Talent, innovation and 4 more themes from the 2021 HR Tech Conference

Artificial intelligence, women’s return to the workplace and the Great Resignation were a few of the central topics in Las Vegas. 
By: | October 4, 2021

After the first live HR Tech Conference in two years because of the global COVID-19 pandemic, several key themes were impossible to ignore. First, attendees, sponsors and exhibitors were eager to meet one another and network safely; the feeling that people were relieved to have a live, safe event was palpable. Second, there was no shortage of urgent topics that HR leaders need to address in the coming years.

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Here are six takeaways from the 2021 HR Tech Conference.

The Great Resignation rolls on.

HR and business executives cannot ignore the fact that many educated and able-bodied people are opting out of the workforce. This is happening for a variety of reasons: They are leaving unsatisfactory or downright toxic workplaces, they are becoming entrepreneurs or they are following their dreams. Madeline Laurano, founder of Aptitude Research, pulled no punches: “You have to pay people more money. You have to provide flexibility to let them work from home and you need to rethink your company’s standards around work and life,” she said. 

One keynote speaker expressed doubt that the Great Resignation was real—or at least that it is a new concept. For decades, college graduates have delayed looking for work to pursue advanced degrees and workers have resigned to become consultants or independent contractors. “The Great Resignation is the stupidest thing I have ever heard. People have realized what matters to them, and you need to offer them an emotional employee experience where they can feel human,” said Jason Averbook, CEO of Leapgen. “If not, they are not going to work for you.”

The next employment wave will be women returning to the workforce. 

The advancements that female workers made in the workplace over the past four decades were nearly wiped out, as many were benched to become caretakers and remote schooling monitors in the wake of COVID-19.

The numbers are grim: About 3 million women have left the workforce since February 2020, resulting in the largest decline of women in the workforce since the end of World War II. 

“That’s a shocking, shocking statistic,” Maryann Abbajay, chief revenue officer at SAP SuccessFactors, said during the closing session of the Women in HR Tech Summit. 

Bringing women back to the workforce, especially to senior management roles, will require outside help. This includes mentoring and coaching, reskilling and upskilling, and providing help with child- and elder care, for example. 

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“How do we make sure that the managers who are feeling pressure from above, but also pressure to support their team, get a little bit more support?” asked Jill Popelka, president of SAP SuccessFactors, during the same session in describing what SAP has done. “In addition to trying to model these things, we wanted to give them the opportunity to take a day off to focus on internal business, to schedule what they need to in order to make their lives balanced and healthy and sustainable.” 

This crisis is also an opportunity for women to find better jobs that address their needs as well as their ambitions, said Rebecca Henderson, CEO, global business, and executive board member of Randstad.

“We will see more women resigning and leaving for jobs that recognize their expertise, but they are going to go for lower-title jobs for work/life balance reasons and not their careers,” she noted.

Talent acquisition is drowning in resumes, old thinking.

Whirlpool receives an average of 200 resumes for each job opening, which is why it turned to AI-powered assessment tool Plum. “Not only did we want more efficiency in the hiring process, we wanted to identify high-quality people … to pass them on to our managers,” said Doug Haaland, vice president of global talent management for Whirlpool. He wasn’t the only talent management professional at HR Tech to say their organizations needed help managing the flood of applications and resumes. 

(But wait, isn’t there supposed to be a Great Resignation going on? Experts admit hiring is a bit of a riddle right now, since regardless of how many resumes organizations receive, open positions remain unfilled.

Workers are also looking for more and sustained opportunities to remote and hybrid work models, and this will impact TA. As more employers move to a hybrid option, HR leaders are given both an opportunity and a challenge, said Lauren Bidwell, senior research scientist, product strategy research at SAP SuccessFactors. HR will have access to boundary-less talent that they didn’t have access to before. However, with that freedom comes a divide between remote and in-office employees. 

“It is not just recruiting. If we are leaking people … as fast as people are coming in, this is not good,” said Averbook. “Talent is the answer—not talent management.” 

If employees don’t use HR tech, it’s dead.

No matter how cool and shiny your HR tools and apps look during procurement and deployment, if employees don’t use them, the products are toast. 

The numbers don’t lie: 42% of HR tech projects fail after two years, according to research presented by Josh Bersin, global industry analyst. Projects are deemed failures, Bersin said, if, after two years, employees refuse to use them, do not have the time to use them or see little benefit in the apps and their promised solutions.

One question that was not answered at the HR Tech Conference was app overload. The exhibit hall was crowded with eye-catching HR, payroll, onboarding, and mental and physical wellness solutions but this begs the question: What does this mean for exasperated employees with app-stuffed smartphones and tablets? 

Are you using AI yet? It’s time.

If artificial intelligence is not part of an HR leaders’ toolkit, they are asleep at the wheel. AI-powered HR solutions now tackle talent management, job recruitment, employee satisfaction, internal hiring and promotion, and more. AI tools helped Indeed provide live, interactive simulations in a virtual setting at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak, for example. 

HR still has to address new functions by creating new HR tech job titles. Within the next decade, we will see ​​such new jobs as work-from-home facilitator, VR immersion counselor and HR data detective. This will put the onus on HR leaders as they grapple with educating colleagues for these new jobs. According to Suneet Dua, chief product officer for PwC, the vast majority (74%) of business leaders are worrying about the digital skills of their employees. That’s up from less than a third of the same leaders who were concerned about those skills just four years earlier. 

Data analytics is key, too. Starbucks spends more on employee healthcare than coffee beans, said Benefitfocus data scientist John Thomas. He believes data analytics can help solve the rising cost of employee benefits amid flat or falling budgets for benefits, increasing benefits costs and, of course, the COVID-induced changes in the labor market.

HR tech innovation is just getting started.

With 33 HR tech companies competing for Pitchfest prize money and another 50 firms filling the start-up pavilion with solutions for everything from DEI analytics and coaching to recruiting and more, this year’s HR Tech Conference exhibition floor was vibrant with activity. On Thursday, Onwards’ HR’s employee separation solution was crowned the winner of Pitchfest.

COVID-19, remote work and advancements in HR technology are driving the spending for new solutions. Stacey Harris of Sapient Insights Group found that organizations’ tech spending is up by 57% from last year, with a major focus on learning, recruiting, HR analytics, benefits and wellness, and skills management. The Great Resignation is a hiring challenge,” she said. “As employees rethink what they want out of their work environments and decide whether or not they’re going to leave or be hired into an organization, they’re expecting that the organizations are going to develop them into areas they want to pursue.”

Related: Read all of the HRE coverage from the conference here.

Phil Albinus is 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. He can be reached at palbinus@lrp.com and followed on Twitter @philalbinus.

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