HR Must Emphasize the Human Connection Over Technology as The Workforce Changes

Tim Schigel, Partner, Refinery Ventures

Tim Schigel, Partner, Refinery Ventures

The U.S. workforce has never seen so much change over such a short period of time. In just the last decade-plus we’ve seen the onset of the gig economy, artificial intelligence coming to take many of our jobs and, in the middle of all of this, COVID-19 turning almost all of us into remote workers overnight.

This rapid change is putting more pressure on human resources departments to adapt. Traditional HR was built for the post-World War II industrial era when mass standardization, process optimization and treating companies like machines were the keys to growth and scale. That approach doesn’t work anymore. Workforce optimization is no longer only about efficiencies and numbers, but about becoming more people-oriented and less hung up on pre-determined processes that remove independent thought.

Today’s workers are different, which is something that Dr. Timothy Irwin makes clear in his book, “Extraordinary Influence: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Others.” In every company, people are aligned in terms of what he calls the “I” of their personal experience, the “We” of their relationships with coworkers and supervisors and the “It” of the company as a whole. Every worker’s goals and aspirations are seen through that prism, including what’s in it for them, their group and the company.

But remote work, gig work and the other new paradigms are forcing companies to get creative in how they hire and manage people in their organizations.

When most people are remote, the bar is raised in terms of transparency and communications. Managers have to be even clearer in what they say and how they interact, with a greater focus on personalizing their message and sensing what their direct reports need on a day-to-day basis in order to make sure everyone is aligned even when they aren’t under one roof.

The human element is key

Whereas the old approach to HR was more mechanical, scaling today’s workforce is a more biological, networked-based process.

Technology can and should play a major role in meeting these needs, but it can’t overlook the importance of human contact, particularly in remote work. Tools such as AI-based resume scrapers and automated recruiting systems are great, but in today’s environment it’s critical that when he comes to “artificial intelligence” that we emphasize the “intelligence” part, and it is uniquely human.

In order to take that next quantum leap in AI or workforce optimization, you can’t keep doing things the same way they’ve always been done. If you are investing in tech it should be to help assess talent better and differently, and to help your organization be more adaptable in these fast-changing times. Organizations looking to bridge this shift need to be:

Personalized: Remote workers and gig employees don’t feel the same connection to their jobs as traditional full-time workers do. For them it’s helpful to think about work as a tour of duty – what do they want to accomplish in this role over the next two to three years, before moving on? In that alignment, processes need to be personal and actionable in order to get them aligned and working in weeks, not taking years to figure things out.

Sensing: At Mailchimp they spend a lot of time making sure every employee at every level can empathize with their customers, with the idea being that they’ll be more effective employees if they have a direct understanding of how their job relates to their customers. The old approach would be to have a department that’s focused on customer relations, and everyone else would ignore them. That isn’t good enough anymore. Workers need to understand who they’re really doing all this for and why.

Adaptive: Work from home mandates shook up more than a few offices, exposing those organizations that were truly agile. Setting up Zoom accounts and managing remote time are the first steps, but the companies that get this right will have to move faster and be more strategic going forward, without losing the personal connections they’ve built.

The challenge for leaders is to think beyond what’s worked in the past. Are you deploying technology that is enabling your organization to be better at sensing, more adaptable and more personalized? Or are you investing in tech that’s just a linear extension of what you have been doing?

Those companies that thrive with this new type of workforce will need to do things more cohesively and in ways that maximize human performance and help employees become fully activated in their roles, no matter what the day-to-day looks like.

Weekly Brief

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