Engaging the workforce with HR tech

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How can you ensure your brand-new tech will be used by employees – and benefit them and the organisation – rather than ignored or even resented?

‘No pain, no gain’ is a fitting affirmation for HR directors to chant under their breath as they prepare to introduce new HR technology.

Because, while no-one can deny the huge opportunity that the seismic advances in tech presents, the challenges that accompany efforts to engage the workforce with new systems are often complex, difficult, expensive and, quite frankly, painful. Just ask any HRD who has introduced the latest whizzy, expensive platform with all the bells and whistles on, only to see it ignored by employees and left gathering dust in a lonely corner of the cloud.

The problem with HR tech is, it seems, largely nothing to do with the tech itself. In fact HRDs are spoilt for choice with new systems that have the potential to make both the function’s and employees’ lives easier. The problem is that employees are poorly engaged with HR tech. To put it bluntly, you implement a new system and often no-one in the organisation wants to know.

But overcoming the so-called pain points of engaging employees is, unquestionably, worth it.

“As a function we are constantly trying to justify our case to be more strategic,” says Sharon Looney, chief HR officer at CoreHR. “But we will never have any value-add as long as we’re being the transactors of data. HR tech can help us be the business partner that coaches and mentors about what the data means.”

So what are the main obstacles to engaging the workforce with HR tech? And how can HR overcome them in order to improve uptake?

Resistance to change

Human beings are creatures of habit. There will always be some resistance to change, no matter how beneficial your chosen HR tech may be.

As chief people officer at Metrobank Danny Harmer says, be mindful that some employees are very comfortable working in the old way, even if it is much less efficient. In her experience, resistance tends to come from the “seasoned leaders” who typically say things like “I know you’ve got this super new system, but I’ll just sit with you and go through these CVs”.

They have had reminders and gentle nudges about using the new tech but claim they haven’t had time to log on, explains Harmer. What they are probably thinking, she says, is “if I go into this system, I won’t be able to use it and I’ll look like an idiot and get stuck”.

“Treat them gently,” she advises. “A bit like teaching someone to swim, you don’t push them in and walk off, do you? You get in with them, you leave them with a rubber ring and you do it together until they’re competent on their own. Believe me, ultimately this will be time well spent.”

Looney suggests ensuring you have “visible support” around the office, such as “change champions” wearing easily identifiable T-shirts. “Don’t pick the happy-clappy employees.

Pick the people that will have an issue and have shown resistance. Bring them into the fold and invite them to be part of the project,” she says, adding that “time tickers” can also be installed in offices to count down until the switchover. Be completely upfront about the fact that change will be hard for some and identify “the bits that some employees might not like, or will have difficulty with”, Looney advises. “Don’t mask the pain points, tell them what you’re going to do to support them.”

The ‘WIIFM’ question

With any new piece of tech, HRDs can expect to repeatedly come up against ‘WIIFM’: the ‘What’s in it for me?’ question. And if you can’t answer it, then you’ve got a problem, says Michael Moran, chief executive of 10Eighty.

A big, expensive, IT-shaped one. Moran believes the reason HR often fails to engage the workforce with its tech is because the function is looking at the problem from a management perspective, rather than an employee perspective.

“Most HR systems are top down. Now think about LinkedIn. Why are, probably, 98% of your employees on it and using it frequently? Because they think it will get them their next job. Employees will use a system if it clearly enhances their career prospects, enhances their job satisfaction and/or makes their life easier,” he explains.

Kirsty Lynagh, chief people officer at Nucleus Financial, agrees: “We, as a society, have no issue engaging personally with tech. So if the issue is HR-tech-specific, then perhaps it’s because it’s not required?

Or if employees need [to be] trained in a system, then you’ve not made it simple enough. Facebook doesn’t require a training session, yet one billion people around the world are successfully using it. We could learn a lot from that.”

An ‘HR thing’

Another major obstacle to engagement is that the tech is often seen as an ‘HR thing’, says Harmer. “If you open the conversation by saying ‘I’ve got a really great HR initiative’, then you can actually see people’s eyes glaze over,” she says.

Robert Hicks, group HR director at Reward Gateway, has an ingenious way of overcoming this problem: he doesn’t pick the system. “I didn’t have a vote,” he explains. “Our system is not a Rob Hicks system. It’s not an HR system, really. It’sa system that delivers business change or creates business value.”

Hicks looks at systems that have the necessary features and functions, then asks people across the business to choose which they’d prefer. “Then you’ve got senior stakeholder buy-in. They are then champions in their areas,” he says.

In Looney’s experience, it’s often the case that HR understands the business problem that the tech will solve, but is not able to articulate it to the business clearly enough.

“They are not able to connect the relevancy of the pain point that HR has with why this is relevant to the rest of the business. That’s why, in many cases, HR has been the transactional function working like hamsters on wheels to get the data out to the business,” she says.

HR must talk in a way the business understands, says Looney, such as by saying: “With this new tech, you won’t have to send me an email every Monday. You can go into it and get your own report.” However, this does then lead to a sub-challenge of ensuring leaders are especially engaged with, and capable of managing, this data.

When selling an HR project, Looney often talks about the rise of “self-service managers” and “direct access”, which promotes the idea of empowerment, rather than of adding to workload.

The HR tech provider should be able to help HR articulate the ROI to the business as well, she adds.

Harmer explains her acid test for immediately getting to the nub of where the organisation may come up against engagement challenges. She says that a key question she always asks suppliers before taking on their products is: what do people most complain about with your system?

“If they don’t know the answer, they shouldn’t be selling the system,” says Harmer. And, if that’s the case, you definitely shouldn’t be buying it in the first place.

This piece appeared in the October 2019 HR Technology Supplement