SHRM CEO Challenges HR to Innovate Through COVID-19

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer June 8, 2020

​According to Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, president and chief executive officer of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), HR must embrace workplace technology and innovate through the pandemic crisis that has gripped the world.

"This is HR's time to be strategic and to lead through this struggle," he said. "It's time for HR leaders to go through a soul-searching process. If your HR team does not focus on technology or data, it's time to do so. Technology is HR's most important partner and can solve its greatest workplace challenges."

Taylor was addressing viewers on May 29 during the virtual summit Innovation in the Face of Adversity: Mitigating the Effect of COVID-19 with Tech, presented by SHRM Northern California and ParagonLabs, one of SHRM's newest initiatives launched to discover and invest in startup technologies that empower HR to create better workplaces.

"HR technology has been booming for years, but the profession still has a reputation for being tech-averse," he said. Taylor challenged HR to use the coronavirus crisis as a springboard to increasing the use of data and technology. "Innovation represents one of the better aspects of what we're all going through. There is a lot that we are learning and that we are going to change as a result of COVID-19."

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

HR as 'First Responders,' Change Agents

The pandemic forced organizations to make significant changes to how work is done, and HR professionals became "first responders," Taylor said. "You are the ones your employees turn to. They are looking to you for guidance. This is tough, emotional work, and hardworking HR professionals have risen to the challenge."

Carolyn Frey, chief people officer at Philz Coffee, described the last three months as challenging, exhausting—and invigorating. "All of the 'future of work' things we talked about as people leaders in HR—it's here. Every day we're innovating, and that's the part that's invigorating. Skill acquisition is at a pace we've never experienced before, and what an amazing thing," she said.

In a very short period of time and without warning, HR professionals had to shift to virtual processes while they helped usher employees into working from home and guided them through furloughs and layoffs. HR had to answer employees' questions, calm their fears and make hard decisions that directly impact employees' lives and the business.

Sally Hornick Anderson, SHRM-SCP, workplace diversity director at Google, said she was most impressed by HR's resilience and how people have stepped up during the crisis. Processes that had been routine, such as performance management and compensation planning, are primed for permanent change to meet the "new normal," she said. "I hope we take away the silver linings, the things we've learned, so we don't go back to the old ways of doing things."

Dawn Sharifan, head of people operations at Slack, said that HR has a great opportunity to help define what employee experience will be in the future. "We're asking ourselves, 'Do we really need to do this process just because we always have?' I'm Trojan-horsing [changing from within] everything I've always wanted to blow up."

Ben Brooks, the founder and CEO of Pilot Inc., a career management technology platform in New York City, characterized COVID-19 as the "ultimate alibi" for making changes at work. "HR has struggled for so long with change management and influence to do the things we know are the right things that seem painfully obvious," he said. "People are more open-minded than ever before about different ways of doing things and new ways to use technology."

Data will be integral to the work of HR as employers move through the next stages of recovery.

"Beyond information about the virus itself, we must understand exactly what has changed; what will change; and how it will change in business operations, budgets, workforce management and consumer behavior," Taylor said.

Enabled by Technology

Art Mazor, an HR technology thought leader and global practice leader at Deloitte, noticed that many clients moved faster into a new way of working than they realized was possible, and technology was at the center of that pivot. "The idea of reimagining work is certainly not something that started during this pandemic, but there has been a heavy investment focus in time and effort to find ways that technology complements humans," he said. "If there's a worry, it's that only 17 percent of organizations [according to research from Deloitte] are investing significantly in reskilling their workforce to support leading-edge technologies like artificial intelligence. That's concerning, because as this technology proliferates rapidly, we need to elevate the skills needed to work with those tools."

The trend toward remote working will mean that talent acquisition and talent management are re-envisioned, Taylor said. Virtual learning will also be augmented, changing professional development, training and education.

"COVID-19 has indirectly moved us closer to a solution to our country's skills gap," he said. "When we can upskill and reskill 24/7 from anywhere, our country is a better place for all."

However, some technology expenditure has been controversial, for example around surveillance of worker productivity. "A lot of our clients are exploring worker-surveillance tools," Mazor said. "At the moment, surveillance technology is concentrated on data security, but there are some employers looking at monitoring technology to identify whether people are actually working or not. More often than not, the CHROs I'm working with are questioning whether that is the right method of measurement and whether it's more effective to measure outcomes rather than monitor activity."



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