Three years after the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted decades-old assumptions about how we work, business and IT leaders are redefining work models and the employee experience (EX), reflecting the changing dynamics of the employee-employer relationship and the critical role of data and digital technologies to navigate through these largely uncharted waters.

“HR and IT are leading the transformation of the employee experience – not just between the HR department and the employee, but between the employee and their colleagues, their managers, and the organization as a whole,” said Ernesto Boada, interim CIO of Workday. “We need to simplify the employee’s life so they can do the best work of their lives.”

One key component of a modern EX platform is the seamless integration of relevant data that can improve how managers and employees interact with an organization’s “people systems,” from payroll to benefits to emerging “hoteling” apps for accommodating a hybrid workplace. Achieving a more personalized experience requires the collection of copious amounts of data and analysis to deliver a more relevant experience to every employee, while furnishing managers with deeper insights to help them assess performance and improve engagement and support.

To deliver on this mandate, IT needs the right platforms, tools, and processes to gather and aggregate data from a variety of on-premises and cloud-based applications, ranging from ERP and human capital management systems to third-party health insurance and retirement plans. They must work closely with HR teams to define technology’s role in providing the insights that help leadership understand how evolving work models are impacting people and policies.

“It’s easy to underestimate how much people management has changed in the last three years,” said Rob Carlyle, Vice President of HR Analytics, Systems and Risk Management at Sun Life, a global financial services and insurance company. “Existing HR processes don’t really align with what the new world of work is like. There’s a bit of a resetting for this new reality of the workforce, and we need to play a little catch-up on some of the fundamentals, which includes adopting new technologies.”

HR technology is ‘raising the game’

Technology plays a critical role in improving employee experience, with HR systems evolving from their  legacy of handling forms related to benefits and payroll to becoming part of the organization’s central nervous system. HR and IT teams are applying many of the techniques and technologies marketing teams use to deliver highly personalized customer experiences to the demands of their internal users to improve a broad range of HR-related benchmarks, from retention to corporate culture.

“HR technology and platforms have really raised the game from being a system of record to being more about getting the right person into the right job, promoting the learning experiences that they need, giving strategic insights to leaders so they can make better workforce decisions, and ensuring that the workforce is appropriate for evolving business models,” said Carlyle.

This holistic approach requires a much deeper dive into data and analytics to furnish managers with insights about how people work and the work they actually do, to help assess individual and team performance and, increasingly, employee wellbeing.

“For us to deliver that level of personalization, we have to know the work that’s required as well as the person who’s doing that work,” said Carlyle. “And with that, we can identify the gaps between your skills and interests and the work that needs to get done.”

From there, HR can provide personalized coaching to narrow gaps, or work with managers to fine-tune the nature of the work for each employee. “In some cases you might narrow a job’s focus,” Carlyle explained. “Or if someone is more capable than what the role requires, they can take on extra tasks or special projects to help them be as engaged and effective as possible.”

Sun Life’s aspirations for employee experience are much broader than traditional – though still important – business outcomes such as retention rates and employee satisfaction. “We want to provide people with the opportunity to do meaningful work that they’re passionate about at a high level, and then give them the tools and the power to do that work with as little frustration as possible,” Carlyle said.

More than just listening

Gathering the data that drives deeper insights involves more than conducting annual surveys and other traditional methods for soliciting employee feedback.

“Listening is not just surveys, but also observing the behavior of people,” said Boada. “We have to be really purpose-driven with our listening to focus on particular areas to prioritize where we need to improve so that we can affect the top line, the bottom line, and everything in-between. So, thinking holistically with a value-centric mindset is a good way for IT to deliver.”

Collecting and aggregating such data involves higher levels of integration across different systems, as the HR technology landscape has changed significantly over the past decade. “There are now a lot more narrow-scope, best-in-class tools that need to be integrated into our entire HR ecosystem,” said Eric Chung, Sun Life’s director of HR systems.

Integration of these systems requires tighter collaboration between HR and IT and an open, interoperable, secure platform that enables tight integrations of systems and data.

“There’s a whole data infrastructure that sits underneath HR systems to connect employee feedback into the broader ecosystem to drive resources,” said Zachary Chertok, research manager for employee experience at IDC. “Data is the common thread that ties these resources together. That’s really where the IT partnership comes into play to connect that data and those analytics systems together.”

One approach for a data infrastructure that can easily adapt to meet a workforce’s changing need envisions an intelligent data core as the foundational building block on which value is progressively added as data moves between each layer.

IT also plays an important role in helping HR determine proper governance policies that respect and protect employee privacy. “Gathering all this data is critical, but we’re still working through how to capture and store the data, along with how to ensure the proper use of that data,” said Chung.

Sun Life has taken ownership of configuring the employee experience by using an app development environment that’s tightly integrated into the HR system. This gives them the opportunity to extend out-of-box capabilities to introduce new functionality, such as apps to surface data in unique ways, custom cards that personalize the employee journey, and connecting APIs across systems to orchestrate processes. “These capabilities are fundamental to bring the experience to life,” said Carlyle.

“Workday Extend gives us the opportunity to build a lot of custom apps within Workday, and it has APIs within it that we can use to connect to our suite of legacy applications via new apps and orchestrations,” said Chung. “It’s also where the data generated by those systems can be integrated and analyzed.”

Putting the proper controls around data-driven insights

Sun Life is experimenting with large language models, text analytics, and other AI tools to extract deeper insights from resumes, employee surveys, and other sources, looking at ways to identify when employees are overly stressed or may be at risk of leaving the company. “We largely use AI for what we’d call strategic analytics or ‘thinking with data’,” said Carlyle. “We want better ways to understand what employees care about and what we can learn about our culture.”

While the opportunities for deeper insights are great, so are the risks of misusing sensitive data. Sun Life is treading lightly in determining how to deploy advanced AI models and act on some of the data they’re gathering.

“We need to make sure these models are rock solid before we operationalize them,” said Carlyle. “If we score you as a potential flight risk, how does a manager take action on that? These models are great with strategy and getting insights, but they need to be used in a way that empowers a manager to have an effective conversation that will turn a flight risk into someone who’s motivated and wants to stay, without creeping out the employee with an AI generated insight. We’re not willing to take risks on that, because once that trust is broken, it’s really tough to get back.”

As new workplace models continue to evolve, so will the tools and systems HR and IT teams are using to improve the employee experience. Expect the innovation to continue.

“HR technologies are providing new levels of innovation to support our employees,” said Carlyle. “We want to continue to move that forward to give people meaningful development and careers over the long term, in a way that is integrated with business planning and aligns with our strategic objectives.”

Enabling organizational change and helping every individual to thrive is the mission for HR and IT teams collaborating on EX. Success requires a core technology platform that can integrate the old with the new and reach every stage of the employee experience. Using data-driven insights to deliver a level of EX personalization on par with the best customer experiences can help organizations redefine themselves for the modern age.

Learn more about how to deliver the employee experience your people deserve.