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Huddle’s Chief People Officer on HR’s newest recruit

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Ann-Marie Cooper, Chief People Officer at Huddle, and one of the Hot Topics HR Tech 100, discusses the rebirth of HR into a people science of data, culture and collaboration.

According to Ann-Marie Cooper, Chief People Officer at Huddle, one of the worst things that can happen to your business is transitioning from “…an agile, fast-paced startup into a slow and corporate-style environment, where processes are created for the sake of it.”

In Huddle’s case, the cloud-based collaboration software company has had it’s own journey from startup to high growth company, with offices in London, San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C, boasting a client list that features around 80% of the Fortune 500.

The scalability of a company is one of the major challenges facing HR departments across the world, but felt most keenly in high-growth tech sectors.

In them, an idea or concept has been won over by consumers, and the business model quickly adapts and evolves to serve longer client lists and extend its reach. Activity and production levels increase, efficiency and automation routes are considered, and naturally, the team grows as the startup scales.

These are all conscious decisions made by a leadership team with a clarity of vision they’re excited to be realized; what they can’t control, however, is the culture imbued into a company from day one, and so it falls to HR, or newly labelled people officers, to cultivate the startup spirit within an ever developing business.

“It is really important that you scale in the right way, to protect the needs of your culture and maintain its entrepreneurial edge, despite the need to introduce more processes and tighter controls.”

As Chief People Officer, Cooper understands that the line to tread is difficult.

A happier workforce is a more productive workforce, is a well known adage, but recent thinking goes several steps forward and understands that a happier culture, one that maintains respect and transparency, critical thinking and high levels of communication, can transform your entire human infrastructure.

In the past however, companies have lost sight of the importance of their employee base – and HR teams are partly to blame for this, turning into a much-maligned part of the office – and slowly morphed into a reactive agency when problems arise.

“The HR role is now definitely changing – we’re becoming much more commercial – and that’s a reflection of the way we now see staff.”

By ‘changing’, Cooper means the differing priorities HR places on their targets.

“One part of the HR Director, or Chief People Officer, role is to be risk-averse and protect the business by introducing processes to streamline a larger workforce, but if those strategies are implemented too early on, or in an inappropriate context when you lose sight of what your goals are as a business, problems arise on an individual and corporate level.”

In particular, one section that has been misunderstood in the past, which directly affects company culture, is the hiring process.

It’s counter-intuitive to hire someone who doesn’t think, act or speak as you do – humans are creatures of habit and tend to seek solidarity in new connections.

However, it seems to act as an anathema for prospering entrepreneurial cultures, at least at the beginning, according to Cooper.

“When you start a business, you should surround yourself with people that have general skill sets, that can roll their sleeves up and tackle a range of activities, but this will change as the company grows and you require people with more specific roles and experiences.”

Hiring the general all-rounders at the beginning requires you to engage with flexibility on a range of factors as the role isn’t easily defined and your business vision is, as of yet, unrefined. When the roles become more specific and tailored, as the company scales and supports a wider variety of talent, your mind-set should then change to make sure each hire is aligned to the company’s vision.

Once each hire has been secured, chief people officers and HR then need to integrate new understanding of the HR process to their growing teams.

At Huddle, Cooper operates a “business partnering approach” to reduce people operating in isolation.

“It’s about talking to [people] about what they need, and what will help save them time, working with them hand-in-hand on a company wide level.”

In this aspect, Cooper wants to avoid positioning her HR department as something separate to the rest of Huddle.

“I think one of the many issues that companies have is seeing HR as a function that works apart, seeing them as admin without adding any value to a company. It’s a relationship that needs fostering; you cannot run a HR department successfully if you aren’t working together seamlessly, because you don’t understand what the business needs in order to act accordingly.”

It must be said that company size plays a major role in determining HR’s collaborative approach.

Being relatively small, Huddle provides a simple platform in which Cooper and her team can work with the rest of the business, understand their processes as a result and become much more visible within the company.

Which is evident in her role title; ‘chief people officer’ speaks of a company that is much more receptive to a new form of HR and is willing to allow it to motivate the rest of the team.

“As the wider market has changed, so too has HR, and so an acceptance of our new functions recently is something that I would have predicted. What we’ve all been challenged by however, is the rapid pace at which the markets are changing.”

Content collaboration has fast become a viable option for companies to store, discover and share content, especially within the enterprise sector, but this market has grown competitive as a result, and talent is hard won by here – yet another function HR have to manage.

“[To keep people] you have to differentiate, you have to make sure your processes or functions are over and above what other companies of your size are doing to retain people, because it’s becoming increasingly more difficult these days retaining ambitious and talented individuals.”

Cooper continues, “This means becoming incredibly proactive around career development and training, constantly putting your employees first and moving on from the HR function of the past: off from the sidelines.”

…and into the thick of it, presumably, where certain macro trends have had time to evolve and infiltrate entire infrastructures.

The prevalence of data metrics is one such trend, and its use in the newly formatted role of people science has Cooper’s seal of approval.

“HR is becoming more metric driven than ever before, and there’s a real shift away from using qualitative, fluffy, data to quantitative.”

It goes back to earlier on in the conversation, when Cooper was describing her team as being much more commercially driven; data has the ability of enabling key decisions based upon measurable outcomes, the gut feeling and subjective nature of HR can now be reduced.

Is that the result we want though? HR, or people scientists, are still required for the care and attention of employees as well as the operational element of their remits.

The question of whether too much data within the HR function could dehumanize a predominantly people-orientated role has been voiced before, something Cooper is already aware of.

“It’s true, you always have to use [data] in conjunction with an individual. Draw trends from data, but never use it in isolation to conclude anything, instead use it within a wider plan and with people in mind because then not only do you see a trend, but you can pinpoint the reasons behind it.”

Huddle’s chief people officer then launches into the specifics.

“We gather data for literally everything we do: on recruiting candidates, to looking into causes of turnover; we evaluate the effectiveness of our learning and development programme, and we use data for salary benchmarking and performance management.”

It seems that there are two separate ways in which Huddle’s HR team and chief people officer use data: operational and evaluative measurements and forecasting as listed above, and employee engagement, which includes a more human-centric approach to its methods.

“We have an annual online employee satisfaction survey that an independent source can help us analyse, and it usually backs up some of the trends that we have already seen, around how our employees feel and around other categories.”

With that information in hand, key themes are taken and built into Cooper’s “people plan for the year”, so that each result becomes an action point for next year’s focus, which is then shared with each of the managerial team to help in their own delivery.

These strategies are in line with what the industry as a whole is experiencing: continued digitization of operations, decisions, processes, and now, people.

The latter has been spurred on by two complimenting transitions.

Firstly, technology has undoubtedly transformed how people and businesses communicate and function, forcing the workforce to adopt and adapt digital developments.

Secondly, the workforce demographic is continually shifting, and right now, millennials are close to becoming the largest working group around. They’ve grown up with new technology and the innovations they have facilitated, and are entering businesses with new ideas of how and where they work, how they would like to communicate, and how the profiles of their companies fit with their own.

It’s another change that the HR function and chief people officer have had to work with.

“…you always have to listen to how people feel, and then change your strategy appropriately, which means you have to be adaptable, flexible, and agile, in order to truly impact on your employees.

One specific element within Huddle that millennials are rejecting is the time-old annual review.

“It’s kind of unusual, but last year we removed ratings from our performance reviews and changed to something more continual, giving feedback in real-time, rather than months and months late, which I think is a good change.”

This multi-generational workforce has never before had such contrasting levels of digital literacy, and the above changes that departments are having to accommodate, are examples of a dynamic shift in company culture.

The challenge for people scientists therefore is having to reflect the needs of different generations – the one-size-fits-all approach has followed the fax machine and the chord telephone to the door marked ‘exit’.

Technology has allowed people to express their different needs, whether that be through their purchases, choice of apps or types of services used. That facilitates different expectations within a population, and when scaled down into a company workforce, it becomes the responsibility of the people officer to take ownership and manage expectations.

“We are constantly trying to make sure that we are providing solutions, technological or otherwise, that are fit for purpose. Different means of communication are preferred by certain parts of your employee base, for example, and if that work force is evolving continually, more and more historical expectations come under question.”

The chief people officer then goes onto ending the conversation with the concept of a work/life balance, and what that means for younger workers today.

Flexibility is now a requirement for emerging talent, and businesses will have to accommodate these demands if they are to keep the right people in such competitive markets, “which is what we’ll certainly do as this trend will only continue past 2016.”

To keep an eye on these demands is one final element of the new HR function, people science.

It tops a list that includes internal communications, data analysis and evaluation, employee satisfaction and task-force streamlining; if people scientists wanted “off the side-lines [of a company]” as Cooper intimated earlier, they’ve certainly got their wish.