Sapphire Now 21 - SAP SuccessFactors chief Jill Popelka on flexible working and the digital experience

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright June 2, 2021 Audio mode
As Sapphire Now opens, SAP SuccessFactors sees HXM taking a core role in the digital reframing of work and the employee experience for the emerging Vaccine Economy

Jill Popelka SAP SuccessFactors screengrab from Teams call 2021-06
Jill Popelka, SAP SuccessFactors (screengrab from Teams call)

In the annals of enterprise applications, people management has tended to be an afterthought — the first enterprise systems were concerned with managing materials and finance, while 'Human Capital Management' (HCM) came later. This history is misleading, given that nowadays HCM is the canary in the coalmine for digital transformation. Fail to manage the human element and your digital strategy will fail.

HR is frequently the first back-office function to move to the cloud in an organization. With businesses reopening offices as we enter the Vaccine Economy, HR now bears the brunt of managing the transition to a new era of flexible working. All these responsibilities weighing on HR are prominent in the product announcements accompanying today's opening of SAP's annual conference, Sapphire Now. We spoke to Jill Popelka, SAP Successfactors President, in a pre-briefing yesterday to get her take. First a quick summary of the announcements.

  • For those enterprise still mapping their path to the cloud, RISE with SAP now has an edition focused on Human Experience Management (HXM), which is SAP's preferred acronym nowadays for its HCM suite. RISE is a package of licenses and business transformation support that helps customers move to the cloud with improved operations, new skills and better data integration.
  • Operational workforce analytics and planning is becoming available as part of SAP Analytics Cloud, which will incorporate people data from SAP Successfactors alongside financial data from S/4 HANA.
  • Finally, SAP has reaffirmed its commitment to flexible working, pledging to trust employees to choose the work style that suits them best. SAP has long taken a location-agnostic approach to work, supporting remote and mobile working. It is committing to this as the norm going forward, and will invest in ensuring employees can decide when and where they work to achieve their personal best, aligned with business needs.

Employee experience comes to the fore

All of this comes in the context of a growing emphasis on employee experience, which was already in evidence before the pandemic arrived, but has accelerated in its wake as changing work patterns and wellbeing concerns came to the fore. This informs the redesignation of SAP SuccessFactors as an HXM solution, with the 'X' of experience replacing the old 'C' for capital in the familiar acronym. The initial impetus for adopting HXM as a term came from bringing Qualtrics into the SAP family, which brought tools for measuring employee sentiment.

But it's also about a new user experience, with SuccessFactors having become the first SAP application to offer the Work Zone digital workplace experience. Note that Work Zone is not specific to SuccessFactors — it's also rolling out for other SAP applications and is more about the employee's digital experience at work than any single application. This is where HXM crosses over into the broader realm of digital transformation, getting the CHRO and HR teams involved in supporting change management throughout the enterprise digital journey, not just in HR. Popelka agrees:

HXM is much more than just HR or HCM, because it's all about the entire employee experience ... We're talking about how we create a user experience for each of our employees that's fully digital, fully mobile enabled, and is fun and easy. Because that's what our employees expect today. And we know that all of our customers are driving toward the same thing.

Flexible work patterns

Similarly, the move to support flexible work patterns involves the entire organization, so that while the CHRO may be taking the lead in enabling it, it's much more than solely an HR initiative. For example, the issue of how to strike the right balance between in-person meetings and remote work is both a people management question and one that individual teams must grapple with. Popelka comments on SAP's own experience:

What we've seen is that creativity, collaboration, design of our products, it really works best when we do have people in the same room — when there's a whiteboard that everybody is working on, when there's that same creative energy bouncing off the walls of a conference room. We want to continue to encourage that. As innovation is so important, we know that people will need to go into an office.

But at the same time, those meetings need to include those who can't be present in the room, for whatever reason. She continues:

How do we collaborate effectively, so everyone has the access to the right resources to do their job and also the guiding principles of a meeting, so that you're including people that may be a quiet voice on the other end of the phone halfway around the world. That person still has important and extremely valuable contributions to make. Ensuring that we have guiding principles for meetings that help you include those people that are on the phone, so that nobody feels like they're an outsider just because they're on a conference room wall instead of live in the meeting room.

Recent employee surveys at SAP have found that over 80% say they want a mix of working from home or remote with some time in the office. Almost half (49%) plan to work in the office for one or two days per week, while only six percent plan to spend a full five days a week in the office, and 16% prefer to work entirely remotely. Interestingly, the flexibility is particularly appreciated by women and recent graduates, even though younger cohorts tend to be those that miss the office experience the most. The impact on team-building and skills development is a particular concern for employers, SAP among them. Popelka says:

Our new talent and early talent, as well as anyone coming into the organization, they want to feel like they're part of something. They want to be present, and we respect that. So we will have our offices — they're opening in stages here in North America, and many around the world are already open. Some countries are obviously still under lockdown — but what we're working toward is having the office available for those people to come in and meet. Each of our teams will have a slightly different recommended meeting day in the office, or a way to engage those early talent and newly onboarded employees.

Skills and wellbeing

The ability to learn through observation and mentoring is also an important element, although remote learning has also come through strongly during the pandemic. Popelka says:

Learning happens with independent study. Learning happens through coaching and observing, shadowing other people. Learning happens through hands-on experience. Also the coaching element is so important of an overall learning program. So we want to ensure that we're bringing all those things together.

All of this has to be co-ordinated by frontline managers and support for those individuals is important too. Popelka says:

That stress level for a manager, they feel like they have so much more to do. Obviously, the requirements for communication are higher, and you're trying to understand the employees on your team, just through this virtual mode, this virtual screen with limited time, rather than being around them all day and standing by the water cooler and taking them to lunch.

There are definitely some things that we can do, though, to help encourage, inspire, and maybe even de-stress a little bit their lives. That focus on well being has become very important for us as well.

In the midst of all this change and uncertainty, the approach that SAP has taken is to empower individual employees and trust their ability to make the right choice. She sums up:

The one intention that I love about what SAP is doing is our focus on respect for the employee and truly empowering the employee. That's where the world is today. We hire the smartest people. Well, let's trust that they know how to collaborate with one another, and how they want to engage in an office together.

My take

I've long argued that HR needs to step up and take responsibility for managing the change to digital work patterns across the enterprise. That role is now more important than ever as organizations emerge blinking into the Vaccine Economy and learn to adapt to its demands. SAP has highlighted many of the issues they will face and offers some solutions — but many questions remain unanswered as we all feel our way towards these new work styles.

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