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Atomic Conversations: Trish McFarlane on the new opportunities in HR technology

A conversation with Trish McFarlane on the many possibilities with HR technology.

With over two decades of experience in HR and talent management, Trish McFarlane is a prominent figure in the world of HR tech. Currently, as the CEO and Principal Analyst at H3 HR Advisors, she is focused on providing advisory services to clients on HR technology and trends. She is also the co-host of the most listened-to HR industry podcast, the HR Happy Hour. Her contributions to the HR community have earned her numerous accolades, including being named one of HR Examiner's Top 100 HR Influencers.

Naturally, she was the perfect guest for our Atomic Conversations episode on HR tech.

From HR teams playing catch-up with HR tech innovations, to the silver lining of the pandemic that’s pushing the way we work in the right direction, Trish gave us more quotes than we could ever expect in a 25-minute conversation.

Here’s the link to the podcast, if you’d prefer to listen to the entire episode instead. For the readers, find the key insights from our conversation with Alan, edited for clarity and comprehension, below.

The HR – HR tech mismatch

I do believe that the current HR tech products are innovating and pushing themselves to improve the collective employee experience, but there's a little caveat.

Having worked as an HR leader for almost two decades and having been on the receiving end of buying and using technology, I think that the actual process of how we guide people through the employee journey is still relatively unchanged over the years. And the tech innovation for an HR leader almost seems impossible to stay up with.  

So in that regard, if you're asking me with my HR hat on, I would say yes, the innovation is absolutely where it needs to be in HR tech. Sometimes it's even maybe too advanced.

But if you're asking me as an analyst though, I do think there are more things that we can be doing.

And I'm really excited about this. When you think about artificial intelligence that enhances the difficult, mundane, or routine processes that bog down HR departments and employees, that's where the real innovation is going to make such a huge impact much more quickly than any other type of innovation.

And we’re talking about improving the entire employee life cycle, and that counts the part that’s even before someone is hired somewhere. So whether that's a talent community that you are trying to create around your brand, to get people aware of you as an employer, all the way through hiring, onboarding, and so on.

Of course, this includes the period when people are working at your company as well, but I'd even extend it to when they leave your company, like employee alumni associations, for instance.  

For me, it's about focusing on the entire employee life cycle where someone has that end-to-end relationship with the company, whether they are a potential employee all the way to a former employee.

The awareness problem

Sometimes, technology changes more quickly than the pace at which people are ready to absorb and consume.

You might go to a mid-sized company with a thousand people and find that they're still managing most processes on paper.  

So I think that it goes back to this idea of we, as technologists, want things to change more quickly because we see the value in that technology. And I think the real challenge isn't that people aren't wanting to do things more efficiently or effectively.  

If you're an HR professional, you really don't have the time. Your attention is so divided from all of the things you must do from a compliance standpoint to the things that you want to do to be very creative with your employees to give them a more personal experience.  

And all of that takes time and attention, and that's where that disconnect for me is.  

I see tech companies really doing an awesome job of trying to make those connections for HR teams. And then HR teams are still just trying to play catch up.  

Let me give you an example. I was talking with an HR leader about well-being, and she was talking about some technology that was so new and unbelievable. And I went and looked back on my blog and podcast. We were talking about the same technology a decade ago.  

Technology that you and I may think should be everyday commonplace, is just not yet, which brings a whole lot of opportunity for the vendors in the HR space.

People in their day-to-day jobs are overwhelmed. And it's not that people aren't ready for it. It's not that they don't want to do it. They're just not aware. It's an awareness problem, more than anything.

The evolving employee behavior

The pandemic has affected employee behavior to an extent. Just working in a different way than people are accustomed to has made a considerable impact.  

If you think back, a lot of people wanted flexible and remote working, and organizations were not ready to give them that. Then later when it was forced upon us, there was a little bit of backlash from the employees, saying, “Oh, I don't know if I can work from home or I can be focused at home.”  

And now that we're kind of three years past, you're starting to hear people say, “Wow, when I look back, my productivity was higher working from home, in spite of some challenges like having children and pets around.”  

But I think the biggest change for me isn't even the pandemic. That, of course, changed where we work, but it's actually the millennials and Gen Z becoming a majority in the workplace. They want to work differently.

The younger generations want a different kind of work environment with more flexibility. And now we see that it's possible.  

In a way, that may be the silver lining of the pandemic – that we now see that other types of hybrid work or remote work are possible and even profitable.

If you've been in the work world for more than 10 or 15 years already, we were trained to listen to our leaders, do what we’re told, and show up when they want us in the office. When they want us to do XYZ, we do it.  

I’m not saying that leaders in the past didn't respect their employees, but they didn’t in the way that you're seeing it today.

Today's leaders feel more human.

Because they've been thrust into this world of pandemic work as well, they now have to work with the challenges of having to work from home, having to balance child care, elder care, unexpected expenses, unexpected health issues, and so on. And the previous generation of leaders was removed from that.  

As you get promoted and move up through your career, you get a bit more removed from the people just joining the workforce. And the recent changes compressed that gap a little bit, in a good way.

The shift from being reactive to proactive

While organizations didn't have any experience with a situation like this, I saw a lot of them, in a matter of a month, change the entire way they communicate with their workforce. In one regard, I saw many HR professionals going back and almost doing an audit of the technologies they have and their capabilities.  

Initially, there was a lot of, “What do we have? Do we have any tools in place that can actually help us communicate with our new hires and employees better?”

As the pandemic has worn on, and roles are not going back to an actual physical workplace as quickly as we originally hoped, we're now seeing HR leaders and other C-suite leaders proactively reach out to other organizations who produce technology that solves for the future.  

At first, HR was very much reactive to the changes. And now, the turn in the last six months is toward a proactive approach to seeking technologies that help them get better.

And that's where a lot of startups are going to see some benefits. Because they can be nimbler and more creative, and get something up and started more quickly. Many large enterprise businesses are gravitating to those kinds of companies to help them in putting a solution together, that none of the big providers offer.

Three or four years ago, we would have done just whatever we were already doing. So while the pandemic was horrible, it has brought some interesting opportunities for technology.

We've dreamed about this for the last 20 or 30 years. Over the span of my entire career, I've always wanted more flexibility. I always wanted to work remotely. I always wanted to be able to connect with a colleague on a video call. And now it's here.  

There are challenges and we don't work the same way that we did before, but people are a little more open to change than they were three years ago.

It would have been a lot harder for me to go to an executive-level person in an organization and convince them why having personalized employee communication enhanced by AI was important. They might think, “Oh, that's the future, I don't need to worry about that yet.” And all of a sudden, now they're compelled to go seek that out.

The road ahead for HR tech

The HR tech space has gotten exciting. I'm seeing and hearing about new technologies almost every other day.

The first and foremost area in HR that has come around with tech innovations is payroll and benefits.

The solutions seem to be a combination of core, must-have use cases with a whole lot of nice-to-have things built in. People can get paid more rapidly. There's a lot more flexibility with solutions that can account for various tax implications across different states or countries. There are all those kinds of compliance aspects that technology is now addressing that it didn't before.  

I also predict a lot of innovation happening around personalization. We need tools that can help us connect with employees in the way that they’re comfortable connecting. For some, it's video. For some, it's audio. For others, it's written.  

We're starting to see leaders think about that a little more than they did before. Because before the pandemic, it was very much, the leader would say, “You know what? This is the message. This is how I'm giving the message, whether people like it or not.”  

And now we're flipping it.

Another interesting problem we can solve is burnout.

We do have a burnout problem. But I don't think it's any worse than before. These days, we're much more attuned to it and we talk about it more. And that’s good.  

And we can use technology to figure out what parts of our lives are making us feel burned out and where we need help. Is it childcare? Is it elder care? Is it things around the house that need to be taken care of? Is it where we live? Is it food insecurity? Is it overall anxiety and poor mental health? Is it a financial problem?  

All of those things I just mentioned now have, if you need it, a fairly reasonably priced technology solution to help you. And that's the difference.

I think it has made asking for help and having help acceptable. We are much more introspective and open to saying what we need help with.  

What we're not as good at though is taking it to that next step.  

We know we have tools to help us. We're not as good at knowing and using those tools. And that's where I think we can improve in the next few years and really try to reduce that burnout.

How to deal with the current crisis

Only worry about what you have some control over, truly. Don’t spend your time thinking about hypotheticals.

When executives come to me worried about the economy and are not sure how they are going to keep their businesses afloat, I ask them to start by pulling everything inward.

What are the key roles that we need to keep this company going? And keep it profitable?  

Sit down with your HR leaders and your teams, and have these discussions. It has to be also cross-functional discussions. It cannot be solved by HR alone or by technology alone.

This is the time to bring in IT, who can give you a better picture of the technological dependencies. This is the time to bring in marketing, who have the pulse of what's going on outside your company.

What jobs do we have to keep full and are they filled right now? Who are the ones that we really need to make sure we keep here on board?  

And I'm not going to call them top performers because they might not be your best performers. I'm going to call them your key performers, people who are in critical roles.  

If you focus most of your energy on those areas and keep the core business running, then any extra time can be spent on those hypotheticals and what-ifs that come at you.

But I see a lot of organizations doing the flip of that.  

Many companies are so worried about the big picture and they don't worry about their own backyard, and then it's a little too late. And then they start losing people in those really key positions.

And be open to being creative.  

If you are having a tough time filling a role, get creative with that. Maybe one of your clients has someone in that role. Maybe they'll job share with you for six months. I'm not seeing a lot of this.  

I'm not seeing the HR teams and the talent acquisition professionals getting super, super creative on how to fill needed roles. And they must.

Your client base is some of your biggest fans. They want you to succeed. So I would be leaning on them and exploring solutions. I'd spend much more time on that sort of activity than I would on trying to give people a dollar more per hour. I just don't think you're going to get the return on it if you just focus on money or if you continue to focus on some of the things people are doing right now.

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