A conversation with Thomas Otter - HR in the current climate and service expansion

Profile picture for user gonzodaddy By Den Howlett April 7, 2020
Thomas Otter is one of the smartest HR analysts I know whose views on HR admin and marketing are worth the hearing.

It's always good to catch up with Dr Thomas Otter, one of the smartest analysts in the HR tech space. We've known each other a good number of years and I've come to appreciate and admire his sharp wit and encyclopedic knowledge of the HR space. In this discussion, he offers his view on what we should and should not be doing, the impact of regulation on the workplace and lets us in on the expansion happening with his firm, Otter Advisory

Armchair epidemiologists

First up, Otter is unambiguous about what he sees as a distracting and potentially dangerous trend:

I think my main advice at the moment is, if you're not an expert in a particular field, leave that discussion to the experts. If you're not a statistics expert, don't spend your afternoons making prediction graphs and posting them on the internet because there are enough people doing that already. Probably too many. If you're not a recognized expert don't pretend to be one. I think the people that think they know what they're talking about are probably the ones we need to be most afraid of at the moment. For me, I think it's a case of treading carefully. The obvious things of looking after your people comes first. Too much speculation and too much gazing into crystal balls is not going to do us any good.

For more on that topic, readers might be interested in this thread about exploding whales. Seriously. Moving on.

Doubling down on HR admin

I've tended to a jaded view of HR as primarily an administrative function. Otter argues that while there is truth in that, rapdily introduced changes in law and regulation have placed extraordinary burdens on HR departments. 

Most of the time you're right, administratives processes are pretty standard, but at the moment, some of these processes are going to change daily. For instance, what is a essential worker? In some countries it's very clear but in some places like the UK, the government has not been particularly clear at defining what is an essential. There are many more examples and so I think for HR, these represent massive periods of administrative disruption.

Employee tracking has featured in a few recent discussions. According to Otter, it is relatively easy to spin up a screen that notes when a person is sick but he regards this as a 'dumb idea,' reminding organizations that there are laws around this topic, regardless of pandemic conditions and that organizations considering this type of application should ask themselves about the purpose this serves rather than making it up as they go along. I asked whether it makes sense to partially suspend some of the laws around privacy in these extraordinary circumstances. His reply was unequivocal:

I think the opposite. If you look, for instance, at GDPR, it contains specific procedures for handling epidemics. So I think the law is actually is pretty good for these things. I don't feel like all of these things should be thrown out, partly because when this goes away, the controls don't go away, they stay. So for instance, if you suddenly start introducing ID cards in the UK and France, do you think when the virus has gone the government's gonna delete all that data and say, okay, well, no more and no SA and ls considering any form of change in procedures or surveillance to work with internal haealth and data officers to fully understand the purpose and ensure that whatever measures are brought in that they respect and comply with legislation.

This will vary from country to country. For example, TripActions laid off employes in the UK, USA and Australia but kept people in the Netherlands as it applies for emergency funding to cover payroll. In the UK, there is talk of extending the scope of business help to include forms of co-funding between VCs and the government that will allow startups to continue operations.

For HR executives wondering what they can and cannot do as it relates to data  protection as it relates to COVID-19 (and other medical conditions,) Bird and Bird have produced an excellent 'traffic light' guide covering many European and Far East countries. 

Strategic thinking

More generally, Otter urges HR departments to stick with what they are doing and ensure people are not only paid but paid correctly. This is not easy when legislation and regulation is unfolding on a daily basis but not impossible. He also reinforces the fact that law, custom and practice vary from place to place and that it is vital HR departments communicate in weays that are appropriate to the locale. Further, Otter argues that while the kneejerk reaction to this kind of event are to institute broad brush cuts:

Now is a good time to be thinking about scenario planning for your long-term workforce strategy. It might for example turn out that in some situations remote working makes better sense for both employer and employee. But the point is this - we don't know what will happen next but we can imagine a variety of scenarios and plan around those. It's the best way to help the board make the right decisions and act quickly once we see how the world looks. 

At this point. the conversation turned a tad philosophical and speculative but Otter brought up the point about climate change and how the new abnormal has transformed once heavily polluted cities to have clear skies. He posits that these types of obvious impact could well drive different policies which, in turn, impact they way we work. It's an interesting discussion and one that I'm sure will play out long into the future. 

What's next?

We then turned to what Otter is doing with his firm. 

I've always believed that we should use our expertise in a collaborative fashion and in my field, one thing that technology companies struggle with is marketing, which when done well as is a positive thing but when it's done badly it's a swear word.

To that end, Otter recently partnered with Rachel Jenkins a seasoned marketing expert who has worked at both startups and established global HR tech vendors. 

It's all about less fluff and helping the smaller vendors collaborate well with the large vendors. They both need each other but it is often difficult for those small companies to get the attention they deserve. Also, those smaller vendors often hire someone who is super smart and has a B2C background where they need coaching on B2B. We want to help those people. It's early days but let's see wherer this goes. 

And with that we were done. 

My take

Chewing the fat with super smart people is always fun and Thomas Otter falls squarely into that category of pragmatic thinkers who is looking around the corner for what needs to be done next. His advice concerning policy change is well taken while having an eye on the long-term may not resonate with some but makes for good sense as we look ahead. What do you think? Let is know in the comments.