How Walmart's focus on the intersection of tech and HR delivers a sense of community for its workforce

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan June 2, 2022 Audio mode
It's a pivotal moment for the HR function, argues Donna Morris, Chief People Officer for Walmart.


Now's the opportunity for people who are in the HR function. I do think that the function, by virtue of technology, has continued to disrupt, so we do have to continue to skill ourselves holistically as a function to be viewed as critical to an enterprise as the CFO is.

That’s an upbeat aspiration from Donna Morris, Chief People Officer at Walmart, one that ought to resonate across all business sectors. It’s also a claim that’s been made for a long time and often with little tangible delivery. So what’s changed now? Why is this the moment? Morris argues that the past two years have been a pivotal period:

I think, all of a sudden, there was an enlightening that the function did bring unique skills and capabilities to drive business outcomes, because you can only achieve those through people.

I think we have seen during this period of time, whether you call it the Great Reassessment or the Great Resignation, dynamic shifts in the labor force. [There are] those that are deciding that they don't want to be in the labor force and those that are deciding that they want a new opportunity in the labor force.

All of that is culminating to really require all enterprises to focus on, do they have the people to drive their business outcomes? Do they have strong enough mechanisms to attract [people] and develop and reward and grow their workforce?

Tech talk

The intersection of tech and HR is a critical element in all this. When Morris joined Walmart two years ago, the company had 200 back end systems in place. Today that number has been reduced to under a hundred, but there’s still no single ERP system in place to support HR. There’s Workday in the US, but in other markets there is, for example, SAP SuccessFactors in place. This has implications for the organization’s strategy, says Morris:

The front end becomes the most important and that's why we rolled out what we call [email protected] which is an adaptive application on the front end, to interact with our [associates]. It's feeding all of the data from the back end, but that front layer is actually a Walmart layer that was built by our global tech team. I think making sure that your employees aren't having to deal with the proliferation of systems and that they have a really clean interface is super important. And then for the people team itself, you have to continue to make sure that you're consolidating systems so that it's not as challenging.

Walmart also has a number of apps available for its associates that center on their wellbeing, she adds:

The Thrive app is one that has been adopted by our associates. Then we also have other apps that we recommend around mindfulness. We have groups and communities that have formed around micro-steps and changes to wellbeing that are really important.

Community spirit

That emphasis on community was helpful during the COVID crisis, says Morris:

During the pandemic, a community was really important and I think some of those apps emerged to create the community and fill the void that otherwise would have been the office and the office context in the Walmart world. Certainly the majority of our associates continued to go to their workplace, whether it be a store, a club, a distribution center, fulfilment center. But for our campus office associates, I do think that some of those communities played an important and vital role and wellbeing.

Morris can also see more bleeding edge tech being used to enhance and develop such communities in the future:

We're already using virtual reality and adaptive learning in the back of our stores to simulate what the actual store operations are. So I think the metaverse absolutely has applicability.  I can see it being leveraged for not only recruiting activities, but also to bring in your communities, whether that be a community of customers or cohorts in terms of associate resource groups, etc, as well as being sort of a hangout. When you think about extending the workplace, particularly for employers that have individuals distributed into into different locations, that whole ability to create communities I think can be extended. So I definitely believe on the horizon, we're going to see more interesting use cases.

Future of work

Walmart is one of those businesses where front-line workers by necessity turn up to a physical workplace. But in common with all other organizations, the retailer is engaged in the wider debate about the future of work. Morris says the firm is being pragmatic about what shape this takes:

We're not declaring it as hybrid. In fact, we're not saying, 'You're going to work these days or those days in the office'. What we have framed is, we'd like people to spend the majority of their time in one of our campuses. We have multiple campuses across the country and across the markets in which we operate.

We believe in flexibility and it's not an either/or. In our world, what success looks like is the majority of time people are on either a campus and or they might be in a location - that might be in a store, a distribution center, etc - or they could be working from home.

The individuals though that work from home on a regular remote framework would have to be approved and those are the exceptions. We're looking at flexibility [being] more broad-based because our frontline needs flexibility.

This is where the [email protected] app comes into play, she adds: 

It allows, within a two weeks window, our frontline associates to trade off schedules and or to create schedules that adapt to their life. Those of us that are very fortunate to go into an office that might be afforded that same flexibility, it's not the same for the majority of our associates. So we call it flexibility. We do believe that it has to match what the person's role is with, what the business outcomes and requirements are.

Overall, it’s an important time for the HR function, argues Morris:

Walmart truly does believe that we're in business to help people save money and to live better. That comes from being teams that collaborate and work together. We're going through significant digital transformation, which means we need to move with speed and productivity and innovation.

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