The ongoing importance of innovation in defining the future of work

HR leaders and influencers reveal how they navigated the pandemic and emerged even more innovative

The ongoing importance of innovation in defining the future of work

Innovation is almost always born out of disruption – and, as I think we can all agree, the past year has been rather disruptive. COVID brought immense and unforeseen challenges for Canadian employers, forcing leaders to rethink and realign their strategies in order to survive. As a society, we saw global movements protesting social and racial injustices, dealt with a growing mental health pandemic, and grappled with overnight digitization. It became a case of managing crises within crises, of sailing unchartered waters carrying the whole organization on HR’s lap.

In the face of so much change, employers had to be flexible and adaptable in their processes and policies – a perfect breeding ground for organizational innovation. HRD recently launched a roundtable in conjunction with UKG and hosted by Cecile Alper-Leroux, group vice president, research & innovation at UKG. The roundtable brought together four of Canada’s leading HR practitioners to debate and discuss how companies have harnessed innovation to drive forward their people and their purpose.

Building adaptable leaders 

When the pandemic first hit, employers’ main concern was twofold. How do we protect the mental and physical wellbeing of our teams? And, how do we pivot to remain relevant and productive? The immediate solution to both of these concerns was adopting a remote working model, relying more on technology and apps to provide contact and support. But how was this rolled out? How did employees really react to the upheaval? For Chris Taylor, chief human resources officer at Best Buy Canada, his main priority was constant communication – facilitated by accidental innovation.

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“It was truly extraordinary how quickly our communication evolved,” he explained. “We have lots of stores across Canada, all of which were dealing with different levels of restrictions. As such, it was imperative that we had a strong communication strategy – one to which our employees adapted very quickly. They wanted to be connected. They wanted to hear from their peers. They wanted to understand what was coming next. After building an internal platform, we brought all the different government information together in one accessible place. It was a little choppy at the beginning, but we became very fluid. All of this accidental innovation proved very successful for us and helped drive our employee experience.”

Resilience in remote work 

Adaptability was key to survival throughout the past year – but adaptability is only achieved through resilience. The shift to remote work was necessary, however it also presented its own unique set of challenges. As Laura Salvatore, associate vice president human capital at Centurion, told HRD employee resilience became the cornerstone of their success.

“When we first began working from home, we had people rolling their monitors and keyboards out to their cars – no one really knew what the future held. For a while, we were teaching our children during our lunch breaks and walking laps across the living room to keep our fitness levels up. However, in spite all of that, we’ve had our most productive year to date. We ‘ve acquired more buildings than ever before. Our employees are working not only at the same capacity that they were pre-pandemic but they’re actually more productive. Our people really showed us that they can work from home and they can do it well. This in itself really opened the door for us to start listening more to our people and saying, “You know what? They’re right.”

One of Salvatore’s team’s brightest ideas was to take estate viewing virtual. As she told HRD, one of her employees suggested using WhatsApp video and Facetime to walk prospective residents through their units. It’s this accidental innovation born out of collaboration that has really driven businesses forward - and this culture of trust would eventually become an integral part of overall leadership strategy. A recent report from The Workplace Institute found that 64% of employees believe trust has a direct impact on their sense of belonging at work. The pandemic meant that employers had little choice but to trust their teams when working from home – but it was that transparency in communication that differentiated a good manager from a great one.

“Transparency from leadership in our communication really helped our people stay engaged during the pandemic,” added Kirk Merrett, director, HR & administration at Hyundai Auto Canada. “This last year, the companies that had that transparency and really lived their values had the best chance of success. We had our most engaged group ever - in a midst of a pandemic - and I think that’s because they believed in what we were doing and how we were doing it.”

Collaboration as a team sport

As Salvatore proved, listening to your employees’ ideas isn’t just the ethical thing to do – it’s sheer business gold. The chaos we’ve lived through has forced this sort of entrepreneurial style of working, whereby employers felt empowered enough to voice their thoughts and ideas to their management teams – and the results were pretty spectacular.

“One of the ideas that our folks came up with was a formal way to innovate – a Dragon’s Den style of innovating competition,” continued Merrett. “It’s led by a small group before being presented to our executive panel. We’ve gotten some really amazing ideas out of this process. It’s something that was born out of COVID but we’ll definitely continue with it going forward. It was a big win all around both business and engagement reasons.”

Understanding what works for your individual organization may take time and experimentation – but for the most part all employees should enjoy this form of collective brainstorming. The most important aspect of top-down innovation projects is communication – as UKG’s research found that 70% of HR leaders actively ask for feedback and ideas on any new initiatives.

“For us, it’s all about the pragmatism of innovation,” added Harry Sharma, director of Innovation Hub at Carleton University. “How are these new innovative processes addressing everyday issues which need to be resolved? However, what’s equally important now is for leaders come up with a sort of framework in which to situate these new ideas. After all, we don’t want to end up in anarchy, letting amazing ideas slip through out fingers. Leaders need to be mindful of structure, in order to give each new idea the attention it deserves.”

Structure don’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. Yes, creative solutions are often born out of chaotic necessity – however, it would be irresponsible not to have some sort of process in place to develop these ideas. This is where technology come in. UKG’s research found that 64% of HR leaders believe tech to be intrinsic to innovation. Speaking to HRD, Salvatore added that, moving forward, she’ll be using tech platforms to inspire innovation across the whole organization.

“At Centurion, our employees submit their ideas via Slack,” she explained. “It’s great because it gives people who work at other sites an opportunity to get in front of our company president and share those ideas. Because really, at the end of the day, these employees have the boots on the ground. It’s been a great way to get those ideas out there while still having some sort of structure in place.”

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Each quarter, Salvatore selects one winning idea and awards the employee with a trophy or a prize. “This is just to show that we appreciate our teams’ input – and that we’re following through. We want our people to see that we’re listening and reacting, implementing new solutions each and every month.”

This follow up is essential. There’s no point in asking for ideas if you’re just going to ignore them. This open communication does wonders in building trust and cementing that employer/employee relationship. As Taylor revealed, he’s all for using technology to not only enhance this experience but make it smoother and more agile.

“We took on a SCRUM methodology,” he added. “We found agile coaches to help facilitate solutions, before presenting them through weekly symposiums to the whole company. For instance, at Best Buy Canada we have ‘families.’ Each family is dedicated to a different theme. The entire family works on a set of problems, coming up with the solutions, and then presents these back at our virtual symposiums. We can have six families presenting at one time using Microsoft Teams.”

Taylor added that while this constant innovation is extremely effective, it’s also pretty challenging from an HR perspective. All these changes require a phenomenal amount of time and effort from HR practitioners and their teams – something C-suite executives needs to bear in mind during the process. After all, according to UKG’s survey, 87% of HR leaders have seen an increase in their workload, with 41% saying it has increased 26-50%.

Talent Mobility

One of the more surprising benefits to emerge from the pandemic was talent mobility and candidate fluidity. Remote working meant that employers could hire people from anywhere in the world – but this perk was something of a double-edged sword. If HR leaders now had access to a global talent market, so did their employees. 

But what does this really mean for Canadian businesses? How can leaders harness that innovation to keep their talent? How has this expanded talent market shifted opportunities? For Salvatore, it descended into an all-out bidding war – a practice she’s more than familiar with.

“I’m in the real estate industry,” she told HRD. “We have bidding wars for houses – now we have bidding wars for candidates. Right now, in Canada, people are overbidding for homes – similarly organizations are paying for super high salaries to attract top talent. This is putting pressure on us as employers to be innovative. For smaller companies like Centurion the question became how do we build up an employer brand so that we could compete with these big companies? What do we do to be seen as an attractive employer in order to bring in that top talent?”

Salvatore curated LinkedIn campaigns and video content using employee testimonials. Remember, your team members are you biggest brand ambassadors – so showcasing their opinions on your organization can draw in top tier talent. But once you’ve got them, how do you keep them?

“Employer branding is crucial here,” explained Merrett. “Our reputation inside and outside of the organization is key to attracting people and retaining them. We have a very low turnover—almost no turnover actually. I think that’s a testament to the environment we’ve created – to our leadership teams and our employees.”

Part of this branding should include transparent leadership development opportunities. According to research from Gallup, 59% of millennial employees believe development opportunities are crucial when deciding whether or not to apply for a role.

“One of the vitally important aspects of retention is creating visible career paths,” added Taylor. “Historically, I don’t think we’ve done too great a job on this – however the shift to remote work has now created massive opportunities. At Best Buy Canada, we have around 12,000 people – 2,000 of which are post-secondary to late high school students working in our stores. They might want to be a lawyer or a doctor – but what we should be doing is offering them great internal opportunities. We want to show them what it would be like working here as a finance professional or a buyer or an engineer.”

Safeguarding mental health

One of the main pressure points of the pandemic was its impact on our collective mindsets. Our mental wellbeing was tested like never before, with cases of depression, anxiety, and isolation-related stress skyrocketing across Canada. UKG’s research found that managing employee mental health was the number one challenge for HR during the pandemic. For leaders, it became a question of resilience. Namely, how can I lead my tired and jaded team when I too am tired and jaded? How can I be a support system for my employees when I’m suffering as well?

“We as employers need to be innovative in thinking about employee mental health,” added Salvatore. “Whether that’s introducing employee support programs, launching apps, or hosting Wellness Wednesdays – we need to teach out employees how to take care of their mental wellbeing.”

Leaders have made quite the show of saying “it’s okay to not be okay” – but how much of that is translating into everyday practices? How can leaders ensure their people know it’s okay to take a day off if they need it? How can we propel that culture of psychological safety and destigmatize mental health in the workplace?

“I think one of the benefits, if you can really call it that, of COVID is a change in how we think about employee health and safety,” Merrett explained. “As HR leaders, we’ve never really had to consider the physical safety of our teams – that was always another department. But now, HR has started thinking about all the different aspects of health and safety, mental and physical, as one. This is a change I really hope we see stick – but before that, we have to overcome those barriers of acceptance around mental health leave.”

At the start of the pandemic, many employees equated working from home with having more free time. In reality, the opposite has proven true. People feel this intense need to be constantly switched on – to be available to meetings and calls and emails at all times of the day and night. Leaders need to start thinking creatively about how to tackle this growing concern - sooner rather than later.

“At Carlton University, we have the privilege of not only being an employer but also a training institution,” added Sharma. “Our priority is to make sure our students are well-rounded in their profession – whilst also helping them take care of their mental health. We want to ensure people know where wellbeing resources are and how they can access them. We’re also training them on identifying markers around their own wellbeing. In the future, if they’re working in an organization and they start seeing some of those markers, they’ll know the steps to take. We’re preparing the leaders of tomorrow - teaching them how to excel in this unprecedented age of innovation.”

Digitization as an HR component

Whatever the future holds for Canadian employers and their teams, you can guarantee that technology and digitization will play a huge role in shaping it. Cybersecurity continues to be a major concern for employers – in both remote and hybrid models. That immediate pivot towards a fully remote workforce put a lot of pressure on HR to ensure their IT departments was fully compliant. In Salvatore’s case she suggested using tester emails – fake phishing messages urging employees to click on links.

“You’d be surprised how many workers click on them,” she told HRD. “The only way that’s going to change is through training and education. We make our people go through a rigorous training program online and we’ve actually seen the clicks per user really go down.”

Training took something of a back seat in the high of the pandemic, with employers more focused on protecting workers’ health and pivoting to remote work. Now, as employees prepare to return to the office, development is more important than ever before.

“I think training the workforce had become absolutely a necessity rather than a privilege at this point,” added Sharma. “This is particularly true in regards to digitization. Because of the nature of digitization at work, organizations are collecting more data on their teams – their IP addresses and their passwords etc. This means employers really need thorough planning around internal processes.”

Protecting this employee data is essential. HR leaders must have solid structures in place in order to safeguard external worker information.

“I would recommend corporate leaders, especially those who have privacy as part of their mandate, to take a closer look at all of the internal processes that they have. Look to see if there is any additional data that has been collected from your employees or your partners, external or internal partners, and ensure that you put a policy around those units as well.”

Looking to the future, this kind of constant upskilling and adaptability will be key to success. It’s been a case of learning as we go, harnesses innovation to create ground-breaking solutions to unfathomable problems. But this reliance on innovative practices shouldn’t end when the pandemic does. Whether you’re implementing a hybrid, remote, or fully in-person model, as long as you’re thinking and acting innovatively, listening to your people and upskilling your teams, you’ll not only survive in this new normal, you will thrive.

This feature was released as part of UKG’s exclusive magazine. Discover what HR teams can expect from 2022 and beyond and learn strategies for the new era of work here.

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