Virtual HR: the Irresistible Force? - Part 4

Jamie Liddell

To read Part One of this article, click here
To read Part Two, click here
To read Part Three, click here

It is clear, then, that for all its undoubted benefits, the trend towards automated or technology-assisted human resources is throwing up a number of new and potentially destabilizing challenges for HR practitioners. How to overcome these challenges - or at the very least navigate through them with the minimum of discomfort - will, it seems, remain a critical question for the HR community for the foreseeable future; even the most cursory glance at, for example, some of the presentations and debates featured at SSON’s 6th Annual HR Shared Services & Outsourcing Summit, held in Chicago in May this year, reveals both the degree to which this issue is dominating discussions and the diversity of the emergent challenges: "Striking The Right Balance Between People & Technology: Optimizing The Automation Model To Ramp Up The Productivity Of Your HR Services While Retaining The Human Touch"; and "Leveraging Technology To Gain Top-Level Visibility For Your Succession Planning Pipeline", to cite but two.

Part of the responsibility for ensuring that some of the problems highlighted in previous installments of this article are avoided (or at least dealt with to the satisfaction of all concerned) must, of course, rest with the creators of the technology, processes and systems comprising "virtual HR". If the most oft-quoted and potentially devastating problem associated with technology-assisted HR operations - the "disconnection that can result between the HR professionals and the employees and managers", in the words of PA Consulting’s Tim Palmer - is to be avoided, it’s obvious that the designers of the technology itself need to keep the avoidance of that disconnection as one of their top priorities. While it’s clear that a degree of flexibility and a willingness to change must be demonstrated by the end users of any new system - as mandated from above - these efforts will be wasted if said end users are confronted with "inhuman" systems and processes which both alienate and confound them.

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Software architects can create the sleekest, fastest and most powerful kit on the market but if it’s unable to engage the end user it will almost certainly lead to resentment and "disconnection". Millions of dollars are being spent developing "people-friendly" systems which combine the advantages of virtualization with the benefits of the human touch: it’s safe to say that this is still a work in progress. While "the needs of the business" for cost-effectiveness, speed, quality of reporting and the rest of course remain paramount, in the case of HR it’s vital for all concerned from conception-stage onwards to bear in mind the possible requirements of the end user - who could be any one of many thousands of very different and disparate individuals across a multinational business.

This indeed is one area where existing HR practitioners with an aptitude for technology can help to shape the HR function of the future. It’s not just about entrepreneurial types sniffing an opportunity to earn big(ger) bucks in the IT creative powerhouses: there are so many different HR-related products in the marketplace now, and so many different and potentially tortuous routes to market, that a provider looking to strike it big simply can’t afford not to include HR practitioners at the deepest possible level of design to ensure a product that works on all requisite levels, not just the bottom line. As such a growing number of current HR practitioners globally are stepping outside their organizations (in many cases permanently) getting involved with the design and creation of the technology which will determine how the function develops over the next decade and beyond. Leaving it to the techies is not an option.

But the need for a "human touch" isn’t just limited to externally-developed technology, of course: in-house "virtual" HR solutions and systems are just as susceptible to the dangers of disconnection, and it’s absolutely vital that practitioner input during development is as profound as possible. The pressure from board level to find cheap solutions might seem overwhelming at times, but out of such adverse circumstances true HR heroes may arise, and it can only be for the good of the business in the long-term to ensure that any solutions developed in-house satisfy the human resources, as well as budgetary, requirements of the organization. One very important thing HR practitioners can do to help optimize the technology of the future is to demonstrate this fact as clearly as possible to potentially selectively deaf board members - no-one ever said it would be easy…

It’s key to remember, too, that it’s not just at the most automation-heavy end of the virtualization spectrum that the requisite degree of "humanity" needs to remain in play. As with many other facets of business and society, the rise of self-service HR technology has resulted in the parallel rise of call-center or contact-team set-ups; as with contact centers the world over, these set-ups risk being viewed with suspicion by end users at the best of times and problems can be seriously and rapidly exacerbated if the aforementioned "disconnection" begins to creep in.

Helen Dickens is Senior Manager, EMEA HR Direct Services for Symantec, a global security, storage and systems management solutions provider. During her time in her current role she has spent a great deal of energy implementing an HR helpdesk which provides as "human" as possible an experience to those Symantec employees requiring its services.

"With remote or virtual HR there needs to be a concerted effort to bridge the gap between the human query or issue and a desire to drive business efficiencies by automation and technology," Dickens believes. "The key goal is to ensure that employees are engaged with the organization and not turned off by a faceless and impersonal employer. I have worked to build a credible HR Helpdesk and to overcome some of the criticisms about remote or virtual HR being impersonal.

"One of the key areas of focus at inception was to explore what experience the customer would have of our helpdesk. I was adamant that we would have a personal and friendly approach. This was achieved from a combination of simple steps such as using a lovely local Irish accent on the phone menus (as opposed to the corporate American one). We have not gone along a heavily scripted route on our phone lines, and in our training our agents devised their own greetings and sign-offs. The approach is therefore more individual and flows more naturally."

As Dickens explains, her organization has gone to great lengths to ensure that the tendency towards dehumanization which has blighted so many contact centers across the world is avoided at all costs: "One of our ‘rules’ is that we also refrain from asking someone's employee ID number and use other methods of security checking when needed. We want people to feel as if they are a person to us rather than a number. We also make sure that we say ‘congratulations’ if someone notifies us of a new family member for their healthcare policy and make personalized replies as much as possible. This tends to be intuitive from the members of our team rather than forced."

Dickens is proud of the success she feels she and her team have achieved in a comparatively short time.

"This," she says, "was one of our customer feedback comments: ‘Actual human beings knowledgeable in HR answering your HR-related questions! What more could you ask for??!! Very good tool.’ I have also profiled our ‘typical customers’ based on our user demographics which enables us to focus on the end user. We can then put ourselves in the shoes of our customers by thinking through the implications of our service for Katy in Finance in Dublin or Patrik in Sales in Stockholm."

Including such a determinedly human element in an increasingly automated HR set-up might seem at first glance to be almost the antithesis of "virtual" HR; however, says Dickens, her department remains very much technology-enabled despite the organic nature of the contact center. Indeed, the very fact of humans staffing the center and dealing directly with individual queries has given rise to new technology-enabled tools.

"One of the benefits of creating an HR helpdesk has been the use of technology to track trends in transactions and queries," Dickens explains. "This provides the HR team with a constant stream of feedback on what our employee population are doing and thinking at any one time. Careful construction of meaningful metrics enables the HR team to identify common issues across the whole spectrum of HR activity from employee relations to systems. Actions can then be taken to address issues and improve education or information. The net result is a better experience for our end user and a stronger employer/employee relationship."

Solutions like those found by Dickens and her team are, of course, specific to a given organization - and the wider view of that fact is that for each of the challenges thrown up by the trend towards technology-enabled, "virtual" human resources, there may be a variety of specific solutions to suit each organization, or even each industry or sector. However, the bottom line remains that while the virtualization juggernaut rolls ever onwards, with all the many benefits that that entails, many of those solutions boil down to the requirement to keep humans involved at some levels at least throughout whatever human resources architecture exists.

In many areas of business the degree to which automated systems can replace hands-on human involvement is all but unlimited: one only has to look at the incredible benefits yielded via maximum automation by providers in the F&A arena, where costs per transaction have been hammered down to a remarkable level, to see the attraction of such potential. But within the HR arena things are and must be different, since the "transactions" in question involve not mere figures to be moved along a binary highway, but that most complex and potentially disruptive of elements, the human being. Keeping at least a limited human presence in the new structures, from conception through design and implementation to full operation, can provide the flexibility and responsiveness which can go a long way to preventing the "disconnection" which can prove so destabilizing within any workplace.

Automation and virtualization have done, are doing, and will do great things for organizations looking to optimize their HR functions; it’s now up to HR practitioners globally to provide the counterweight to the technology, and to demonstrate to their organizations that, far from slowing a vessel down, a counterweight exists to keep it smoothly on course, speeding straight and true towards the brave new world of technology-enabled human resources.

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