3-Ring Circus of Digital Experience in a Hybrid World

HR professionals may not have thought of themselves as acrobats, ringmasters or lion-tamers, but now is the time to consider juggling the three-ring circus that is HR’s responsibility in today’s world of work. Confronting the escalating issues of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), skill shortages, employee engagement and churn issues, upskilling in analytics, and AI ethics, the attention to the day-to-day digital experience of the worker may get short shrift. Alas, this is just when the need for excellence in digital tools is exacerbated by the increased hybrid organizational model.

Labor Market Volatility

The degree of urgency today is impacted by a challenging labor market. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that there were an unprecedented 10.9 million open positions in the United States on the last business day of July.The pandemic had employees reconsidering their work/life priorities and companies are losing many of their skilled female employees to issues of inadequate childcare, and uncertainty and variability in school attendance policies. (863,000 women dropped out of the US workforce in September 2020, as compared with 168,000 men.) A child or teacher reported as ill can cause total classroom quarantine, requiring parental attendance at home. Meanwhile, hourly workers are often reticent to return to often volatile public-facing jobs that lack health-maintenance policies. In addition, job hopping is on the rise. More than half (54%) of employees surveyed from around the world would consider leaving their job post-COVID-19 pandemic if they are not afforded some form of flexibility in where and when they work, according to the EY 2021 Work Reimagined Employee Survey. The study notes that nine in ten respondents want flexibility in where and when they work, with millennials twice as likely to quit as baby boomers.

Remote work works: PWC reports that 83% of employers and 71% of employees expressed overwhelming satisfaction on the shift to remote work. Productivity has increased as a result of this flexibility.

Engagement in a Time of Stress

A recent study by Mercer reports that 70% of employers who have made post-pandemic organizational plans say they’ll adopt a hybrid model of remote and onsite workers. Many focused on protecting the health, safety and economic wellbeing of their employees and attempted to communicate candidly about the state of the business, leading to a positive spike in engagement levels during COVID. Yet that spike is not universal. The Gallup State of the American Workplace report, states that while engagement levels are higher for remote workers at 32% compared to office workers at 28%, globally, employee engagement decreased by 2 percentage points from 2019 to 2020, and employees reported higher worry, stress, anger and sadness in 2020 than they had in the previous year. The study also suggests, counter-intuitively, that remote workers feel a greater sense of belonging and communicate more frequently with their teams online.

Uncertainty plays a role: the effects of another potential COVID surge. The continual disruption in the supply chain, and fear of inflation are all the backdrop as HR steps into the ring today.

Circus Ring One: Flexible Workplaces Require Better Technology

The EY report shows that continued technology investment is critical to the employee experience. The widespread increase of flexible working is leading to more demands for technology, both on-site and in the home office. Sixty-four percent of respondents say they want better technology in the office, such as faster internet and videoconferencing, almost half (48%) say they want companies to upgrade at-home hardware such as extra monitors and headsets, and almost the same proportion (47%) would like re-imbursement for high-speed internet/phone expenses.

Employee interviews bear this out: Zoom conferences that lose voice or video, long lag times in screen propagation, siloed application with multiple logons, and data loss, especially in some legacy applications, affect morale and productivity. Too frequently, after what may be hours of editing a document, the changes mysteriously vanish, requiring rework and causing disgruntlement. On the other hand, mobile apps with single click execution, and automatic saving of documents-in-progress in the cloud enhance the employee’s productivity.

While HR professionals can select the applications used in the conduct of HR, they usually do not control the applications used by employees in their work. However, working with corporate divisions on guidelines for useability, better application integration, network performance and enhanced security pays off in improved morale and productivity.

Circus Ring Two: Managing HR in the Hybrid Workplace

Cloud-anchored HR systems have proved a boon in maintaining data safely and supporting access from anywhere. Newer applications have provided tools for much-needed analytical sophistication, as well as delivering means to facilitate team collaboration, DEI assistance and tracking, employee conversations and feedback, and employee-centric engagement tools. Today, there are very few HR-related employee activities that cannot be accomplished via mobile phone or at least a laptop.

Technology is crucial to one immediate HR challenge: hiring management in the face of rising attrition and skill shortages. (Recruiting software is once again the #1 area of VC worktech investment.) Remote as opposed to in-person hiring is new to some arenas, and the need for tools to easily market the position, apply and interview remotely are de vigor.

In addition, updates to much human capital management software over the last two years has new underlying technology: artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and natural language processing, to name a few. All HR users need to know which applications rely on AI engines and how they are supposed to work—and work within their specific organizational charter. They also need to be alert for idiosyncrasies – a sudden recommendation or statistic that seems at odds with expectations requires questioning, not blind acceptance.

Many of the requirements for a positive HR user experience are the same remotely as in the office: smoothly integrated intuitive applications are an imperative. If a plethora of standalone apps is annoying onsite, the added potential network latency and compounded login requirements will immediately bog down the remote HR professional.

And in Ring Number Three…

The third ring of our circus is also critical: the increased digital security and privacy requirements of a highly distributed workforce that is now relying on at-home Wi-Fi and mobile access, sometimes on personal computers rather than company-issued equipment. An employee’s digital experience will be shattered if a corporate breech is somehow linked to his or her inadvertent actions, especially when the issue could have been prevented by planning and training. Where in the past the question was “do you know where your employees are?” now it is “do you know what infrastructure is supporting your remote workforce?” How are they safely accessing the applications, whether in the cloud or onsite, that they need to do their jobs?

The risk has increased from the remote or contract worker of the past who likely had a dedicated laptop to conduct work to the possibility that a family computer that may also be used for children’s schooling or games is shared with mom or dad (or even mom AND dad) for work purposes. While companies have often moved to the employee-provided equipment model for remote work, this may well be the time to reconsider. What is saved in overhead can be spent ensuring that all employees have up-to-date equipment with corporate-approved security apps and the same revisions of operating systems and applications. Access to technical support is also a requirement: if something doesn’t work, the employee needs to have someone to help troubleshoot the problem.

It goes without saying—but I will say it anyway—that all employees remote and on-site need yearly reminders on the security rules that impact employee and customer privacy and the handling of sensitive corporate data. Their computers and phones are bombarded daily by spam and phishing attempts that often look authentic. All workers need to know what and when a legitimate request for action on their part is issued from corporate—and how to avoid being hoodwinked.

The Sum of the Parts

The three-ring circus was invented by Ringling founders PT Barnum and William Coup in 1871. Instead of one single act for the audience, three acts would perform simultaneously in three rings. Unlike a real circus, the rings of the digital employee experience are all closely connected, based on a single networked infrastructure. However, only one ring is directly controlled by HR—the software used by HR for all human capital management—and the others, vital to the employee experience and the conduct of work itself, often under the control of others. Awareness of the entire scope of the employee’s reliance and use of technology to accomplish his or her work—remote, hybrid, or onsite—is an essential aspect of promoting a positive, productive, and engaging work environment.

Katherine Jones, Ph.D

Dr. Katherine Jones, veteran high-tech market analyst. She is an independent thought leader in all areas of human capital management and the technologies that support it. She has been an analyst at Aberdeen Group, Bersin by Deloitte, and Mercer following a career that includes marketing in high-tech companies such as NetSuite and academic administration in higher education. Her master’s and doctorate degrees are from Cornell University. She can be reached at Katherine_ICS@msn.com.

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