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What tech will HR need under hybrid working?

14 Oct 2021 By Rob Gray

Hybrid working has accelerated the need for workplace tech to improve collaboration, book desks and more. People Management explores the solutions people professionals might need to consider in the ‘new normal’

When it comes to bizarre, short-lived technological developments, the workplace has seen its fair share. At the more extreme end of the scale were the AI-powered cameras reportedly invented by Canon Information Technology, the Chinese subsidiary of the Japanese giant, which only allowed staff to enter rooms, book meetings, control the temperature and use printers if they were smiling. 

Workplace tech company Moodbeam also makes wearable wristbands that allow employees to tell their managers if they’re happy or sad at the touch of a button, and Shoreditch-based data science company Profusion has used AI to build its own ‘coffee roulette’ system, which arranges meetings between employees who have limited contact while working remotely.

But amid the weird and wonderful, there’s never been a more significant time for the advancement of workplace technology, whether organisations want to ensure their physical spaces remain Covid secure or that their dispersed workforces remain connected.

Construction company Skanska set about changing the way it worked as early as June last year, with technology at the centre of enabling the switch to hybrid working. It has two categories of employees: those who do most of their work on a construction site, and office-based staff who have mainly been working remotely. The HR team collaborated with IT and procurement to ensure anyone at home was kitted out with additional monitors, Jabra headsets, webcams, wireless keyboards and mice, so they could work effectively. 

“This has ensured our people can be as productive as possible, while working safely and comfortably,” says Skanska CHRO and executive vice president Harvey Francis. “We implemented Office 365 back in 2019, so were able to quickly transition to running meetings on Teams.” To bridge the gap between home, site and office working, the firm also upgraded the equipment in its larger meeting rooms to run Teams, and has provided guidance on how to run hybrid meetings.  

“Our people have got used to it very quickly, using the platform for meetings, document sharing and messaging,” says Francis. “We also set up and ran a number of pulse surveys with the same provider.”

Aaron Alburey, MD and founder of LACE Partners, an HR transformation and tech advisory consultancy, says that aside from the explosion in Microsoft Teams and Zoom since the onset of the pandemic, he has also seen an increase in uptake of health and wellbeing platforms, many of which offer guided exercises such as yoga and mindfulness, as well as financial wellbeing platforms, which offer help with money as well as allowing users to draw down part of their wages early.

“These have emerged post-Covid, with individuals on furlough and the need to access pay in a more flexible way,” Alburey explains. But as well as remote technology, the organisation has also seen an increase in physical wellbeing solutions. “Some clients are using tools such as door handles that release automatic sanitiser when someone touches them, or metal plates that stop virus transmission,” he says.

In terms of improving collaboration when teams are dispersed, Alburey highlights that engagement tools such as Menti offer the facility to conduct interactive polls and garner survey results in real time, while Mural, the interactive online equivalent of a whiteboard, can also be useful. The key to getting hybrid tech right, says Alburey, is understanding the workforce. “There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution, so HR teams that help IT and other departments to understand this – and act accordingly – will develop the best approach for employees so they maximise their ability to be productive.”

Cloud-based HR systems have also seen huge growth to help staff stay connected. To support its new hybrid way of working and streamline its HR processes and payroll into one application, investment platform AJ Bell plans to implement a cloud-based system with its own mobile app, making HR services more easily available to staff. HR director Elizabeth Carrington says the major change will be the introduction of a scheduling module, which will allow managers to plan when their people will work from the office or at home. “This means we’ll be able to track how much office space is being used and ensure we don’t exceed capacity,” she says.

Implementation of the new system means that in addition to the IT service desk team, HR now works with other departments such as enterprise architecture, developers and infrastructure. “It’s been a useful learning experience for us all but a great example of collaboration between business areas, which will continue post implementation,” she adds.

With more companies taking on employees in remote – and sometimes international – locations, recruitment technology is another area that potentially requires some investment post-Covid. Ravelin Technology, a London-based fintech company, went down the global remote work route when it needed to diversify its team, using employment service provider Omnipresent’s software OmniPlatform to help hire people quickly across different countries. Thanks to the lockdowns, several of Ravelin’s employees had requested to transfer abroad and work remotely on a permanent basis, leading Ravelin to begin to explore the options available to support employees. 

“Using Omnipresent’s platform means we don’t have to set up a legal entity, which can be complex and time-consuming,” says Toni Georgieva, Ravelin’s people operations manager. “We make sure our international employees still feel part of our team. For instance, we can offer benefits on top of any country’s statutory rules, such as holidays and medical cover.”  

Another organisation using tech to move towards a long-term hybrid future is AXA UK, which is taking a ‘test and learn’ approach that focuses on an increase in remote working, while placing more emphasis on going into the physical office “with purpose”, such as collaborating across teams and building a sense of connection. Microsoft Teams and the rollout of AXA’s Digital Workplace platform have helped employees stay connected. The latter, says AXA UK’s HR chief operating officer Emma Harvey, has been critical to internal processes, and also enabled the business to connect virtually with new candidates during recruitment.

In July, the organisation also launched its ‘My Wellbeing’ platform, which delivers employee health and wellbeing services and support. “This has made it easier for colleagues to access support as and when they need,” says Harvey.

For audit, tax and consultancy service provider RSM UK, meanwhile, the most important principle is to keep reviewing current arrangements in light of feedback from staff, changing government policy and Covid infection rates, while keeping abreast of new R&D by software vendors. To get the best out of Microsoft Teams, RSM has invested in enhanced audio-visual equipment in its offices to allow ‘one touch’ entry into virtual meetings from a physical meeting room. 

“We need solutions to hybrid working that are flexible enough to support our matrix organisation, with multiple service lines working across a range of geographies,” says Chris Knowles, the organisation’s chief digital officer. “For example, we found that there wasn’t a workspace management solution on the market that was suited to our needs, so we built our own. This proved very successful to allow our people to book office workspaces and has now supported our new ways of working for over a year.”

As more staff return to the office, Knowles says the company is now investigating off-the-shelf workspace management solutions that can incorporate catering, meeting room management and enhanced reporting. And with the pandemic triggering closer co-ordination between RSM’s people and technology teams than ever before, the firm recently appointed a technology business partner dedicated to the people team’s digital needs. RSM, explains Knowles, sees HR technology as fundamental to enabling productivity and staff engagement going forward into the era of hybrid working.

Throughout the pandemic, packaging company Klöckner Pentaplast (KP) has been looking at improving communication with its frontline workers, installing large screens in its plants and providing computer kiosks on its sites to give people access to information and ensure two-way feedback. KP is also working on giving them improved access to online learning using various technologies, which was previously available but not as fully utilised. Time and attendance modules also feature in some parts of KP’s business, which enable people to work from home where there is an in-country requirement to show working hours; such as Germany, where KP is working with its German Works Council to implement hybrid working.  

“All of this has meant that we are working more closely with IT than we did previously, to consider new solutions and support whatever the requirements are in our countries of operation and ensure we can communicate and engage with our people,” says Linda Kennedy, KP’s chief human resources officer. “There are lots of new solutions being developed all the time and we are working constantly to improve our HR system to use more manager and employee self-service which will support remote working.” 

Similarly, the university of Brighton was in the process of rolling out Microsoft Teams across the organisation when the pandemic hit. With teaching and meetings all moving online overnight, the platform was immediately available to all staff and students. “We were already using Microsoft SharePoint and OneDrive to collaborate and share information, but our recruitment is also all handled online using Stonefish, and we’ve widened out the technology to provide a complete HR platform,” says Jo Hird, head of HR. This means all requests for contractual changes, leavers and establishment changes are electronic, making it straightforward to manage remotely. Hird recommends not rushing to find a solution, because unpicking a poorly designed system is “incredibly difficult” once it’s already in place. 

The University uses ResourceLink as its HR and payroll system, including the self-service MyView element, which allows staff access to sickness reporting, annual leave requests and payslips. “But during the pandemic,” explains Hird, “we also used the technology to help with our statutory reporting requirements to local public health teams around coronavirus cases, self-isolation and requests to volunteer in the community.”

Hird says the system was never designed for this purpose, but systems specialists within the department were able to apply a solutions-focused approach and come up with creative ways to adapt what the organisation already had available. She says: “Having staff who work in that way has made the seemingly impossible possible.”

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