Insight: technology can be positive driver within HR

Technology is all too frequently regarded negatively by HR departments because the likes of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics are being viewed as replacements for humans in the workplace. But it can absolutely bring lots of advantages.

Speaking at The Retail Bulletin HR Summit 2018 in London recently, Martin Kirke, group HR director at the Post Office, suggested to delegates that people have “negative default settings” when it comes to some of the newer technologies like AI and that it invariably prompts companies to take one of three options - “flight, fight or freeze”. He suggests each one produces stress, anxiety and disruption among the workforce.

Utilising technology for learning

His solution is that these issues can be reduced by career coaching and that HR departments can utilise technology to great advantage. He cites virtual reality simulations of workplace surroundings that can massively help training without employees needing to be on site.

Kirke also advocates the use of ‘gamification’ in the learning process. “Making learning more fun helps and social media is now merging with Learning Management Systems. This is useful for franchised operations and for compliance (of financial services and hygiene for instance). It also helps if you can get all this on mobile phones - and the more gamification the better - especially for certain parts of the employee base,” he says.

Reaching disparately located employees

He also suggests that such types of mobile-based solutions enable retailers to tap into the knowledge spread throughout their businesses, which is very much recognised by Guy Chiswick, MD of UK & Ireland at Speakap, who says the Speakap solution has the fundamental aim of using an app to connect employees around a business that operates from multiple locations.

“It’s a one-stop-shop for employees to access all content that is relevant to them within the organisation. As it is a work platform - rather than an add-on to a social media platform - it targets communications at the relevant people (in a department or a group). It does not go out to everybody as that’s not efficient,” he says.

Empowering employees through knowledge

Hudson’s Bay is a Speakap customer and one of the ways it uses the solution is to link employees to its loyalty programme. Geert Crooijmans, CRM manager at Hudson’s Bay Company, says: “If the employee is talking to a customer then the app can be used by the employee to access information on the customer. This enables them to have a good conversation. They can also make notifications on Speakap after the conversation with the customer, which goes into the CRM system.”

This highlights how Speakap helps retailers to better engage with customers by empowering employees with information and enabling them to act upon it. This is a proven way to drive better engagement with members of staff, which is very much on the agenda of retailers today - although the term ‘engagement’ is not universally liked.

Engagement is not just about customers

Melanie Steel, interim transformation manager at Arriva Insurance, says: “Why do companies overly focus on customers? Sometimes they neglect employees. When you go into a company you see all these dashboards on customer metrics. Why not leverage what you do with customer experience for your employees?”

She avoids mentioning the term engagement because it is simply seen as a survey by most employees. Katy Downes, senior engagement manager at Network Rail, also believes there is a problem with the term and that it needs a rebrand, such is its bad reputation.

Part of this is a move away from the annual survey to ongoing ‘Pulse’ surveys that can be undertaken on digital devices. “For the first time we are giving our employees no paper for our surveys. For the 10,000 people in the company that are given no technology [as part of their job] we are asking them if they are okay using their own devices. We’re moving across to this method,” she says.

Digitising the survey

The increasing use of technology for such communication is also apparent at River Island where Nebel Crowhurst, head of its talent development, says all full-time employees have been asked if they want to do Pulse surveys via text and that no one in the company has declined the offer.

“It’s a simple frictionless way to communicate with people. We’ve had great uptake. We run them more tactically - at certain times in specific areas of the company. They are very relevant at that time and it is technology that is supporting this,” she explains.

Crowhurst also believes there should be a change in the way retailers treat former employees, with positive connections being maintained. This is particularly relevant for retail which has a traditionally high level of staff turnover. “A lot of people come and go. We should always keep the door open. I’d recommend putting in place a mechanism that keeps them involved. We need to look at things more broadly,” she suggests.

Health & wellbeing rises up the agenda

Looking at things more broadly undoubtedly includes health & wellbeing, which has shot up the agendas of all companies as they come to recognise the myriad benefits that this can bring. Claire Douglas, head of occupational health & wellbeing at SCS Railways, says the best way to start such an initiative is to devise a “vision for how it should be and then get some buy-in from the board”. She undertook surveys within the business and from the various measurements and findings that this generated Douglas held discussions with the HR department to develop the strategy.

What she found was that a lot of things can actually be done on a “shoestring” because there are many elements of a health & wellbeing strategy that can be downloaded from organisations like Mind. What also helped the budget at legal firm DWF was the level of buy-in from employees whereby many people volunteered to be involved and helped organise monthly events in the company’s various offices. These included straightforward things like ‘get fit and eat healthy month’.

At Royal Mail, it’s wellbeing strategy and website ‘Feeling First Class’ was helped by the support of the unions who were very keen on stress assessments for its members. Judith Grant, formerly of Royal Mail and now at Mace Group, says: “They encouraged people to sign-up and the website then showed them a variety of tools. The information that came back to them would be tailored [to their requirements].”

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