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COVID-19 Reset & Recovery: A Look into Digital HR Technology & Operations

As organizations plan for and mold their “new normal,” most agree it will look different from the pre-COVID-19 “normal.” Many leaders in the HR Technology & Operations (T&O) space are focusing on ensuring digital capabilities are both available and in line with the evolving demands and expectations of the workforce. To best help organizations prepare and grow in this new digital world of remote work, we outline four areas of high impact for organizations and their employees, along with numerous recommendations for HR T&O professionals.

1. Hiring and Onboarding

Among the most conspicuous effects of COVID-19 has been the loss of talent, with unemployment skyrocketing to numbers that rival those of the Great Depression.1 Further, nearly 40 percent of companies have instituted hiring freezes or have reduced hiring.2 The effects reach beyond full-time employment, too. Google has rescinded job offers to several thousand contractors and temporary workers, citing an advertising slump due to COVID-19.3 Our own research corroborates these findings, with 65 percent of the 152 companies we surveyed in April restricting hiring and 32 percent freezing hiring altogether in response to COVID-19.4 

If and when the economy begins to recover and hiring begins to increase, we anticipate an uptick in a few HR T&O areas.

Remote interviews Members of The Conference Board HR T&O Institute expect a rapid influx of candidates applying for jobs. Companies in industry sectors like technology, telecommunications, and health care are, not surprisingly, experiencing a surge in hiring due to the virus.5 According to research by Jobvite, 84 percent of recruiters are currently adapting their hiring processes to facilitate remote exchanges.6 Because of the constraints in conducting physical interviews with candidates during COVID-19, one way organizations are keeping pace is with remote interview software. A video interview can closely mimic an in-person experience while maintaining safety. Organizations can scale the number of interviews they conduct by allowing candidates to record their answers without the interviewer present, if desired. AI-powered platforms can even take the lead on the interview process, with platforms like Robot Vera and Tengai proactively calling and interviewing candidates based on a preset list of questions. Interview software can also use AI and machine learning to analyze and assess interview responses. Organizations can leverage technology for a competitive edge in their search for talent.7

Virtual onboarding Some organizations with a largely distributed remote workforce were already well situated to pivot to virtual onboarding. Amazon, for example, had already invested before the pandemic in technology that allowed it to onboard 1,700 new hires on one particular day.8 Other digital natives have also established onboarding processes that organizations new to HR virtual technology may find helpful. Social media firm Buffer has been fully virtual since 2015. Its new hires move through stages of “buddies,” who are trained and selected prior to the onboarding process, to help acclimate and acculturate them.9 The Role Buddy, Culture Buddy, and Mastermind Buddy work together to provide a holistic new employee experience, signaling that remote onboarding is successful when distributed across multiple people with clearly defined roles. New York University and Microsoft also use “buddies” as part of their onboarding program and find that buddies help provide context, boost productivity, and improve new employee satisfaction.10

Computer hardware As the number of employees working from home increases, so does the challenge of providing remote working equipment such as computers, laptops, and phones. Google informed employees that recent shortages in the computer hardware supply chain could result in delayed onboarding of new hires.11 Other organizations have considered stockpiling supplies of computer equipment in case of future shortages. Similarly, organizations are being forced to prioritize who gets new equipment, such as full-time employees over temporary and contract workers, and those with broken, lost, or stolen equipment over those due for an upgrade.

2. Connecting to and Attending Work

As employees continue to work remotely, the way they work and when is also shifting. In some cases, these newfound changes have been welcome, while in other scenarios they have emerged from necessity.

VPN One unexpected challenge due to COVID-19 has been extending an organization’s capacity to support more computer network traffic via its virtual private network (VPN), which enables workers to securely access company networks and information. A firm’s VPN is typically built to support 20 to 30 percent of staff working remotely at any given time, but under current circumstances that has increased to 80 to 100 percent.12 This has caused some financial services organizations to institute “blackout” hours to reduce the percentage of workers simultaneously logged into the VPN. One large US-based bank required its US-based workers to start working after 12:00 p.m. (EDT), when fewer employees in Europe and Asia would be online.

Time and attendance Fashion retailer ASOS and beverage company Monster Energy use absence management software e-days to flag employees who are self-isolating due to illness. The software triggers an alert to managers to encourage those who may have come in contact with the employee to isolate as well.13 As most employees now work from home and monitoring well-being is a pressing challenge, the goal of systems like e-days is to give employees the right help at the right time. Vendors such as Kronos, Ultimate Software, and Oracle offer similar services.14

Security for virtual meetings While Zoom is the latest product to become a verb,15 there have been growing concerns about its and its competitors’ security for sharing sensitive information. While Zoom has since taken steps to alleviate the concerns, many organizations are adopting recommendations on appropriate virtual meeting platforms to use and avoid. In a discussion with The Conference Board HR Ops Councils, numerous organizations cited flexibility in using platforms like Zoom for connecting externally with others, while having more stringent requirements for official company business. Some organizations have banned certain platforms on internal networks to ensure compliance.

3. Collaboration, Productivity, and Learning

Everyday collaboration has changed since the pandemic, altering the way we work as we move from serendipitous conversations at the office to seemingly more structured, task-driven, process-oriented interactions. Organizations will have to rethink how they connect employees, facilitate work, and enable professional development. HR T&O can play an active role in facilitating those conversations.

Asynchronous conversations One affordance of digital communications is the ability to interact in multiple ways. The diminishing amount of real-time communication happening during COVID-19 has enabled platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams to become increasingly popular alternatives to email. As Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield put it, “You can’t rely on email in this kind of chaos.”16 Asynchronous digital tools also empower employees to be more comfortable with remote work without fear of being excluded from important conversations. Numerous teams in organizations have started “channels” in digital tools like Slack and Teams, where team members can align on daily plans, discuss issues, and keep one another updated.17

Making working remotely work For many, remote work is new, and staying productive away from the office can be daunting. Along with the usual suspects of Zoom and Microsoft Teams, other organizations have stepped up to fill the virtual work need. For example, Facebook has introduced Workplace, a corporate-friendly version of its platform designed for business collaboration. Recognizing the nontechnical challenges of working remotely, the company has also published resources for workers.18 Some organizations are looking toward platforms that provide live streaming services and bots to gather employee feedback to better support company wide communications.19 Other organizations rely on platforms like Slack and Google Hangouts to create their virtual office.

Peer-to-peer learning Pandemic or not,organizations can’t afford to stop learning and building capability. IBM’s investment in online learning and collaboration tools allows employees to help each other as well as complete their own work.20 Instead of relying on top-down directives from executives and leaders, IBM’s internal tools enable employees to create and share content on topics from technical support to child care.21 An increase in individuals sharing expertise has opened up a “learning marketplace” concept, shifting from the organization as the central curator and knowledge center to more decentralized distribution and facilitation of learning.22

4. Capturing Data with Listening Technologies

Employees are looking to have a two-way dialogue with their employers. They want to serve a higher purpose beyond drawing a salary. And their voices are starting to be heard.

Employee engagement Because of COVID-19, companies are taking an increased interest in treating their employees well, with employee engagement being a top priority for companies, right after immediate security and health concerns.23 Many companies believe that employee engagement is rising, employee experience is better, and culture has improved since the pandemic.24 As organizations become more flexible in enabling their workforce to select the equipment they need to effectively do their work from home, they are asking for employee feedback through a variety of tools such as pulse surveys and more frequent employee check-ins. Qualtrics uses a tool to “meet employees in the moment,” asking for feedback at a specific point in time on an intranet page to better understand how useful that information is and how to improve it.25

Automating change and transformation Asking for feedback is one thing, doing something about it is another. Organizations often undergo transformation initiatives yet lack real data on whether they have succeeded or failed and what caused the outcome. During COVID-19, organizations are leveraging platforms like LiiRN, Culture Amp, and TINYpulse to get a real-time look into their organization, identify areas where they can get the greatest adoption, and build interventions that address areas most aligned with their priorities.26 The resulting dynamic feedback loop drives bottom-up behavior change through crowdsourced ideas while staying aligned to strategic initiatives.

Chatbots With the massive influx of questions surrounding COVID-19 implications, HR T&O is increasingly deploying chatbots to address the volume effectively and accurately.27 Some solutions integrate current topics into existing ones, while others focus specifically on COVID-19 queries.28 Not only have organizations found the chatbots to be helpful, but they get insight into the types of questions employees are asking and can use those data to inform future interventions.

Looking Forward

In the undoubtedly new work environment we will return to, HR T&O plays a critical role in enabling organizations and their employees to leverage technology to more quickly recover and, perhaps in some areas, improve how work gets done.

Endnotes

  1. The Employment Situation—June 2020,” Bureau of Labor Statistics (press release), July 2, 2020.
  2. Sheryl Estrada, “Hiring Freezes Most Common Cost Control amid COVID-19 Pandemic,” HR Drive, April 1, 2020.
  3. Daisuke Wakabayashi, “Google Rescinds Offers to Thousands of Contract Workers,” New York Times, May 29, 2020.
  4. Frank Steemers et al., From Immediate Responses to Planning for the Reimagined Workplace, The Conference Board, June 2020.
  5. Scott Steinberg, “Coronavirus Hiring: How Recruiters Are Selecting and Interviewing Job Candidates during the Pandemic,” CNBC, May 24, 2020.
  6. How Recruiters Are Adapting to a World of Remote Working,” Jobvite, April 2020.
  7. Robin Erickson and Amy Ye, Artificial Intelligence for Talent Acquisition, The Conference Board, January 2020.
  8. How Companies and Employees Can Make Their Best Coronavirus Comeback,” World Economic Forum, April 28, 2020.
  9. Tat Bellamy Walker, “'Virtual Buddies' Can Help Companies On-board New Hires When Working Remotely,” Business Insider, April 24, 2020.
  10. New Employee Onboarding: Buddy Guidelines,” New York University; Dawn Klinghoffer, Candice Young, and Dave Haspas, “Every New Employee Needs an Onboarding ‘Buddy,’” Harvard Business Review, June 6, 2019.
  11. Jennifer Elias, “Google Has Been Scrambling to Find Enough Laptops for New Employees as Staff Works from Home,” CNBC, May 13, 2020.
  12. Josephine Gallagher, “Banks Grapple with VPN Capacity amid COVID-Induced Network Strain,” WatersTechnology, May 1, 2020.
  13. ET Bureau, “Employers Adopt New Tech to Help Reduce Impact of COVID-19 on Workforce,” Enterprise Talk, April 1, 2020.
  14. Global Absence Management Software Market Report 2020, Orbis Research.
  15. Larry Dignan, “Zoom's Torrid 90-day Sprint: Security, Increased Competition, and Becoming a Verb,” ZDNet, May 26, 2020.
  16. Charles Fishman, “‘We Were Made for This’: How Slack Became King of the Remote-Work World,” Fast Company, April 23, 2020.
  17. Pamela Seaton, “Workato’s Response to COVID-19: Why Digital Tools Are Important,” Workato, April 21, 2020.
  18. Working Remotely: How We Make It Work,” Facebook, 2020.
  19. Tom Starner, “COVID-19 Tech Tools Workplace from Facebook,” Human Resource Executive, April 29, 2020.
  20. Your Learning,” IBM.
  21. Andrew R. McIlvaine, “Using HR Tech to Meet the Challenges of COVID-19,” Human Resource Executive, April 16, 2020.
  22. Gloria Tam, “Reimagining Workplace Learning during COVID-19,” Chief Learning Officer, March 30, 2020.
  23. Steemers et al., From Immediate Responses.
  24. Josh Bersin, “COVID-19 May Be the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Employee Engagement,” Josh Bersin, April 25, 2020.
  25. Daniel Saunders, “3 Examples of Innovative Employee Listening,” Qualtrics, August 15, 2019.
  26. Anisa Purbasari Horton, “These Two Hidden Issues Might Be Poisoning Your Work Culture,” Fast Company, November 1, 2017.
  27. COVID-19: A Chatbot to Answer Your Staff’s Questions?” The Blog of Business & Decision, April 2, 2020.
  28. Watson COVID-19 Response,” IBM.
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Nabeel Ahmad, EdD

Senior Researcher
The Conference Board

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Amy Lui Abel, PhD

Vice President, Human Capital Research
The Conference Board


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