It’s the year of digital HR. Everything about the ambitions of employers and the changing environment for work points in the same direction: it has to be digitised. Accounting, sales and comms have been doing it digitally for years and HR is under pressure to catch up.
That means a push for the use of more data and analytics to track employees and their lifecycles; more self-service HR tools; re-design of workplaces and routines around digital platforms for virtual and hybrid working; automation of tasks to improve productivity; and, more sophisticated use of social media in recruitment and retention. In turn, the emphasis of development for HR professionals is now primarily around people analytics and digital marketing.
There are many drivers. Always, the need to reduce costs and deal with the UK’s productivity issues. Then there have been the changes in attitudes to remote working and work/life balance brought about by the pandemic experience. But also, digital is being seen as an important means of dealing with employee issues that are riding high on priority lists, regarded as essential for future performance overall: that is, wellbeing and equality and diversity. Digital work means more flexibility and control and chance to focus on finding a healthy life balance. Digital systems reduce the potential for conscious and unconscious bias and mean fewer limitations to career opportunities for people with family/caring responsibilities.
Without doubt, digital technologies provide the basis for the future of virtual, data-based workplaces. Fast, connected and accessible in flexible ways. It’s only all of these things, however, because the muddle of human relationships is removed or kept to a minimum — making workplaces, on the surface at least, look more harmonious.
HR needs to be beware of downgrading or even losing its human outlook. Because employers and organisations need people, not digital tools that make them look as if they have people. And people who are willing and able to bring all of themselves to their work and their relationships with others. So that means keeping it real. Thinking about where digital and automation can add value in places while being clear about HR’s actual purpose and role. People skills, opportunities for being together, a genuine sense of community, are now more important than ever. That includes the ability to listen, understand and respond in the right ways to grievances and conflict. Digital working routines might reduce everyday contact and opportunities for a personality clash, but miscommunication, isolated bubbles of thinking, impersonal responses, flare-ups, are far more likely and insidious in their effects.
Only people create trust and that all-important sense of psychological safety. HR, managers and all staff need to have good levels of conversation skills — to deal with the good, the bad and the ugly — and to create confidence in the organisation’s culture. At CMP we see this in terms of Conversational Integrity: working with employers to build skills across teams in active listening, empathy, self-awareness. Making sure there’s the maturity and ability to deal — as human beings — with the tensions and threats and complexities that are an ordinary part of workplaces. In our new world of work, there’s also the need to make sure there’s confidence in how HR deal with distinctly human issues, like bullying and harassment, and the availability of informal responses like mediation and neutral assessment.
Otherwise, sooner or later, HR are going to take a proper look under the surface of their online platforms and processes of analytics and see that there’s not a great deal for people to really trust or believe in.