How HR can use tech to support employees, rather than watch them


Many employees are working longer hours than before
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One of the more worrying trends of remote working has been a lack of trust for employees from some managers, who often use the very tools that should be for collaboration for monitoring what their teams are doing and when. Denis Barnard and Bhagyashree Pancholy argue that technology should be able to help workers feel empowered and be able to turn off. 

When the pandemic situation required that office-based employees would have to work from home, the question in many managers’ minds was “If I can’t see them, how will I know if they’re working?”

Some tried to have employees on permanent video mode, others attempted to micro-manage with a barrage of phone calls and emails. Mass team meetings dragged out on Zoom, and to compound the effects of all this, culturally insensitive “team cocktail hours” were introduced on Friday afternoons.

After the initial elation at not having to commute, employees found themselves working longer hours – because they could – eventually leading to mental fatigue, demotivation, and a sense of isolation.

Working with furniture more suited to 20-minute meals plus lockdown eating habits also took their toll in terms of physical malaise.

State of surprise

Nonetheless, the entire blame can’t be shifted to the leaders and the managers. 2020 was the year of the pandemic and the world’s largest unplanned work- from-home experiment. Managers weren’t experienced, systems and processes weren’t geared up, and almost everyone was working in a state of fear and uncertainty.

Moving forward, however, managers will have to take steps to look at individual behaviours and workplace assessment before assigning employees to home working merely because their job can be done that way.

Psychometrics and ergonomics will come to the fore as it becomes more and more crucial to define which employees will thrive, which will need more support and to ensure that the working conditions are both safe and conducive to good performance.

The currently popular option is “hybrid” working: part in the office and part at home or remote. There are some grey areas about the overall business costs for this, but it looks as if plenty of businesses will give it a go.

In which case, there’s going to have to be some re-skilling. Management will need to be able to manage both on-site and remotely, both of which demand different handling. A bad manager could arguably do more damage with remote employees who don’t have the buffer of other workplace colleagues.

Avoiding burnout

The UN report on the impact of Covid-19 on women revealed that 1 in 4 women are looking to quit their jobs or downsize their role after the pandemic to take care of their families, and due to workload burnout.

Unplanned work from home created a lot of pressure on working parents and single mothers to multitask, juggling children’s online schooling, domestic chores, and office work.

The key is to offer flexibility. Last year, teams working from home were asked to log in and out according to regular office hours. In attempting to replicate the office online, teams struggled with the rigid hours and ultimately, some did start to cheat the system.

If people have a work schedule that works for them, then they are less likely to cheat, so why not build work plans to accommodate just that? The contracted hours can be completed within a variety of work patterns, adjusted to meet any necessary core hours and confirmed contractually.

Technology that helps, not tracks

Technology could track them NOT for monitoring purposes, but actually to ensure that employees are not burning themselves out unnecessarily.

The whole emphasis changes from passive surveillance to active engagement, looking after the employee, advising them when to take breaks, and restricting excessive access to business systems outside of contracted hours except by a logged request.

Traditionally, technology was used to gather data and insights, but new technology is already available to monitor employees on a regular basis for stress points and refer back for human intervention.

Virtual hiring and on-boarding platforms, online team building games and events, and deep tech like virtual reality meeting rooms can be used for communication and collaboration. Of course, working from home doesn’t mean that the team never meets in person, but for the days when they aren’t physically together, they can be virtually together.

Paradoxically, the flexibility offered by hybrid working also needs some form of adherence; just popping into the office when one feels like it could cause problems of space and resource allocation for that day in a slimmed-down enterprise.

Changing the face of work

It is in these aspects that the alliance of HR and technology has a wonderful chance to change the face of work: HR to enable the negotiation of individual work patterns to fit employee and the needs of the business, and the technology to ensure that the scheduling works to everyone’s benefit.

Organisations need to identify the right tools, not just for team working, but a to ensure that no individual is left out in the cold, and artificial intelligence will have a key part to play.

So, how are the managers of Remote and Hybrid going to deal with this situation? Command and control are definitely dead in the water, and a newer empathetic style will be needed to persuade, mentor and motivate, very much in the “servant leadership” style (a concept coined by Robert K Greenleaf in his essay The Servant as Leader in 1970, referring to someone who focuses on putting others’ wellbeing first).

Organisations need to identify the right tools to support them with this, not just for team working, but also to ensure that no individual is left out in the cold, and artificial intelligence will have a key part to play.

Processes and performance measures must also be re-engineered to take account of what will be a high proportion of asynchronous activity. The remote work model will create a new type of manager; one that is more of a coach, collaborator, mentor, and a wellness officer but this new manager must also know that the ways of management will still be the same – not drowning in data but being human.

New normal? No normal

Part of the HR mission will be not only to provide the tools to identify and develop these new leaders but also to build legal and compliant frameworks for the many different styles of working that are sure to evolve. The new normal could be that there is no normal.

There’s no denying that there is a lot of detail to handle, but the steps that HR professionals take now could well become insurance for the future, as some scientists are suggesting the events of 2020 could become commonplace as we encroach more on the natural world.

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