When the COVID-19 pandemic forced employees to work from home in early 2020, many people referenced it as the “new normal.” Two years later, with fewer lockdowns and the return of air travel, it seems like everything is back to business as usual. However, some remnants of the pandemic work style still remain.
That emphasized existing human resources (HR) trends and gave rise to new ones. Engy Mahmoud, HR operations and digital transformation senior lead of Vodafone Egypt, noted that some of the key trends include flexibility, the “great resignation” movement, having a growth mentality, and the “great admin liberation,” she said during an April AmCham event.
These trends emerged due to a combination of ongoing pandemic precautionary measures and increasing digitization. “COVID-19 accelerated the concept of accepting the need of digitization,” said Mahmoud.
Accordingly, those HR trends are “transforming from the systems of records which we are currently using to the systems of productivity,” said Mahmoud. However, coping with that transformation will not be possible without “harnessing [artificial intelligence (AI), which is] the most advanced technology in HR.”
To facilitate the digital transformation of HR, some companies are producing digital HR solutions using AI or automating the department’s operations via robotic process automation (RPA). Both technologies have different strengths and weaknesses. Yet both “enhance [the employee] experience” during those uncertain and changing times.
Such automation would improve the likelihood an employee would remain in his job, even if there are things he doesn’t like about work. Mahmoud said that issue came into the limelight with the rise of “the great resignation” and “the great admin liberation” trends, which shortened an employee’s willingness to hold the same job for a long time.
HR’s changing landscape
Mahmoud described those trends as the “future of HR,” adding that companies will have to change their HR practices and operational scope to meet employees’ needs. The first and most palpable trend in the workplace is “flexibility,” said Mahmoud.
That became a necessity in 2020, as more employees started working, hiring and training from home, in compliance with national and company lockdown measures. Accordingly, they were given more flexibility “in working life conditions and in strategies,” Mahmoud said.
Two years later, international companies are creating their own versions of the “future of work.” Google, for example, “requires at least three days per week in the office,” while still providing “avenues for a remote work extension, a location switch or a petition to continue working remotely,” according to Bruce Haring of Deadline, an entertainment and tech industry website.
In April, Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a memo that employees were required to work from the office three days a week, saying it could be either a “long-awaited milestone and a positive sign that we can engage more fully with colleagues” or an “unsettling change.”
Mahmoud explained that the trend emerged from faster and more reliable internet making remote and hybrid work a feasible option for an increasing number of corporations.
And now that employees have proven that flexible work arrangements are feasible, many are unwilling to give them up. Even where flexibility has become a permanent fixture, many employees are demanding more from their employers. That gave rise to the second trend HR professionals need to contend with — “the great resignation,” where employees are quitting from jobs even if they have nothing else lined up. “Once employees sense de-flexibility, they will realize the importance of having the remote working balance and the work-life balance,” Mahmoud said.
Those trends affect companies differently, based on their size, industry, and work culture. “At a company of our size, there is no one-size-fits-all approach for how every team works best,” said Meta CEO Andy Jassy. The situation is entirely different for manufacturing, where the job entails physical presence on the factory floor instead of working from behind a computer screen all the time.
To attain the flexibility necessary to keep employees motivated and happy, HR leaders need to “think outside the box,” said Mahmoud. The first step is for HR professionals to shift from conventional work mindsets– such as productivity = bodies in seats — to embracing a flexible work environment that caters to employees’ needs without sacrificing productivity. The role models are software companies who are “very successful in their operating models,” said Mahmoud.
Doing it differently
That need for flexibility means breaking up work into phases “instead of delivering whole complete projects,” said Mahmoud. However, ensuring everyone operates as planned in a distributed system would require powerful digital oversight, connected to a fully automated HR workflow.
Working on a phase-by-phase basis will give HR professionals a timely outlook on trends and circumstances affecting employee productivity and behavior. That will allow HR professionals to focus on their new role to develop models to predict employee trends, and the best policies to enact to avoid any fallout.
Another trend that will change how employees work is the “great admin liberation.” Mahmoud says that trend sees employees spend less time working on manual tasks, freeing them up to come up with creative and innovative feasible ideas to develop their company and industry. “The more we automate the operation tasks that consume a lot of time from our employees, the more free time they will have to explore other things and exchange their knowledge, to think differently,” Mahmoud said.
She predicts these workflow changes and the accompanying HR analytic systems will become the norm by 2030. Accordingly, HR departments need to “move from just working on reporting, extracting the reports, forward to the concerned people, to act according to it,” she said. That means “moving away from the [lagging old ways] to acting on numbers and figures.”
Improving the lifecycle
Experts believe that digitization aided and accelerated the shift in work styles when the pandemic hit in 2020. That ultimately propelled companies to introduce new ways of managing employees, shifting and creating new HR trends.
Some software companies are already using AI and RPA technology to improve the employee’s lifecycle, which encompasses the length of time the employee spends with the company, starting from applying and onboarding to resignation or retirement.
That means streamlining HR’s operations. Mahmoud says using RPA will help with “replacing repetitive operational tasks that consume a lot of our employees’ time.” On the other hand, AI focuses on “shifting and replacing all human labor and automating the processes end to end” by working with unstructured information and developing its own logic.
One such company providing HR solutions is impress.ai, a recruiting and hiring workflow automation company. The firm’s goal is to “make accurate hiring easier,” said Pranav Sharma, the Go-To-Market Strategy and Partnerships, at the AmCham event.
The system has tools to help HR professionals prepare and plan roles, while keeping candidates engaged with regular WhatsApp messages or texts. That digital system would eventually send offer letters to successful candidates and oversee the collection of the new hire’s documents for onboarding. Sharma says his company is currently working on other projects to help with the onboarding process.
Sharma said that using human HR professionals to screen candidates may not be the most optimal as companies might use narrow screening criteria, such as GPA (grade point average) or whether the candidate is from a top-tier school.
With such limited criteria, they would likely call only 10% of candidates for the interview phase, meaning companies “miss massive volumes of quality candidates.”
Additionally, human nature and physical limitations of HR professionals is that it is not possible for them to effectively vet large numbers of CVs. So “the moment they find a decent enough candidate [from that 10% pool], the rest of the pile gets passed on,” he said. Mahmoud references those manual tasks when talking about the “great admin liberation.”
In Sharma’s vision, a typical automated HR system that meets today’s rising trends can “interview [candidates], score them and hire them based on skills and competencies,” he said.
The system features chatbots that “basically serve as a concierge to the candidate.” They answer questions, engage them, interview them and let them know exactly what point in the process they are at or what they are waiting for. Sharma said candidates in one case study asked about 3,000 questions and 98.4% were answered correctly by the interface.
The system also provides an “explainable” reason for why a candidate was selected, instead of being just “a random engine that says oh please hire this person for this role.” It has shown that seven of 12 candidates picked by the AI were shortlisted by human recruiters, with those not chosen still considered good candidates. “It is great to see that the 12 manually shortlisted candidates overlapped quite well with the chatbots’ selection,” Sharma said.
AI vs. recruiter
A common complaint that might come up when digitization is involved is whether we lose the human touch. “Actually, it’s almost universally the opposite,” said Sharma. “We tracked [candidate drop-off rates] at each stage and because the chatbot and interface reply instantly, there’s really no reason to drop off.”
Mahmoud thinks the key is using both software and human recruiters in a way that complements each other and achieves the ultimate goal. For example, “digitization won’t be effective enough if the process is fundamentally inefficient,” she said. Unless HR professionals move past the fixed mindset toward a growth one, it is very possible that AI may not fix the current issues with the employee lifecycle. Furthermore, the process of automating these routine tasks will usher in the great admin liberation that will eventually free up recruiters to improve the way things work. “The more we automate the processes, the more we care about making a proper plan,” she said.
Mahmoud further stressed there will be a constant need to “be aware of bias.” The system will select candidates based on input by the recruiter, and there might be biases to the system that they will need to watch out for. However, Sharma said fair hiring and DNI (diversity and inclusion) are very important to impress.ai. The company uses the system in their own hiring and its workforce splits 60/40 between men and women, which is “significantly higher than the [tech] industry averages,” Sharma said.
In using AI software, there also is a question of privacy, Mahmoud said. The privacy of candidates giving companies their information must be respected, and companies have to act in full alignment with policies and rules. Impress.ai says it is accredited by several organizations, including the Infocomm Media Development Authority, and “very aware of privacy laws [and] AI laws.”
Ultimately, both Sharma and Mahmoud believe AI will be a vital component in the future of HR. “The world is moving toward that speed and candidate experience, and good hiring technologies are important for HR to operate in that environment,” said Sharma.