Insights Employee Experience

I talked to 50 HR people about their 2021 plans. Here’s what I learned.

Last week, I blogged about the conversations I had with 100 IT professionals over the course of 2020, and what I learned about their plans for 2021. But in addition to all those IT professionals, I also had the chance to (Zoom) meet with over 50 HR professionals throughout the year.

This was not something I signed up for per se–rather, it was sort of, “Hey Brian, you talk to lots of customers, can you talk to this HR person too?” I was nervous at first since I felt like I had nothing meaningful to offer, and honestly most of what I thought about HR was based on caricatures like Catbert the Evil HR Director or Toby from The Office.

That said, every HR professional I met with seemed truly excited about their role in their organizations. They were highly engaged in their jobs, cared about supporting their employees, and were excited to help create an organizational culture where people could thrive and feel fulfilled. I might go so far as to say that the people I met with spoke more highly of their employees than IT people do! (I mean, they refer to them as “people” and not “users.” What!?!)

From an IT perspective, these conversations were enlightening for me since the past few years have seen HR play a larger role in the conversation about EUC and the future of work. VMware leaned pretty hard into the “employee experience” theme a few years ago, launching our Employee Experience Summit for HR professionals in 2019. And of course, there’s a huge HR angle to what we’re doing with Workspace ONE and our Intelligent Hub platform.

Today’s post will be what I — a life-long end-user computing person — learned about HR and how HR professionals think about EUC. I have a lot more share about this, so likely my next couple of posts will cover this as well.

Part 2 covers how HR thinks about employee well-being when everyone is working from home.

Part 3 covers how HR thinks about the relationship between employees and the company.

How HR thinks about productivity

In the business context, when the pandemic first began and we first ensured that everyone could go home safely, the next thing everyone was concerned about was productivity. “Will our users be as productive at home as they were in the office?” was the driving question.

Much of this concern was practical. Will their computers work? Will they have access to everything they need? Will they be able to collaborate effectively? However, there was also a supervisory standpoint to it. Will my employees actually be working, or more focused on teaching their kids, caring for loved ones, streaming Netflix or enjoying weekday brunch wine?

The HR folks I spoke to had a pretty cool mindset around this. Early in the pandemic, the talk was about how productivity is the ratio of inputs to outputs. Increasing output from the same amount of input is the definition of an increase in productivity. This also means that lower output is not the same as lower productivity, since as long as inputs are decreased at the same time, then the ratio stays the same. The thinking was that early in the pandemic, output would decrease, but so would the costs (no T&E, no office amenities or utility bills, etc.), so productivity would stay the same.

Broadly speaking, the lowered output didn’t really happen. Sure, there were a few weeks of confusion as everyone scattered and we all figured out the mechanics of working outside of the office, but once we got over that hump, it seemed that the output was the same, even though companies were saving all that money on inputs. Technically speaking, this means that there was actually an increase in productivity!

Of course, much of this can be attributed to the “extra” time employees were now working. In some ways, it’s like every employee gained an extra three hours per day (an hour commute each way plus and hour for lunch). Since the early days of the pandemic had a “we’re all in this together” feel, and since everyone assumed it would only last a few months, people “powered through” and continued getting their work done, even if it meant they were working more hours.

As we got into the summer, though, other issues started creeping up. We realized the pandemic was going to last for all of 2020 and into 2021, workers started to get antsy and output dropped.

This is when we started hearing things about companies wanting to quantify and measure productivity. (Most of the HR professionals I spoke with pointed out that while HR was tasked with figuring out how to do this, it wasn’t HR themselves who thought this was necessary.)

Regardless, many vendors and managers started trying to quantify productivity, which led to some attempts which backfired in a pretty huge way, such as Microsoft’s Office 365 employee Productivity Score. Even though Microsoft backed down from that, the central question of how organizations track employee productivity is still a huge question in 2021.

It’s a thorny issue for several reasons. First is the elephant in the room of, “Why now?” Why are employers suddenly interested in quantifying employee productivity now? How did they track productivity before the pandemic, and why doesn’t that work now? Some people say, “Because people are no longer in the office.” But that simplification suggests that when employees were sitting in cubicles, managers were magically able to know how productive they were. But how? Did they equate “butt in seat” = “productive”? Were the managers also looking at the employees’ screens to make sure they weren’t on social media all day?

Even though this seems like an IT issue, the real issue is about the relationship between the employer and employee, and what level of trust is there. This falls within the realm of HR more than IT. (I’ll dig more into this in the coming weeks.)

HR should move fast and iterate

The other thing I heard again and again, especially early on in the pandemic, was that “we have to figure it out as we go along.” HR professionals are bombarded with sales pitches for all sorts of tools, platforms and products which help employees connect, work and be productive. They understand that some combination of these tools will be critical in the future of work.

But they also understand that no one’s really discovered how to use them in a truly meaningful and effective way. There’s this sense that there’s some awesome better way “out there,” with no clue how to access it.

I use the analogy of the early days of TV. When TV was invented, there was this vague idea that it would be game changing, but it was more hypothetical since, you know, no content existed to show on TV. They literally just pointed cameras at radio actors. It would be decades before the concepts of the TV universe we know today came into focus.

This is where we are today with the tools which enable remote work. Is Zoom the best way to have a virtual meeting? Five years from now, we’ll look back and laugh at how we were naively trying to imitate in-person conference room meetings. But in the meantime, Zoom is good enough.

The key is to make a guess, try it, learn and repeat.

Many of us have joked that pre-2020, getting all your users out of the office would’ve been an 18-month project. And yet in March 2020, we saw companies send tens of thousands of workers home in a span of 48 hours. Was everything perfectly smooth the first days, weeks or month? Not at all! But within two or three months, everything was humming along nicely, and IT folks around the world stood back and said, “Wow, we did that in like 10 percent of the time it would’ve taken without the pandemic.”

This is a good thing! It’s agile development applied to EUC.

Most of the HR professionals I spoke with fully recognized that they didn’t have all the answers to what working from anywhere really meant, and they weren’t sure what would and wouldn’t work within their organizations. But they were enthusiastically willing to experiment and try. The mass migration out of the office proved that an agile, experimental approach to big changes can work, so now HR professionals are working to continue those concepts as they understand more about how their employees exist and work outside of the office.

“Done is better than perfect,” one HR leader said to me. “We never imagined we could achieve something as huge and fast as we did (referring to how quickly they moved everyone out of the office). What can we learn from this, and what’s it mean about the other things we thought were not possible?”

“Don’t let perfect be the enemy of progress,” said another.

Now there’s a policy I can get behind!