The future workplace experience

Providing a compelling employee experience is the new HR
By Marcel Vander Wier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/17/2017
The future workplace experience
Credit: Nor Gal/Jonathan Weiss/Chonlachai (Shutterstock)

Rapidly changing workforce compositions and the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) will change the face of human resources forever, according to Jeanne Meister, a partner at Future Workplace, an HR advisory and research firm in New York.

The shift began in 2015 when, after three years as CHRO at Airbnb, Mark Levy changed his title to chief employee experience officer, with a vision of creating experiences that touched employees emotionally in order to strengthen bonds, said Meister.

“Basically, Mark has created an experience that really taps all the senses — emotional, physical, learning and cultural — so that you really are able to create an experience that mirrors the best experience that customers have with Airbnb.”

Since then, three Fortune 500 companies have followed Levy’s lead in implementing “employee experience” personnel: Intel, General Electric and Whirlpool, said Meister. “It gives you a sense of how fast we’re moving.”

Levy’s actions inspired her recent book: The Future Workplace Experience: 10 Rules for Mastering Disruption in Recruiting and Engaging Employees.

The book’s thesis is simple, said Meister, speaking at a recent Strategic Capability Network (SCN) event in Toronto.

“This is an opportunity for HR to create the same compelling experiences and to mirror the very best customer experiences that your organizations and companies provide,” she said.

“It really looks at this huge shift that we’re seeing which is moving HR from focusing on efficiency, standardization and self-service offerings… to apply a marketing mindset which looks at how to provide this compelling employee experience.”

Going forward, HR leaders will need to deliver vastly different experiences and solutions to employees, employing a marketing mindset that assumes the answers are still unknown, said Meister.

Changing workforce

A rapidly changing workforce composition and the rise of the gig economy are two of the major factors driving the new-look future workplace, she said.

In just three years’ time, more than half of the United States workforce will be millennials and generation Z workers, said Meister. In Canada, that number is slightly lower at 40 per cent.

And while the majority of the workforce becomes younger, there’s also the “silver tsunami” effect as older workers choose to stave off retirement to remain at work. In short order, five generations of workers will be working side-by-side for the first time in history — which will inevitably lead to tensions, she said.

At the same time, one-third of American employees now work gig jobs — be that part time, moonlighting or in temporary contract positions, said Meister. All of this means changes lie ahead for the traditional role of HR.

“Traditionally, if most of your population was full-time employees, you were designing learning and development programs and certification programs just for full-time employees,” she said. “It’s going to change how you do your job and it’s also going to change who’s eligible for some of the benefits you’re just giving full-time employees.”

“It leads you to overwhelmingly say, ‘Standardization can no longer work in HR,’” she said. “The goal is real personalization to target the specific segments of employees that you’re working with.”

“We’re moving from a one-size-fits-all to greater personalization and a focus on employee experience, because the population of workers is incredibly diverse. You have multiple generations, remote workers, non-traditional employees — folks that don’t have a four-year degree, but they’ve amassed a set of certifications and moves where they can prove that they’re going to be able to do the job. They have yet another set of needs.”

The trickle-down effect could alter the entire HR process, starting with recruitment, said Meister.

“If you really want to better understand the different segments of employees, you’re going to have to configure a new staff with new skills to do that.”

The intersection of AI and HR

Technological advances in terms of artificial intelligence (AI) and working robots are another major force in the march towards the future workplace, and HR is not excluded, she said.

Following in the footsteps of Amazon’s “Alexa” chatbot, newer models are focusing on helping HR professionals with the recruitment process or day-to-day minutia using real-time analytics.

“Will your next team member in HR be a bot?” said Meister. “I’m going to be bold enough to say yes. That doesn’t mean that everyone in HR is losing their jobs. It means this is a really interesting opportunity to augment areas in HR which can be more efficient, and free up HR’s time to be more strategic.”

“Jane,” a chatbot by Loka — a Silicon Valley-based company in California— is aimed at being predictive and proactive, using sentiment analysis to track employee trends and solve problems before they become major issues, she said. The bot will also remind employees of benefits programming available, at opportune moments.

Meanwhile, Cambridge, Mass.-based tech start-up Talla is developing a bot intended to make the recruiting process more seamless by analyzing job applications and presenting possible behavioural interview questions, followed by a net promoter score post-interview.

More AI, robots and gig workers in the future will ultimately result in a decline in full-time employees and increase in remote workers, said Meister.

“We’re going to have to navigate that new future with a new mindset and a new set of assumptions,” she said. “If you look at how the composition of the workforce is changing… the multiple generations that we started with? That’s the tip of the iceberg. What we’re seeing (now) is many different segments of workers.”

How HR will be impacted

Current workplace trends see companies attempting to focus on their employees’ entire wellbeing: physical, emotional, financial and mental health.

“They’re really trying to understand the whole self that somebody brings to work, and how they can help that individual, and in the process develop a stronger bond with the employee,” said Meister.

HR departments should be looking to create “wow experiences” for employees — a process that can be built on the principles of design thinking, she said.

“Let’s empathize,” said Meister. “That’s the first part of using design thinking principles with our employees. What are their anxieties?… It’s our job to really understand what they are.”

“You need to develop a new mindset,” she said. “Before you even think about what new skills you or your team need, you need to embrace an iterative mindset. Embrace the belief that the way you develop new solutions for HR starts with the employee and understanding various personas or segments of employees.”

The evolution of coffee sales serves as an easy example of a product shifting its focus from cost to customer experience, with much success, said Meister.

Starbucks, specifically, is lauded for securing the lion’s share of the market by anticipating needs and pushing an enriched customer experience, ultimately leading to a deeply loyal clientele — and that’s the mentality human resources needs to embrace going forward.

“The goal is now: How do you translate this focus on customer experience to employees?” she said. “How do we evoke these same emotions with our employees? Because that’s the opportunity. How do we create deeper emotional bonds with various segments of employees so we can not only retain them, but engage them and ensure they bring their best self to work each day?”

HR professionals need to recognize what their job is — helping their organization win in the marketplace by taking responsibility for creating the overall vision of employee experience, said Meister.

“For HR, it’s a new and exciting opportunity to move outside of your silo and to develop partnerships with marketing, IT, real estate and internal communications,” she said. “Your role is to be a workplace activist. It’s not the strongest that survive or the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change.”

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