude said gathering and analyzing employee data have helped the company make decisions at a time of great change and risk. For instance, he said, based on the data analytics, Humana discovered that many people needed special accommodations to be available to work.

"We categorized this data by various needs and assessed the impact. In turn, we developed new benefits, procedures and practices to care for our associates while maintaining performance and productivity. For example, we provided opportunities for employees to take additional paid time off for child care or caregiving," he said. 

Humana also used data analytics to boost employees' confidence in returning to the company's facilities. By using safety and security data, facility data, and listening assessments, the company analyzed employee readiness and gained a better understanding of why staff might or might not be confident in returning to the office.

"This information was then used for the new processes and protocols," Cude said. "We studied employee sentiment after reorientation and training. The result was that 85 percent of this population became confident, significantly higher than previous sentiment." 

Humana also captured new data that illuminate "ways of working" by studying patterns in meeting hours, focus time, after-hours work, networking and e-mail/IM usage.

The company's data analytics showed employees tend to work longer days, may not be proficient in leading virtual teams, and are meeting more often and with larger groups.

"Through this analysis, we have been able to create new guidelines and processes to minimize 'collaboration overload,' and better prioritize and establish better leader/employee routines like one-on-one meetings across the company. Lastly, this data plus the ongoing listening is aiding in the development of Humana's strategy for the future of work," Cude said.

Plan for the Future

As workers continue to work from home, data used to evaluate employee productivity and engagement will become more important, said Gavin Morton, head of people and financial operations at HR.com.

Morton noted that HR professionals should focus on data that show differences between remote workers and onsite workers for insights that can help them with workforce planning as the coronavirus continues to impact the workforce.

He also said the data can help HR managers answer questions such as: How do you know which workers are available? How will you know who to bring back into the office? If an employee tests positive, will he or she be able to work?

"If you've got a system that can help you with workforce analytics and if you have not been using it to its maximum effectiveness, now is the time to do so. If you did not have the rest of the leadership team's buy-in before, you sure should get it now," Morton said.

HR managers can expect corporate investments on data analytics to increase. The latest research from Frost and Sullivan predicts that the global big data analytics market will grow from $14.85 billion in 2019 to $68.09 billion by 2025.

Store New and Existing Data

Over the last six months, data analytics has become a more demanding process at The Christman Company, a Lansing, Mich., construction firm. The company has 200 union and 600 nonunion staff and up to 50 additional employees depending on how many workers each construction project requires. 

According to Annette Scott, payroll manager, there is a greater focus on tracking employees who meet the requirements of the employee retention credit (ERC), which is a refundable tax credit for certain employees and is part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

"When COVID-19 hit we had to start tracking what requirements employees met for them to apply for the ERC. We had to add an additional layer of data monitoring and analysis to our system to do this," Scott said. 

To keep its business profitable, Christman must analyze datasets including financial information, project management, employee hours of work on a site, what phases of a construction process are being charged—such as planning, preconstruction, construction or closeout—and whether workers are to be paid minimum-wage rates or union contract wages.

"The ability of the Christman team to quickly and accurately analyze various financial metrics in real time is critical to ensuring successful projects for both Christman and their customers," Scott said. 

As companies in many sectors face the burden of managing more employee data and are gaining new insights about employees during the pandemic, HR managers will have to find the best way to manage data to get actionable insights on their workers' performance, Cude said.

He recommended employers should develop a plan that systematically stores new data with existing data, even if the process is manual at first. Companies should also identify data subject matter experts as new data is identified or needed and bring them into the matrixed team.

Cude's advice to HR data analytics teams is this: "Be agile and iterative in interpretation and action. Do not wait until everything is perfect because it never will be. On the other hand, do not feel compelled to act on every piece of information. Look for significant trends and indicators."

Nicole Lewis is a freelance journalist based in Miami. She covers business, technology and public policy.

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