September 16, 2020 By IBM Consulting 4 min read

Amy Wright is IBM’s Managing Partner for Talent & Transformation. Her team provides innovative services and software to facilitate the transformation of talent across the HR function and enterprise.

Q: What’s the biggest impact the pandemic is having on transforming the employee experience? 

A: The shift to digitalization is happening much faster now than it would have. And that’s important, because to be a smarter business and create intelligent workflows—two critical achievements in successful business transformation—every employee has to be digital. Everyone has to learn the technology. And everyone has to be an agile worker and play on agile teams.

The pandemic has accelerated the shifts toward personalization at scale and, of course, enabling remote teams to work effectively. All of our personal situations can be different now; at any given time, some people may be able to use their offices while others can’t, and teams will increasingly have people in different locations around the country and around the world. Companies need to use AI to personalize employee interactions and better meet their individual needs.

Q: Can you give an example of personalization?

A: One example is virtual agents in HR call centers that know all your information. You can say, “I want to change my address,” or, “Transfer this employee over to me,” or, “Is my office open, and do we need to wear masks?” and the virtual agent handles the task quickly while only needing new information. It already knows your home address, your department, what office you’re referring to, and so forth.

These virtual agents actually provide a better experience than talking to a human who doesn’t know all this information. And they free up humans to handle the really complex things that require empathy. When your wife or husband is ill, or you’re struggling with a problem, you don’t want to talk to a chatbot—you want a human.

 Q: How are hiring processes and competition for talent changing?

A: The biggest shifts are hiring for skills versus role, and companies focusing more on digital reskilling of their employees and less on going to the marketplace to hire new talent. Again, these changes were occurring, but the pandemic accelerated them.

In recent years, businesses are increasingly moving to a skills model, with a job candidate’s skills at the core of importance, versus their previous role. Before that, you submitted your resume and the hiring managers said, “Your previous role was this, so your next role might be in the same job family, at the next higher level.” But that’s not the case now. They look at the skills people have developed.

And rather than hiring from outside, companies are trending toward reskilling their employees for different roles across the organization. There just aren’t enough people in the marketplace with the right digital skills.

Q: So employees have more options to move within their companies?

A: Yes—the push toward internal mobility is a big deal. And again, it doesn’t have to be in a traditional role hierarchy. Before, you would say, “I was a geography leader for this, and now I’m going to be a global leader.” That’s changed. Today, you can reskill to shift across the enterprise to do different jobs. People can say, “What are my skill gaps between my current position and the future roles I want to consider?” Maybe you want to go from being a strategy consultant to doing something in sales. You can be trained to get the specific skills you need to take on that sales role.

AI can also aid this by, say, looking at 30,000 employees who have similar skills to yours, and then looking at the roles they’ve taken and seeing if they were successful or not. This could help you choose that next role or more targeted skill training.

 Q: How is the new business landscape affecting leadership skills?

A: Leaders need to take a different approach to develop trust with their employees now, focused more on transparency and co-creating and less on hierarchy. Working remotely means a leader can’t physically stand up in front of a room and say, “All right, team, here’s what we’re going to do.” Saying that on a video call isn’t the same.

Remote working really means that employees will be co-creating the company’s future. They’ll be deciding on their tasks as a team. And they’ll need to understand what’s happening in the company, even in the very short term. “Am I going to keep my job?” “When I go to an office, can I trust that the room has been cleaned?” Concerns like these have an immediate impact on people’s ability to work and feel safe, so trusting your leader means different things now than before the pandemic.

Having virtual workforces has also caused companies to focus far more on communicating the outcomes they want employees to create, rather than trying to  control their work processes. When employees clearly know what outcomes they must achieve, working remotely empowers them to figure out new ways to achieve those outcomes more than ever before. This is helping to put humanity at the center of the workflows.

Q: Can you give an example of a company that has successfully done this?

A: The Compass Group is a great example of an enterprise that shifted to a far more outcome-oriented approach during the pandemic. The food services company had a 50% decline in business in March and April, as there were no big sporting events or other venue events that made up much of their business. So they said, “All right, how are we going to disrupt ourselves?”

Obviously, they had huge cost reductions and raised money for financial resiliency. But they also pivoted their entire business model to make it far more people-centric. They redesigned their business around their people and their managers to be oriented toward outcomes, not processes. They applied design thinking and agile approaches to give their employees a different kind of experience. The Compass Group totally disrupted their business in three months to achieve this because they could see how necessary it would be in the future.

Q: What should organizations look for in a partner to help transform their employee experience?

A: Of course, you want a partner that understands business strategy and workflow management, and how it all can be strengthened by technology. But I also believe it’s important to choose a partner that has gone through transformation so they have experienced it personally. That’s one of the things that I think makes IBM special—we’ve undergone transformation with our 350,000 employees, so we have that personal experience.

This Q&A is part of the Built for Change Perspectives series that is exploring trends in business transformation. Learn more.

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