John Sumser, founder and principal analyst for HRExaminer, has witnessed change in the HR-technology realm that puts him among the pantheon of advisors and observers.
But he’ll be the first to admit that nothing could have prepared him for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on HR, including on executives and decision-makers who are representing employers of all stripes, sizes and industry sectors.
An engineer by training, Sumser has worked an array of jobs. He sold doughnuts door-to door, dug ditches and helped build railroads. He also served as a corporate executive (CEO included), a director and editor. As his true calling, Sumser has worked as an independent analyst covering HR technology and the intersection of people, tech and work.
Despite all of that experience, he never dreamt the HR-tech vendor community and the employers they serve would ever face the crushing duality of trying to keep employees’ lives safe while battling an economic crash that could lead to the next major recession, if not an outright depression.
“Yesterday, I had a great productive business day for these times; here’s how it went,” Sumser said this spring from the solitude of his home. “I spent one-third of the time crying. I spent one-third of the time being scared out of my mind. That left one-third of the time doing productive work. I’d say that’s a good day right now.”
Turning to the current state of HR, he says, the challenge of being an HR leader right now is two-fold: One, you must be a compassionate representative of people who are dealing with new ways of thinking about benefits and managers. At the same time, he adds, you know you are probably going to lay people off, a problem that likely is only going to get worse.
Add to that the questions currently flooding HR are, in large part, impossible to answer. While most primary HR systems are configured to answer most basic employee inquiries, those same systems are failing, being pushed to the edge because people working from home have dozens of questions, some of which are HR-related, though many may not be.
“HR today isn’t set up to have a lot of questions thrown at it all at once. It is set up to manage a specific type and level of inquiry,” he says, adding that we’ll likely start to see the demands on HR shift in fundamental ways; it’s not going to be possible to perform the core responsibilities of HR within the same budget and constraints as before the pandemic, because HR is serving a very different function right now.
“In order to meet that challenge, you need to do things like install technology that answers those questions for you, and right now, there is a hole in that capability,” he says.
Along those lines, Sumser mentioned a company called Socrates as a platform that might help fill that void during the pandemic. Socrates uses artificial intelligence to pull together relevant information and applications, starting with policy and compliance documents, while creating a “single core” knowledge base, out of which come consistent answers on myriad employee questions.
Sumser’s focus in recent times, in fact, has been on AI, and he believes the current situation is a “great time” to apply AI tools, just in different ways than they’ve been used in the past.
Sumser predicts that the point where Americans fully adjust to new daily routines (social distancing prime among them) and stabilization in the pandemic occurs may be later than most believe; he speculates that will occur around August.
“At that time, HR is going to have to wrestle with some fairly tough things,” he notes, for instance, the complexities around in-person meetings resuming. “Everybody who goes to the meeting is going to want to have some way of knowing that everybody else isn’t contagious, right? Well, I think that’s probably a HIPAA violation.”
On the other hand, Sumser the optimist believes that good things can come out of these desperate days, weeks and months.
“What so often happens in times of crisis is that innovation explodes,” he says. “I expect that there is a very strong possibility of that happening during this trying period too.”
Personally, the past few months have had a serious impact on Sumser’s world view—and he figures he’s not alone.
“I’ve become a much better human being in a fairly short order,” he says matter of factly. “Each time I go to the grocery store, I thank every single employee I see for being there. And when I get on video calls with people I’ve been working with for any significant amount of time in my life, I tell them how much I wish I could be there with them.”