How businesses are harnessing technology during the switch to flexible working

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​As COVID-19 restrictions mean working from home has become the norm for many, HR has had to adapt to new means of managing employee performance and understanding engagement. For some this has meant more regular contact with their staff via video calls, but is this the only solution for more remote workforce?

From enterprise resource planning (ERP) platforms and the cloud, to communication and collaboration programmes and specialist HR software - technology, in its many forms, has allowed businesses to react quickly to a situation evolving, at times, by the hour.

Prior to the pandemic, international staffing company SThree had relied upon a solely office-based workforce for over three decades. Over a period of 15 days though, the business was able to move 98% of its near 3,000 employees to remote work.

"We’re all going through a trust revolution where the question is no longer ‘how do we manage people?’ but instead ‘how do we support them?'" says Matthew Blake, SThree's chief people officer.

For Blake, support in this time has meant leveraging a range of different tech platforms. Digital planning tools are being used to ensure work is on track; the company has given employees access to Microsoft Teams to help them stay in touch and collaborate on projects; and they have conducted online training to help support employees with new, flexible ways of working.

"We’ve rolled-out online engagement surveys to understand our people’s needs and find out what’s working and what’s not. We also have a wellbeing taskforce and have launched an employee assistance programme, offering counselling services to those who need it. All of this is happening through technology," he adds.

At The Plan Group, an independent insurance broker and SME, it's a similar story. Susie Wilson, head of HR and performance, says that in preparation for the lockdown the group was able to make 100% of its workforce remote, though that wasn't without challenge.

"We were equipped with the necessary IT infrastructure for remote working but in such a sudden upheaval we knew the management and engagement of the workforce would be crucial to the survival of our company. A declining company culture and loss of productivity were among the biggest risks," she says.

Success at The Plan Group has been facilitated through streamlining "everything from HR communications and social activity to workforce management" into a single platform. "Whether working in an office or not, having a central location where everything is stored (including links to other platforms) makes managing a workforce easier," says Wilson.

In light of the pandemic, one of the key assets of workforce management software has been features that enable HR managers to record and monitor employee sickness and those on furlough. For this, many platforms have introduced COVID-19 and furlough specific options.

In NHS organisations, for example, tech company Allocate has opened up its absence tracking function on HealthRoster to provide better visibility of COVID-19 related absence and to support automated centralised daily absence reporting to NHS England.

In another example, SME HR system Breathe has added furlough functionality to record who has been furloughed, store relevant documentation, and provide those employees with access to optional training.

People First is an integrated HR and payroll software. Sharing his perspective, Andy Davies, VP of APAC region at People First, has identified the current climate as an opportunity for HR to accelerate in some of the ways it has already begun to evolve.

"When people started work whether it's five years ago or five months ago, it was an incredibly different pace to what it is today. And if businesses don't take the opportunity to really set out [their guidance] to people, very clearly through a piece of HR tech, and make it an ongoing supportive place for them to go and consume information, then they're really going to trip themselves up," Davies says.

Though the call to digitalise HR processes has been a hot topic for years, Davies adds that some businesses have been slow on the uptake. As a result, he is now hearing from customers that COVID-19 "is really pushing HR tech to the fore."

The 'death' of the annual appraisal, in favour of more frequent 'check-ins' and 1-to-1s is another area which has more potential to develop due to lockdown. "What we've seen throughout COVID is this want for people to have more ongoing, in-the-moment, check ins," Davies adds.

In a Twitter poll run by People First in May, only 24% of 5,000 respondents said they already discuss both health and wellbeing and performance and workload with their manager. The remaining 75% said they would like their manager to check in more regularly to discuss their health and wellbeing (35%), performance and workload (10%) or both (31%).

"At the end of this, there's going to be some major changes for both employee and employer. For some employees, it may actually make them want to go away and think about where their future lies in terms of employment - are they staying with this business? How have they been treated during COVID?” Davies says.

Actus is another HR performance management software provider. Lucinda Carney, the company's founder and CEO, echoes Davies' sentiment about the recent increase in demand for informal 1-to-1s.

For her, part of the reasoning behind this has been due to anxieties surrounding productivity. "With many office-based workers switching rapidly to remote working there was an initial concern around productivity and visibility from managers who are used to being able to see their people working," Carney says. 1-to-1 scheduling as a result came into its own "providing a sense of normality," she adds.

Target setting

More employees remote working has prompted some workplaces to reconsider of how targets are set too.

At Actus, Carney says: "We encouraged managers to review longer term objectives and chunk them down into milestones that individuals could progress weekly and comment against when working remotely. This gave assurance to the manager and employer that progress against key goals was still being made as well as providing clarity and focus to individuals, giving them a sense of control."

Generally speaking though, the current situation seems to favour businesses giving more autonomy to their employees. Davies argues: "You'd think that at this moment in time you'd want to set more goals and be really specific. I actually think that maybe giving people more empowerment and freedom to act is probably the better goal, rather than specifics."

The same is true for Chris Mullen, director of the HCM strategic advisory group at multi-national workforce management firm Kronos. He says: "I believe that if you set clear and realistic expectations with your team, have open and honest conversations, and most of all trust your team to get the job done, then great things can happen."

The group that Mullen leads at Kronos has always worked remotely across multiple locations in the US. Daily video catchups and check-ins that other employers have started to work with are the norm for him and his team.

"However, as a manager, it’s important to keep in mind that just because my teams working style hasn’t changed, other parts of their lives have," he adds.

"Child and elderly care, home schooling, preparing meals, the working situation of their spouses and partners – everything we considered normal has been interrupted."

Here, technology helps make the case for more flexible working opportunities.

Jonathan Richards, CEO of HR software provider Breathe believes that “even the most sceptical of businesses now sees the benefits of a more flexible approach when it comes to working arrangements.”

He adds: “Companies that lead the way in offering flexible working will undoubtedly consider closing or reducing time in the office.”

Business as usual

Going forward, many HR professionals have already denounced the possibility of ever returning to ‘business as usual.’ As one example, Twitter has already announced that its employees will be given the opportunity to work from home ‘forever.’

As remote work has effectively 'proved itself' too, many companies around the world will likely be rethinking the needs of brick-and-mortar premises and how they can make their teams more agile.

"Working from home for this extended period of time has enforced rapid digitisation for many businesses. As the lockdown starts to ease, I believe we will see an acceleration in the adoption of online tools as businesses strive to keep the agility that they have recently glimpsed," adds Richards.

Though technology has its flaws, the power it has given to both employees and their employers in this time can't be ignored.

"Technology has been valuable to support employees but let’s not forget that technology is the vehicle for the support, and we are the drivers," concludes Mullen at Kronos.

"How the managers and employees implement the technology is what makes it valuable and that comes down to trusting employees, being intentional with them, and being inclusive and agile by supporting them as individuals because what works for one will not work for all."

As COVID-19 restrictions mean working from home has become the norm for many, HR has had to adapt to new means of managing employee performance and understanding engagement. For some this has meant more regular contact with their staff via video calls, but is this the only solution for more remote workforce?

From enterprise resource planning (ERP) platforms and the cloud, to communication and collaboration programmes and specialist HR software - technology, in its many forms, has allowed businesses to react quickly to a situation evolving, at times, by the hour.

Prior to the pandemic, international staffing company SThree had relied upon a solely office-based workforce for over three decades. Over a period of 15 days though, the business was able to move 98% of its near 3,000 employees to remote work.

"We’re all going through a trust revolution where the question is no longer ‘how do we manage people?’ but instead ‘how do we support them?'" says Matthew Blake, SThree's chief people officer.

For Blake, support in this time has meant leveraging a range of different tech platforms. Digital planning tools are being used to ensure work is on track; the company has given employees access to Microsoft Teams to help them stay in touch and collaborate on projects; and they have conducted online training to help support employees with new, flexible ways of working.

"We’ve rolled-out online engagement surveys to understand our people’s needs and find out what’s working and what’s not. We also have a wellbeing taskforce and have launched an employee assistance programme, offering counselling services to those who need it. All of this is happening through technology," he adds.

At The Plan Group, an independent insurance broker and SME, it's a similar story. Susie Wilson, head of HR and performance, says that in preparation for the lockdown the group was able to make 100% of its workforce remote, though that wasn't without challenge.

"We were equipped with the necessary IT infrastructure for remote working but in such a sudden upheaval we knew the management and engagement of the workforce would be crucial to the survival of our company. A declining company culture and loss of productivity were among the biggest risks," she says.

Success at The Plan Group has been facilitated through streamlining "everything from HR communications and social activity to workforce management" into a single platform. "Whether working in an office or not, having a central location where everything is stored (including links to other platforms) makes managing a workforce easier," says Wilson.

Furlough adaptations

In light of the pandemic, one of the key assets of workforce management software has been features that enable HR managers to record and monitor employee sickness and those on furlough. For this, many platforms have introduced COVID-19 and furlough specific options.

In NHS organisations, for example, tech company Allocate has opened up its absence tracking function on HealthRoster to provide better visibility of COVID-19 related absence and to support automated centralised daily absence reporting to NHS England.

In another example, SME HR system Breathe has added furlough functionality to record who has been furloughed, store relevant documentation, and provide those employees with access to optional training.

People First is an integrated HR and payroll software. Sharing his perspective, Andy Davies, VP of APAC region at People First, has identified the current climate as an opportunity for HR to accelerate in some of the ways it has already begun to evolve.

"When people started work whether it's five years ago or five months ago, it was an incredibly different pace to what it is today. And if businesses don't take the opportunity to really set out [their guidance] to people, very clearly through a piece of HR tech, and make it an ongoing supportive place for them to go and consume information, then they're really going to trip themselves up," Davies says.

Though the call to digitalise HR processes has been a hot topic for years Davies adds that some businesses have been slow on the uptake. As a result, he is now hearing from customers that COVID-19 "is really pushing HR tech to the fore."

The 'death' of the annual appraisal, in favour of more frequent 'check-ins' and 1-to-1s is another area which has more potential to develop due to lockdown. "What we've seen throughout COVID is this want for people to have more ongoing, in-the-moment, check ins," Davies adds.

In a Twitter poll run by People First in May, only 24% of 5,000 respondents said they already discuss both health and wellbeing and performance and workload with their manager. The remaining 75% said they would like their manager to check in more regularly to discuss their health and wellbeing (35%), performance and workload (10%) or both (31%).

"At the end of this, there's going to be some major changes for both employee and employer. For some employees, it may actually make them want to go away and think about where their future lies in terms of employment - are they staying with this business? How have they been treated during COVID?” Davies says.

Actus is another HR performance management software provider. Lucinda Carney, the company's founder and CEO, echoes Davies' sentiment about the recent increase in demand for informal 1-to-1s.

For her, part of the reasoning behind this has been due to anxieties surrounding productivity. "With many office-based workers switching rapidly to remote working there was an initial concern around productivity and visibility from managers who are used to being able to see their people working," Carney says. 1-to-1 scheduling as a result came into its own "providing a sense of normality," she adds.

More employees remote working has prompted some workplaces to reconsider of how targets are set too.

At Actus, Carney says: "We encouraged managers to review longer term objectives and chunk them down into milestones that individuals could progress weekly and comment against when working remotely. This gave assurance to the manager and employer that progress against key goals was still being made as well as providing clarity and focus to individuals, giving them a sense of control."

Generally speaking though, the current situation seems to favour businesses giving more autonomy to their employees. Davies argues: "You'd think that at this moment in time you'd want to set more goals and be really specific. I actually think that maybe giving people more empowerment and freedom to act is probably the better goal, rather than specifics."

The same is true for Chris Mullen, director of the HCM strategic advisory group at multi-national workforce management firm Kronos. He says: "I believe that if you set clear and realistic expectations with your team, have open and honest conversations, and most of all trust your team to get the job done, then great things can happen."

The group that Mullen leads at Kronos has always worked remotely across multiple locations in the US. Daily video catchups and check-ins that other employers have started to work with are the norm for him and his team.

"However, as a manager, it’s important to keep in mind that just because my teams working style hasn’t changed, other parts of their lives have," he adds.

"Child and elderly care, home schooling, preparing meals, the working situation of their spouses and partners – everything we considered normal has been interrupted."

Here, technology helps make the case for more flexible working opportunities.

Jonathan Richards, CEO of HR software provider Breathe believes that “even the most sceptical of businesses now sees the benefits of a more flexible approach when it comes to working arrangements.”

He adds: “Companies that lead the way in offering flexible working will undoubtedly consider closing or reducing time in the office.”

Going forward, many HR professionals have already denounced the possibility of ever returning to ‘business as usual.’ As one example, Twitter has already announced that its employees will be given the opportunity to work from home ‘forever.’

As remote work has effectively 'proved itself' too, many companies around the world will likely be rethinking the needs of brick-and-mortar premises and how they can make their teams more agile.

"Working from home for this extended period of time has enforced rapid digitisation for many businesses. As the lockdown starts to ease, I believe we will see an acceleration in the adoption of online tools as businesses strive to keep the agility that they have recently glimpsed," adds Richards.

Though technology has its flaws, the power it has given to both employees and their employers in this time can't be ignored.

"Technology has been valuable to support employees but let’s not forget that technology is the vehicle for the support, and we are the drivers," concludes Mullen at Kronos.

"How the managers and employees implement the technology is what makes it valuable and that comes down to trusting employees, being intentional with them, and being inclusive and agile by supporting them as individuals because what works for one will not work for all."

This piece appears in the May/June 2020 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk

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