Takeaways from #HRTechConf: The reality, the buzz, and the future of workplace tech

While the razzle dazzle of the year’s biggest workplace technology conference was happening on the main level of Chicago’s mammoth McCormick Place convention center last week, I was huddled in a nondescript room a floor below talking to Brad Nycz.

Nycz is the human resources and IT director for a company that makes power sports equipment accessories, the kind of business you don’t think about unless you own a motorcycle or boat. It’s also a typical U.S. small business — privately held, about 250 employees, ambitious plans to get bigger, and figuring out the best way to manage labor costs to get there.

Nycz made the five-hour drive from the company’s headquarters in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, to see what there was to see at the annual HR Technology Conference. He also give me a reality check on what it’s like to use some of the tools the vendors where hawking on the expo hall above us.

The future was definitely on display at the four-day tech fest:

· Vendors turning themselves into platforms patterned after popular consumer and business app stores

· Services that let recruiters communicate with job hunters via text messages and chatbots

· Employee engagement apps — so many employee engagement apps

· A standing-room only pre-conference session for women in HR tech that showed that while women are underrepresented in other tech fields, they’re in power roles in HR IT departments and tech vendors.

Weaning HR Off Paper for Managing Employees

I’ll say more about the new stuff in a minute. First, back to Nycz and Dowco Inc., which makes leather and vinyl covers for motorcycles and boat motors. According to Nycz, many of Dowco’s employees are 60-something women who spend most of their work hours sewing the covers. Before he was hired two years ago, employees still used paper punch cards to clock in and paper forms to change their health insurance options during open enrollment. Many worked weekends to keep up with demand during the busy season in summer.

Brad Nycz, HR & IT director, Dowco (LinkedIn profile photo)

A lot’s changed in the last 24 months. Nycz got rid of paper forms, subscribed to a cloud-based HR system and over time moved onto it time and attendance, payroll, compensation, benefits, performance management and core HR. Today, Dowco employees clock in using touchscreens mounted to the walls of the company’s six manufacturing plants. Right next to touchscreens, Nycz put in tablets that display an inspirational quote, snippet from the company’s mission statement or weekly pulse survey asking how employees feel about a particular work-related issue.

Nycz maintains the workplace tech is making employees feel empowered, and that they have more say. One example: Nycz used the surveys to ask employees about schedule preferences and found out people in three plants would rather work four 10-hour days during the busy season so they could use Fridays for overtime and not have to work on the weekends. Another: when his first open enrollment season rolled around in 2015, Nycz circulated instructions for using the new benefits portal in advance of bringing laptops to different company locations to walk people through how to make updates online. More than one person showed up to the training and told him they’d figured it out it at home the night before themselves or with their husbands. “They were proud to come in and say they had done it on their own,” he said.

Using weekly pulse surveys Nycz also discovered that a lot of employees who were smokers were upset that the company had switched to a smoke-free campus as part of a wellness push. Managers held company meetings to discuss it and while they didn’t rescind the no-smoking policy, they agreed to let people go off-premise during their lunch hour to smoke.

With information Nycz collected from payroll and time and attendance and integrated with sales data, he was able to show Dowco managers that the company was spending too much on overtime, which was cutting into profits. That led the business to cross-train workers to do more than one type of sewing job, which helped reduce overtime and helped profits pick up. “We’re having the best bottom-line year in 10-plus years and a big part of that is productivity improvements,” Nycz said. “Nothing’s pushed us before because we didn’t have the data to look at to make those decisions.”

Emerging HR Tech Trends on Display at #HRTechConf

HR managers know that what Dowco is doing is not earthshaking. The company represents many workforce situations small business owners and HR execs deal with and the difference that HR software available today can make.

If existing tech can have such a significant impact, imagine what some of the HR tech in the pipeline can do. Here are just a few of the emerging trends I saw at HR Tech:

The Provider as Platform

iCIMS has added 130 vendors since launching the UNiFi app platform in June.

Workplace tech providers are jumping on the platform-as-a-service bandwagon that companies like Apple and Salesforce helped invent by allowing outside developers to build and sell apps that run on their operating system or basic infrastructure. In the past 12 to 18 months, ADP, iCIMS and other vendors of core HR, payroll and recruiting services have unveiled platforms that let customers add on other vendors’ apps that have been pre-integrated into the host’s application programming interface (API).

An app marketplace is a carrot to make it easier for the vendors’ customers to bolt on programs and data from other vendors while staying inside their own ecosystem — to use one of this year’s favorite HR tech phrases. That’s not an insignificant issue given that the average company is juggling dozens of people management applications. ADP research puts the number at 39, though an HR IT manager at a kids’ apparel maker I talked to at the conference said her company uses 50, and an HR IT manager speaking on a panel at the show said the hospital system she works for uses 100.

Two years after launching, ADP’s ADP Marketplace is up to 170 partners, including Concur (expense receipt management), Globoforce (rewards and recognition) and HireVue (video job interviews). ADP officials claim to have 900 other vendors on a waiting list. iCIMS has added 130 vendors to the UNiFi platform-as-a-service it launched in June.

Benchmarking Made Easy

Companies like to gauge how they’re doing by comparing themselves to businesses they have something in common with, whether it’s the same industry, area, revenue or employee size. It’s a business staple called benchmarking. But benchmarking is getting kicked up a notch as more technology companies move their services to the cloud. Storing all that customer information gives cloud-based tech vendors access to mammoth amounts of data, which they can aggregate anonymously (with customers’ permission) and use a variety of ways.

At the conference, I listened in as Andrew Narbutis, HR operations director at Discover Financial Services, explained how he uses Workday’s benchmarking service — publicly unveiled in late September — to measure how well he’s doing compared to other financial services firms. ADP executives I interviewed said the company’s year-old DataCloud service, based on data from 650,000 customers representing 30 million employees, has already signed up 130 partners.

They’re Texting Anyway, Might as Well Use It for Recruiting

People are addicted to their phones. By one measure, the average smartphone user touches the device 2,617 times a day. For hardcore users, it’s more like 5,427, according to researcher Dscout. Given the activity and the declining use of email and phone calls by younger workers, it was only a matter of time before recruiters switched their attention to mobile apps to find, follow and interact with job prospects. Increasingly that activity is taking place via text messaging. As much as 60% of communications recruiters have with candidates happens through texting, according to HR Executive Online. Until recently, there weren’t good options for managing the process, but a few startups hope to fix that.

One of them is TextRecruit, a year-old platform that centralizing sending, storing and tracking text messages with job candidates. The service plugs into several popular applicant tracking systems, and has been picked up by more than 110 companies, most of them with 5,000 or more employees, including VMWare, Six Flags, Liberty Mutual Insurance, and Con-Way Truckload. “Con-Way is crushing our system they’re using it so much,” TextRecruit cofounder and CEO Erik Kostelnik told me.

Employee Engagement Apps: Too Much of a Good Thing

The average annual quit rate, or employees who leave a job voluntarily, for all U.S. industries is at a five-year high of 23.6%. It’s no wonder companies are intent on figuring out how to keep employees engaged at work so they won’t jump ship. And HR tech vendors are happy to accommodate them, as evidenced by the overwhelming number of apps touted at the conference for measuring employee engagement.

A quick search of the 418 HR tech companies exhibiting at the show pulled up 87 with some form of employee engagement tools, including startups such as Glint, HighGround, BeeKeeper, Emplify, HappyOrNot, Impraise, Inspirus, Officevibe, TinyPulse and a whole lot more, as well as long-time rewards and recognition vendors such as Achievers, O.C. Tanner, C.A. Short Co., and Globoforce.

Is there enough demand to sustain all of them? Not according to the industry analysts and observers I talked to. Their take: employee engagement is a feature, not a tool, and will eventually be incorporated into broader HR tech systems.

The New Girls Network

#HRTechConf session on women in HR tech attracted several hundred people, women and men (Photo by M. Rafter)

Talk about girl power. The day before the conference started, I spent four hours with a few hundred women and a handful of men who work in HR IT in some capacity. We were listening to a group of women HR tech industry VIPs talk about how they got where they are, and what it would take for the other women in the room to follow in their footsteps. What did they recommend? Mentorships. Networking. Not being afraid to negotiate.

The IT industry has entrenched problems hiring and promoting women and people of color. Looking around that room it was evident the HR industry has a healthy number of women in C-suite roles — at least at vendor companies. Plenty more are interested in getting there. The question: how to make that happen. One woman sitting at my table has worked at a Washington D.C. area health care system for 11 years and is now a HR IT department middle manager. When her female boss, who’d been her no. 1 advocate and mentor, left recently after three years, my seat-mate got the job on an interim basis. What more does she need to do, she asked me, to make it permanent? Good question.

It was an inspiring session — so much so it inspired me to create a Twitter account called @womeninHRTech where I’m sharing news about tech careers, HR IT, and following women in HR IT jobs. I also created a #womeninHRTech Twitter list with close to 240 members who work in the industry in some capacity.

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Want more work news and views? Let me know. I recently ended a stint as PCMag.com’s HR tech columnist and am seeking new outlets to write about workplace tech and related issues. Contact me at michellerafter@comcast.net.