How can HR stay relevant in the 21st century?

Insight into the correlation between employee experience and automation

  Employees want flexible working and recent research suggests HR leaders must seize the opportunity to adopt the technology and automated processes that can help to make this happen.

Sopra Steria and Management Today recently collaborated on a survey of almost 500 chief executives, directors, managers and non-managerial employees. Our aim was to better understand attitudes to employee experience and to learn how far advanced companies are in their adoption of data analytics, artificial intelligence and automation to personalise and consumerise the employee experience.

The survey findings came as no surprise. While greater flexibility and career development came out on top as most likely to enhance employee experience, there is a reluctance – or perhaps an inability – to invest in the modern workplace tools, systems and approaches needed to deliver on these experiential aspirations.

This paper assesses the impact of this lack of investment on how employees feel at work. How does it alter the employee experience? It looks at the reasons why HR has fallen behind the digital curve and offers a number of use cases that illustrate the value of investing in new technologies that will resonate with both HR professionals and the employees they serve.

Going on holiday? Automation gets you there faster

You’re working from home and suddenly get the opportunity for three days away with your loved ones or friends. It’s last minute and current HR processes make this a tricky thing to arrange. You’ll need to contact your line manager, who has to liaise with HR, organise cover (if you’re a shift worker), and inform Payroll. Is it worth the hassle? Have you got time?

It would be far simpler if all you had to do was make one phone call to the recently introduced HR chatbot. Or perhaps use voice to activate an AI response. How you engage – and by whatever channel – should be a matter of choice.

At Sopra Steria, our chatbot is called Sam. This ingenious little fellow receives your holiday request and an automated process immediately kicks in. Using robotic process automation (RPA), your dates are checked against team schedules and you quickly receive a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ approval. That’s not all. Sam automatically sends an email to your manager, updates the team schedule and HR system, and links with the back-end payroll system to ensure your next salary slip accurately takes account of your leave. All you have to do is pack your suitcase and pick up your passport.

This type of frictionless, digital engagement with HR will become integral to enhancing the employee experience in the coming years.

Addressing legacy thinking

Let’s first take a step back in time. Around 30 years ago we saw the shift of legacy IT estates to on-premise ERP and other big corporate IT systems. In effect, HR was given little choice but to comply with this IT-led decision and what we typically saw was a ‘lift and shift’ of largely paper-based working practices onto the new IT platforms. In the main, the opportunity to review and update HR processes in tandem with this technology shift wasn’t seized. Over the years since, while there has been a growth in HR operations, this failure to update processes and ways of engaging with employees has left HR being viewed as a policeman, creating a barrier rather than enabling the business and supporting its employees.

As an example of a failing process, let’s say an employee has been asked by their manager to do some additional hours and is looking forward to getting a little extra this payday. But the manager has not approved the additional hours worked with payroll (although they had made the request in the first place) which means the additional pay doesn’t go through and no one from

HR calls either the employee or their manager to say there’s a problem. The result? The employee only finds out when their pay goes into their bank account, leaving them feeling devalued and disengaged. It also means that the manager must now get involved in fixing the problem, which HR historically has claimed is not their fault because ‘it’s a payroll issue’ or the form wasn’t filled in properly/approved prior to payroll cut-off at the outset.

To illustrate this further, let’s consider that the budget for an organisation’s headcount growth has been approved. But when a department wants to recruit a new team member, it has to go back to HR and ask for approval for the resource. HR in turn must ask Finance for the go-ahead before budgetary approval is given – for a second time. Meanwhile, the requesting department remains overworked or under-skilled while this lengthy process runs its course. This is borne out by the Sopra Steria and Management Today survey, which found that around 1 in 5 non-managers spends more than five hours a month scheduling resources.

Re-inventing HR

This will sound familiar to many people, both in the wider business and within HR. There is, of course, a better way. And, struggling with outdated processes that haven’t kept up with new modes of service delivery, such as digital and cloud platforms, HR is looking to reinvent itself. The more forward-thinking HR leaders know that continuing to do things because ‘that’s how it’s always been done’ is dangerous to the business, leaving skills gaps unfilled for too long and frustrating managers and their teams.

As such, they are taking a closer look at their HR processes. They’re asking if they’re fit for purpose in today’s increasingly consumerised workplace, or whether they need re-designing, automating and digitising. If they don’t, they’ll fail to stop the business circumnavigating these entrenched processes to better manage their people and, ultimately, drive a more employee-centric business model.

Re-designing process around user needs

So where to you start? The first step is to look at which parts of a process can be automated to make HR easy for employees to interact with. Taking the above headcount approval process as an example, there is a strong case for implementing robotic process automation (RPA) of key stages. In effect, once the headcount budget has been approved in the first instance, the next stages are simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and can be performed with RPA. This empowers the requestor to better manage his or her resourcing – there’s no lengthy wait for approval – and improves the employee experience with skills gaps quickly filled so that the existing team isn’t overstretched.

In turn, HR people previously tied up in the approval process are now freed to focus on more value-added activity, such as career development, succession planning, and learning & development. This is just one example of how automating a process can help enhance the employee experience and improve the value HR makes to the business. If you magnify this across the business and its interaction with a wide range of HR processes, the value grows incrementally.

HR analytics and the use of artificial intelligence should also feature in the digital toolkit of the modern HR function. Analytics, for example, can be used on a wide range of information about employee behaviours and aspirations to better predict and plan for career progression and retention, or to understand and manage health & wellbeing issues.

Making the connection between automation and experience

This paper provides a number of use cases for the adoption of new technologies and approaches in the delivery of HR services. Yet, in the Sopra Steria and Management Today survey, HR services and automation of tasks were viewed as less critical than flexible working. I would argue, however, that it is this very automation of key HR processes that will deliver on the flexible working aspiration. The report into the survey concurs, saying “this finding could point to a lack of understanding of how these innovations are crucial to underpinning greater engagement, efficiency savings and the delivery of more flexible working in the future”.

I said at the start of this paper that the survey findings come as no surprise and I stand by this. It is no surprise that flexible working is cited as a top priority for achieving a positive employee experience. Having worked as an HR professional for many years, it also comes as no surprise to me

that HR service delivery has still largely yet to be automated. However, what I do find surprising is that people have not correlated the employee experience and automation; that they can’t see how employees who want to work flexibly for a better experience are being denied this possibility by a lack of investment in the enabling technology that lets people self-serve, from anywhere, at any time, on any device.

Indeed, two thirds of CEOs and directors responding to our survey acknowledged that they had not yet fully implemented HR task automation and self-service technology in their organisations. And only 4 in 10 non-managers – largely Millennials – believe that employees will be fully connected and operationally mobile in the next three years. Further, the HR analytics that would drive a more personalised employee experience is also lacking in many organisations.

Business critical or obsolete?

So, what’s stopping HR going further and faster down the automation route? It’s possible that greater automation is viewed as a threat to traditional HR roles. But I believe that the complete opposite is true. In fact, by not embracing the technology that will connect and enable the modern workforce and free up HR for more strategic activity, the role of HR as a business partner could be obsolete, sooner rather than later. Indeed, being slow in the uptake of new, enabling technologies could well be the demise of the HR function as we know it. After all, if HR just views its role as process-driven service delivery and not one of strategic enablement, then what’s stopping the company’s leadership from taking the same view and gradually replacing human intervention with more robotic process automation?

I have previously written about the need for HR to redefine the user experience, where each employee is viewed as a ‘customer’ and HR is a ‘business’ providing services in a B2C model in which processes begin and end with the employee. The recent Sopra Steria and Management Today survey findings reinforce this belief and I firmly advocate the rapid adoption of automation, robotics, analytics and AI as an enabler of this in pursuit of a differentiating employee experience.

Partnering for an employee-centric future

Finally, to stay relevant in the 21st century business, HR leaders must work in partnership with the CTO or CIO to understand what it takes to enable a seamless employee journey through all HR processes. What business priorities does HR need to support (revenue growth, new strategic focus, talent acquisition, etc.) and how will automation, analytics and AI help to deliver them? Are there specific changes to IT infrastructure that will equip employees to self-serve from anywhere, such as a move to cloud HR solutions?

Recognising this correlation between employee experience and enabling technology will help HR to see the value of working hand-in-hand with IT leaders to create an HR service fit for a digital future.