A shift in the future of Work-  John Sumser [Interview]

About John Sumser

John Sumser is the principal analyst at HRExaminer, an Independent Analyst firm. He works and researches on HR technology and includes all aspects of the newest technologies to solve problems. He also conducts three weekly podcasts and written commentary for HRExaminer. He’s been well known for his keynote addresses and ideas about all things HR. We are very happy to have someone with his expertise today on our interview series.

A shift in the future of Work-  John Sumser [Interview]

Aishwarya Jain

We have the pleasure of welcoming John today to our interview series. I’m Aishwarya Jain from the peopleHum team. Before we begin, just a quick intro of peopleHum. peopleHum is an end-to-end, one-view, integrated human capital management automation platform, the winner of the 2019 global Codie Award for HCM that is specifically built for crafted employee experiences and the future of work with AI and automation technologies. We run the peopleHum blog and video channel which receives upwards of 200,000 visitors a year and publish around 2 interviews with well-known names globally, every month.

Aishwarya

Welcome John, we’re thrilled to have you.

John

Thank you very much. It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me. 

Aishwarya

Thank you for your time. So, John, I’d like to dive into the questions that I had for you. And if you could start by telling us a little bit about your work as a principal analyst with HRExaminer. 

John

So, HRExaminer.com is an analyst firm and we do several things. We have a weekly podcast. We have daily editorial content and we do an annual report. The annual report has been focused on AI for the last four years now and we’re gonna continue to do that.

The interesting thing is that in this time of the pandemic, AI is coming into deeper consideration. And so I’m spending a great deal of time talking to heads of HR departments, CHROs, CEOs and vendors who are supplying stuff.

Aishwarya

All right, that is excellent.

And, what is your opinion about the latest trends with respect to human capital management platforms? Because there’s just so much talk about automation and these employee engagement platforms. So how do you think that would redefine the HR space? And will there be a refresh cycle upon us since the major ones are now being looked at as a legacy?

John

Complicated question, and it’s further complicated by the COVID 19 virus. So it’s my view that we’re headed into a time where the very nature of HR is going to change.

That means, on the one hand, that what you want to do is have tools that change quickly because we’re gonna be re-doing things. And on the other hand, there’s something to be said for the stability of a platform, but by its very nature, the platform makes you slower, and so the question going into, once there’s a plateau for the spread of the virus and we start to normalize. So, the question is, where do you want to be when you get there? The thing to worry about right now isn’t the major trend. But it’s what’s your business is going to look like when you hit the plateau? And how’s HR gonna be different?

So, the question is, where do you want to be when you get there? The thing to worry about right now isn’t the major trend. But it’s what’s your business is going to look like when you hit the plateau? And how’s HR gonna be different?”

Some of the ways that HR is gonna be different include: Today we have succession planning and succession Planning tends to mean who’s gonna replace the top executives if something happens. 

Well, in an environment where you’re going to lose one or two out of every 100 people in your organization and 15 to 20 of every 100 are going to require hospitalization, the question is, how do you plan for the succession of people in smaller roles?

Because it turns out that the people at the very front end of the business, are actually how revenue happens and in some ways are far more essential than the executive to manage. So how do you understand which of those frontline employees are essential and which aren’t?

How do you know who would be a good person to replace them if they get sacrificed? Those are the kinds of questions in the future. I don’t think, at least in the United States, we don’t have a good track record for thinking that way about this.

Aishwarya

Yeah, I think succession planning – not a lot of people talk about it actually. And with the recent outbreak, it’s it will be, you know, more essential to kind of look at who’s gonna replace whom and then, you know, really strategize as to how your corporation is going to get restructured because a lot of laying off is happening.

And there are a lot of people who are gonna be out of jobs. So, that demand and supply are not going to be equal. So, there would be a lot of reskilling and upskilling. And I agree with you, the succession planning part of it should also be given a lot of impetus. 

So do you also think that the future of work is going to change because of the whole Coronavirus situation? And how should HRs particularly deal with it, you know, such a grave situation? 

John

So it would be my view that, the future is happening, that the now of work is about making the necessary adjustment, some portion in the States, it’s 30% of the workforce is now operating from home, and it was never anything like that before now.

And so we’re gonna have to learn what it means to have corporate work at home. How closely do we supervise people who are at home? Should the supervisor make home visits? And what does that mean? And what’s okay with that? And how much notice do you have to have? All these sorts of things that are realities with a distributed workforce. 

We have to figure out now, this is not a project for the future. We’re in the future and we have to figure out what to do about that, So I think there are a whole lot of questions and we don’t even know what they are yet.

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Aishwarya

Right, Yeah. And, as you said, right? The future of work is actually the now of work, but there are so many terminologies around it. You know like, future of work, flow of work, now of work then there’s employee engagement, employee experience, and now there is even human experience.

So there’s like so much confusion as to what is what, and do you see all of this settling and coming to one particular terminology? 

John

Oh, I certainly hope not. I think that a singularly dangerous idea is that there’s one answer to all of this. So if you’re an insurance company and you’ve had to go from centralized working to distributed working, you’re gonna have to figure out all sorts of things and they boil down to employee experience, they’ll certainly affect engagement. But, it doesn’t really matter. 

But first, the first thing is, can you get the people up and running in their work? Right? And then it’s in everybody’s interest once people are up and running in their work to make it better. Here are some of the questions we’re gonna have once people are used to working in a distributed way, then there’s a real estate question, right?

The company will have office buildings that it needs to get rid of because people don’t work there anymore. But if I’m doing your work in my house, shouldn’t you be subsidizing my rent? And different companies will have different answers to that. That will be a business model question.

“But if I’m doing your work in my house, shouldn’t you be subsidizing my rent? And different companies will have different answers to that. That will be a business model question.”

And it isn’t that one way is better than another way. It’s that all of these things that we’ve been talking about: engagement, future of work, what to do, how does my company get its work done? All right.

And what really matters isn’t some speculative fiction about some long term future. What really matters is what’s the best way to get our work done now and so I think we’re gonna be sort of redirected to ‘What’s the best way to get work done?’ Now if we’re not doing it the best way, how do we fix it? If a fix doesn’t exist, how do we get about it? 

Aishwarya

Absolutely. Yeah. I think that would be a change of mindsets now. And people will have to look at different kinds of strategies, really, to, you know, get into that perspective of how to keep, um, running and not only surviving but also flourishing and thriving, right? And I think the situation is really going to teach us a lot of things.

And, how do you think that technology can play a role in this and you know, surely a lot of people think it’s the devil. But you know, how do we really become more productive, there’s so much advancement in technology now.

There is AI, there is machine learning, so how can we enhance people’s processes and experience through this. And are they here to stay as an enabler or will it take over, you know, some or most aspects of the process?

John

Well, so I think we’re in a really good place for starting to think about some things. The first thing that you have to think about is the business itself has changed. It’s not possible to have lived through the last week and it certainly won’t be possible to live through the next 90 days without it directly impacting your business. The way you work in, the place you work, the things you sell, the things you do every day. All of those things are going to be up for grabs.

“The way you work in, the place you work, the things you sell, the things you do every day. All of those things are going to be up for grabs.”

And so we need some vision for the leadership about where we’re going. How do we tell when we get there is part of the vision. How do we know when things were settling down? Because everybody’s confused as you said.

And then that vision gets communicated to a broad spectrum of managers whose job is to make sure that people are able to do the work, and that’s where you start to have intelligent use of technology is making sure that people are able to do the work at this.

There are all sorts of different things. Now we’ve been in an environment for 10, 11, 12 years where labor shortage was the primary driver and we’re not gonna have a labor shortage tomorrow, we’re going to have a surplus.

“We’re not gonna have a labor shortage tomorrow, we’re going to have a surplus.”

That’s liable to affect relationships between countries. That’s liable to affect what constitutes the qualifications for a job. It’s gonna be very, very interesting. 

A lot of companies can’t go back and do the business they used to do. So, for instance, the airline companies, there will never be another time in our lifetimes where people travel in the way that they travel because the degree to which that’s unhealthy just became really obvious to everybody.

So it’s going to take a lot to get people back on airplanes, and those big companies, they’re gonna have to do something different in order to survive. 

Same thing with hotels. Now we’re seeing big hotels turned into hospitals. Have you seen that there yet? So there’s use for big hotels because it’s gonna be a while before people want to go sleep in the bed that somebody else slept in last night.

No matter how clean the sheets are, it seems unlikely that we’re gonna feel confident about that. So all of these big companies, are gonna have to rethink what they do and what value they create. And it’s a particularly hard time to do that because so much of the world is uncertain. Once you understand what you do, then you take a look at all of your technology and see whether the technology is helping you get there or hurting from living there. That’s the first thing.

“Once you understand what you do, then you take a look at all of your technology and see whether the technology is helping you get there or hurting from living there. That’s the first thing.”

So what’s happened by magic is, we’ve sort of gotten to the point that all of the people talking about the digital transformation we’re talking about, which is you have to rethink the whole thing. That’s what they were saying. That’s why nobody did it. 

And now we’re getting to the place where you don’t have any choice but to rethink the whole thing. And that’s a good time to get very serious about deploying technology to sort of be the infrastructure for the business that you’re about to become. 

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Aishwarya

Yeah, absolutely. I think of technology. I mean, if you didn’t have the technology, I would not have been able to talk to you right now, remotely from home. So it’s very important to kind of include technology as we move into a different. I’d say a different period of, now how we’re gonna work. And to really help with the remote working culture that we have right now. So, yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me. 

And you know like since you’re talking to, like, so many people right now, what is it that they’re mostly facing? You know, as a haunting challenge, I’m sure there are a lot of things, but what is the single most important thing that you’re hearing out of all these calls? 

John

Well, so people who work in HR have the hardest job in the world right now. On the one hand, they are the point people for employees who are in stressful situations, and everybody’s in stressful situations, but the number of questions the HR people get is exploding as people try to figure out how they fit into this stuff.

So at the very same time the HR people are part of every layoff. And so they have to be compassionate all the way through. But there two different kinds of compassionate: one is you’re helping and the other is challenging.

“The HR people are part of every layoff. And so they have to be compassionate all the way through. But there two different kinds of compassionate: one is you’re helping and the other is challenging.”

It’s hard to sit through terminations and many of the people of HR are going to have to do that a lot while they’re being compassionate with the people who are still working there because the people who still work there have adjustment problems.

So that means that you’re in the market for tools that reduce the amount of time it takes to answer questions. So the chatbots are sort of overrated. But there are emerging, management tools like Socrates.ai, that integrate all of the existing HR systems so that, if you want to ask a question like ‘how much money will I make on my maternity leave’ and ‘when can I start?’

That requires looking up things in four or five different systems to get new to that simple question, and you can automate those sorts of things so that the machine is quite capable of answering that question. So that’s the kind of thing you’ll see. 

Aishwarya

Absolutely. And that is what you know, we as peoplehum. We also did the same thing we’ve integrated a chatbot into our HR platform.

So you could just type in queries real fast and it’ll give you those answers because going forward, 75% of your workforce is going to be about millennials. They really don’t like the menu-driven applications anymore.

They’re just they’re more about conversations and they like typing, texting a lot so it makes a lot of sense to have that technology embedded into your existing platforms, and you know talking about millennials there will be an increase in the millennials in the workforce and the gig economy is also rising.

I’m not sure if that’s going to happen after the COVID, but we do have a lot of contract workers now for many rules. So how do you think this trend is relevant with respect to the future of work? 

John

Well, I think a whole lot of people are going to be very happy about being gig workers very soon. And so the idea that that’s a trend that’s gonna grow seems misplaced.

It sounds to me like that’s a trend that’s about to shrink, and that it’s going to be the case that if you could get a job where they might pay your benefits after there’s no business because they’re a compassionate employer that’s way better than living month to month in the gig economy, trying to make sure that your health insurance payments were made a very different environment. So people are going to start to see the value in belonging to larger organizations and prioritize that over the freedom that comes from gig work and so I think you’ll see much less voluntary movement to gig work.

“So people are going to start to see the value in belonging to larger organizations and prioritize that over the freedom that comes from gig work and so I think you’ll see much less voluntary movement to gig work.”

Now it’s possible that employers like to match so much that, that people won’t have a choice but to become gig workers. Because the jobs don’t get replaced say, our jobs aren’t the way you grow our company and so that might make it continue to grow. But that’d be a very different world because you have a whole lot of people who were really angry with big companies in that world. 

Aishwarya

Absolutely. There would be a lot of angry people, you know, big corporations would really have to rethink how to hire and what is their model of hiring now.

John

So that’s what I say – before we’re at a time where HR gets to envision what it’s gonna be in your particular company and that’s exactly the type of question. Who are we gonna hire and why is a big question we’re usually too busy to bother with it but we’re going to get a chance to deal directly with it, though. 

Aishwarya

Yeah, I think it’s a good time to actually gain perspective of the situation and take out time to, you know, re-strategize. Otherwise, I think big corporations or any corporation for that matter, would find themselves in, you know, big soup. So, yeah, definitely this time has to be more productive for HRs, especially in these tough times. 

And that just leaves me with you know, the last question is, if you have any other important sound bites that you would like to leave for our viewers, especially in these times? 

John

“As you watch what’s going on with the virus, please understand that this is your initial training in how to use intelligent technologies.”

All of the tools of AI are built on basic principles of data and statistics. And if you pay attention to the news at all, what you’ll see is a complicated arrangement and rearrangement of ideas about what’s going on.

Because the data changes at the bottles change, the sample size changes. And we’re all getting a deep, surprising lesson in that stuff that’s going to make it easier to understand what we get from, the intelligent assistant that they’re gonna be everywhere in our lives right shortly. 

And for that, one of the things that it’s really important for me to be sure that people understand about that stuff is, it’s way too soon to let machines make decisions.

Soon, the technology simply is good enough to let machines make decisions about whether I have a job or you have a job, the kinds of decisions that they’re moving towards and what you need to do is understand that the machine has an opinion and you should consider that opinion deeply in your decision making.

But just because the machine says this is a good idea doesn’t mean that that’s a good idea. It’s just the machine’s opinion and learning how to make it okay for the machine to be wrong is part of what it takes to integrate these tools into your workforce. 

And so what we’re gonna watch right now is what happens and how we respond with lots of people being wrong. Nobody’s getting it right. Right now, everybody’s making stupid mistakes.

And, the kind of compassion required for the machines to introduce machines into the workforce. Is that exact same kind of compassion? Understand that their field. I understand that they will make mistakes. Help them, All right, that’s how we really get to the next level of productivity. 

Aishwarya

Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. There will be a requirement for human intervention. I mean you cannot completely rely on automation and technology. Absolutely so. Thank you so much, John. For your time today, it was really wonderful talking to you, and I really appreciate you sharing abuse. I think it’s been a learning experience for me personally. And would definitely be for all of our viewers too, thank you so much.

John

Thank you very much. I enjoyed it. See you soon.