Engagement Conference Sheds Light on the Changing HR Landscape

The continued evolution of human resources was evident at the Human Capital Institute’s annual Employee Engagement Conference, taking place this week in Chicago at the Palmer House Hilton hotel.

I had the opportunity to attend five of the main keynote sessions on Tuesday, hearing from top HR executives from organizations like Dunkin’ Brands Inc., Pandora, Salesforce.com and The Ohio State University. The speakers touched on everything from culture, hiring, big data, globalization, succession and workforce planning and, of course, employee engagement.

I won’t go through all the nitty gritty of each speaker, but lots of good stuff from the morning stood out.

Ginger Gregory, the chief human resources officer at Dunkin’ Brands, was the morning’s first speaker. (If you haven’t read it already, we profiled Gregory in Talent Management; read here).

Gregory gave a detailed look at how the core roles — or, as she put them, “cogs” — of HR have changed, thanks largely to societal changes driven by age and technology, as well as macroeconomic factors like unemployment, higher labor costs and productivity declines.

On age, Gregory talked about how by 2020 it’s likely there will be employees from five different generations in the workforce. The biggest challenge this will pose, Gregory said, is with communication. It’s important for talent managers and HR executives to be privy to how generations talk with one another — whether it’s by phone, text, tweet, etc. — and take steps to bridge  the communication gap and educate employees on the issue. Not making efforts to bridge the generational communication gap threatens to slow the pace of information within organizations.

On technology, Gregory talked about how more online assessment tools are being used at the company, particularly predictive assessments for hiring. “If you define what kind of person you need in a given role, and are able to use technology to sift through applicants, you end up with a much better fit,” Gregory said.

Gregory also put a shine on the importance of diversity from an HR executive’s perspective. Organizations need to be creating work environments where differences are embraced and allowed to thrive. It needs to be a critical competency for employees and leaders.

Another HR cog experiencing changes is employee onboarding. Gregory said the traditional practice of orienting new employees into companies is moving to a more customized format. Fit onboarding for specific roles, Gregory said, and don’t stop after the first week or month. Dunkin’ is constantly re-onboarding people who take new jobs or responsibilities or move into different areas of the organization.

On engagement and workforce planning, Gregory spoke of the importance of stay interviews. Conducting stay interviews provides for a more productive engagement discussion than exit interviews, she said. She also said the company has moved away from once-a-year performance reviews; instead, it conducts quarterly check-ins. Gregory said this caters better to the company’s needs. It also acts as a better table setter for the company’s emphasis on learning and development.

Ed Martin, the chief learning officer of Internet music company Pandora, also spoke, with the primary topic being employee engagement.

Right off the bat, Martin said something that really stuck with me, something that I have never really heard before on the definition of engagement.

If you’ve read our magazine, you know that employee engagement is often defined as the discretionary effort given by an employee — that is, an employee going above and beyond the call of duty. Martin said he did not prefer this definition of engagement because, in his view, effort isn’t deep enough for real engagement. You can pay people more money to give more effort, but that doesn’t necessarily make them fully engaged or care about the company’s values and goals.

To him, true engagement is about creating a world that other people want to belong to. “You can’t pay people to care,” Martin said. “That comes from a deeper place.”

At Pandora, they’ve worked to create such a world. Based in Oakland, Calif., the company’s offices boast of an open environment in which the company’s founders sit in six-person pods along with everyone else — an effort to create transparency between employees and executives, an area of needed improvement, according to recent employee surveys.

Another innovation is the company’s performance review process. Employees are allowed to choose how they want them. They could either be in written form once a year, or it could be an informal conversation, unwritten, that happens multiple times a year.

The goal of all of these efforts is to reach an ideal that Martin said all companies should strive toward: To treat their employees as they treat their customers.

Because in the evolving world of business, and with the so-called war for top talent, this sort of thinking is increasingly finding its way to the top of the list of strategic drivers that are propelling companies forward.