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Don’t lose the humanity in human resources and technology


Human resources (HR) and technology are now forever linked.

Over the last few decades, new technology has increasingly become a major enabler of day-to-day human resources activity. Going forward, that trend will continue.

It’s easy to see why. Technology has simplified the HR function and made it more robust while helping companies to overcome common challenges.

But has the proliferation of technology, and all the advantages that come with it, been at the expense of a critical driver of workplace success: Human, face-to-face interaction?

Let’s explore how your business can benefit from HR technology, the various ways technology can alienate us from human interaction and the optimal method for mixing human relations and technology.

How businesses benefit from HR technology

Some technologies that have enhanced HR:

  • Recruiting tools that simplify the hiring process, such as applicant tracking systems
  • Artificial intelligence that can match candidates with positions or help current employees find answers to questions
  • Productivity tools (email, smartphones and mobile apps)
  • Collaboration platforms such as video conferencing, which have proven critical as more employees work remotely
  • Performance-management tools that have automated the process of collecting manager and peer feedback, sharing goals and objectives, and communicating feedback to employees
  • Digital paycheck distribution
  • Online onboarding, training and development programs
  • Human capital management software, which has automated a diverse range of HR tasks and relieved administrative burdens
  • HR portals or company Intranets that give employees access to company-wide information, allow employees to easily communicate with HR and empower employees to access their own records regarding benefits, PTO and performance

These technologies can offer important benefits:

  • On-demand, 24/7 access to information, without regard for office hours or availability of HR personnel
  • Greater efficiency and freedom from slow, tedious and paper-based tasks
  • Equality of information distribution
  • More comprehensive and accurate employee data, which in turn enables advanced data analytics that deliver greater insight into the workforce
  • Better protection of employee data (assuming digital storage with at least minimum security standards maintained)
  • Assistance in maintaining compliance with all employment laws and regulations
  • Continuity of HR functions in the case of natural disaster or office damage
  • Enhanced employee understanding of your company

The drawback of technology: Human disconnection

Technology has made HR – and business in general – easier, faster and more democratic.

You have access to more information than at any other point in history. You can communication at lightning speed with colleagues around the world.

Why is there a growing sense that we’re more disconnected from each other?

What’s behind this new reality:

  • The workplace is in the midst of a transition. Larger numbers of employees work remotely or have flexible schedules.
  • Electronic means of collaborating and communicating are dominant. Text, instant messaging, email and social media are often the preferred means of communication – particularly for younger generations.
  • Although the technology we have at our disposal is powerful and can be advantageous, we haven’t completely reconciled how to work most effectively with it – to our detriment.

What are technology’s limitations?

The temptation is strong to over-rely on technology because it’s easy, efficient and comfortable.

It’s important not to become complacent and lose sight of the fact that technology:

  1. Can’t help you read a room of people or enable you to grasp other subtle social cues
  2. Introduces opportunities for misinterpreting other peoples’ intended meaning and tone of voice
  3. Can promote passive aggressive communication
    • Some employees may feel more comfortable writing something that could be construed as sarcastic or confrontational from the comfort of their keyboard versus moderating their message when speaking directly to someone. This can lead to workplace conflict.
  4. Can’t teach you to communicate effectively to team members with different working styles or personalities
  5. Can’t make nuanced decisions
    • Algorithms can study data objectively, identify biases and trends, and produce suggested courses of action. But algorithms can’t replace personal insight, compassion, experience and a gut feeling.
  6. Can be a distraction to getting work done
  7. Can deprive employees of opportunities to form more meaningful professional connections that can lead to mentoring relationships and further career development
  8. Can apply pressure upon people to never unplug, and to respond instantaneously to matters that aren’t urgent

And if your people just sit in front of a screen all day and have few in-person interactions with each other, they can start to feel isolated and forget they’re part of a team. They may even begin to feel unfulfilled in their work and unsure of their purpose.

Instead, employees need to feel as though they’re part of a community, together contributing to something larger than themselves. Engaged, excited employees tend to be happier, healthier, more productive and longer tenured.

Employees also need the reassurance that there are actual people they can go to with questions or concerns, and to resolve issues. If you’ve ever experienced the frustration of dealing with automated customer service on the phone, you understand exactly why this is.

The bottom line: Face-to-face interaction still reigns supreme. Relationships matter. Intuition is critical for HR decision-making.

The optimal HR strategy: High tech and high touch

Overall, technology is a good thing for HR. But it’s clear that prioritizing technology over the human element can be a huge mistake.

An optimal HR strategy calls for a balanced approach that blends both technology adoption and emphasis on human interaction.

How can you accomplish this?

1. Properly invest in your HR function

Business owners and managers often under-invest in HR. These groups have a tendency to view HR as just another operational expense. But for HR to be successful, you need to give it the necessary amount of support.

You should:

Selecting the right technology is important, but it’s ultimately a means to get work done.

People are truly what make your company a success. Hire and support qualified people who care about other people and will take the initiative to interact with team members.

If you lack the time or enthusiasm for this endeavor, partner with a professional employer organization (PEO) that can help you.

2. Continually conduct research on your employees’ experience with your company.

Your objective is to understand what the entire employee lifecycle feels like, from:

  • Prospective applicant
  • Candidate
  • New-hiring onboarding
  • Full-time team member
  • The exit process

Evaluate the technology in use along the way.

Is it improving the employee experience, or is it a barrier? What needs to change? Is more human interaction needed?

Ask employees what they think.

3. Don’t over-rely on data.

Of course, your decisions should be supported by data as much as possible. Data is objective and inherently honest by nature.

However, data is just an information point to start with. Avoid taking an action simply because a report told you to.

In making HR decisions, you should also factor in:

  • Employee desires
  • Motivators
  • Growth ability
  • Leadership capabilities
  • Cultural fit
  • Other subjective qualities that technology can’t help you consider

Which types of decisions can be left to the machines?

Usually, these decisions are more transactional in nature. They are also supported by documented, transparent and well-known procedures.

Examples may include predicting and managing overtime or selecting employees for merit-based pay based on clear metrics.

4. Strive to make communications – even electronic communications – casual and personal.

Adopt a warm, personable tone. Address employees by name.

You may rely on technology to distribute your communications, but you don’t want to sound like a robot or give the impression you don’t care about your employees as people.

5. Recognize when human interaction is more appropriate than relying on technology.

Sometimes a face-to-face meeting is really the only option.

For example, do you need to talk to an employee about a problem with their work or their conduct at the office? Is an employee undergoing an HR investigation and you need to gather information?

In these situations, an automated or electronic process can’t replace the benefits of an in-person discussion.

Summing it all up

Technology can do a lot of things in terms of convenience, efficiency, productivity and security, but it can’t do everything.

Human resources is about dealing with humans – and we must step out from behind a device screen to work with and manage people effectively.

If your employees feel isolated and disengaged from overuse of technology, then all the other benefits afforded by technology mean nothing.  The optimal HR strategy for employee satisfaction and retention combines the incorporation of technology with opportunities for face-to-face interaction.

To learn more about how to best integrate human resources and technology, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to HR technology.