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Digital employee experience a new focus of HR-IT partnership

Generational change forced companies to repave the on-ramps to the digital workplace and improve the employee experience. COVID-19 changed the emphasis, but the goals are the same.

Greg Beltzer is looking down the barrel of a distinctly 21st-century problem: nurturing the digital employee experience in a time of great generational and technological change without disrupting tried-and-true business models.

As head of technology for the U.S. wealth management unit of Royal Bank of Canada, Beltzer supports a business that has historically thrived on in-person interactions. And with a staff of 2,100 financial advisors whose average age is in the late 50s, that personal attention is beloved.

But everything about how RBC Wealth Management goes about its business has been changing. And it's not just because the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the company's advisors out of the office, off of airplanes and into their homes. It's also because the evolving profile of incoming employees, who are younger and more tech-savvy than ever, has forced the company to look hard at how it works.

And one thing has become abundantly clear: not having the tech tools that new employees expect can be a competitive disadvantage.

"I'm not Google, and I can't match them in the area of digital experience," said Beltzer, who supports 5,000 employees in total. "But that's the bar I'm being compared against."

Dion HinchcliffeDion Hinchcliffe

In fact, workers' perception of the digital workplace tools they're given is the number one factor in getting them to engage effectively with technology, said Dion Hinchcliffe, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research.

Also important is a feeling of autonomy among workers that they can use the tools they feel are best for the job, Hinchcliffe said. This is what led to the rise of shadow IT, which he said has grown from just 10% of IT resources to 55% in the past two decades. The goal is no longer to stop shadow IT, but rather to establish security safeguards around it.

That said, forward-looking organizations are looking to take what they've learned from empowering customers and apply it to create a more organized and optimized digital employee experience, much to the excitement of HR decision-makers and the IT teams that support them.

"They're really scratching their heads and wondering, 'Where do we go?' Hinchcliffe said. "We have this moment -- for once, the focus is on the employee experience."

Application creep led to digital overload

The emergent need for organizations to address the digital employee experience has been an outgrowth of a natural process, Hinchcliffe said. Over time, IT has given employees applications to handle important tasks such as customer management and order processing, but as the number of applications mushroomed, employees found themselves surrounded by technology.

"You have this much more sophisticated, more complex work environment," Hinchcliffe said.

Art MazorArt Mazor

Statistics suggest the moment for action was overdue. Art Mazor, principal and global HR transformation practice leader at Deloitte, said 30% of workers estimate they're losing a day of productivity every week spent combing through irrelevant messages and content. What's more, according to a study Mazor cited, the "Sierra-Cedar 2018-2019 HR Systems Survey," the number of systems that knowledge workers access daily has grown from eight to 11 just in the last three years.

Such unwieldy complexity has left companies with little choice but to guide employees to the right tools, help them get the most out of those tools and, perhaps most importantly, monitor how those tools are used so they can be tweaked when necessary. The ultimate goal is a frictionless digital employee experience.

"With the increased collaboration between humans and technology, there's a massive recognition across business leaders and HR leaders alike that an investment in new skills is required," Mazor said.

DAP jumpstarts digital employee experience

As a result, the digital employee experience has become a natural offshoot of digital transformation efforts. RBC Wealth Management just happens to be one of the companies that's been knee-deep in that process, having spent the past two years overhauling the technology its advisors and clients use.

Beltzer said it's been an exciting transition for the company that has also asked a lot of advisors who'd been using legacy technology for decades and were comfortable with it. As a result, he's also turned to a digital adoption platform (DAP) called WalkMe to help get employees acclimated.

"I knew that we needed to be proactive around organizational change management, and we had to review our approach to training," Beltzer said. "We needed more than the traditional approaches, and we needed actual technology to help with that transition."

While RBC Wealth Management was slowly getting used to the new tools and advisors continued with their in-person emphasis, COVID-19 arrived and turned the company's model on its head. Suddenly, instead of nearly every advisor being on the road and meeting with clients, they were all suddenly working remotely and having to navigate the world of virtual meetings.

Make no mistake, though: Beltzer considers the company lucky to have done so much digital transformation work before the pandemic hit. It essentially turned what had been a slow-and-steady adoption curve into a fire drill of sorts -- not just for the advisors and other staff, but for the trainers who normally taught them in person.

"It wasn't about scrambling to try to put technology in place behind an eight ball. It was more, how do we get employees trained?" Beltzer said. "We were forced to use those tools and be a little more creative about how we did that."

The WalkMe platform proved to be critical, and the company started squeezing more out of it. It hired a person to create additional content in the form of scenarios and walk-throughs, such as how to initiate an email campaign. Beltzer said WalkMe literally does what its name implies: Walks users through applications, using arrows to point at where to click.

The company also started conducting regular training webinars on topics such as how to set up a video conference, create a virtual wealth plan using the internal planning tool or get a client signed up for online access.

"It was actually more efficient for the trainer, instead of traveling to branches. They could do three or four of those a day and still have a life," Beltzer said. "I'm hoping it's a cultural change."

While Beltzer has no idea what to expect in a world that seems to change drastically every day, he knows a good thing when he sees it. And whether it was planned or not, the changes he's seeing are resulting in more -- and better -- use of the digital tools he's put in place. And the more RBC Wealth Management's clients use them, the more value his employees will see in them.

"At the end of the day, client behavior will define advisor behavior," Beltzer said.

Along those lines, WalkMe also has given Beltzer powerful tracking tools. He knows what people are clicking on and when they're struggling with an application. If one scenario requires an abnormal amount of clicks, it probably means something needs to be tweaked.

Having a DAP behind the employee experience has supercharged a digital onboarding tool in development that was fast-tracked when COVID-19 hit. Despite the rush to launch it, the tool -- which is the first RBC Wealth Management has rolled out 100% digitally -- is already having a big impact by streamlining both the advisors' and clients' experiences.

WalkMe will figure prominently again in September, when the company introduces its first digital scheduling tool. But Beltzer knows that he risks introducing digital fatigue if he throws too much at his employees, and that the business model he supports can never be all digital. It's all about striking the right balance.

What's most important is that the company has plenty of evidence that it's on the right track.

"Something is working in a very tumultuous time," he said. "It's one thing to say you're going to do it. We've done it now. We've shown it can be successful. Let's continue."

Expert advice for improving digital employee experience

Based on suggestions from the experts, here are eight tips that will increase the odds of success for a digital employee experience effort.

  1. Give employees the right tools and allow them to pick those tools where appropriate. Providing the wrong tools or curtailing employees' autonomy are likely to backfire.
  2. Excise digital friction wherever you find it. Identify the places where employees must exert unnecessary effort when working with technology or data.
  3. Balance technology with people and processes. It's an age-old IT truism, but digital employee experience efforts that focus exclusively on the digital can only accomplish so much.
  4. Consider a digital adoption platform to smooth the process. In-person training and online tutorials can't keep up with the pace of work. DAPs embed the learning process in each tool.
  5. Get on top of change management and stakeholder expectations. A common pitfall of digital employee experience efforts is companies putting in a DAP and thinking that's all they have to do. Communication and management of expectations are essential to success.
  6. Develop a culture of enablement in IT and of digital dexterity in the larger employee population. One way is to create new roles, such as enablement agents and team champions.
  7. Establish adoption metrics. Identify areas where workers need help, set a baseline and monitor how far your company is able to move the needle.
  8. Finally, measure success. There are three ways to do this: observing and tracking utilization rates, assessing skill levels and surveying employees about digital attitudes and aptitudes. It's best to focus on causative impacts that can be verified and put less stock in ones that only show correlation.

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