Guest Article – Authored by James Knight, SVP Data & Analytics, Darwin 

When the Coronavirus pandemic hit and triggered an international transition to remote working, few of us thought the immediate changes to our daily lives would be so enduring. Amongst employers and their HR teams, initial responses understandably focused on solving short term problems and keeping the wheels of business turning.

Months on, it has become clear we’re facing a marathon, not a sprint. Employers are being asked to rethink how they support their people in a more dispersed world of work, whilst balancing the books. With employees either in the office, working from home, or in front-line roles, the task has fallen to HR leaders to understand a workforce that’s not only more decentralised than ever before, but also facing new and unique challenges.

For many teams, there’s one requirement that’s topping the priority list: wellbeing.

But how do you track and maintain wellbeing for people living and working in unprecedented ways? The answer is in data.

Data: The Opportunities

For some years, there’s been a growing demand amongst HR and business leaders for people analytics and data insights. Coronavirus sped this up as teams were confronted with the shortcomings of slow, admin-intensive manual processes, in an evolving environment that demanded agility and flexibility.

Teams who already had data-enabled platforms in place reaped rewards. These were able to track and analyse data, enabling them to see changes to benefits uptake and engagement quickly and respond accordingly.

For example, during the height of lockdown, more than half of people in the UK were experiencing stress or anxiety. At the same time, engagement with benefits such as travel loans or subsidised gym memberships dropped.

If HR teams were able to monitor these changes in real time, they could pivot their strategies and divert spending into benefits that supported mental health. These might include platforms such as Unmind, or access to virtual meditation classes and counselling services.

Data analytics can also unlock useful insights across different markets. As towns, cities and countries experience the pandemic differently their needs will change. If HR teams could track how people were engaging with their benefits – those supporting mental, physical and financial health – they could gain a much clearer picture of the pressures faced by their workforce. This would enable them to onboard new benefits and support services across regions in line with demand.

Data: The Challenges

Despite the many opportunities that embracing data can bring for HR teams, there are some unavoidable challenges around its collection. Chief among these is tools and trust.

Employees are wary of how closely their employers are monitoring them. With remote working now common for many, businesses are increasingly seeking to keep track of the data and outputs generated by their people. This has contributed to a significant uptick in surveillance technology sales in recent months. But research from the CIPD found that 73% of employees felt that workplace monitoring would damage trust between workers and employers.

This is something that HR teams must be mindful of when adopting data-led platforms and analytics. Unwillingness to share personal details isn’t just limited to productivity and screen time, many could understandably feel uncomfortable sharing personal health details too. Yet understanding how often people are using EAP benefits or how they’re using mental wellbeing apps could help teams to develop hyper-personalised support structures and reward schemes.

It’s also essential that employers have robust and secure methods of not only collecting data, but analysing it. With 8 out of 10 HR teams using basic spreadsheets to collect and analyse employee data manually, unnecessary time spent producing analysis manually is just one of the many issues faced. Data governance, limitations in functionality and up-to-date accurate data are also major problems many HR teams are currently facing.

The power of data, despite limitations

Embracing data and analytics is crucial to teams being able to pack a punch in the boardroom. Indeed, Darwin’s research found that ‘lack of board-level buy-in’ is cited as the biggest barrier to further technology investment by HR departments.

Armed with the tools to track benefits engagement and expenditure, flag schemes that are over-spending or even predict when spikes in uptake are likely to occur, teams will be able to deliver real value for business leaders. This will help develop a stronger relationship with those at the top and could lead to greater investment in key technologies.

For employees too, access to benefits platforms helps them to engage with their benefits while working remotely. They also have the time and privacy to explore their rewards schemes and find support that best suits them.

In response, HR teams may see growing engagement with platforms, which in turn will generate the data they need to create a more agile, responsive and personalised reward programmes, as we continue to navigate new and evolving ways of working.