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Realities of creating a flexible, digital and integrated workplace

Kirsty Graham, VP People Success, the Nordics, UK & Ireland and Customer X - Unit4

Skills supply is becoming an increasing challenge for organisations in both the commercial and public sectors. In addition, the ongoing pandemic has affected how they and employees work and communicate. This places new demands on HR and the question is how to organise the work to attract, motivate and develop employees now and in the future.

Recently, I had the pleasure of reading the transcript from a Swedish webinar*, which featured Stefan Tengblad, professor of Human Resource Management at the University of Gothenburg, discussing what the future of the workplace will mean for employers and employees.

Among other things, he said that the pandemic has freed up time for many employees, not least due to reduced commuting. It has made it easier to concentrate on work, as there have been fewer ad hoc meetings, meaning more focus on what to deliver. According to the discussions during the webinar, two thirds of employees have enjoyed working from home and feel they have achieved their business goals. Many have also started new hobbies that have led an increased quality of life.

Moving forward, they also want to be able to work both from home and in the office. Professor Tengblad emphasised the importance of holding on to these positives from the pandemic and not to slide back into old office habits from 2019. The three main positives Prof. Tengblad shared that he believes will change how we work are flexibility, digitisation and integration. As an HR professional working on the frontline of managing this transformation I can very much relate to how they are impacting the HR function and what it will mean for employees moving forward.

  1. Flexibility
    While it is widely accepted that flexible work is the biggest trend there is a lot to consider when trying to understand what it means for organisations. It does mean an increase in atypical employment, including the introduction of agile forms of working patterns and flexible offices, where individuals have no fixed desk or ”home.” While that raises important concerns about culture and cohesion it fundamentally means that work does not necessarily have to be done in an office.

So flexibility can, for example, become a discussion about work being performed more independently of place and time, where you can benefit from people working in different time zones. Some who work more in the evenings can work when the rest of the team is resting. There are several benefits for organisations with this approach, especially when you know you do not have a steady need for labour. But it can also be good for the individual.

However, employee welfare becomes critically important in such circumstances to ensure employees are not over-working. We are all aware of ”Zoom fatigue” which is why we’ve worked hard to introduce policies such as Flex4U, where we allow our teams to choose when they need to be in the office, and when they need to work remotely nurturing this concept of working from where you are most comfortable. We also run Fit4U, which is designed to help our employees stay mentally, socially and physically fit. It covers various exercise, yoga and wellbeing classes during the day as well as activities for our staff’s children.

  1. Digitisation
    The trend of continuous digitisation is also very strong. More and more personnel administration is performed using digital tools, which frees up time for in-depth analysis and more high-value HR work. At Unit4, we are looking beyond the benefits that automation can bring to mundane administrative tasks. In the HR team we are looking at digitisation as a way to improve customer service to our customers. For example, we have looked to automate processes around onboarding to reduce the number of forms new employees have to complete. Now the onboarding process begins before an employee joins and is completed online using a clickdown menu rather than extensive data input. This ensures employees are engaged with the business much more quickly, which ultimately means they will also be more productive. Also, being a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) platform did make it easier for us to increase digitisation of the HR services offered to our employees. As teams moved to remote working models, we could quickly automate processes so that employees could interact efficiently with HR.

Digitisation is also enabling far better use of data for decision making. HR analytics will play an important role because the new HR systems contain a lot of information that can be used for decision-making in various ways. In the future this will evolve further as artificial intelligence (AI) is integrated into HR processes enabling HR teams to crunch increasing volumes of data for more real-time, predictive analysis of employee data to spot trends. In this scenario, the combination of automation and AI will mean the technology frees up a lot of time, so there will be an increasing expectation from the business that HR provides high-value, strategic insights that inform and support business decision making.

  1. Integration
    A third trend that Stefan Tengblad is seeing more and more is the integration of HR into the rest of the organisation. The feeling of building something together has been reinforced by the pandemic.

Previously, many saw HR as “those who sit over there in the other building” but now they are more present in much more aspects of the business. You work less in silos and more together thanks to digital tools. It transforms and develops organisations.

In the future, we will see a greater integration of knowledge-sharing in companies, an area that Stefan Tengblad has chosen to call this OI or “organizational innovation”. Research and development already exist in many companies today, but one can also imagine a function that takes responsibility for the development of the organisation itself in terms of, for example, employee roles and organisational structures. It can be a cross-functional team where HR takes a leading role but where you work together with, for example, IT specialists, organisational developers, engineers, sustainability specialists and brand developers.

To an extent, we are already experimenting with this type organisational innovation using our talent management tool. We have invested heavily in improving the quality of data about our employees and we are using this software to analyse employee engagement. Taking data from interactions with employees, such as weekly pulse check-ins, we can use Unit4 Talent Management to extract insights which will inform strategy in a much more agile and dynamic way.

Of course, to sustain the benefits of these positive changes highlighted by Prof. Tengblad, you cannot just rely on innovative technologies: how you communicate is crucial, as well as who is doing the communicating. Throughout the pandemic, we communicated regularly with our employees and we have now adopted Remote Employee Surveys to gain a weekly insight into attitudes, morale and engagement. These surveys provide a much more agile way to both engage and respond to employee concerns. However, these insights are wasted without purposeful leadership. Over the last two years our senior executives have been front and centre of our communications with employees to ensure that all our employees understand the commitment from the business to creating the right environment.

Our senior team have shown through their own example the importance of work life balance, so that employees have permission to take time to do essential family tasks and not become a victim of Zoom fatigue. It boils down to behaviours, demonstrating the right ones and rewarding them among our teams. The combination of our communication strategy and leadership commitment has ensured that everyone is comfortable with understanding what flexibility means to them and are not pressured into one way of working. There has been greater willingness to embrace digital, because everyone on the team is doing it together and we are training our leaders to find ways to new ways to interact with employees that acknowledges the different approaches required for flexible working. For example, annual reviews have been replaced by quarterly check-ins, supplemented by regular informal catch-ups. We encourage teams to take time on Teams calls to talk about more than work to build relationships.

Building these bonds also makes integration and collaboration much easier, and again how our leaders act to foster such integration has been key. Our CEO introduced a new ’people-centric’ vision for the company, because he sees how we treat our employees as essential to our success as a business. This vision engenders a spirit of teamwork that has strengthened the culture of the company throughout the pandemic and now as we emerge we have the foundations to make the most of the flexibility, digitisation and integration opportunities that lie ahead.

*Organised by Unit4

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