The coronavirus pandemic will continue to drive digital innovations in 2021, says HR leader Jennie Knowles, SHRM-CP—just as it did last year, when human resource leaders led the shift to remote work and immediately started adapting to their new environments.
Knowles is head of human resources at Sendoso, a San Francisco-based online platform that helps companies send gifts and other items for marketing and promotional campaigns.
Sendoso hired 214 employees globally in 2020. As the company prepares for continued expansion, it recently implemented an HR system from Sora, a San Francisco-based company that helps automate hiring and onboarding tasks.
"We had to automate the hiring workflow process in this remote environment," Knowles said. "For instance, you can't have a new employee walk into an office and grab a computer. We've had to be more thoughtful about how employees get their equipment."
Today, the IT department handles new hires this way: Once an offer letter is signed, the HR team starts the process, and the IT manager will electronically order and send out a laptop and other IT equipment as needed.
Knowles said she has had to think more creatively about how to engage employees and spark their interest. Using Zoom to create games with prizes, sending Sendoso-labeled T-shirts, hats or a cookbook with a Sendoso apron, and organizing Bingo games over Zoom are all ways the company uses technology to interest employees.
"I absolutely have to be more creative," she said. "I have to think that this work/life balance is really blurred even more than it was before. How can I delight, excite and bring people together when everyone is stuck at home?"
This year, Knowles will focus on using AI-driven technology to answer questions that employees commonly ask via the company's instant messaging system. She's also preparing a welcome video from the CEO to new hires.
"A video of the CEO saying, 'Welcome, we are so excited to have you join our team,' is a lot more engaging than just an e-mail," Knowles said.
Peg Buchenroth, senior vice president of human resources at staffing and recruitment firm Addison Group in Chicago, can relate. She said the new hire process has dramatically changed since the pandemic.
"Everything has to be done virtually, including all of those programs in the learning and development space have had to be shifted to be more technology-driven versus a classroom-type orientation," she said.
A recent Deloitte survey that polled 441 executives shows that the number of organizations deploying automation at scale has tripled during a two-year period.
Automation Changes Work
The Deloitte study found that 68 percent of business leaders used automation to manage work during the COVID-19 pandemic. HR managers should note the study also found that 23 percent of workers have seen their roles and ways of working change because of the implementation of intelligent automation, while 1 in 10 has had to retrain.
In his assessment of how automation is impacting HR managers, Brian Kropp, distinguished vice president at IT research and consulting firm Gartner, said many manual tasks that HR executives used to do have changed.
"You think about scheduling or expense approvals or providing feedback or coaching, a lot of what an HR manager has historically done has the potential to be or has already started to become automated," he said. "That frees up a lot of time for managers to do other things."
Kropp added that historically, HR managers were asked to follow the processes and coach the activities of employees, but now many remote workers are just as productive without being micromanaged.
What this means, Kropp believes, is that in 2021 and beyond, HR managers' competency profile will change. "It's no longer going to be HR managers managing the tasks of their individual employees, it's going to be HR managers that can work with their employees to help them create a balance between work and life, connect them to people across the organization that they need to work with to be successful, and to help them think about their long-term careers," Kropp said.
Katy Tynan, principal analyst at Forrester Research, a market research company based in Cambridge, Mass., observed that many HR managers didn't embrace digital literacy or understanding automation in a way that could have helped them make better decisions in a crisis.
"Many organizations from an HR perspective are not mature in their understanding of technology," she said. "The pandemic exposed that for a lot of organizations."
She pointed to remote work as one area where technology has made it possible for employees to perform their work at home, but HR professionals didn't advocate for telecommuting even though several studies were published prior to the pandemic that show remote work increases productivity and improves employees' work/life balance.
"When organizations were suddenly forced to adapt to 100 percent remote work in many cases, suddenly HR professionals were saying, 'Oh I guess we can do this,' but the transition was painful. HR should have taken a more strategic role and advocated for remote work much earlier," Tynan said.
Looking ahead, Lisa Frydenlund, SHRM-CP, an HR knowledge advisor at the Society for Human Resource Management, said HR managers will have a lot on their plate as they adopt more technology to manage employee workflows.
"HR managers will have to be aware of the kinds of technology that can meet their employees' business needs," she said. "They'll have to upskill and reskill staff, manage data privacy issues, and use AI and other technologies to improve employees' work."
Gartner's Kropp is still focused on the human element of the HR role as the nation passes 500,000 deaths from COVID-19.
"What 2020 taught us is that we can't forget the human in human resources," he said. "We have to figure out ways to use data analytics to create a more humane experience for our employees. That is going to be the biggest takeaway of 2020."
Nicole Lewis is a freelance journalist based in Miami.