People analytics and HR lead the way through the coronavirus pandemic

Author: Michael Carty

The People Analytics and Future of Work (PAFOW) conference profiled initiatives that are helping organisations around the world use data to deal with workforce issues caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

"Work is all jumbled up right now," says PAFOW CEO Al Adamsen. "We are finding out what is happening with our workforce via data."

Co-hosting the conference online, Adamsen argued that with the coronavirus pandemic creating new challenges for employers, people analytics and HR leaders had come to the fore, making smart use of diverse data sources to enable and ease the transition to new ways of working.

"One of the main features of the crisis is the biggest remote working experiment there has ever been, or probably ever will be", says co-host David Green, setting the context for many of the leading-edge people analytics initiatives profiled during the event.

People analytics and HR tech expert Josh Bersin explained how people analytics was being used during the pandemic: "We need the people data on who's where and who's at home alone and how many people do we have in this city versus that city." The most effective people analytics initiatives were those that used both people data generated by the organisation and external data sources. "We match people data up against official data on the spread of the virus, regulatory data, local data on policies in different countries, and travel data", says Bersin. "All of these things that are coronavirus response reactions are integrating with people analytics."

Start small, keep it simple and scale up

So what is the best way to apply people analytics to the pandemic's challenges? "Start small, keep it simple and scale up", advises Sally Smith, people insights and research manager at National Australia Bank (NAB). The organisation focused on a small number of key data sources to create regular updates for managers and executives. These included data on absence, employee location and pulse survey findings on how employees are coping. As they built these reports, her team realised that the organisation's email systems also offered potentially rich data on how employees were adapting to remote working. "Analysis of Outlook metadata gives an amazing insight on how people are connecting across the organisation and what they are working on", she says.

The people metrics included in NAB's weekly emails to leaders include:

  • data on weekly collaboration hours (which helps track how employees are working with colleagues within and outside of their teams during lockdown); and
  • time spent on after-hours emails (which builds insights on how working patterns are changing and helps leaders stay alert to the risk of stress and burn-out).

Smith says that her organisation's leaders value this data, and that some have already requested additional reports. For example, tech team leaders want data from Jira and other agile project management tools used by developers and product teams.

She emphasises that NAB's people analytics reporting tool is a work in progress, and is "designed to be an evolving product that develops via learning".

This experimental and agile way of working is widespread among people analytics teams dealing with pandemic issues. "We're all testing now", says Isabel Naidoo, inclusion and talent lead at FIS, who is currently moving as much of the onboarding process for new recruits online as possible. "We say to our managers and staff 'Boy, do we need your input as we test it in a live environment.'"

There are advantages and disadvantages to doing experimental people analytics work at speed. "If we were doing this outside of the coronavirus situation, we would have done this over nine months," says Thomas Rasmussen, general manager of NAB's people analytics, insights and experience team. "We realise that we can deliver at a significantly quicker pace than in a regular working environment. The downside is that we can make mistakes. But people are forgiving during this pandemic, and you can integrate learning points from those mistakes."

Looking ahead

The conference considered how people analytics might help shape the world of work after the pandemic. For some organisations, an unexpected by-product of current people analytics work is that it provides pointers for potentially significant cost savings. For example, Nokia built people analytics dashboards at speed to keep track of its global workforce. It needed immediate data on how office staff were working and feeling as they adapted to remote work, and to keep track of field-based employees who might be at risk of becoming stranded abroad. These dashboards are now also raising structural questions for how the organisation does business and organises itself. "All the work that needs to be done is being done remotely", says David Shontz, head of workforce analytics at Nokia. "Over time, you start thinking why do we need the office site? Same with travel. Our travel is down to zero, but everything is still getting done. It'll be interesting."

People analytics and HR professionals should continue to use the agile approach to work when the coronavirus pandemic is over, argues Bersin. This is because it focuses effort on rapidly developing solutions to critical business issues. But moving to an agile approach will also require HR professionals to view their work differently. "One of the ways to think about HR now is you're all product managers," he says. "If you're building something - a homeworking programme, an onboarding programme, a back-to-work programme, whatever - if the customers aren't buying it, it's not their fault, it's your fault. If it isn't working for them, then you shouldn't be doing it. Do things for them, not too them."

People analytics professionals must continue to experiment and innovate both during and after the coronavirus pandemic, says Adamsen: "The reality is that we're all doing something we've never done before. We're all feeling uncomfortable right now, and that is OK. In people analytics we are creative and hopeful and we are finding a way forward."