HR In The Flow Of Work: A New Paradigm Has Arrived

I’m at the US HR Technology Conference this week (over 9,000 attendees) and spending time with dozens of technology providers and HR leaders and I want to highlight the theme of my keynote on Thursday: HR in the Flow of Work.

I believe this concept, which I’ll explain in this article, defines the role of HR for years ahead. Let me explain with five basic observations.

1. Today, Businesses and Employees are Overwhelmed.

I met with a global CHRO recently and asked him why he was pushing a wellbeing program. His answer? “Our people are exhausted.” Everyone is working extra hours, we’re all getting too many emails, and productivity is just not going up. He told me they are now starting management meetings at 9 am so people can go to the gym every morning. (8 am meetings themselves force people to lose sleep).

Most of you have seen the data on productivity: it is one of the biggest differentiators of high performing companies. Today people feel stressed (94% of US and UK workers report high levels of workplace stress) they work on weekends (over 1/3 work weekends), and young people (Gen Z and Gen Y) are saying “enough.” They cannot work any more hours and our electronic work environment is just too relentless and unyielding to keep us happy.

Now there are many reasons for this, and we can’t only blame technology. Management must help people stay focused, we need to encourage people to spend face-time with each other, and we must design a work environment that’s meaningful and enjoyable. (All this is HR’s role by the way.) But despite our best efforts (open offices, closed offices), we have to accept that work itself has become very hard on people.

I was at a very hot startup a few weeks ago and all 50 people are in one large room. It’s noisy, exciting, and busy – but the CEO told me people were getting stressed out. He went out and spend $5000 to buy a “soundproof room” to let people get away. This is not the way work should be.

2. The Pace of Work is Accelerating.

I don’t need to tell you about the economy, it’s in every newspaper every day. We are living in (perhaps suffering through) the longest economic growth in my lifetime. And it’s hard. Yes, the stock market is high and we all feel wealthier, but look at the cost of housing, food, education, and healthcare. Actual standards of living in the US have not really improved for 30 years. We’re on a treadmill and it feels like we have to work harder and harder to keep up.

I have been through many of these upswings and I remember how much I dislike this part of the business cycle. Traffic is horrible, people are bragging about how much money they made in the stock market, and businesses get greedy. Companies are hoarding billions of dollars of cash and wages are hardly keeping up. We have homeless people all over the San Francisco Bay Area, despite wages higher than ever.  Read more in my article on the Ugly Side to a Low Unemployment Rate to learn more.

What this means for our people is that they feel like they’re on a treadmill. “Our company is growing, but the cost of living is going up, so I as an employee need to work harder, get promoted, and make sure I’m staying even.”

The latest research in the WSJ shows that the #1 topic on the minds of GenZ workers is “financial security.” The newest generation of workers wants job security and they’re even willing to do gig work to make some extra bucks. (Deloitte’s 2018 Millennial Survey discovered that more than 40% of Gen Z workers are engaged in “side-hustles” to make extra income.)

And the big undercurrent is the rapid re-engineering of businesses to become more digital, grow in China and India and other developing economies, and revolutionize products to become more digital, more AI-driven, more responsible, and more transparent. Companies from Facebook to Google to Schneider Electric to Nissan to GE to Genentech are all going through this. And this puts even more pressure on business leaders and individual employees.

3. Individuals Are Way Too Busy

On a personal level, we are now negotiating with an electronic boss every minute: our phone. These devices are interrupting us, notifying us, and nudging us to look at them, talk to them, and use them. It keeps us very busy.

How often, during the day, do you really stop and think? Look at people walking down the street, they hardely even look up.

The enormous explosion of Yoga, mindfulness classes, and psychological counseling services are a response to this environment. (Yoga is a $27 billion industry which grew at 87% over the last three years.)

We found that the average employee has 24 minutes per week to learn. In the 1980s I used to sit down and read technical manuals in the office, spending an hour at a time. How often do you do this at work today? I’d guess not very often.

So when an HR program comes out, and it may involve a class, a workshop, a new tool, or system to engage with, people’s first reaction is “when will I make time for this?”

Of course if it’s mandatory or CEO-driven, people will look at it. But as the Cedar-Crestone research has discovered, more than 2/3 of all HR technology investments are vastly under-used.

And it’s getting a bit worse. Today we use real-time messaging systems. Slack, Workplace by Facebook, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, Zoom, HipChat, and other tools because they respond to this always-on need. We need our HR tools to integrate and manifest themselves into these environment, not force us to spend time going somewhere else.

As I mentioned in my speech at HR Tech, this week, there will be a “holy war” for the employee in the HR tech market. And the HR system will lose. We’re already spending time in our workplace communication and productivity tools – HR solutions have to go be there.

There will be a “holy war” among vendors for the employee experience in the years ahead.

4. AI is Making HR Systems Conversational

The fourth reason “HR in the Flow of Work” is so relevant is that we now have technology designed for this.

Chatbots, nudges, messages on our phones, and tools like augmented analytics (the system does the analytics for you) are here to make our technology more conversational. It turns out that conversations are easier to have than systems we click on – so this new interface fits into our work. (CognitionX, a research firm, believes there are more than 1,000 chatbot vendors today.)

I have now seen quite a few tools that do this well. The folks at Mya, for example (a pioneer in chat-based AI for recruiting), told me their customers are saving $400-600 per hire with an AI-based chat that helps candidates find the right jobs. Their customers now even use Mya to reach out to passive candidates, and 40% of them respond!

Some of the conversational AI is still young and immature, so some of the conversations and messages are kind of “silly” – but they’re getting smarter every day. So we can expect more and more of our online systems to feel more like “suggestions” from Siri or Alexa and less like “websites” we click through to read.

Look at modern performance and learning systems for example. Vendors are building nudge-based systems that suggest behaviors to improve your performance, and these tools are already being integrated into the flow of work.

In systems like Reflektive or BetterWorks you can comment on a goal, give someone feedback, or rate a conversation with a peer from within Office 365 or most of these messaging tools. Products like WalkMe, Skillsoft, and Edcast have plugins and embedded apps that find learning appropriate to your need, while you do your work. And the new AI being developed is actually sharing this learning across thousands of customers, so your “recommendations” will be informed by data from many other companies.

And this interface is coming to every domain in HR. Tools like Mya, LeadX,, Watson, Disco, Zugata, and Compass all send intelligent messages to job candidates, employees seeking HR assistance, people who need coaching, and much more. There are dozens of vendors building intelligent systems that give people suggestions, nudges, and answers to questions about all aspects of their work life. IBM has an application called Watson Assistant for Workday that answers Workday-specific questions in easy to understand answers.

5. Design Thinking Is Here To Help

How do we as an HR profession actually “design” solutions that fit in the flow of work? We now have an approach: design thinking.

In the past we used to “design solutions on a whiteboard,” then “roll them out to employees.” The domain of change management was designed to help us “push” things to people, “teach them” to use our systems, and “communicate” why they had to do what we had designed for them.

Design thinking reverses this process. Rather than develop an intervention that requires change management, let’s study what people are doing at work, study their daily activities, and redesign the work environment for success. Focus on productivity, better decision-making, quality, and empowerment. So now our HR “program” is more like a work-related intervention rather than a work interruption.

Make HR a work-related improvement, not a work interruption.

Consider performance management, for example. Should it be a year-end review or a series of weekly or monthly check-ins? Can we design a solution that makes teams operate faster and in a more productive way? Can we implement a tool with change with built-in recommendations and coaching, aided by the system? Yes – a new generation of tools now makes this possible.

When a manager sits down to discuss an employee’s career, we can give them real-time career advice. When it’s time to review salaries, we can give them AI-based salary recommendations based on external market data and internal demand for skills. When an employee feels stressed out, we can give them real-time coaching and assessment and behavioral change tools to help. And the list goes on and on.

All this is happening before our eyes, and I think we just need to name it and formalize it.

How Does This Impact HR and Roles? What Should We Do?

How do we deal with this new world? How do we implement HR in the Flow of Work?

The answer is becoming clear. As you think about the “employee experience” (the new buzzword of the year), you have to think about how to stop interrupting people and think about how to make their work easier, more productive, and more meaningful.

We need to stop thinking about HR programs as a “destination” and think about them as a “journey” or an “intervention” or a “conversation.”

Tonight I was asked a big question: in a world where HR technology is more intelligent and responsive, what will be the future role of HR?

As I discuss in the article “AI in HR: A New Killer App“, our new job is to train the AI software. Teach it what to say, what rules to follow, and what processes, practices, and systems people should use. This takes time, effort, and ongoing support.

Diane Gherson, the CHRO of IBM, told me that their HR service teams now monitor the questions coming in through Watson, look at the answers, and continuously update and improve the answers. As people start using their HR systems in the flow of work, HR teams must make time to monitor what’s going on and make sure the systems are continuously getting smarter and more up to date. (Often called “training the systems.”)

A few weeks ago I spent the afternoon with the engineering lead of Facebook’s advertising engine. He told me that this system has more than 10,000 “rules” embedded into its algorithms. To continuously train the system, there are now teams of people watching the system’s behavior to improve its targeting, remove bias, and look for bad behavior. This will be a new career and role in HR: making sure our systems continue to work better over time.

I’ll be writing much more on this topic soon – stay tuned for more information coming soon. Are you delivering solutions that fit “in the flow of work? If you are, I bet they’re some of the most powerful and important solutions you’ve ever delivered.