HR tech’s next mission? Forging connections at work

As burnout from COVID-19 becomes an undeniable fact, HR leaders are pushing hard to strengthen employee experience. Part of that effort must include helping employees forge greater connections, says Stacia Sherman Garr, co-founder and principal analyst for RedThread Research, who notes that HR must acknowledge that remote work and constant Zoom meetings are lowering employee autonomy and prompting managers to slide into old habits.

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HRE spoke with Garr ahead of her 2022 HR Tech Virtual keynote address, entitled “Putting Purpose in Your Leadership Pipeline,” which is set for 4:45 p.m. ET March 3. She shared her thoughts about find insights hidden in data, why employees feel less connected to work and their communities, and how more mentoring and fewer Zoom meetings can help. Register here.

HRE: We’re about to start the third year of hybrid work models and working under COVID. What’s the mood in HR right now?

Stacia Garr: Unfortunately, it’s been a rough time for everyone. But I think HR professionals who are being asked to step up see this as an opportunity to provide more data on what’s happening with the workforce. They can restructure how we’re thinking about different practices and programs, provide different levels of benefits, etc. That demand has been significant on HR teams, and a lot of times they themselves are not getting the resources and support that they need to continue to give to others.

HRE: What kind of rethinking is happening among HR leaders and technologists? 

Stacia Garr

Garr: We need to also be thinking within HR and within the organization more broadly, [such as] what are the systems and processes in place? How might we simplify so that some of the work might be a little bit less on HR teams, but also more broadly in the organization? A piece of data that was quite concerning was that the numbers of meetings and interactions between managers and employees has gone up, but the level of individual autonomy—to the extent to which individuals feel that they have autonomy and can manage both work and home obligations—has gone down.

Related: Insights into EX, culture and innovation top HR Tech Virtual agenda

So, we’re asking people to do more meetings and we’re telling them there’s kind of more processes, but we’ve actually taken away their autonomy. The question is why, and do we have to be layering on more meetings? Do we have to be layering on more process? Or are we just kind of making people’s work lives harder? 

HRE: Is this Zoom fatigue?

Garr:  Maybe, but why would individual autonomy go down? I think people are getting tired and reverting to old managerial behaviors because we’ve been doing this for a long time. It takes a lot of effort to change your own behaviors and to give employees more autonomy. When you kind of get used to a new dynamic, it’s easier to go back to your old behaviors. 

HRE: What are the categories of technology that HR leaders are missing out on or ignoring?

Garr: I think that there is a lot of awareness of some of the new technologies like internal talent marketplaces; we get more questions about internal talent marketplaces now than perhaps ever. There’s been a lot of focus on wellbeing technology, which I think is good. I wouldn’t call artificial intelligence a category of tech because it’s a feature that can get employed across all sorts of HR functions. 

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HRE: It’s the ingredient.

Garr: Exactly. What do I think that folks should be focusing on? We continue to do a lot of work ourselves around people analytics technology. I think there’s a huge opportunity there. We’ve seen a significant rise in the number of organizations that are focused on employee engagement and experience, which is a good thing. But a lot of times that work is being done just on perception [and not always] data. There’s a lot of data that’s available that leaders should be thinking about when it comes to employee engagement and experience. 

HRE: What about diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging?

Garr: DEIB has been on people’s minds. They’ve been hiring leaders to focus on it but there’s still a pretty big gap in terms of how people are thinking about using technology to help us solve these problems. [There are discussions on] the integration of DEIB and analytics. People are interested but I think they’re having a hard time figuring out, how do I go from conceptually wanting to measure DEIB to making it happen? I’d encourage people to continue to think about that this year.

HRE: What are the top three HR tech opportunities for 2022? 

Garr: I think the big thing that we are missing right now is connection. We are coming up on our third anniversary of hybrid work models and people’s networks have declined significantly. Many people have switched jobs and have joined a company where they’ve never physically met somebody who works at that company. And in a lot of organizations, as I mentioned, we’re seeing a slide back into old behaviors.

[People are thinking,] I just want to get through my work day, get this done and move on to whatever else is happening in my life. As a result of all that, we’re having lower levels of connection and lower levels of trust. 

Related: HR Tech Virtual keynoter Josh Bersin on relieving employee burnout

So, if you think about the opportunity for 2022, I think it’s technology that enables people to rebuild connection and trust. Some examples of that could be recognition technology and ways that you enable peer-to-peer connection and allow ways to recognize and appreciate the work that other people are doing. We know that, when people feel appreciated, it increases their level of trust and their level of engagement in the work.

HRE: Can mentoring help? 

Garr: One area we’ve seen an explosion in in particular is peer-to-peer coaching technology because that can help build connection between two people who may not have met in the new virtual world. They’re not going to bump into each other at the water cooler, but the kind of coaching technology that matches people for micro coaching moments has a potential to build trust and connection within an organization. 

HRE: What drives your passion for this topic? Why is it meaningful for you?

Garr: I fundamentally believe that business can do good in the world and that the idea that business doing well doesn’t have to be a contrast with doing good. I think a lot of that is driven by what I saw growing up in a comparatively small town with a lot of small businesses [that] had an active role in their communities. 

Look, people spend a huge amount of their time doing work. If the work they do in their day can make a positive impact on the community overall, we are making a positive impact in the world. Yes, making money is important. I run a small business and we have to make payroll every month. That is important. But beyond that, if it’s not a purpose and if it’s not doing good, what’s it really all for? 

Register for HR Tech Virtual here

Phil Albinus
Phil Albinus is the former HR Tech Editor for HRE. He has been covering personal and business technology for 25 years and has served as editor and executive editor for a number of financial services, trading technology and employee benefits titles. He is a graduate of SUNY New Paltz and lives in the Hudson Valley with his audiologist wife and three adult children.