Keeping the H In HR: A human-centered approach to the data-driven workplace

  • January 2018
4 minute read

Modern companies are obsessed with data, strong in the belief that what can be measured can be improved. In many disciplines, a data-driven approach is straightforward and the guiding metrics are a clear formalization of numbers that have been around for a long time. Organizations like sales, marketing, and engineering transition seamlessly to this new paradigm, and the goals of the tools that drive them are obvious: more money, greater adoption, faster systems. But what about people? How do we measure and improve our greatest resource? How do we evaluate the strength of a company, and how should we leverage data to drive this pursuit?

Canonical corporate HR metrics follow two patterns. Many take a number for the company en toto and divide that by headcount. Examples include average tenure, number of sick days taken per year, attrition and termination percentages, and profit per capita. The rest try to derive new numbers to represent aggregate workplace sentiment. Among these are net promoter score, perceived work/life balance, and market opportunity index.

The former have some clear weaknesses in evaluating the effectiveness of a company’s HR team: they opaquely distribute blame or success across the organization as a whole, they’re subject to general market sentiment, and worst of all they’re reactive. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be tracked by the company. On the contrary, these metrics provide a great entry point for the autopsy of a rough quarter. But in and of themselves they offer no concrete path towards corrective action that can be taken proactively by HR. Indeed, to tightly attribute them to HR is to apportion unfair and unactionable blame. You can’t just decide to decrease a company’s attrition rate, but if you know when and why someone’s about to quit, there’s still time to do something about it.

Detecting changes in workplace sentiment as they happen is therefore paramount to analyzing and ultimately improving HR effectiveness. This is the hope of the other class of HR metrics: taking the pulse of the company to predict the tier two metrics explored above. Unfortunately, these tier one metrics are hard to pin numbers on and the only go-to tool in our wheelhouse is the company-wide survey. Accordingly, using this data requires a certain faith in surveys to produce honest, timely and thorough data. Our personal experience with pulse surveys typically builds across twenty reminder emails to culminate in a rushed fill-out before leaving the office on a Friday. It is left as an exercise to the reader as to how we can improve the meta-sentiment of the importance of a survey within a company, but for us, the best companies we’ve ever been at were also the ones for which we took the survey most seriously.

This brings us to the crux of the matter: how do we assess our tier one metrics in a non-invasive, regular and thorough way? We think there’s a better answer than surveys, and I think exit interviews offer an interesting avenue of exploration.

Sadly, most people’s longest and most genuine interaction with HR takes place on their final day in the office. Exit interviews have long been recognized as an invaluable source of information for an HR team. They exist at a unique cross-section of reactive analysis and proactive action. They take place when an individual’s path has already been decided, but in the hopes that they can proactively bring to light any greater organizational issues that can still be addressed before a the onset of our tier two consequences. Unlike a rushed survey, there’s no timeline, no expectations, and no reason or incentive to hold anything back. They offer catharsis to the departing employee while simultaneously giving the company the most honest feedback they will ever get.

We’re told that we should live every day like it’s our last, and I think this attitude has a place in HR. At AskHR, we strive to create an open company culture akin to exit interviews. We want every moment to be an unsolicited pulse survey, where all employees feel empowered to get answers and challenge policies they don’t agree with.

Make no mistake, that’s a lofty goal. How do we create a cathartic and empowering environment available to all employees 24/7? And how do we get them to know about this resource and take advantage of it?

We believe the most challenging and rewarding parts of HR aren’t regurgitating company memos or looking up policy numbers. They’re working with real people on their real problems and improving real lives. This meaningful work and these heartfelt interactions are all too often buried in the routine administrivia that is erroneously seen as the “main” function of HR. Furthermore, these administrative responsibilities draw a line in the corporate sand between HR and the people who need answers to their HR questions fast. This frames the relationship as adversarial, with one side lamenting awaiting a response and the other answering the same questions ad nauseam.

At AskHR, we’re working to remove the pain of answering repeated questions or assisting with common workflows like updating benefits. We’re building a solution that makes this information available to all employees 24/7, and ensures that you can get in touch with the right person immediately for anything more complex. We admit forthright that an AI system will never replace real human interaction in HR, but think there’s much work to be done in streamlining the HR workflow to give focused attention where it is needed most.

Your AskHR bot (or should we say teammate?) is an open door to immediate answers with zero judgment. You can ask a million questions on your first day, tell them how you really feel, and you can point out gaps in company policies. And when you want to open the floor for a larger discussion or a more complex issue, you can make sure you’re connected to the exact person who can help you most.

On the other side, we can see what information people are most interested in, how happy they are with outstanding resources, what needs to be improved, what policies are lacking or underspecified, and how quickly we were able to deliver answers to their question. All of this allows us to paint a general picture of workplace sentiment that evolves day over day and is driven by organic, open-door interactions with HR. Supplement this with periodic pulse surveys, and a holistic, data-driven approach to HR begins to present itself.

People first and answers now. That’s what we believe it takes to make an HR organization great and that’s where we’re going.

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