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The realities of data-led HR

data woman
(Image credit: Future)

In the spring, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit and triggered an international transition to remote working, few of us thought the immediate changes to our daily lives would be so enduring. Amongst employers and their HR teams, initial responses understandably focused on solving short term problems and keeping the wheels of business turning.

Months on, it has become clear we’re facing a marathon, not a sprint. Employers are being asked to rethink how they support their people in a more dispersed world of work, whilst balancing the books. With employees either in the office, working from home, or in front-line roles, the task has fallen to HR leaders to understand a workforce that’s not only more decentralized than ever before, but also facing new and unique challenges.

For many teams, there’s one requirement that’s topping the agenda: wellbeing. Although clearly on the priority list prior to the pandemic, the increase in isolation, uncertainty and general stress levels has placed a renewed focus on the subject for organizations.

But how do you track and maintain wellbeing for people living and working in unprecedented ways? The answer is in data.

Data: The opportunities

For some years, there’s been a growing demand amongst HR and business leaders for people analytics and data insights. Coronavirus sped this up as teams were confronted with the shortcomings of slow, admin-intensive manual processes, in an evolving environment that demanded agility and flexibility.

Teams who already had data-enabled platforms in place reaped rewards. These were able to track and analyze data, enabling them to see changes to benefits uptake and engagement quickly and respond accordingly.

For example, during the height of lockdown, more than half of people in the UK were experiencing stress or anxiety. At the same time, engagement with benefits such as travel loans or subsidized gym memberships dropped.

If HR teams were able to monitor these changes in real time, they could pivot their strategies and divert spending into benefits that supported mental health. These might include platforms such as Unmind, or access to virtual meditation classes and counselling services.

Data analytics can also unlock useful insights across different markets. As towns, cities and countries experience the pandemic differently their needs will change. If HR teams could track how people were engaging with their benefits – those supporting mental, physical and financial health – they could gain a much clearer picture of the pressures faced by their workforce. This would enable them to onboard new benefits and support services across regions in line with demand.

Data: The obstacles

Despite the many opportunities that embracing data can bring for HR teams, there are some unavoidable challenges around its collection. Chief among these is tools, trust and security.

Employees are wary of how closely their employers are monitoring them. With remote working now common for many, businesses are increasingly seeking to keep track of the data and outputs generated by their people. This has contributed to a significant uptick in surveillance technology sales in recent months. But research from the CIPD found that 73 percent of employees felt that workplace monitoring would damage trust between workers and employers.

This is something that HR teams must be mindful of when adopting data-led platforms and analytics. Unwillingness to share personal details isn’t just limited to productivity and screen time, many could understandably feel uncomfortable sharing personal health details too. Yet understanding how often people are using EAP benefits or how they’re using mental wellbeing apps could help teams to develop hyper-personalized support structures and reward schemes.

Data governance must be considered throughout too. Legislation such as GDPR will limit the information teams can gather. So, in addition to employee reticence around sharing personal details, the law may prohibit it – despite the wider benefits this information could bring to a workforce.

HR teams working across multiple markets must understand the requirements of the countries they operate in. Even with a centralized benefits function, legislation on the ground will vary and must be navigated carefully to avoid potentially hefty fines. Further obstacles come when sharing data with vendors.

Passing HR data to a third party may help to improve service delivery and the support available to employees, but it can also land an organization in hot water.

Beyond this, there’s the issue of data security to take into account. It’s essential that employers have robust and secure methods of not only collecting data, but analyzing it. With 8 out of 10 HR teams using basic spreadsheets for collection and analysis, the time dedicated to manually gathering insights is often significant, while this method can leave teams vulnerable to breaches.

With the predicted costs of data breaches by 2024 expected to reach $5 trillion, embarking on a data analysis journey requires not only AI-enabled and responsive tech, but robust security processes and software too. If organizations are asking people to supply personal details, they must take appropriate action to safeguard them.

The power of data, despite limitations

Embracing data and analytics is crucial to teams being able to pack a punch in the boardroom. Indeed, Darwin’s research found that ‘lack of board-level buy-in’ is cited as the biggest barrier to further technology investment by HR departments.

Armed with the tools to track benefits engagement and expenditure, flag schemes that are over-spending or even predict when spikes in uptake are likely to occur, teams will be able to deliver real value for business leaders. This will help develop a stronger relationship with those at the top and could lead to greater investment in key technologies.

For employees too, access to benefits platforms helps them to engage with their benefits while working remotely. They also have the time and privacy to explore their rewards schemes and find support that best suits them. 

In response, HR teams may see growing engagement with platforms, which in turn will generate the data they need to create a more agile, responsive and personalized reward programs, stored and accessed securely, as we continue to navigate new and evolving ways of working.

James Knight, SVP Data & Analytics, Darwin