HR gets Agile

How CHROs are adapting a software development framework to upgrade employee experiences

agile HR
  • Traditional HR models are typically reactive, not proactive
  • Agile methodology can help CHROs devise faster, more efficient internal team structures
  • Agile HR can boost retention and worker satisfaction

Every company wants agility—the ability to respond quickly and effectively to changing business conditions and objectives. But relatively few attain it. While 94% of business leaders today say a fast-moving, innovative human resources department is critical to business success, just 6% say their HR teams are “highly agile” today, according to a recent Deloitte study.

Why is it so hard to get HR moving at digital speed? In part because HR has operated in many ways as a fulfillment shop, providing an array of siloed administrative services, from recruitment and payroll to benefits and performance reviews. HR units have often struggled to keep pace with new technologies, and to meet the rapidly changing expectations of workers.

HR teams are adopting a project management mindset to design experiences that best support employees.

Little wonder that CHROs are adapting Agile methodologies for the design and delivery of HR services. Agile emerged in 2001 as a framework for collaborative, fast-paced software development. It relies on small, cross-functional teams working in “sprints” to build new products. The emerging practice of “Agile HR” aims to bring the same approach to redesigning HR’s main “product”: the employee experience.

Converting a traditional HR model to an Agile operation isn’t easy. More than half (52%) of organizations report challenges in making the transition.

“The No. 1 barrier is mindset,” says Matt Parrish, director of digital talent experiences for ServiceNow. “HR has operated in one particular way for the last 30 years, and we’ve always been concerned about putting employees at risk if we change it. But if you approach Agile correctly, you’re actually minimizing the risk, not increasing it.”

While there’s no handbook of Agile best practices for HR leaders to follow, that shouldn’t deter them from diving in, says Josh Bersin, a veteran consultant in HR technology. Many business units, after all, are also experimenting with Agile methods.

“The best HR programs today are designed by you, not copied from someone else,” says Bersin. “The HR leader has to push this kind of innovation and make sure people feel comfortable trying new things, and sometimes making mistakes.”

“Full stack” HR

Traditionally, HR pros specialized in areas like recruiting or benefits. By contrast, Agile requires employees to operate as entrepreneurial generalists.

“We need to enable HR professionals to manage projects collaboratively in Agile teams,” says Bersin. “To do that, we need to develop the ‘full stack’ HR professional, someone who has worked in many HR functions and understands top-to-bottom talent practices.”

That cultural shift can be daunting, says Reba Simmons, executive vice president and head of client engagement at BBVA USA, a Birmingham, Alabama–based subsidiary of global bank BBVA.

“It’s probably the most terrifying thing an HR employee can experience,” she says. “We went from a very hierarchical organization to saying, ‘You lead processes. You don’t have a manager for the most part. You’re responsible for getting things done with your team.’”

Over several months starting in mid-2017, Simmons helped lead an effort to tear down the old HR hierarchy. In its place, BBVA USA created a new Talent & Culture division supported by four cross-functional teams. The Client Engagement and Employee Experience teams handle daily operations, while Discipline Leaders focus on defining strategy and Solutions Development designs new products and processes in close collaboration with employees.

“Everybody in HR needs to talk to employees,” says ServiceNow’s Parrish. “We need to be curious about who they are, what they’re trying to accomplish personally, and how they make an emotional connection with the company. And we need to take that back as data to change the way we work.”

Traditionally, you wouldn’t find product managers in HR. But with the growing focus on delivering consistent experiences across the employee lifecycle, from onboarding to exiting the company, HR teams are adopting a product mindset to design experiences that truly support employees.

HR at the speed of business

With the new Agile model in place, BBVA USA recently replaced its legacy hiring process with something called “sprint recruiting.”

Previously, each of the bank’s lines of business submitted hiring requests in a never-ending flow. “Everybody said, ‘this hire is a top priority,’” Simmons says. “We didn’t have focus. It was chaotic, and clients felt we were out of touch in meeting their needs.”

The bank’s HR teams shifted to shorter recruiting sprints and implemented a system to prioritize hires. Every two weeks they give hiring managers an overview of the candidate pool and refocus searches based on continual feedback. As a result, the average hiring cycle has shrunk from 67 days to 22.

The new Agile structure has also allowed BBVA USA to accelerate rollout of new services to employees. The old HR team struggled for two years, Simmons says, to revamp a customer relationship management (CRM) platform that handled employee complaint tickets. The new Solutions Development team got an improved, faster CRM up and running in eight weeks.

The new structure “has helped us stop starting things and start finishing them,” says Simmons.

Strategy and satisfaction

Agile HR isn’t just about speed. It’s also about improving the quality of jobs and the employee experience. As part of a company-wide effort to adopt Agile practices beginning in 2011, the Dutch financial services company ING Netherlands redefined jobs for about 25% of its workforce, according to a Boston Consulting Group report.

HR leaders also reduced the number of distinct job types from 85 to 15. Organized into small, self-managing teams, workers were empowered to lead innovation projects at a grassroots level. Today, no ING Netherlands department has dedicated manager roles.

Agile approaches to HR can also boost engagement by as much as 20%, according to McKinsey. Simmons credits agile HR with a substantial increase in worker satisfaction across her Talent & Culture team. She cites significant improvements in a recent employee satisfaction survey compared to the same survey in 2016, particularly in the responses to two questions: “I’m allowed to do what I do best every day at work,” and “I have a best friend at work.”

True, having a “best friend” at work might seem like more of a personal benefit than a professional advantage. Yet those stronger personal bonds can have a positive ripple effect: Teams that support each other are better equipped to support the needs of their customers, who in this case are their colleagues.