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What Is Work Tech and Why Does It Matter?

March 26, 2021 Digital Workplace
Mike Prokopeak
By Mike Prokopeak

Disruption. Transformation. Revolution. Unprecedented. If you've attended a virtual conference, listened to a webinar or read the news, those are all words you've more than likely heard to describe the past year at work.

But the reality is that these changes have been happening for a while now. What's different in the last year is the pace of change and the way in which several trends came crashing together in dramatic fashion.

"We've been talking about digital disruption, AI, data, income inequality, labor market dislocation and the future of work and agile organizations for a decade," said HR industry analyst Josh Bersin and dean of Josh Bersin Academy, in his opening keynote at the Spring HR Technology Conference, held virtually from March 16-19, 2021.

"Well, last year it all happened. Every single one of those things became real. Every single one of those things became common and the HR tech market has been adapting very quickly."

The result has been a massive shift away from tech for the HR department's sake to technology designed primarily with the needs of employees in mind. What's happening in the market, Bersin said, is a shift from HR tech to "work tech."

What Is Work Tech?

It's a paradigm shift for HR, Bersin argues. Traditionally, HR tech has focused on capturing activity and data in numerous proprietary HR software and systems, as many 175 employee systems and apps in large enterprises, according to Okta, an identify management company.

"It's insane," Bersin told the audience of HR practitioners and vendor representatives. "There's no way people can use all these things or even understand what they are, so we need to either simplify them or put something in the middle that makes them all easier to use."

What does that mean from an employee perspective? It means that employees find tools and resources, whether that's a payroll form they need to complete, performance feedback they need to deliver or a training they need to take, in the place they already are doing their work. In most companies that's happening in Microsoft Teams and Google Workspace or communication and collaboration platforms like Slack and Workplace by Facebook.

The goal is to have HR be a feature of the work, not a departure, distraction or destination outside of it, Bersin said. Employees would prefer to access HR services through APIs or chatbots where they are, not where HR would like them to be. It's sparking a massive change in the HR tech market.

"It's really moving and migrating everything we know about in HR towards being systems of work — systems that work in the flow of work and still do HR things on our behalf without us having to log into the HR system, find the right panel, click around, fill out a form and try to hope that we did the right thing."

The pandemic created a "big reset" in organizations, Bersin said, with a focus on new ways of working, new ways of going to market and interacting with customers, and an emphasis on flexibility as companies redesign their organization and their job roles at a vigorous pace. 

He pointed to the rollout of Microsoft Viva as a potential game-changer. "Microsoft is going to be even bigger than I thought," he said. "Microsoft technology is the core infrastructure in roughly 70% of Global 2000 companies. Even if you don't like all the features of Viva today, I can guarantee that your IT department is looking at it and trying to figure out how to use it to pull together the hundreds of SharePoint sites, the Office and Microsoft 365 structure or the video streaming or other technology they have to make your life easier."

Related Article: Microsoft Viva - Who Is It For?

Employee Experience Driving the Shift

Employee experience is the tectonic force that is driving the shift to employee-focused "work tech" in the $40-billion HR tech market. While cracks and fissures have erupted on the surface in the last year as employees shifted to working from home in response to the pandemic, deep and powerful forces have been at work for some time now. The rise of consumer-level user expectations for work tools, shifting perceptions of work-life balance and rapidly changing skill sets are forcing change.

“More and more of what’s going on in HR tech is enabling the HR function to support the new work experience of people in the organization, enabling them to develop and grow in many ways and integrating work with life,” Bersin said.

The pandemic is only the most recent and dramatic factor driving these changes. The growth of the U.S. service economy and it's dependence on human skills in areas like sales, marketing and design is pushing HR to work with IT, finance, operations and facilities to improve the employee experience and attract, retain and develop workers. It's not a problem that an off-the-shelf HR system can fix.

"Our ability to build technology that makes work easier — that makes people more productive — is really falling on the shoulders of HR," Bersin said. "We need to do payroll and administration and track vacation and take care of compliance and harassment claims and all of that, too, but that's not the strategic thing people need from their systems anymore. We need systems that make work easier."

Companies need an adaptable platform to flexibly design experiences for employees. And it has to be done in real time, said Jason Averbook, CEO and co-founder of Leapgen, a digital transformation consultancy. 

"In 2021 if it's not real time and it's not relevant, it should not be done," Averbook said in his keynote on third day at the HR Tech conference. 

Picking up on the people-centric theme, he recommended companies hone in on purpose as the top layer of digital transformation, before consideration of vision, audience, process and any discussion of a specific technology solution. And that purpose should take into account the human dimension of whatever the organization is trying to achieve.

"HR has been counting people instead of making people count," he said.

A trick Averbook uses to remind himself is what he calls designing for the empty chair. He recommended putting an actual unoccupied chair in view when making design decisions that will affect people. "When we're creating these journeys what we ultimately want is people to be engaged, not enraged," he said. 

Related Article: How the CIO and CHRO Will Rethink Employee Experience Together

Designing a TikTok for HR

The goal of shifting to a work tech focus from an HR tech one is to design solutions that work for employees and do it quickly and effectively. "We live in a world of continuous improvement," Averbook said. "We live in a world of continuous innovation. We live in a world where we have to accelerate."

For HR tech, that means continuing the evolution from systems of record and engagement to systems of experience and design.

"The real theme for the next two years is transformation, not recovery from the pandemic," Bersin said. "That's already happened. Most of you have already adapted to the pandemic in a very significant way. Now you've changed what you do, how you go to market, who you sell to, what your products and services are."

HR business models and the technology HR uses will have to focus on resilience, agile teaming and iterative design. These type of systems for integrated experiences are not easy to build, Bersin noted, but there's already a model that is being pioneered that shows the way — TikTok.

The wildly popular video-sharing service is growing exponentially because it is a creator tool that is easy for anyone to use, create and share content. "That's where we really need to go with HR tech," Bersin said. "We need to find and build systems for design that allow you to customize and configure them for what your employees need."

In making the shift to work tech, it's not only important to integrate with the existing platforms employees already use to do their work. It's also important for companies to find and use tools that allow them to create, edit and design around those platforms. "Think about how your system can be opened up for re-use, for design, for analyzing and understanding what employee needs are," Bersin said.

The last year saw a dramatic shift shift from in-person, in-office work to a primarily digital workplace. Team meetings moved from the conference room to a Zoom breakout, collaboration and communication went from one-to-one to one-to-many through collaboration and communication platforms. It was a rapid and disruptive shift but if we've done it right, Averbook said, we'll remember this year forever as when we put our focus on people's needs.

"If our focus is not on work and people tech instead of on HR tech, it will be a massive failure," he said.

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