Pandemic Tweaks HR’s Digital Transformation Plans

By Nicole Lewis October 20, 2020
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​The coronavirus pandemic has caused many companies to rethink how and where they'll implement technology to support digital transformation projects designed to keep workers safe and productive. The Christman Co. is a case in point.

Headquartered in Lansing, Mich., Christman is a construction firm with 800 staff and up to 50 additional employees depending on project demands.

As part of its response to the pandemic, Christman has invested in software that digitizes manual tasks and allows employees to use their own smart device rather than using one tablet for all employees. The company has also turned to tools that support contact tracing and social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus.

For example, to eliminate the practice of all workers sharing one touchscreen tablet to sign in and out of the worksite at the beginning and end of a day's work, Christman is beta-testing a mobile application with biometrics technology from WorkMax, a Payson, Utah-based company. Employees can access the app using their own device.

"When COVID-19 hit, we started to implement a time and attendance system that uses facial recognition on their mobile phones or tablets to access the mobile app where they can record their time in and out by just taking a picture of themselves," said Annette Scott, payroll manager at Christman.

The WorkMax platform also provides digital payroll forms, giving workers access to forms used to process their wages without having to visit an office.

The self-service system is integrated with the payroll systems. "Workers can scan and upload signed payroll documents, such as direct deposit information, for processing," Scott said. "There doesn't have to be an office, a fax machine or a piece of paper. Employees are able to give us everything we need to process their information for payment correctly and remotely."

To check workers' health, Christman's IT department developed an app called CopperShield that uses a QR code to ask individuals a series of questions ensuring everyone is able to enter jobsites. The questions include: Have you been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the last 10 days? Have you been in close contact with anyone diagnosed with COVID-19 in the last 14 days? Are you currently experiencing COVID-19-related symptoms?

"You can use a smartphone or tablet to capture the unique QR code for your location," Scott said. "This app also tracks entrance time and who is at the site during the day. CopperShield eliminates the need for shared pens, clipboards and hard copies of questions at work entrances. An advantage to people using their own hand-held device is that access is fast and efficient. This keeps people from gathering in large groups at the entrance gate," she added.

Digital Transformation Spurred On

Workplace requirements to prevent the spread of the coronavirus have created new reasons for implementing digital transformation initiatives. However, transformation projects were underway across many sectors even before the pandemic.

According to research from MarketsandMarkets, the digital transformation market size is expected to grow from $469.8 billion in 2020 to over $1 trillion by 2025.


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Coronavirus and COVID-19

While there are new opportunities to convert information into digital formats, the pandemic has exposed critical gaps in HR data and the technology infrastructure of many organizations, said Danny Ferron, EY's people advisory services, tax and HR transformation lead for the Americas.

"From contact tracing and employee safety to virtual ways of working, new people services are pushing HR teams out of their comfort zones and forcing HR teams to get value out of the digital solutions that they use to deliver HR services today," Ferron said.

Right now, HR professionals are already far out of their comfort zones.

"Companies tend to focus on the things that are in their immediate sphere of control, but right now, especially in the United States, a lot of the things that are causing problems with the pandemic are not in their direct sphere of control," said J.P. Gownder, vice president and principal analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research.

As workers return to the workplace, Gownder said, company executives will have to exercise empathy, use technology and implement policy changes as they deploy digital transformation strategies.

"Digital transformation in the COVID-19 era is a big initiative," Gownder said. "For example, for those workers that have to go into the office, you need to invest in digitization to have a schedule mechanism in place. Everybody can't walk in at the same time. You are probably going to use technology to stagger entrance times, to maintain the number of people using elevators, and some technologies will be used to ensure that people are maintaining their social distance."

HR professionals should keep in mind that this will not be the last pandemic, and a pandemic isn't the only kind of risk out there—hurricanes, wildfires, political, social and trade risks all mean companies need to be resilient.

"This is going to continue to be a problem, and I think what we will find is that it will be table stakes for companies to have a business continuity plan that allows them to, at a moment's notice, go remote," Gownder said. "It does not mean they will be remote all the time, but it means that you have to have that capability to make that switch when there is a hurricane, a fire, a major trade war or political problems," he said. "It's going to be a world of planning against risk."

Christman's Scott said HR professionals who want to digitize their workers' manual tasks should look for tech companies that understand the complex changes that are occurring at the workplace.

"HR managers need to work with tech companies that are in touch with what's going on in the world and have technologies that are flexible enough to adjust to quick changes at the workplace," Scott said. "We face difficult times, and we have to look at different applications that make workers perform better and keep them safe."

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

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