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Managing human resources in a digital world

The most human of corporate departments must embrace technological change, according to an HR executive whose company employs 69,000 people.

Managing human resources in a digital world
[Source photo: sanjagrujic/iStock]

When COVID-19 shut workplaces across the globe, human resources teams faced the unique challenge of managing the health, safety and welfare of employees in a purely remote environment.

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One of their major obstacles has been to take personal, often sensitive processes and handle them virtually. As more and more companies announce plans to extend or make permanent their work-from-home policies or move toward a blend of home and office working, HR departments will have no choice but to go almost fully digital. The good news? The organizations that embrace technology and innovation will be better positioned to adapt to the workplace of the future and help their firms to better navigate broader uncertainty.

So what does it actually mean to manage HR digitally? In my view it comes down to four new ways of thinking and working: embracing data-driven insights; making the most of automation to drive efficiency; using digital processes to improve the HR experience for employees; and putting in place the infrastructure that allows your digital tools to talk to one another and connect people.

At UBS our HR innovation activities are structured around this concept of insights, efficiency, experience, and connectivity. By using this disciplined framework to guide our digital transformation, we’ve been able to actually offer more detailed and targeted counsel in both face-to-face and online settings. It’s making this challenging period significantly simpler to manage, and I am confident that we are well-placed to adapt to changing demands on us as a department.

Insight: Data is your friend. Embrace it

I love data. It gives us an extra layer of understanding as to why our employees act as they do and provides us with sometimes hidden proof points that can help us shape policy and process.

That said, having a data-driven HR strategy can’t happen overnight. First it needs the requisite investment to make data sources reliable and connected. And then it’s just as important to train your teams to make sure they can properly analyze the data and use it to make informed decisions.

Once the processes are set up, Data can–for instance–help to analyze the top performers in an organization and identify what makes them successful. From that, HR professionals can build a strategy around how to identify those attributes when hiring.

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Conversely, predictive analytics can help identify potential leavers. This gives managers and HR professionals an important head start in having a conversation that might prevent an unwanted departure.

Of course, data should always be used in combination with experience and intuition, but you should be willing to keep an open mind and let data challenge your assumptions. You may be surprised at the result!

Efficiency: Automate, automate, automate. And then automate some more

Automation is often assumed to mean job losses. But for HR it’s quite the opposite. Automating labor-intensive, repetitive processes is an important way of freeing up capacity to allow HR professionals to focus on work with greater value-add.

In a digitally equipped HR team, bots can manage the uploading and downloading of complex data packs that accompany talent reviews and reward decisions in a fully automated process. They can also oversee screenings of intern and graduate candidates via online numerical, logical, and culture fit tests in a consistent and efficient manner.

Bots can even help recruiters to identify potential candidates–something that has proven very useful for UBS when identifying prospective employees to fill key roles during the COVID-19 crisis.

It’s a win-win situation. Tasks get done and HR employees can focus on more complex work that requires their expertise and will help them to develop.

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Experience: Make it simple for your employees

There is no point being digital for the sake of it. No HR team can manage a complex digital system without the understanding and buy-in of the broader employee base.

If you want to get employees to embrace new ways of thinking and working, you need to give them the opportunity to learn, and make your platform simple enough for them to use.

Again, this requires investment, but pays off at a time of crisis. For example, the processes UBS has in place meant that employees could be onboarded remotely throughout the pandemic. Back in March, we were able to shift to online onboarding within 96 hours and since then, more than 3,000 employees have joined without any physical interaction.

Connectivity: Tools, apps, and people must work together

Trends like increased computing power, AI and the “there’s an app for that” mentality create a myriad of digital options for organizations.

That said, too often organizations jump at implementing shiny (and expensive) new products that can quickly lead to a stockpile of tools that don’t talk to each other.

That’s where connectivity comes in. It’s crucial when making technology investment decisions that your tools can work together–especially in a world where everyone is working remotely for a sustained period.

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For example, connectivity of internal and external data allows for big-data analytics and comprehensive insights. This isn’t easy to implement, especially for big firms drawing on data from multiple systems. But it’s worth the effort to connect systems and consolidate data on as few platforms as possible.

And new systems need to help connecting your employees with each other. The easier interactions between people within organizations can be supported, the more effective collaboration can drive efficiency and innovation; this is particularly important when people don’t see each other regularly in the office.

Necessity is the mother of invention

Of course, it remains to be seen exactly how the working environment will evolve in a post-COVID world. But it’s fair to assume that the mixture of home and office working will be here to stay. Having the right digital processes in place, the people trained to manage them and an employee base that can confidently use them will give HR teams the much-needed breathing space to manage bigger challenges. And in periods of profound uncertainty, that is vitally important.

Stefan Seiler is group head of human resources at UBS, which employs more than 69,000 people in wealth management, investment banking, asset management, and private and corporate banking services. Seiler is also an adjunct professor for leadership and strategic human resource management at Nanyang Business School, Singapore.

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