Insights Employee Experience

How HR thinks about the relationship between employees and the company when everyone is remote

This is Part 3 of my ongoing series of what I learned about how HR folks think about EUC, based on conversations I had with over 50 HR professionals over the course of 2020. 

So far in this series, I’ve focused on basic topics, such as how organizations measure and maintain productivity in a world of distributed work in Part 1, and how employees personally cope with working from home in Part 2. 

In today’s post, I’m going to dig into the relationship between the employer and the remote employee by looking at the following topics: 

  • Skills & training 
  • Measuring effectiveness 
  • Quality of work product 
  • Employee satisfaction & retention 

Skills and training 

Over the past few years, there’s been an ongoing conversation about whether entry-level office workers have the skills needed to succeed in the business world, and how those skills will evolve over time. While companies spend enormous amounts of money on training, most of it is used for tactical skills: How to file a TPS report. How to do a SWOT analysis via Miro. How to interview candidates in a way that respects diversity and inclusion initiatives. How to identify phishing emails. And so on. Tactical skills like this are – and will continue to be – critical for organizations of all sizes. 

Equally as critical, though, will be helping employees develop higher-order skills. Think of this like the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but for knowledge workers. At the base level are skills like using email, knowing how to unmute themselves on Zoom and writing persuasive position papers in Word. On top of that are role-specific skills. For example, a product marketing manager needs to know what their products are, the market landscape, their target audience and how to write marketing copy. 

But in order for an employee to truly succeed, they need another layer on top for critical thinking skills. Unfortunately, the higher up the pyramid you go, the more abstract the skills become – meaning that both assessment and training are more complex. This applies to both current and prospective employees. Even the classification and description of those skills is complex. Heck, in this blog post I’m calling these “critical thinking” skills, but what does that even mean? 

Luckily, the entire profession of HR has been thinking about this long before the pandemic. It’s just that things suddenly got more difficult (but not less critical) now that hiring and working together can be entirely remote. HR has the unenviable role to both identify which top-level skills will be important in future job roles, while simultaneously figuring out how to assess and maintain those skills and traits! (Suddenly trying to figure out how to get 80% of your employees out of the office with 48 hours’ notice doesn’t seem so bad!) 

Measuring effectiveness 

We already discussed individual employee productivity and their individual effective ability to work from home in prior posts, and that’s certainly important to HR. But what’s equally important is to zoom out, from “employees who are individually effective” to “groups of employees who are effective together as a team,” and then even farther to “groups of teams who work together to create an effective organization.” Again, you can use Maslow’s hierarchy as a mental model here. 

Providing tools to employees is relatively straightforward: Here are your Office, Slack and Zoom apps. Here’s your Workspace ONE Intelligent Hub. Here’s the portal where you can pick whatever laptop and mobile device you want. Here’s a portal where you can order a standing desk, ergonomic chair and webcam. Oh, and since we care, here’s your subscription to a mediation app and a bell that dings when you start slouching. 

But again, is this what employees need to be successful and effective? What does that even mean? Ask 100 people how they would define success or effectiveness, and you’ll get 100 different answers. If a company hires an employee, and they do their job and complete their tasks and get all fives on their reviews, and everyone loves them, but they actually don’t enjoy their job and are just doing the minimum needed to not get fired, is that an effective employee? Is that an example of success? (They still work here!) Or an example of failure? (They are surely not doing their best work.) 

Back in Part 1, we already explored why measuring “productivity” is not as simple as it seems. But we have to measure something, right? (Big data and machine learning and all that.) Since we live in a capitalist society, in the case of a for-profit company, at the most basic level, success is defined as profitability. But does that mean measuring profitability year over year is a proxy for measuring success? What if the company is profitable now, but not as much as they were in prior years? What if the profit decreases one year? How would you know if that was due to a market issue, or a product issue that resulted from employees lacking the needed higher-order skills? 

These questions and pressures are causing HR professionals to think about how they can build a framework for ensuring and measuring success that is compatible with the present reality of employees that are no longer working in the same physical space or at the same times of day. 

HR practitioners of the 2020s recognize that the entire modern construct of employee effectiveness and productivity are vestiges of the industrial revolution, back when workers were interchangeable cogs of a giant machine, productivity was quantifiable, and bosses knew how to keep their piece of the larger machinery in motion. These days, everyone understands this model doesn’t make sense anymore, but unfortunately there isn’t an agreed upon sense of what to do instead. 

Several of the HR professionals I spoke to were refreshingly candid about the role the tech industry plays here. Sure, they love the new and rapidly evolving remote collaboration and project management tools like Zoom, Slack, Teams and Smartsheet. Their inboxes are stuffed with vendor marketing emails touting case studies of other customers who’ve leveraged all the great features these products have. But what’s harder to find are legitimate case studies about how customers have solved organizations challenges with these tools. Forget features and functions for a moment – they all get that there are dozens of truly great modern distributed tools available today. But what’s the psychological workflow impact of running a project via a collaboration tool where everyone is remote? Is this a long-term solution they should pivot towards, or a temporary thing that will disappear in a few years? And how would they even know? 

Quality of work product 

We already discussed that defining “success” is difficult. But it’s still important to try, since you have to define success before you can even attempt to measure it. Regardless of how or whether it’s quantified, there’s a sense among HR professionals that whatever “it” is, it is slipping in this world where everyone is everywhere. 

At the most basic level, every interaction throughout an organization has more friction now. For example, there’s no more popping your head out of the cubicle farm to ask which cover sheets are supposed to be used for the TPS reports this month. The tech industry responded with tools like Slack and Zoom to enable groups of remote people chat about impromptu topics like this, but those sort of backfired as they’ve evolved into a permanent and ever-growing transaction log of literally every random group conversation between all employees. So, the obedient employee who follows all the new guidelines and takes that two-hour mental health walk returns to find 17 pages of random group conversations which require 20 minutes to scroll through, and which may or may not include information they should know. This is obviously not ideal, but what’s the fix? Take your phone on your head space walk? Isn’t that just making the problem worse? 

Don’t get me wrong – over the course of 2020, these tech tools demonstrated to us that it is possible to transact and interact remotely. But is that what we want? Is this making our work product better? Companies and thought leaders have been flirting with “email bans” or “getting rid of email” for years. Is banning Slack, Teams and group IMs next? Would that lead to better quality work products? How would we even know? 

Employee satisfaction and retention 

Again, many of the issues and topics HR is thinking about in 2021 at not new. But the manifestation of those is completely novel. Even something as basic as employee satisfaction and retention has been tossed on its head. 

While the pandemic added friction to every employee-to-employee micro-interaction, it removed the friction from other areas. For example, for knowledge workers working from home, the friction of changing jobs is now much lower. Prior to the pandemic, an employee’s commute, traffic, parking, the office campus environment – as well as amenities like meals, day care, dry cleaning and turtle ponds – directly affected employees in a meaningful way on a daily basis. If an employee wanted to change jobs, all of these things would have to be taken into consideration. Employers obviously understand this, which is why they provide them in the first place. They want to increase the friction of changing jobs! 

But in a world where employees can work from anywhere, the friction of changing jobs is much lower. Using myself as an example, my workday routine is wake up, stretch for ten minutes, walk down downstairs to get coffee and an egg, then go to my home office area, where I sit (or stand) at my computer and use Office and Zoom until lunch. 

What if I left my company to go to a competitor in this environment? I’d probably create a pros/cons list like I would have done in the past, but this time, the number of items on the list would be much smaller. These days, I don’t have to consider commute times, impacts on my evening activities, or which brand of Greek yogurt my employer provides. I could quit my job on Tuesday and start at the new company on Wednesday with literally zero change to my daily routine. In this work from anywhere world, employees are much more incentivized to shop around for better jobs since their next one is just a right swipe away. 

The HR industry has spent decades studying employee retention strategies and trying to quantify what’s important. But so many of the metrics they’ve traditionally based this on simply don’t apply in a world where employees aren’t working in the same building day after day. 

For example, traditional thinking suggests that how much an employee likes the people they work with is important. But what’s that mean now? The people you work with now are nothing more than avatars and headshots in emails, chats and maybe a video call or two. Is that enough to bond over? I feel like I have a better bond with Joe Rogan after listening his podcasts for a decade than I do the coworker I’ve never met but that I’ve been teammates with for three years. 

The other reality of remote office work is that it’s reduced to work to just the “work”. While certain work tasks are more fun than others, the social aspects of work have largely been removed now that the entire universe of work is squeezed through your screen and phone. There’s no more casual lunches, happy hours and traveling to conferences together. 

This has caused a shift in employee behaviors, as they’ve adapted over the past year by transitioning their daily human interaction and comradery away from coworkers and instead to friends, loved ones and social groups. That’s not to say that hanging out with friends and family hasn’t changed a lot in the last year, but today, work interaction is now nothing more than, well, work interaction. 

Again, this is not a bad thing from the employees’ standpoint. In the long run, they’ll probably be better for it. (You can pick your friends but not your coworkers.) But from the company perspective, this adds more fuel to the “work is just work” fire, and changing jobs in this world is low-friction and not nearly the big deal it was two years ago. 

Final Thoughts 

Putting all this together, as an IT professional, I’m interested in learning more about the lens through which HR views our users. (Or “people”, as HR calls them.) I’m also excited about the changes that working from anywhere will bring, and that HR is working hard to support us, as well as our personal and organizational effectiveness. 

In the next part in this series, I’ll continue to dig into the issues that the HR practitioners I spoke with are thinking about, including how companies can extend their culture to remote workers, what the company can do to encourage greatness, and how HR can help prevent the breakdown of teams and inclusion when everyone is remote. 

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