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HR technology, analytics may help companies through COVID-19

HR technology can play a large role in helping companies navigate through COVID-19, set workforce strategy, and reevaluate HR programs and internal communications.

Hope. It's what we need now with the rapid changes thrust upon us by COVID-19. Hope for our personal lives and hope for our professional lives. Employers realize the pandemic will have short- and long-term implications for every aspect of work -- from on-site health and safety protocols to where and how employees work, to benefits and leave policies. Some businesses face tough choices about their current workforce needs and downsizing operations. Staying positive during this transition is a difficult challenge to say the least.

Businesses need to proceed thoughtfully to minimize any negative impact on employees and to strengthen their operations. HR decisions need to focus on the intersection of organizational and individual needs. Technology plays a critical role, helping executive leadership address many of today's new challenges, including:

  • Setting a strategy for right sizing their workforce
  • Reevaluating HR programs
  • Communicating vital business information
  • Adopting new forms of work and rewards

Making sound decisions requires HR data and analytics tools to stay responsive to the effects of the pandemic on the workforce -- and provide a path forward.

Here are the ways technology can help organizations tackle these challenging times and meet the new normal with a degree of positivity and hope.

Workforce strategy

Critical to workforce planning is leveraging people data -- across compensation, talent, health, engagement and finance -- to fully gauge workforce cost and business impact. The best technology tools provide HR leaders with the ability to map workforce requirements with projected revenue forecasts, and then model new "what if" scenarios relative to how the company can respond to external risks and broader economic factors, all while preserving a strong core business and operations.

Many organizations are working to avoid massive layoffs while staying solvent -- considering furloughs, across-the-board salary reductions, deferred bonuses, early retirement and so on. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused (and is still causing) significant stress for employees and their families. In this environment, the most reassuring message that employers can share is that they are doing everything in their power to sustain jobs, even if this means tough decisions on workforce expense control. Undoubtedly, fear of job loss can create significant anxiety within an already sensitive population dealing with uncertain and stressful life-and-death health issues.

Analytics can also help businesses evaluate the COVID-19 impact on their physical workplace, addressing, for example, the limitations around people working in hot spot locations where there's a higher likelihood of leave requests. Enabling people to either work remotely or to return safely to a shared work environment is an important factor that can affect employee morale.

The final part of any people strategy during these times is to develop or acquire tools to rapidly repatriate employees when it's time to hire again.

Evaluating HR programs

The pandemic will affect both healthcare costs and retirement plan funding for financial projections. To plan effectively for programs that might better fit the organization and its future, it's important for leadership teams to consider all aspects of their people-related costs -- benefits, compensation and infrastructure.

According to modeling projections, healthcare costs will see significant impact as procedures delayed by the pandemic are finally performed. Similarly, retirement decisions affected by the economic dip may significantly alter pre-pandemic staffing projections. The intersection of COVID-19 data and people-related cost data needs to drive program decisions, recruiting plans and communication approaches.

In addition, for every HR program -- from training to wellness programs -- HR professionals should be evaluating the entire interaction and using analytics to determine whether the program contributes to the right outcome for the business and its people. We all realize that measurement is more than just a reporting exercise, it's a step toward achieving ideal results.

And, whether it's expanding or relaxing leave policies, sourcing and implementing new workplace testing protocols, or rethinking medical coverage eligibility, HR needs to identify the programs that drive the best value. Key performance indicators (KPIs) may cover compliance, cost reduction, productivity, retention and the like. HR professionals can then weigh the relative value of their investment (ROI or ROV) on every program they offer.

Communicating throughout the organization

Communication should be considered in three directions:

  • Top-down clarity on organizational plans in light of the pandemic
  • Employee-to-management communication for those looking for informed answers to pressing concerns
  • Employee-to-employee peer communication through the use of webcasting technology to stay connected professionally and personally.

Technology, of course, plays a significant role in all these communications. Remote work supported efficiently by IT can help employees stay productive, and webcast technology allows individuals to stay connected. Microsites and employee feedback mechanisms can ensure that communication flows in all the right directions.

In preparing for a post-COVID-19 world, organizations should also consider using technology to stay closely connected to former employees -- especially if reductions are needed -- to preserve goodwill, and to provide a ready pipeline for qualified workers.

Supporting people in a new work environment

Businesses are dealing with plenty of financial stress given the state of the economy, creating a renewed focus on increasing efficiencies and reducing costs. For operational efficiency, this may mean that physical space won't be critical. Companies could have the benefit of lower workplace overhead as they assemble a diverse set of workers wherever and whenever they need resources.

Technology that allows organizations to operate remotely clearly will be in high demand. This will include innovations for remote learning, project coordination, output-based incentives and project-based work arrangements.

The new normal will likely see an increase in project-based staffing. For instance, a full sales team may no longer be needed. Instead, we may see "connectors" bring one company's services to another buyer. Sales incentive compensation technology, as a result, will likely need to accommodate this move to a "gig" sales environment.

Safely returning en masse to a physical workspace may be the biggest test of technology. Spatial planning, contact tracing, virus testing, temperature scanning and workforce scheduling technology will all play significant roles. The logistic and even cultural implications of implementing these new protocols will be scrutinized.

From an HR perspective, we also need to make sure that chatbots, robotic process automation, targeted messaging and other AI-enabled technology are informed by the data already available to help individuals make smart decisions about the programs available and minimize distractions to help them return to pre-pandemic productivity levels.

Bridge to the future

As employers prepare to weather the current economic downturn, HR technologies will play a critical role within organizations and help executives prepare for the recovery that will follow the current crisis.

The question now is, what will shape the balance between safety and privacy for the tech-enabled workforce? Will a wearable device, for instance, warn of someone approaching who has tested positive for COVID-19? Will it warn others of the wearer's condition? Will it be used by employers to keep people from working? Could those with false-positive test results be unfairly kept from working on a job site? The ethical dilemmas are daunting.

So now, more than ever, HR technology needs to be more than a tool. It needs to -- and can -- provide the means to inspire hope to get us through these times.

About the author
Scot Marcotte is the chief technology officer at Buck, an integrated HR consulting, technology and benefits administration services firm. For 29 years he has helped organizations solve human resources challenges through the strategic use of data, communication and technology. He holds a certified employee benefit specialist (CEBS) designation, has coauthored a book on employee engagement, was named Xerox's innovator of the year and is a regular presenter at global HR conferences.

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