HR Technology Europe keynote: ‘We are living in the age of experience’

The inaugural HR Technology Europe Conference and Expo kicked off in Amsterdam this week to a packed auditorium of HR practitioners eager to hear about what’s new in the rapidly changing realm of employee experience.

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In the opening keynote, a panel conversation moderated by The Josh Bersin Co.’s Bo Derksen, global analyst Josh Bersin discussed the evolution and complexity of employee engagement and experience. He reminisced about the time, 15-20 years ago, when employee engagement primarily involved conducting surveys, analyzing the data and using it for corporate purposes. However, as they realized this approach was insufficient, many HR leaders started conducting more frequent and localized surveys to get closer to the diverse populations of employees.

Bersin emphasized that the old approach of asking questions and expecting employees to answer them is outdated. Each employee’s role differs in today’s complex global organizations, and understanding specific needs and problems is crucial. Bersin introduced the concept of “employee activation,” which encourages employees to speak up and organizations to listen and adapt based on their needs.

Bersin’s EX advice: ‘Don’t wait for a feature’

Today, employee experience solutions have evolved significantly, said Bersin, with numerous HR technology vendors offering tools to enhance EX. However, the analyst stressed that, ultimately, HR needs to address the distinct problems and concerns of their business. “Don’t wait for a feature [from a vendor]; do what you have to do with the resources you have,” he said.

Keynote panelists from two iconic organizations—Uzair Qadeer, chief people officer at the BBC, and Esmé Valk, CHRO at Royal Schiphol Group (Amsterdam’s airport)—described how their businesses faced transition with tech-centered approaches.

Josh Bersin, Esmé Valk, Uzair Qadeer and Bo Derksen at HR Technology Europe 2024
Josh Bersin, Esmé Valk, Uzair Qadeer and Bo Derksen at HR Technology Europe 2024

Owning employee experience at Schipol airport

As Derken said, “Employee experience has a direct connection to customer experience,” which means this aspect of running a business has tentacles that reach into spaces for which human resources isn’t normally responsible.

Valk described the composition of the airport’s workforce as a total of 70,000 individuals, but only about 4,000 are directly employed by the Royal Schiphol Group. The others are contract staff and employees working directly for airlines or other entities, resulting in multiple employers with personnel situated on-site.

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Though Valk and her Royal Schipol Group HR team don’t represent or serve most of these individuals, passengers perceive they do. “The entire society looks at [Schipol] as being the owner and the responsible party for all these 70,000 employees,” she said.

Valk said this became a problem in May 2022, months after she’d taken over the CHRO role. Just before one of the Netherlands’ biggest travel holidays of the year, several key groups went on strike, angering passengers and putting pressure on the staff that wasn’t on strike.

The situation brought a lesson, Valk said: “We are super, super dependent on people.” Before the strike, the brand was exceptionally strong, and finding new employees wasn’t an inordinate challenge. After the strike, the “brand was destroyed,” she said.

Meanwhile, there were further pressures on the aviation industry. “Flight shaming” due to health and climate concerns had become a problem. Digital replacements for business meetings and conventions had curbed corporate travel as well. “How do we scale when there are threats to flying?” Valk remembered asking herself. People read the news, and many candidates were hesitant to enter the field.

In order to hire adequate staff, those that fell under the office Schipol title as well as the vacancies in the other airport entities, a new initiative was required. The airport needed to be trusted by the public to appeal to candidates, and passenger experience could no longer be treated separately from employee experience. “We own that experience,” she said. “We have to feel the responsibility.”

HR should ‘own’ tech conversations

Valk made an unconventional move and called together all the employers with crews at the airport. She asked them to work together to attract new talent. An artificial intelligence company came in with a solution: new recruitment tools for a centralized candidate experience. Though it was centralized, the campaign was highly personal, with a tech stack similar to that used in marketing.

Relying on hundreds of unique landing pages, Schipol was able to direct applicants to personalized pages depending on how the applicants had accessed the job listing. For example, an ad displayed in a gym setting delivered candidates to a landing page that highlighted wellness benefits included with the role’s total compensation.

Valk empowered the HR teams at Schipol to initiate a fast and effective digital solution without waiting for other departments to solve the reputational hole that was restricting talent acquisition. She believes the AI and HR technology conversation is not just for IT units. “It is a people question,” Valk pointed out. “So for all the people out here that work in HR, own it and embrace it.”

Digital-first experiences at the BBC

The BBC is the world’s largest public broadcaster, a 101-year-old organization that Qadeer calls an “institution in the UK,” “one that’s deeply cherished and respected globally.”

In addition to news, the BBC produces entertainment content and offers streaming services. BBC Sport and the broadcaster’s radio networks further expand its coverage. Beyond that, the company is committed to social causes, supporting charities like the widely admired Children in Need, Qadeer said.

Each of these divisions could stand alone as a major company in its respective field, yet they all come together under the umbrella of the BBC. Its HR function, Qadeer said, is a centrally led team, with all roles reporting to the office of the chief people officer. It follows a unified strategy and a three-year roadmap being implemented across the organization.

The challenge lies in creating a harmonized yet meaningful employee experience across the organization. “Employee experience is the future of HR,” says Qadeer. “We are living in the age of experience.” At the BBC, training, awareness, education and communication center around employee experience, even at a time when more technology is utilized.

“We have put an anchor in the ground to be a digital-first organization, so you can only imagine the pace of change that the BBC has undergone,” he said. “This means the HR function had to do something completely different to help the organization skate to where the puck will be, not where it is.”

In response to the digital-first motivation, the HR team unveiled the “Great Place to Work” strategy. This concept intends to ensure that the BBC is a place where the best people can do their best work. “To achieve this, we need to provide an employee experience that is outstanding and best in class,” says Qadeer.

One reason organizations hesitate to implement changes is their pursuit of perfection, noted Qadeer. However, perfection isn’t necessary. What’s crucial is establishing measurements and consistently assessing them to ensure accurate data collection for analysis and improvement. “Keep on improving,” he said. “Don’t be afraid of making the change.”

Jill Barth
Jill Barth is HR Tech Editor of Human Resource Executive. She is an award-winning journalist with bylines in Forbes, USA Today and other international publications. With a background in communications, media, B2B ecommerce and the workplace, she also served as a consultant with Gallagher Benefit Services for nearly a decade. Reach out at [email protected].