The pandemic affected Gavin Fox in a way familiar to many: he was made redundant. It happened in April and he had to adapt. “I was at home but my wife was working full-time. She is a frontline worker, so she was out of the house. It relieved a lot of the stress in me not having work,” he said. Having been in human resources (HR) technology for years, the particular circumstances created by the pandemic meant Fox was always going to be in demand, however. He kept busy. On top of his household duties, he converted the Dublin Tech Talks events series he runs into a podcast series and this gave him an insight into the stresses different businesses were facing as the country went on lockdown. It also meant he was well aware of the challenges at hand when he returned to work a few months ago in a new role as director at Martinson Mayer, the technology recruitment firm. “A lot of individuals were set up to work remotely anyway but I found there were some businesses that were still on desktops and that was crazy to even hear. They didn’t have access to laptops and those had to be purchased,” he said. Since then he has witnessed “a forced digital transformation” – a buzz term that essentially means relying more on digital processes and which has now become a necessity. “It happened overnight for a lot of businesses and the fear of people working remote disappeared very quickly,” he said. The shift to home working has involved a learning process for many businesses. And trying to return to the office has too. With technology playing a key role, there are HR challenges for businesses trying to keep things as “normal” as possible.
Fox recently spoke at a roundtable event with Crystel Rynne, head of product marketing at HR Locker, the HR software firm, and Mark Cockerill, vice president of legal at ServiceNow, an American software company. The profile of Rynne’s business has changed dramatically in recent months. Outside of those in HR roles, its product had been largely a tool people only used to book time off. Now it plays a key role in keeping everyone connected, providing an overview of who is “in” and who is not for everyone. That has been a key aspect for the increased prominence of HR Locker but it’s not where Rynne sees the biggest impact. “Where we’ve been able to help the most is with people who are getting back to the workplace,” she said. “There are things that they have to do to make that work. They need to book the places in the office because maybe they can only have ten people there at any stage. Staff also need to be aware of new health and safety measures. “It’s a lot easier to manage on some kind of digital platform rather than emailing.”
The HR tech sector itself has needed to adapt and Cockerill has felt this directly. His business continued to hire through the crisis while also providing services to its clients. “Digital transformation hasn’t become a nice-to-have, it’s become essential. It’s affecting every aspect, even with the HR journey,” he said. “When we were getting people set up to work from home, how are we making sure all of the equipment is together, how are we making sure they’ve got the connectivity?” he said. “A lot of that is through digital journeys. It comes through workflows, through tracking and tracing, and having an automated system. A systematic platform to do that makes a big difference.” The hiring process for Cockerill has essentially involved practising what he preaches to his own customers. “People are doing Zoom calls with various different people, and in our case sometimes around the world, and they’re never physically meeting anyone. They’re never physically seeing the office,” he said. “You’ve got a job as a company to sell your culture and give people a sense of you as an organisation through a Zoom call and that’s hard. It’s challenging for a business and it’s challenging for the candidates. All you can do, as an employer, is make things as consistent and coherent and as straightforward as possible.” Human aspect While automating processes has aided with keeping people connected and maintaining business efficiency, Cockerill is mindful of the cold aspects that come with such a sudden switch for businesses. A lot of people have lost their jobs in the past six months and it’s easy to lose sight of the human aspect when you are celebrating the help all these new digital toys provide. Even when it’s not a redundancy, when someone leaves because they found a new opportunity, Cockerill is wary of companies being too laissez-faire with automated processes. His solution is simple: make the process the same as it was before the pandemic. The channel is different, the event may occur remotely, but the tech being used by companies can ensure the act remains as close to normal as it gets. “Everything has to happen the same way,” Cockerill said. “You still have to have the due disconnection of systems. You still have to have the due disconnection of equipment, the resolution of their payments and stuff like that,” he said. “Having some technology platform and system to manage all of that, to make sure it’s seamless, to make sure it works, is essential.”
For those still working, the common refrain amongst the HR tech community is that people are overdoing it. Rynne said that 60 to 70-hour weeks are unsustainable but that staff can slip into such approaches without thinking while working remotely. “When people were coming to the office, we were so focused on ‘presenteeism’, that people are sitting in their chairs. Now you’re not focusing on the presenteeism that people are logged in, you’re focusing on the productivity of the person, so are they actually getting their job done?” she said. “If people are at home – and again we’re in people’s lives – if somebody has got to clock off for ten minutes because they’ve got to bring their kid somewhere or something like that, but they’re still getting their job done, it’s not a problem or it shouldn’t be a problem because at the end of the day their productivity is the measure.”
Understanding this different work environment helps, but Fox believes a full attitude adjustment is necessary from leadership. In his mind, this forced digital transformation is an opportunity to make staff feel more valued than ever. “If you can’t empower them by giving them the responsibility to deliver, you’re going to lose them because some other company will say they can do that,” he said. “Gone are the days of ‘I love my company because I get free food, I get to play on a pool table, or whatever’ – that’s gone.” The companies that come out of this crisis trusting and empowering their employees have one real challenge left in Fox’s eyes. They need to get the management balance right. Too much interaction and an employee’s schedule gets clogged up even if it is well-intentioned and encouraging. Too little and they lose connection to the mothership. Fox’s approach is simple: have a plan and stick to it. The tools are there, you just have to use them the right way. “We use Slack for conversations and collaboration, we use Google Meet for our morning catch-up, and we have an email for documents. That’s the way we work,” he said. “The main thing that we forget about is we can always pick up the phone to each other and just have a conversation if it’s that urgent – which for managers and leaders, it’s a hard one because you don’t want to be too intrusive on somebody’s day. “The basic principles of how you manage somebody nine-to-five or nine-tonine haven’t changed. You just have to actually be concerned firstly about the person doing the job. Secondly, it’s about the outcomes. “Then thirdly, am I doing the best for my employees? If you can answer all of them, things haven’t changed.”