Paul Burrin, VP Product – Sage People

2020 was perhaps the most challenging and important year for HR on record.

As businesses struggled against the global pandemic, People teams were crucial with 87% of HR leaders saying their teams played a vital role in driving change, enabling remote working, and supporting staff.

As we transition into 2021, People departments will be at the centre of digital transformation, using technology in innovative ways to drive successful and sustainable working.  

HR will use digital tools to cement its leadership in business resilience and sustainable working

With the disruption of COVID-19 set to continue, workers will remain atomised and separated from the office environment. Hybrid working, unfamiliar to many businesses only a year ago, will become the status quo. A core priority for businesses will be to maintain consistency and resiliency, so that the initial disruption to work caused by COVID won't be repeated again. To keep pace with a changing, increasingly digital workforce, two-thirds (69%) of People executives believe the HR function needs to completely transform itself.

A business is only as resilient as its people, so HR and People teams will focus intently on employee wellbeing and experiences. Sustainable working practices – where employees feel happy, healthy and supported – are key to productivity and a successful business. Yet it can be challenging to maintain when employees are so dispersed. The rhythm of work is often intense, which can take a toll on employees' mental health and wellbeing. Experiencing this in isolation has seen Americans' mental health hit a 20-year low.  Unless businesses can mitigate these effects, they will struggle with burnout and employee retention.

That's why HR is likely to increase investment in employee monitoring and analytics. These tools will help People leaders to understand the changes that occur in the organisation in real-time. They can see how the virtual employee experience is developing and move quickly to allocate extra resource and support when needed. Designing for flexibility rather than efficiency is expected to bring real benefits by 52% of HR leaders.

Work events and socials – put on pause for many businesses – will also see a comeback in a virtualised form. This is alongside emerging initiatives, such as the virtual commute which some companies are exploring to encourage employees to recharge and prepare for the working day. However, in taking a more active role in employee's professional and personal lives, People teams must be careful to not overstep the mark. Virtual team events should be planned into the working day to avoid burn out, and employees busy schedules should be considered - they won't appreciate more to-do lists or constant check-ins from HR.

Collaboration tools become the new desktop

When people are separated, collaboration inevitably suffers. We've seen this during the pandemic, and businesses are starting to appreciate that it's teams working together, rather than individuals working by themselves, that contribute to organisational success. In 2021, HR will take a more proactive role in encouraging teamwork and collaboration. Ability to work with colleagues will become a more central factor in employee assessment and appraisal. Similarly, when a project fails the wider team will be assessed to understand where and why the breakdown occurred.

Keeping collaboration alive in a remote environment also requires a technological shift. Collaboration platforms like Zoom, Teams and Slack have been critical to bringing colleagues together and keeping a steady stream of communication during lockdown. The next step will be to integrate these tools with HR and other business systems, to give employees faster and easier access to apps, data, and self-service options.

The integration of different collaboration tools also holds great potential for employee engagement. More and more, we will see important HR announcements and virtual shout-outs communicated through employee recognition tools – integrated with the collaboration platforms staff are already using. When an employee succeeds or embodies a company value in their work, they will receive an automatic congratulation, boosting morale and improving remote engagement.     

AI will become the guardian of employees, but it will also kickstart debates on privacy and trust

Next year will also be very significant for the use of AI and machine learning in People management, with 47% of HR leaders expecting to increase their investment. AI already plays a central role in the recruitment function of many businesses, but that role will now extend to giving HR entirely new capabilities.

The power of AI for HR lies in detecting patterns and trends in data which are almost impossible for humans to notice or analyse. Based on that analysis, AI tools hold the promise of prediction and can offer business recommendations, providing better lead indicators that help managers prepare for – rather than just respond to – problems. For example, People leaders will be able to identify employee's in danger of leaving the company, and where the business could have a particular skills gap in the near future. Armed with insight, they can confidently adjust their policies.

Indeed, we're reaching the stage where all work conversations – whether by video, email or message – can be measured and analysed. Organisations can obtain data on how long and at what times an employee is at their workstation. For an HR team to be monitoring and analysing all this information would be impossible – but it's not for AI.

By implementing AI into their technology stacks, People teams can achieve accurate sentiment and behavioural analytics. Analysing a range of factors, from the tone of their voice to what time they start work in the morning, a business can tell when an employee is struggling and under pressure. HR can then intervene to ensure the employee gets the support they need before they burn out or take time off. These kinds of activities will form the backbone of sustainable working initiatives.

However, AI must be treated with caution. Its introduction into HR operations is already raising debate around ethics and privacy issues, which will only grow as more AI tools are adopted. This was the case when Microsoft launched productivity scoring and monitoring capabilities to its Teams platform, which have since been scaled back following criticism. The controversy underlines the importance of employee inclusion when it comes to introducing AI. It's crucial that the technology isn't imposed on employees without their consent and education of its benefits. People teams must also ensure that AI-driven decisions don't lead to discrimination or victimisation of employees. Data doesn't tell the full story and human judgement must remain the deciding factor in every case.  

Paul Burrin, VP Product – Sage People

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