Here are 9 key lessons from HR Tech

Industry leaders spent the week exploring the challenges of 2020 and the opportunities to come.
By: | October 30, 2020 • 10 min read

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With COVID-19 prompting HRE’s annual HR Technology Conference & Exposition® to go virtual for the first time ever, it’s no surprise that the pandemic—and how it’s changing all aspects of the workplace—was the most popular topic of conversation during the four-day event. Industry experts, employers and analysts all agreed the global crisis has rapidly changed the market, the HR profession and employee expectations—and there’s no turning back.

“It’s time to reshape everything we know. Wipe the slate clean,” Jason Averbook, industry analyst and CEO and co-founder of Leapgen, said during one of the conference’s nine keynote sessions. “Sunset what no longer works and write a new strategy for what we call the now of work.”

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Aside from COVID-19, other popular topics at the conference—which drew a community of 20,000 people—included diversity and inclusion, learning and development, wellbeing and more.

Here are some of the biggest takeaways from the event.

COVID-19 is changing the HR tech market. No surprise here: COVID-19 has impacted nearly every facet of the workplace—and HR technology is no exception. From enabling massive remote work and maintaining culture virtually to hiring and onboarding remotely and safely managing a return-to-the workplace, digital strategies—and the overall importance of technology—has exploded because of the pandemic.

Related: Read all of our HR Tech Conference coverage here.

“COVID-19 accelerated companies’ digital communications strategies by an average of six years,” Averbook said, “while 97% of enterprise decision-makers believe the pandemic sped up their company’s digital transformation. It is the digital accelerator of the decade, and digital communication is the new lifeblood of business. If we’re not digital, we’re dying.”

HR technology is quickly responding to COVID and other changes, said industry analyst Josh Bersin. In particular, 2021 will see companies—and, in turn, HR tech tools—pivoting to a focus on integrating work and life, he said.

What’s more, HR leaders and HR technology vendors see the pandemic as fuel for digital transformations, innovation and other changes that have long been in the works. All 16 winners of HRE’s Top HR Products awards, for instance, delivered products attuned to the needs magnified by COVID.

Remote work is here to stay. COVID-19 prompted a massive shift to remote work, with the vast majority of employers moving their workers home when the pandemic began. Industry insiders say with the experiment going well, we largely won’t be going back to a full in-office experience even post-pandemic. “Remote work is a long-term investment, and it’s going to be a talent magnet in the coming years,” said Elizabeth Supinski, director of data science and research products at the Society for Human Resource Management. “Organizations that were hostile toward remote work—or at least skeptical—have really decided to take another look. Around the world, I expect flexible work policies to become much more important to attracting and retaining talent.”

Organizations will also embrace a hybrid workforce of remote and in-office employees, several speakers said.

So, what does a new remote—or hybrid—workforce mean for HR tech? Simply put, employers will be investing in tech to support remote work, said Stacey Harris, chief research officer at Sapient Insights Group. In her organization’s research, Harris noted that remote work was the top area of tech investment when it comes to talent management.

Other experts pointed to a continuing increase in collaboration and distance work technologies. “I think collaboration tools will continue to increase in their importance as we stay in a virtual or hybrid type of operating environment,” Ken Solon, executive vice president, chief information officer and head of digital at Lincoln Financial Group, noted during HR Tech’s final keynote with Lincoln’s Chief People, Place and Brand Officer Lisa Buckingham. “They need to bring teams together in an innovative, decision-making perspective in a virtual environment.”

Addressing employee concerns is key. The pandemic has spurred a host of challenges for employees: mental health anguish, exacerbated caregiving and family responsibilities, and financial and economic concerns, among others.

“You can see and hear the burnout everywhere you go,” said HR thought leader John Sumser during a keynote on the final day of the conference. “We’ve lost all sense of proper boundaries between life and work … and maybe that’s something we’re going to give up, but it’s gone, and we need to figure out what to do with it. Where we are now is neither new, nor normal nor sustainable.”

Experts at the conference agreed that technology solutions that focus on employee wellbeing will likely be a big area of growth in the market.

“The big theme,” Bersin said, “is figuring out how to reduce stress, anxiety, financial concerns, uncertainty and concerns about productivity when people are working under very, very ambiguous conditions.”

The talent marketplace space is thriving. Over the last several years, companies have been working to improve internal talent mobility. But now, especially driven by a pandemic that’s shifting workplace priorities and making companies restructure at lightning-fast speed, the interest is exploding in both the concept of talent mobility and in tools to do it well.

“We’ve seen an acceleration of interest in the talent marketplace concept and organizations adapting to this as quickly as possible,” Sona Manzo, managing director at consulting firm Deloitte, said during the event. “Technology-enabled platforms, which are typically powered by AI these days, are empowering our employees to really understand what those opportunities are and connecting the skills and interests they have to the right opportunities.”

Early adopters of talent marketplaces were able to quickly adjust labor to meet rapidly changing needs due to COVID. Delta, for instance, despite an immediate external hiring freeze, relied on innovative tech from AI-driven talent management platform Avature to address talent gaps and surpluses; for instance, pilots and flight attendants weren’t busy but the reservations department was inundated. Myria Peek, Delta’s manager of talent acquisition technology, process and analytics, said during a session that the company created a page within the Avature platform for hiring leaders to identify talent needs, and for employees to express interest in what Delta termed “special assignments,” or transfers from their typical role to help close gaps.

Bersin said the talent management space is among the most competitive corners of the market. New tools are tapping analytics. and many are focused on training to drive fairness, diversity and inclusion. Still other solutions are designed to help employers gauge and listen to the voices of their workers, he said.

Reskilling should become a bigger focus. Before the pandemic, there was already some urgency around reskilling because many employees knew technology was changing and their jobs were going to change along with it, said Adrianna Gregory, senior editor at consulting firm Oxford Economics. But in response to COVID-19, “reskilling opportunities are going to be more important than ever. That’s because a number of employers that had to lay off employees are now rehiring and are looking for workers with new, varied skills. Additionally, employers that aren’t in a place to rehire are wise to upskill and retrain remaining employees to meet their current needs.

“Employers need to be making sure there’s a chance for development for everyone in the workforce.” – Adrianna Gregory

“Employers need to be making sure there’s a chance for development for everyone in the workforce. [They] need make sure [they’re] taking care of their workforce,” Gregory said. “[We need to] not lose sight of employee development and other broader goals.”

In another session, Tanushree Guha, workforce analytics executive at Accenture, agreed that reskilling will become a bigger initiative for employers. “The world as we know it has changed almost overnight, and reskilling workforces to be relevant in the new world is absolutely essential across all industries.”

Think ethically about going back to work. With the pandemic still in full swing, do we need to hurry employees back to the office? Marcus Buckingham, author and business consultant, doesn’t think so. “We don’t need to rush our employees back to normal because we’re trying to make them feel better,” he said. “It won’t.”

Similarly, Sumser urged organizations and HR leaders to think “ethically” about return to work and said smart organizations need to prioritize safety, health and development. Organizations and HR leaders should continuously question assumptions and ask themselves what is best for their employees’ health and safety when deciding when and if workers should come back to the office, how they can best keep employees safe, and how much information they should give employees about the risks of coming back into the office during a pandemic.

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Sumser recommended that all HR departments and their vendors create an operational ethics function so that decisions can be evaluated with a group of people to make sure everyone is in alignment about what they’re doing and what they are trying to accomplish.

“I think ethics is [part of] a new way of deciding,” Sumser said, noting that considering ethics also allows for making decisions that aren’t permanent. “We want to keep things evolving because we’re learning, and we still don’t know a lot about what’s going on.”

The good news, though, is there is plenty of new health and safety technology in the marketplace to help employers try to make the return as safe as possible.

Don’t lose sight of diversity, equity and inclusion. While grappling with the fallout of the pandemic has been the dominant priority for most HR leaders this year, they shouldn’t let that disruption distract them from moving their diversity agenda forward, a number of speakers said. Keynoter Stacia Garr, co-founder of RedThread Research, noted in discussing organizational purpose that the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many other Black citizens this year heightened corporate America’s awareness of racial injustice. “And, as a result,” she said, “we have seen organizations talking about social justice in ways they haven’t before and, for many of them, doing things that are remarkably and demonstrably different than they have in the past.”

In her keynote, Dr. Tolonda Tolbert, co-founder and head of strategy and culture at Eskalera, noted that far too many organizations still just talk about DEI without taking firm, decisive action. Technology can be a differentiator, she said; it can integrate recruitment, payroll, performance management and professional development systems, for instance, to generate some measurable numbers on DEI. She cautioned, however, that organizations need to also get more specific and granular with the questions they ask about their data in order to yield the most meaningful results.

Embrace empathy and care. Perhaps more than ever, empathy and care should be top of mind for organizations.

Pat Wadors

The pandemic is highlighting the need for HR to center empathy in all of its decision-making, said ServiceNow Chief Talent Officer Pat Wadors. “Whole-person care”—which takes into account employees’ mental, emotional, physical and financial health, as well as individual home lives and family situations—should be a driving factor in benefits, performance management, workforce planning and more. Managers need to be better equipped for such strategies, she noted, and C-suite executives may need an extra push from HR to get on board.

On the tech side, Bersin said, the market is seeing an influx of tools designed to help HR and managers be more empathetic. “Companies that understand the need for belonging, inclusion, diversity, a growth mindset and constant support and collaboration are the ones that are going to thrive through this pandemic,” he said.

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Limeade CEO Henry Albrecht urged HR leaders to embrace technology that matches their intent—to choose the right tech tools that show their level of care. He also reminded them to continue to listen to what employees need. “No amount of technology can give you the true ultimate culture,” he said. “You have to listen to the voice of real human beings.”

Use crisis as an opportunity. Silver linings to a tumultuous year? You bet. Optimism over how the pandemic, and social and racial unrest, will change things for the better was a common theme throughout the conference, with several industry insiders pointing to a number of positives and better business outcomes emerging from the pandemic. Increased diversity and inclusion, better employee engagement, a bigger focus on workers’ health and mental health, more learning—and better tech to handle it all—will likely come out of the crisis.

HR has the chance to rethink its priorities, said John Boudreau, professor emeritus of management and organization and a senior research scientist with the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California. “It’s an opportunity for HR to look around and make sure they capture the lessons that their organizations are learning right now so they don’t snap back to something that’s the same or maybe even worse as the pressure of the crisis subsides.”

ServiceNow’s Wadors agreed. “If we’re wise, we will capture the silver linings in all of this and put it in our DNA,” she said. “We should put the employee in the center of our experience and adapt as needed. If we continue to have that framework, everyone will be better served.”

Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver. She can be reached at kmayer@lrp.com.