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Boese: The Goldman Sachs mess reveals gaps in HR tech

Steve Boese, HR Tech Conference chair
Steve Boese
Steve Boese is HRE's Inside HR Tech columnist and chair of HRE’s HR Technology Conference®. He also writes a blog and hosts the HR Happy Hour Show, a radio program and podcast.

You likely have seen the recent news about a group of first-year associates at the investment bank Goldman Sachs that circulated a rogue employee pulse survey among themselves and then shared the (not-so-positive) results with management. Among the findings, these junior associates reported working an average of 98 hours per week since the beginning of the year and sleeping an average of only five hours per night. All survey respondents also stated that their work hours had hurt their relationships with family and friends.

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Reaction to this news from one of the largest, most successful and well-known financial services companies in the world seemed to diverge to two extremes. On one side were those with little, if any, sympathy for the employees. After all, the arguments went, they are well-paid professionals (some reports show their average compensation at about $125,000 annually), and the company culture at Goldman Sachs–and most firms of its kind–is understood from the outset.

On the other side were those who were more sympathetic toward the staffers, noting that working nearly 100 hours per week is inhumane, sleeping only five hours per night is unhealthy and, when you consider the hours being worked, the compensation isn’t all that high. It amounts to about $51,000 a year based on the hourly equivalent rate applied to a standard 40-hour workweek. Still a decent salary, but certainly not excessive.

Regardless of your opinion on this specific situation, the story pushed work/life balance back to the front page once again.

Last month in this column, I discussed the influence of HR and workplace technology on employee stress, anxiety and wellbeing. While I did not specifically call it out last month, it is clear that work/life balance is a fundamental component of employee wellbeing. So, after reading the Goldman Sachs coverage, I started to think about how–or really if–existing HR technology provides HR leaders with the tools they need to understand, monitor, influence and improve employee work/life balance.

And I determined that overall this is a gap, or possibly a missed opportunity, in HR tech.

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Let’s take a look at the primary areas where HR tech typically intersects with work/life balance and speculate on if or how these could have helped at Goldman Sachs (or similar organizations).

See also: 7 big lessons from Spring HR Tech

Understanding How Employees Feel

This is probably the most straightforward application for HR tech to aid HR leaders in this area. Simply asking employees how they feel and about their experiences using check-ins, pulse surveys or even more expansive engagement surveys can all be useful to better understand work/life balance issues. The market for these types of tools is pretty mature and robust, including such providers as Culture Amp, Reflektive, Lattice and several others. But these types of tools are effective only if they are used–and used properly. At Goldman Sachs, junior staff members had to take it upon themselves to launch their own work/life balance pulse survey. So I think we can assume Goldman either was not using this kind of HR tech tool or was not using it in a way that was adequately surfacing these issues.

Time, Attendance, Scheduling and Payroll

As you well know, the entire HR tech industry rests on the foundation of payroll and time and attendance technologies. ADP, UKG, Paychex, Paycom, SAP, Oracle and scores more can provide these capabilities. All organizations have them (at least payroll), and most, if not all, provide adequate reporting and analysis to allow HR leaders to understand trends indicating potential work/life balance problems. For instance, employees working more hours than normal could indicate possible work/life balance issues or could indicate normal business fluctuations or changes in demand. The data itself probably doesn’t answer that question. Spikes in overtime hours and pay also might indicate the organization is working some employees too much. Or those spikes might come because these employees are eager to take the extra hours and pay. Again, hard to say just from a chart of overtime trends.

So, let’s look back at our Goldman Sachs example from this viewpoint. Could their time, attendance, scheduling or payroll systems have raised any early warning signals? I think the answer is maybe. These jobs are almost certainly exempt, so Goldman would not need to track their work hours to calculate pay. But, if these associates are required to track their time, whether it is billable or not, to specific projects and/or clients, then Goldman would have been able to run simple reports showing the number of hours being logged each week, and perhaps used that data to take some preemptive actions. And it seems likely that most existing HR tech or project management tech solutions would have provided much more than raw data.

Productivity, Collaboration and Communication

This is the last broad area of HR technology, or more accurately, workplace technology to consider, and these are the kind of technologies typically cited in reports from Goldman Sachs and other employers seeing increases in work hours and declines in work/life balance satisfaction. These tools are largely relegated to knowledge or “desk” workers, like the associates at Goldman. They’re the now ubiquitous communication platforms like Slack or Microsoft Teams, video conferencing tools like Zoom or WebEx, and, of course, still likely the single most-used piece of technology in the organization, email. Details vary from organization to organization, but most of the stories boil down to excessive use of video conferencing, “chat” messages flying fast and furious and extending late into the evening and the weekends, and a never-ending stream of email–so much email. Add into this mix the fact that, for many knowledge workers, all of these tools, and their associated and incessant notifications, are being pushed not just to computers, but to employee smartphones–meaning work never is far away.

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The data that these systems capture–message volume, traffic patterns, response times, collaboration pods and networks, sentiment data from chat and email text content, and, most importantly, date and time stamps of all of the above–is the raw workplace data that speaks most directly to the work/life balance issue. This is where we find the data on 10 p.m. Zoom meetings, chat messages being sent at 7 a.m. Saturdays and emails pinging back and forth 24/7 in some cases. Being able to access, analyze, interpret and draw conclusions from this broad data set provides HR and the organization with the best opportunity to identify and flag potential problems as they begin to percolate, or at least before they escalate as at Goldman.

However, the core problem is that these technologies, and the workforce insights they offer, are not usually within HR’s purview. These are classic tools provided by, provisioned for and administered through IT. So, data around usage, trends and even potential misuse, are largely invisible to HR leaders. And thoughts of making this data, which almost always includes some personal information on employees, more visible to IT or HR, are met with a chorus of “privacy” arguments.

But this is the data–not traditional HR data–that has the clues about what is actually happening in the organization as it happens. Pulse surveys, unless you administer them incredibly frequently, are backward-looking. So are time, attendance and payroll reports. The only data that lives in real-time comes from the tools that people use to communicate with each other. Understanding this data could have helped Goldman’s HR and business leaders see problems developing before they had to come to light via a user-generated survey.

I think there’s an opportunity here for HR and HR technology leaders to begin the conversations with their internal IT colleagues, as well as their traditional HR technology providers, about what information and data–and in what format–can proactively illuminate issues like the work/life ones at Goldman. Because while I think the email, Zoom and chat data is incredibly telling, combining that with time, attendance, sick days, and survey and sentiment data would present an even more compelling picture. This kind of capability may not yet exist in the HR tech market, but I bet it could (and should) be on the roadmap of solution providers today.

The Goldman case is an extreme one, but it does offer some useful lessons. Whatever issues with work/life, stress or burnout may be happening in your organization, wouldn’t it be better to have an early warning rather than to find out via a PowerPoint presentation from your employees?