Virtual HR - the Irresistible Force? - Part 2

Jamie Liddell

To read Virtual HR - the Irresistible Force: Part 1>> click here

Pressing the demands for cost-reductions may be, but the impact of the increasing trend towards "virtualized" HR services and increasing self-service goes well beyond the bottom line. Just as the rise in social networking and the development of the idea of the online self is changing the way in which social interactivity occurs in the wider world, the shift in the relationship between employee and HR – between user and provider of service – must surely have some consequence for the relationship between employee and the wider organization?

In an interview last year with the Shared Services & Outsourcing Network, HR heavy-hitter Dave Ulrich warned of the possible negative ramifications of the "switch to digital": "Technology has good and bad news. The good news is efficiency, connect 24 hours a day, and distributed work. The bad news is isolation and lack of emotional connection. Not over-relying on technology will help HR do a better job."

That "lack of emotional connection" could prove especially problematic during a stressful (for employer and employee) economy when industrial disputes have a habit of coming to the fore and the lines of dialogue between parties tend to prove more tense. Existing prejudices against the proliferation of call centers, for example, have been seen to be magnified among discontented workers whose primary grievances may be very different. Proponents of a more automated HR model can and do blame such situations on faulty engagement or a host of other factors, but regardless, the mere fact of the question arising is proof of the added complexity generated by increased virtualization.

Even the "softer" elements of "virtual HR" such as the use of virtual technology for meetings and training, by virtue of the new possibilities they’re creating, are throwing up new potential obstacles to the smooth interaction between HR and employee and hence to the smooth operation of the HR function. These range from the apparently superficial (how long will it be before every Fortune 500 organization has an official dress code for the avatars of company employees?) to the increasingly profound: how should we understand, for example – and to continue the theme – the behavioural consequences of looking an avatar, rather than their flesh-and-blood counterpart, in the "eyes"? You might not consider that a serious issue – but with more and more business (both within and outside individual organizations) conducted in virtual environments it’s only a matter of time before such factors pop up in court where the legislative environment on this topic remains nebulous at best, and it may well be those companies that don’t take them seriously now that bear the brunt of, for instance, actions brought by disgruntled employees unhappy with the way the technology was handled.

Tim Palmer of PA Consulting agrees that there is a danger of "less connection for HR professionals with the employees and line managers", the deeper the automation goes.

"[An] issue is the disconnection that can result between the HR professionals and the employees and managers," Palmer explains. "Where previously they would know the people in the organisation, because they interview them, meet them, help them. Now they don't, which makes it harder for them to get under the skin of the organisation and its culture. There are techniques for dealing with this, focused on giving the HR professionals a reason to engage with the workforce."

Palmer points out that one problem is that automation and virtualization in HR – often viewed as a panacea – can’t (yet) be applied across the board. Many organizations have been guilty of supposing that their problems can be answered in one feel swoop by removing as much as possible the "human" from the HR equation.

"There are limits to how far you can push virtualisation," Palmer confirms. "There are transactional things that you can do online and do better. However 'human intervention' is needed in at least five places. Someone has got to manage the technology environments to enable this to happen: populate the learning catalogue with approved courses. Someone has got to do the decision- making and policy-type work to enable this to happen - e.g. decide which training courses should appear in the learning catalogue. Someone has got to do the processing that sits behind the technology, get the materials for the training course to delegates and set up the room where the training will be delivered."

"Certain transactions cannot be delivered on a self-service basis: disciplinary support, health and safety records-keeping," he continues.

"Someone has got to interpret and use the data" (regarding which, Palmer adds, there is a "risk of data quality being poor, especially when managing a central system in a global organisation, with a dependency on local resources to maintain the data") "that is made available through better systems - this is the new job of the HR professional that is enabled by effective virtualisation."

"Interpreting and using data" might always have been core HR specialities – but it seems a remarkably impersonal requirement for "human" relations activities when viewed from the perspective of an end-user requiring assistance. Of course everyone likes to view his or her own concerns as particularly meritorious of individual human attention – but where previously the end-user has been shielded from the reality of simply being HR "data" by the physical reality of human contact, the proliferation and deepening of self-service systems is making it trickier and trickier to maintain that fiction, contributing further to the "disconnection" highlighted by Palmer.

To read Part 3 - click here