Q&A with HR Tech Influencer: Stacia Garr

The role of HR leaders has never been more important, as organizations struggle to keep up with near-daily changes to the world of work ushered in by the coronavirus pandemic and other global challenges, including the recent tumultuous presidential transition. With such a tall order for HR leaders, it’s beneficial to look to industry experts for their experience and guidance. Last year, HRE and the HR Tech Conference unveiled the second edition of the Top 100 HR Tech Influencers, comprised of HR, business and technology leaders whose insights are needed now more than ever.

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Influencer Stacia Garr, co-founder and principal analyst, RedThread Research, advises that HR leaders continue to “put strategy before technology” in evaluating new tools and looking to the future. Employee experience, performance management and HR technologies that connect employees with information about their teams that they didn’t have before all are getting Garr’s attention right now. She recently spoke with HRE about these and other trends on the horizon.

HRE: What HR tech trend that was gaining steam before COVID-19 has been most disrupted? Why and what’s replacing it, if anything?

Garr: Before the pandemic, organizations were still focused on making changes to performance management. With the pandemic, many of those efforts stopped, as organizations shifted to supporting employees in new work-from-home situations or in more stressful in-person working environments. Interestingly, some of the tools that have proven most useful during the pandemic—such as frequent manager/employee conversations and rethinking of employee goals and results—are a part of more modern performance management approaches.

Related: Performance management in the age of coronavirus

As we look to a future with a much larger percentage of the workforce being remote, we expect to see the following changes to performance management:

  1. Clearer goals and different metrics. This pandemic period has shown the value of setting clear goals and evaluating people on observable outcomes. This shift aligns with what we’ve known for years—that clear goals and metrics are less susceptible to bias. To do this, leaders have had to identify and use different metrics than they have in the past—and this focus on better quantification has driven better clarity about what is expected. This approach will continue.
  2. Frequent check-in discussions embedded into other work. With more remote work, managers and employees need to stay more aligned. More frequent conversations enable this to happen—and those conversations are happening more in the context of other discussions. As a result, the idea of a specific performance check-in—and an accompanying tool—will become less of a thing.
  3. Performance management technologies increasingly becoming repositories of information. Given the above, performance management technologies will increasingly be repositories of the various performance conversations that have happened in other places. Think of them as being like Evernote for performance discussions, where you can “clip” the conversation that happened in email, Slack or in a video call into a single place for later discussion. The value of performance tools will be in consolidating all that information into one place for more formal performance conversations.

HRE: How can HR leaders best evaluate the rapid influx of post-pandemic tools flooding the market?

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Garr: Just like at any other time, leaders need to put strategy before technology. They need to develop a clear sense of the employee experience they want to create for both in-office and remote employees. They then need to audit tech they have already purchased and determine the extent to which it can meet that desired state. Finally, they need to identify the tech gaps that exist in their current ecosystem and find tech that fills them.

As leaders look at technologies that could address those issues, here are some questions to get them started:

  1. What are the highest priority tech gaps we need to fill?
  2. To what extent does this technology address one of those gaps?
  3. How well will this tech fit into our overall tech stack? How difficult will it be to roll out and integrate with our other tech? What will be the load on the HR and IT teams?
  4. How steep is the learning curve for our employees? To what extent will this technology make their lives remarkably easier? Is the learning curve versus ease trade-off worth it?
  5. What is the track record of this vendor? Have they delivered on their word before, on time and on budget? Does their approach align with what has worked at our org in the past?

HRE: What HR technologies and applications should vendors be working on right now? Why?

Garr: Employees have significantly less organizational and manager support now than before the pandemic. In our recent study on manager behavior during the pandemic, we found that employees’ autonomy and managers’ openness to new information were the ONLY two behaviors that have improved since before the pandemic. Every other measure of manager and organizations’ support declined.

Given this, HR technologies and applications should focus on helping fill in some of the information gaps employees face and connecting them to others who can help them continue to prosper and grow.

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Almost every type of HR technology could do a better job of providing employees with critical information to help them understand and manage their team. For example, almost any HR tech leader could ask themselves: What specific information does our system capture that could help managers understand something about their team that they wouldn’t know otherwise? What data could we provide employees to help them better understand their organization’s broader context?

Further, and perhaps most importantly, technology can help employees understand what they should be doing to better manage themselves. We’ve seen a rise in “coach on the shoulder” technologies that can provide feedback to employees on how they are behaving in meetings, their email habits and how people are responding to their management approaches. This information may have been visible to employees when they were in person, but it is heavily obscured when working remotely.

Other technologies are working to create opportunities for employees to connect with others and build their networks. For example, some technologies are reimagining peer mentorship or coaching relationships. Internal talent marketplace technologies are providing opportunities for people to meet new folks whom they would not otherwise connect with due to remote work for the sake of building skills and contributing to the organization.

In summary, employees need more information and connection—and HR technologies can help facilitate that.

HRE: How do you think the remote work switch will affect employee expectations for workplace technology?

Garr: Employee experience has been hot for years. The pandemic and remote working have significantly upped expectations of employees, as they spend more time working via digital tools than ever before. Organizations that do not have consumer-grade technology are going to have employees continue to demand it even more strongly than in the past. Employees, especially those working from home, aren’t going to go from using Siri one moment to using a clunky employee portal and not complain about it. Especially when employee technology is the primary interaction the employee has with the organization, day after day.

In addition, given the extent to which employees are using these technologies, we expect to see them more involved in tech selection processes. We had already seen the number of buyers involved in tech decisions expand—and we expect that to happen more in the new remote work situation.

Finally (and see below for more), remote work has changed employees’ expectations of how they will be included when they are working remotely. Right now, everyone is remote, which means everyone assumes meetings happen on a video conference platform (e.g., WebEx, Zoom, Teams). But when (some) employees return to offices, remote employees will still expect to be included in the conversation as much as those folks in the office. Similarly, employees will still expect the technology to enable the flexibility they’ve become accustomed to. Therefore, any technology that was not yet in the cloud—or didn’t have scale in the cloud—will eventually be phased out in favor of providing that flexibility.

HRE: How will tech differentiate the companies that thrive after the pandemic from those that do not?

Garr: On the horizon, we foresee a real challenge for companies: to create equitable and fair environments for both in-person and remote employees. As difficult as the last 11 months have been, they have been hard on everyone.

Whenever companies bring workers back to the workplace, they are going to have some hard decisions to make:

  • Who will be in person and who will be remote, and why?
  • What policies will be in place to ensure remote employees have equal access to meetings and communications and feel connected to the culture?
  • How can the organization take advantage of having both remote and in-person employees to further its business objectives?

The answers to these questions will vary from organization to organization, but how organizations answer those questions will factor into whether they thrive after the pandemic.

Critically, technology will play a role in helping organizations deliver on however they answer these questions. For example, technology that will automatically provide a link to a video conferencing line whenever people enter a conference room could make in-person meetings more inclusive for remote employees. Technology that enables people to indicate when they will be working remotely outside the traditional work schedule could help the organization respond to customer needs faster.

The specific technologies may still yet to be dreamed up—but their goal should be the same: creating a high-quality and equal experience, regardless of if an employee is sitting in an office owned by the company or in their own home.