Oct 20, 2020

Axios @Work

Welcome back to @Work. Get in touch with me at erica@axios.com or join the conversation on Twitter @erica_pandey.

Today's edition is 1,467 words and should take you about 5½ minutes to read. Let's start with...

1 big thing: The evolution of HR

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, human resources jobs were on the automation chopping block. Now they're essential.

The big picture: HR departments across the world have pulled off the incredible feat of turning companies from in-person to remote overnight, and as the pandemic continues to determine the future of work, HR has been elevated from a back-office function to a C-suite conversation.

  • "The new home of innovation at most organizations is not in technology or operations," says Alex Alonso, chief knowledge officer at the Society for Human Resource Management. "It’s in HR."

What's happening: Many of the tasks typically associated with HR can be fully or almost fully automated, per the consultancy KPMG.

  • But the pandemic has underscored the importance of human intellect in people management, even if some of the rote responsibilities, like payroll management or time-off and attendance tallying, can be done by machines.

Companies are leaning on chief human resources officers to lead the pandemic response and shape growth strategy. And company culture, which falls under HR's jurisdiction, is rapidly becoming a top priority for workers.

  • HR professionals have served as counselors to employees struggling with the anxiety and depression of working from home.
  • They've turned into event planners to organize happy hours or video workout classes to boost team morale.
  • And they've had to become the resident experts on telework in order to virtually recruit and onboard new hires and help executives figure out how to manage people remotely.

What to watch: The spike in workload is rapidly tiring HR departments.

  • "The role of CHRO has always been a lonely and stressful job," says Lars Schmidt, founder of Amplify, an HR consulting firm.
  • And 2020 — with the pandemic, racial justice protests and an election — has brought a host of new stressors into the workplace. "All of that is absolutely taxing CHROs, and it’s leading to a lot of burnout," Schmidt says.

The bottom line: Well-resourced HR teams that can manage the transition to the hybrid workplace are now a top competitive advantage for companies in every sector.

  • "This is going to be vital to determining which companies come out of this thriving and which come out looking like they didn't get the memo," says Darren Murph, head of remote work at GitLab, the world's largest all-remote company.

Go deeper with the Harvard Business Review's report on 21 HR jobs of the future.

2. When robots are recruiters

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Speaking of HR... One of the fastest-growing workplace applications of artificial intelligence is in hiring, but imperfect algorithms leave qualified women and candidates of color out — and can ultimately build weaker teams.

Why it matters: Algorithms are most often used to make the initial applicant screening process — the resume review — more efficient. But their role cannot be underestimated, as around 95% of all job applicants are rejected based on resumes.

But, but, but: Using AI to recruit isn't inherently bad, says Danielle Li, a professor at MIT and the c0-author of a new working paper on algorithmic hiring. It's about using the right kind of algorithm.

Li and her colleagues tested different types of algorithms using a Fortune 500 company's data. The AI's test was to select candidates for first-round interviews for jobs in consulting, financial analysis and data science — all of which pay well and have been criticized for lacking diversity.

One algorithm used a traditional machine learning approach, making predictions about the future based on data from the past.

  • For example, if a company had hired several white, male computer science degree-holders from Stanford and those people had been relatively successful at the firm, the algorithm would demonstrate a strong preference for those applicants.
  • "This approach works if you think history is complete," Li tells Axios. "You have to assume that the things that predicted quality in the past will predict quality in the future. But we know that that's not true."

Another algorithm used a much more exploratory approach, incorporating bonus points for applicants who had untraditional majors, came from different places or had unusual work histories. The algorithm was not instructed to prefer applicants of color or female applicants.

  • This approach treated hiring as a dynamic problem, Li says, valuing giving applicants the opportunity to show their chops.
  • This algorithm increased the share of Black and Hispanic candidates selected for first-round interviews from 10% (with human evaluators) to 23%. The share of women selected went from 35% to 39%.

The bottom line: "Lots of companies have taken interest in using AI tools in the recruiting process," Li says. "In that world, algorithms stand to have a big impact."

3. The right to telework

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Germany wants to give people a legal right to work from home.

Why it matters: The proposal is a testament to how far the world has come amid the coronavirus pandemic, with the once-fringe idea of telecommuting finding a place in the law books.

The backdrop: Germany was ahead of other countries on telework even before the pandemic, the World Economic Forum notes. 40% of Germans wanted to work from home at least part-time, which was a much higher share than that in other wealthy countries.

With the new law, which is in the drafting process, Germany wants to legalize that right to work remotely and enact regulations to bring structure to this new and at-times nebulous way of working, Hubertus Heil, the country's labor minister, told the Financial Times.

"The question is how we can turn technological progress, new business models and higher productivity into progress not only for a few, but for many people," Heil told the FT. "How do we turn technological progress into social progress?"

  • The regulations Germany is considering include limiting work-from-home hours to address telework's disruption of work-life balance.
  • Critics of the law say it could chip away at workers' collective bargaining power or encourage companies to outsource jobs, per the FT.
4. What CEOs think about the new working world

Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon. Photo: Michael Kovac/Getty Images

The good and bad news about the pandemic's transformation of the workplace has started coming up in companies' Q3 earnings calls.

The big picture: One thing executives at several massive companies, including the big banks, agree on is that the office will never be the same.

The New York Times' Lauren Hirsch compiled musings on telework:

There's been a limited return to work. Around a third of Goldman Sachs have returned to New York offices. For JPMorgan Chase, that share is closer to 20%.

  • JPMorgan Chase and U.S. Bancorp executives believe their offices will never again be as full and that they'll consolidate office space.
  • But MetLife thinks the pressure to make workplaces less dense to allow for social distancing will keep real estate demand up.

Telework can be quite efficient. Natarajan Chandrasekaran, chairman of Indian conglomerate Tata Sons, told the Times his company has closed $2 billion in deals through "five or six Zoom calls." He used to fly from India to the U.S. for a $50,000 project pitch, Chandrasekaran said.

But remote work falls short sometimes. Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon has said “being together enables greater collaboration, which is key to our culture."

5. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Why remote learning isn't working (Axios)

  • The coronavirus-sparked shift to widespread remote work has been quite smooth, while remote learning has faced a much rougher transition. Even the best technology can't eliminate the inherent problems of virtual schooling. Several key technological stumbling blocks have persisted in keeping remote learning from meeting its full potential.

What people really love (and hate) about telework (Wall Street Journal)

  • The Journal compiled reflections on remote work from professionals of all ages and from all over the country. Some are glad they have time to cook a real lunch instead of eating the daily PB&J, and others say Zoom brainstorming meetings just aren't as good.

The end of the open-plan office (Fast Company)

  • Before the pandemic, around half of tech companies in North America had open-plan offices. Now, less than half of those with the open setup plan to keep it. That could end up costing companies more money, as open offices are significantly cheaper, but they may need less office space overall as more and more people choose to keep working from home.

The pandemic podcast boom (Quartz)

  • We may not be commuting anymore, but we haven't stopped listening to podcasts. Chartable, which tracks stats for 12,000 podcasts, found that U.S. downloads in September were up 150% from January.
6. 1 fun thing: What we left at our desks

When we abandoned our offices in mid-March, many of us believed we'd be back after the weekend or in a couple of weeks at the very most, so we didn't bother cleaning up.

Now, more than seven months have gone by, and some desks and offices are looking shabby.

Emilie Goldman, a broker at the New York commercial real estate company SquareFoot, has seen some pretty gross things while showing office spaces to new clients.

  • At one lower Manhattan office, she found a months-old English muffin atop a Ziplock bag. "It was beyond the point of being white and green and fuzzy," she says.
  • Another office, in Brooklyn's DUMBO, used to be full of beautiful plants. Now all but two succulents are dead, she says.

We're all guilty of leaving in a rush in March. Goldman says she found some spilled balsamic vinegar at her workspace that "has basically become part of the desk."

  • I don't think I left anything icky at my own desk, but I can't be sure.

Thanks for reading!