A lot can happen in a year when it comes to employee experience. However, some of the trends that emerged from the COVID pandemic look like they are here to stay.  In fact, a report from consulting firm McKinsey last October runs with the ominous-sounding title that goes: “COVID-19 has pushed companies over the technology tipping point—and transformed business forever.”

The report doesn’t conclude whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. It just points out that the pandemic has accelerated the pace of digital transformation in companies by five to seven years.

Among the conclusions, the people surveyed claimed to be three times likelier now than before the crisis to say 80 percent or more of their customer interactions are digital. Of the 93 percent that reported an increase in remote working or collaboration, more than half (54 percent) feel those changes will stick, and 23 percent feel they won't.

In areas like e-commerce and customer service the focus on digital transformation has been mostly positive, as retailers upped their game and created digital experiences that keep consumers engaged. But what happens when you add automation into internal human resources? Is it possible, the report asks, to digitize human relations in the workplace?

Digital Transformation and the Employee Experience

Lisa Barrington, an organizational psychologist who teaches business and leadership at Grand Canyon University, argues we have entered into what futurist Alvin Toffler called "future shock," an accelerated rate of technological and social change that leaves people disconnected and suffering from stress and disorientation. This affects employee experience, but also overall employee well-being. The McKinsey study indicated changes such as remote working and collaboration that executives felt would take 15 months happened in less than 11 days, with an acceleration factor of 43. 

“In many cases, companies announced and mandated these changes over a matter of days or weeks and did not use effective change management practices during and, importantly, since the changes were implemented,” Barrington said.

The result is employees feeling disoriented, overwhelmed, alienated, frustrated and anxious. To boot, communication has decreased and the manner of communication has shifted. In many cases, employees didn't get direction or support as to how to continue to meet job expectations or how they would be measured outside of the general mandate to work at home or use specific technology.

Barrington said there are several things companies can do to improve employee experience during this accelerated rate of change:

  1. Communicate: Consistent messaging via multiple communication vehicles will eventually be heard and internalized by employees. Due to the amount of information coming at them every day, it's imperative to repeat key messages in multiple venues multiple times.
  2. Walk the Talk: If the CEO is sending everyone home and asking them to use video conferencing, so should the CEO.
  3. Improve Logistics: If an organization is asking an employee to work at home, they must provide the necessary equipment, access (including internet and phone), and training and support.
  4. Practice Humanity: Leaders should check in more often with employees than they did when they were working in the same space together.
  5. Be Optimistic: Be positive but realistic. Leaders should be authentic and vulnerable and willing to share their own challenges and fears during this time.

Related Article: Tech Is Evolving for the Hybrid Employee Experience

How Automation Can Help Employee Experience

Automation has clear upsides, including greater efficiency and a reduction in tedious or manual work, said Logan Mallory, vice president of marketing at Lehi, Utah-based Motivosity. That means less time on fact finding and more time for insightful and detailed conversations.

However, one big downside is the reduction in human connection, which can lead to poor employee engagement. Employees aren't getting the opportunity to connect with clients or fellow employees. They're missing the literal or figurative watercooler, a place to gather in the office for informal conversations.  

"We need new digital tools for the new reality of digital workplaces, where people are dispersed in terms of location," Mallory said. "Many companies are struggling with ways to foster human connection and keep employees engaged because the way of working has shifted dramatically."

Technology can help, for example by simulating the way bosses or employees might recognize others informally in the office with a surprise gift or a simple compliment, he said. These digital recognition tools can also allow employees to send appreciation messages to each other, and contribute to rewards such as gift cards for an employee they want to recognize each month. 

“Awards and badges can also showcase an employee's achievement or even create great team banter," Mallory said. "These tools can also record milestones such as birthdays and work anniversaries, and remind everyone on the team.”

It is also even more important for managers to be aware of employee experience and sentiment in the age of automation so that they can make adjustments closer to real time. Tools that create pulse surveys, for example, give managers the ability to do a quick check on employees, set priorities, and allow for continuous feedback to employees and vice versa.

Learning Opportunities

Related Article: Employee Experience Isn't Just HR's Job — It's IT's Job, Too

Automation and Recruiting

Robotic process automation (RPA) is the most ubiquitous form of automation in the workplace today, said Paul French, managing director of Boston-based recruitment agency Intrinsic Executive Search, cutting across recruitment, onboarding, learning and development, and interaction with HR in the day-to-day life of the employee.

In recruitment, RPA and AI can improve the candidate experience by screening applicants based on an automated set of standard criteria.

“This goes a long way in eliminating bias and making the candidate feel valued and seen for their qualifications and achievements, as opposed to how they look or their ethnic or racial background,” he said.

“Candidates who eventually become employees will inevitably become some of the most loyal ambassadors of your brand, based solely on the experience they had during recruitment.”

Related Article: Digital Hiring May Become the Rule Rather Than the Exception

The Overall HR Experience Gets a Boost

French also pointed to onboarding as an area where technology can improve the employee experience. In the past, new employees spent the early days at an organization pushing paperwork from HR, which is not the best first impression to create for a new employee.

Now, RPA technology can automatically populate employee forms based on the data the employee initially provided. This frees up the employee to spend their first few days at work interacting with HR, getting to know team members, and learning what is required of them on the job.

Automation also facilitates more individualized learning and development. Employees have different career goals, and everyone learns at their own pace and style, making it important to provide customized learning opportunities. RPA technology can boost self-paced learning, track employee progress, and recommend the most suitable learning path based on employee performance and goals.

“Automation is here to stay and employees are demanding that HR make the best use of these technologies to boost convenience, improve user experience, and facilitate human interactions in the workplace,” French said.