‘A Survey Doesn’t Empathize’: Insights into the Good & Bad HR Trends of 2019 with Vanessa Shaw
Last year when we spoke to Founder and CEO of Human Side of Tech, Vanessa Shaw, she took a deep dive into the past, present, and future of workplace culture. We recently followed up with Vanessa to learn more about the latest People Ops and HR trends of 2019 and gain insight into what’s next for the People Operations industry.
The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s jump right into an HR trend that’s on a lot of people’s minds: the growing presence of automation and artificial intelligence. What’s your take on how this technology is affecting the HR and People Ops world?
There’s a lot of people who are worried about or intimidated by automation. I’m sure you’ve seen articles with titles like ‘Robots are Taking My Job,’ ‘The End of HR,’ etc. I like to call this a glass-half-empty approach to technology.
In reality, automation and artificial intelligence have been a huge help and relief to the HR industry. People are gladly giving away the monotonous tasks that these technologies can take care of, such as processing payroll and timesheets. As a result, HR and People Ops departments can spend less time on tedious tasks, and have more opportunities to focus on their people.
As you could have guessed from my brand, Human Side of Tech, I’m a technology optimist. I see technology as an opportunity for us to do more human things, as opposed to technology taking those human things away. Artificial intelligence worries aside, if you look at what technology is doing in the immediate, you’ll see it’s relieving HR, People Ops, and Talent teams that are buried by the repetitive aspects of their job. The types of roles people in my community and I wanted for years are now becoming a reality as functional HR is taken over by bots. There’s now space for roles that rely on critical thinking, creativity, problem solving, and emotional intelligence—roles that are more consultative and research-oriented in their approach.
If I could spread one message, I would say this:
Yes, bots are taking your job, but really they’re taking the parts of your job that you don’t like.
New roles are opening up as a result, giving you more opportunity to develop exciting, new skills.
You mentioned that technology has the power to leave room for humans to be more human. What makes this ability, ‘to be more human,’ so important to the work of HR, People Ops, and Talent professionals in particular?
Technology is opening up space for more consultative roles; let’s dive deeper into that. With a consultative approach, you’re looking at quantitative data, but you’re also looking at qualitative data: both are important. As we know, it’s difficult to capture emotion and more people-oriented information in a quantitative way.
Let me share an example of a company embracing this two-pronged approach, that is assembling HR teams with room for both quantitative and qualitative roles. Google has an entire People Insights team that works in collaboration with what they call ‘People Consultants,’ or PCs. Although they are internal, full-time employees, they take a consultative view of the employee base. In addition to looking at survey date, the PCs compliment the People Insights team, (which is more of an analytics team), by doing listening tours, focus groups, interviews, and more.
The division of labor, then, is more similar to a marketing team than a traditional HR department. Some people focus on data and others tackle storytelling. When companies have the means, they can divide out roles by subject matter expertise, and gain insight into quantitative survey data or statistics, as well as human data, such as interviews.
In a few words: a survey doesn’t empathize, it collects data. We can make data-driven decisions, but we also need to talk to our people. Our impact will be bigger and our strategy will be stronger when we bring both qualitative and quantitative data to the table. When we rely too much or solely on tech, we lose the human aspect of HR and People Operations.
So how does someone like you (i.e. a human who loves people) find a role that’s not all about analytics in this increasingly data-driven world? What skills do they need?
First, we need to push back and say, “I’m not just an extension to the survey,” or other predictive analytics measures. We can make data driven decisions, but we must talk to our people. This is what makes human-centered design practices so important: it helps People Ops communicate their approach as well as demonstrate the value of their work to the business.
According to the World Economic Forum, the top three skills you need to succeed in 2020 are: complex problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity. These skills are what bots and automated systems are not good at, and exactly what People Operations and people-focused professionals are great at. Instead of focusing on how you can be good at analytics or analytics-driven, ask yourself: how can I develop my complex problem-solving skills, my creativity, my critical thinking? Those are the skills we should focus on as we work within the context of a more analytics- and data-driven approach to HR.
On a different note, I recently changed my business accounting software. I went from a backward-looking budgeting model to a forward-looking one, so I can better understand what’s coming. This gives me more stability and more opportunity to take risks, because I know where I currently stand and what’s ahead.
This is just an example of how I’m seeing an emerging HR trend reflected in my own business. Instead of just looking at what has happened in the past, people are seeing the value in looking at what’s happening here in the present. It’s a really useful skill to be able to understand what’s currently true, and then conduct experiments and take risks in order to arrive at where you want to be in the future. I personally think predictive analytics and forward-thinking practices are exciting new spaces for us to be playing in.
What advice would you give to an HR or People Ops team that’s trying, or struggling, to bring the future of work to their workplace and keep pace with the HR trends of 2019?
To start, the ‘future of work’ is a buzzword. People like to debate whether the future is here or still arriving…but really we’re in a phase where people are trying to figure out what matters most and how to prioritize what they’re doing. I hear a lot of ‘firsts,’ people-first, data-first, culture-first, etc.
In spite of this, the vast majority of folks are still trying to arrive, or implement these changes. There’s not a lot of action taking, but there are still some early adopters at the front of the bell curve of change. That said, being the first ones to do something also means you become the messenger of what not to do. It’s sort of like the first mission to Mars: those who end up going will be able to come back and share what was dangerous and others can learn from their experience as pioneers. Remember: you don’t have to be the first to integrate all these new practices into your business. That’s what I think is overwhelming a lot of people: this shiny-object syndrome, when you see all this new, trendy technology and want to implement it all at once.
Right now, I think leadership is asking HR to boil the ocean. For that reason, I always tell my community members: once you learn design thinking practices, you’ll want to use it for everything…but don’t do it! You can’t do everything at once when you’re a beginner. Instead, think about 5 things you need to tackle over the next 2-3 quarters. Pick one initiative that you can use as an experiment, and test out using a design thinking approach. At that point, you can take a genuine, research-oriented, and human-centered approach to the initiative, learn throughout the process, and avoid attempting to boil the ocean.
Going back to the list of skills we need in this age of data, I would add being the canary in the coal mine: the person who pushes back and observes what’s happening before having a knee-jerk reaction, who says, “we need to remember the importance of X and stop doing Y.” It’s too easy to get caught up in what all the latest HR trends are telling us. Sometimes you end up running too fast and not being strategic. Instead, you should focus more on the local context of your company and understand what is both feasible and important.
Are there any emerging HR trends in 2019 that you’re following or particularly excited about?
An HR trend that’s currently bubbling up is using emotional intelligence at work to navigate situations professionally and with empathy. There’s this great book, No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions At Work by Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy that does an amazing job exploring how to use emotional intelligence in the workplace.
As an industry, we’ve realized that leaving your emotions at the door is not working. I’m now seeing a lot more conversations about how a person’s social context influences how they experience a given workplace–and I’m optimistic about where we’re headed. Everywhere I turn, I see People Operations looking at a few core areas, such as onboarding, parental leave, and mental health. Companies are now rewriting parental leave policies so that they have a longer duration, adhere to caregiver rights, and are more inclusive of same-sex or adoptive parents. Similarly, more and more workplaces are making mental health and wellbeing a higher priority. I’m excited to see how all of these new, human-centered workplace practices will make a positive impact on people’s lives.
Not everyone or every company is able to quickly adapt to the latest trends in HR and People Ops. How can a person inside or outside these industries begin to change their day-to-day at work for the better?
It’s important to remember that there are unhappy employees everywhere, even at those companies the headlines praise as “Great Places to Work.” No matter what your company’s culture is, whether you are happy or not at work is influenced by a combination of several factors:
First, you need to know yourself and what type of role you want. Then, there’s the ability to find, or build, opportunities for yourself. Finally, you need to be comfortable taking risks—whether that’s leaving your role or trying something you’ve never done before—in order to unlock those opportunities.
Even when I was a member of a dysfunctional team, I made my role more fulfilling by running experiments and building skills that I could one day reference in a job interview. There have been times in my career where I had to deal with a toxic environment in order to make a positive impact. Through a bit of journaling and self-reflection, I was able to identify the unique value I contributed to the team and create personal goals I could work towards. From there, I was able to test new tactics and run experiments. Eventually, when it was my last day on the job (and I had put in the hours, made an impact, and decided it was finally time to leave), the founders of the company recognized my work. Because of my contributions, they said, the company would never be the same.
You may feel like the company you work for is going nowhere—just know you don’t have to. Continue to create goals for yourself, and you’ll make a positive impact, even if it feels thankless or frustrating along the way. You can’t always control a company’s culture as much as you like, and you certainly cannot control the behavior of other people. You can, however, improve your own actions and behaviors.
And while behavior change is not easy, I encourage everyone to go out and test out new ways of working—whether it’s changing your own behavior or how your team collaborates. I’ve come to believe that life is really just one big experiment…So, what are you waiting for?