People Analytics Guide Return-to-Work Choices

By Dave Zielinski May 22, 2020
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​Human resources leaders are turning to people analytics tools to help make difficult decisions as their staffs return to the workplace and face a damaged economy. Whether it's figuring out how to keep workers safe, making decisions on furloughs and layoffs, or ensuring the right number of employees are in the right roles, these technologies collect, blend and analyze people data to guide HR leaders in their "what if" scenario planning.

Research shows the use of people analytics software was on the rise even before the coronavirus crisis hit. Now experts say many HR leaders are doubling down on the use of those tools.

Platforms Integrate Data

People analytics platforms fall into a number of categories. One group can help users integrate and analyze the diverse data sets related to COVID-19 and the composition of their workforces. They help answer questions like which people in key roles can go back to the workplace and which should continue working remotely; assist in developing first- and second-level succession plans in case workers get sick or need to step away to assist family members; and help align workforce planning with shifting business strategy and uncertain revenue forecasts.

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

AON is one vendor with an analytics tool that helps HR leaders think through workforce costs amid COVID-19. The London-based company's Talent Modeler platform can help determine the impact of shift reductions or help leaders choose from a range of options such as furloughs, attrition, pay cuts or layoffs.

Experts say sophisticated people analytics also can help leaders evaluate alternatives to layoffs, such as hiring or promotion freezes, shortened work schedules, or reducing costs like real estate expenses.

Nicholas Garbis, vice president of people analytics strategy for One Model, a people analytics provider with offices in Austin, Texas, has seen an evolution among HR leaders he's spoken to throughout the COVID-19 outbreak. As organizations begin their return-to-work planning—which largely entails addressing employee fear of COVID-19 infection as well as monitoring the reopening of child care centers—more are now planning for the "what if" scenarios that will arise this summer, he said.

This coming phase requires HR leaders to have better data and insight into the state of their current workforce and how it may need to change in the short term. "You need to be able to accurately assess your capacity, starting with the kind of workforce gaps that may have emerged from early March to now," Garbis said. "What talent have you lost, for example, to furloughs, layoffs or health issues?"

One Model's analytics platform collects and blends diverse forms of people data into a unified model to help surface these kinds of insights. HR should examine the state of "talent segments" in the organization as well as gauge potential coronavirus risks, Garbis said, then create a short-term strategic plan to define future workforce needs.

"HR business partners should be consulting with business leaders right now to say, 'This is the mix of people and roles you have now. What might you need your workforce to look like in six to 12 months?' " he said. "You want to ensure you're growing where you're supposed to grow and shrinking where you want to shrink."

People analytics also can help redeploy employees to areas experiencing increased demand. Ian Cook, vice president of people solutions for Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada-based Visier, said a financial services company he knows was considering furloughing employees in one area of its business until it experienced a spike in another area—life insurance sales. "That allowed them to move some front-line customer service people over to selling life insurance policies," Cook said. 

In another case a regional bank used analytics to decide to move a call center to shift work and parallel work teams with physical distancing, said Bhushan Sethi, joint global leader, people and organization for PwC, a research and consulting firm in New York City.

"The goal was to help manage call center capacity and infection risk," Sethi said. "Almost 50 percent of CFOs in a recent PwC survey said they would have to implement some form of shift work when they bring people back to the workplace."

Employee Coaching Analytics

Employee coaching tools can give managers and employees feedback on how their communication or management styles have changed as a result of remote working arrangements. One vendor in the space is Cultivate, which creates reports that give employees a summary of their digital behaviors at home.

"These analytics could show managers, for example, how responsive they've been to certain employees in the work-from-home setting or how much overall time they've spent with certain workers," said Stacia Garr, co-founder and principal analyst of RedThread Research, a human capital research and advisory firm in Woodside, Calif.

Measuring Inclusion During Remote Work

This category of analytics can help HR understand how remote work is impacting leadership development, performance-based promotions or the inclusion of diverse employee populations. Some experts believe, for example, that a remote working environment can make it easier for implicit or unconscious bias to take root.

"We know that people's networks have contracted as a result of remote work, and there also can be less insight into employee performance," Garr said. "When we aren't seeing each other in person as often and aren't as aware of what others are doing or thinking, it can open the door to unconscious bias and stereotyping."

Organizational network analysis technology can track employees' connections to give HR a better understanding of how remote workers are interacting during COVID-19, Garr said. "The tools can give you an indication of who is being included in conversations, who is on e-mail threads and who is being invited to meetings. It can help you see if people across the organization are being included on an equal basis." Some of these vendors include TrustSphere, Polinode, Innovisor and OrgAnalytix.

Employee Surveying and Sentiment Analysis

Many companies are deploying employee listening tools to stay abreast of how workers are feeling at home and to gauge their sentiment on returning to the workplace. Platforms like Qualtrics, Yva, Perceptyx and Limeade offer such survey tools, some of which include artificial intelligence capabilities to make it easier to compile and analyze survey results.

"Organizations are using these surveys to measure employee feelings about a return to the workplace, with the understanding that not everyone is of the same mind about that return," Garr said. Such surveys sometimes ask employees to register their preferences for a return to the workplace. Might they want to work certain shifts or travel into the office on certain days, for example, and work other days at home?

COVID-Specific Employee Health and Safety Tracking

Some people analytics have adapted to allow HR leaders to merge publicly available COVID-19 data with their internal people data to assist in workforce planning. Visier integrates COVID-19 data sources and automated analysis to help users make more-informed decisions related to staffing.

Visier's database allows leaders to see which of their employees are in areas most impacted by the coronavirus and helps to manage business continuity challenges.

"We've layered the latest COVID-19 case data into the application so business users can see by geography how deeply the virus has gone into their populations and can view projections from the University of Washington model about peaks and changes in various states," said Visier's Cook.

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.

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