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www.hr.economictimes.indiatimes.com | February 09, 2021
Research in the HR function can be in specific areas like recruitment, talent management, performance management, compensation and benefits, learning and development, change management and industrial regulations, or span across them.


The Covid-19 pandemic has created immense disruption in the way employees perform their job. One of the most drastic changes in the work environment has been remote working, and thus reduced face-to-face interaction amongst employees, and with customers. Such changes have created challenges for employee satisfaction, job engagement, individual productivity, inter-personal bonding, collaborative work, competency development and customer relationship management. To deal with such challenges, top management along with the HR department have been introducing several initiatives in the form of new policies and practices. Though results have been encouraging in certain cases, there are always some lingering doubts: Are the initiatives really effective? Can we do something differently? Should we do something more? One way to address these questions is through research.

What is research?

Research is a scientific method for finding ways to deal with real-life challenges using factual data, established theories, and statistical tools. It can help explore (understand the why) as well as examine (understand the how) an issue, by investigating its relationship with different factors. It can thus help identify the optimal process through which the challenge can be managed. Research can be done using both quantitative and qualitative data.

Why employ research instead of best practices and benchmarks?

We often see organisations relying on best practices and benchmarks to introduce new initiatives. However, the prevalence of this trend is more due to the perceived convenience, cost savings, and surety associated with them rather than any evidence of effectiveness. The biggest drawback of best practices and benchmarks is that they rarely consider the organisational context in a holistic manner. This context may be related to national, regional and organisational culture, industry, markets, technological infrastructure, economic, social and political conditions, organisational size and structure, and demographic profile of employees and customers. One or more of these factors may have a considerable impact on organisational performance. Copy pasting best practices, without sufficiently accounting for the context, can lead to ineffective or even undesirable results, not to mention wasteful expenses. Similarly, benchmarking, without judging relevance, may cause erroneous assessment leading to suboptimal decisions about the direction and goals of the organisation.

How is research different from analytics?

The primary objective of analytics is to assess current performance and predict future performance, through a statistical study of trends, patterns and models across multiple known factors. It is generally conducted on an on-going basis. On the other hand, the primary objective of research is to aid in discovering ways to improve performance, through a scientific study of cause-and-effect relationship amongst certain known and unknown factors. It is generally conducted as a one-time activity. Research can also help identify the factors that could be relevant for use in analytics. In that sense, it is a useful precursor to analytics.

Why use research for the HR function?

HR function is responsible for certain processes, policies and practices that directly or indirectly influence employee performance, and therefore organisational performance. When research is used in the HR function, it can help identify what HR processes, policies and practices should be implemented and how, in order to improve employee performance. Research can assess the nature of impact (desirable or undesirable), and the degree of impact (strong or weak) of HR initiatives on performance. It can help recognize reasons for a weak impact, and new ways to strengthen an impact. Consequently, organisations can plan to design successful programmes, and eliminate futile programmes. Apart from minimising experimentation, this can save considerable money, time, and effort. The value of research increases in the face of changing and uncertain environment, when the existing practices become untenable, and new and untested initiatives become the need of the hour. Every initiative has an associated cost and little guarantee of success. In such a situation, research can ensure implementation of only such initiatives that are expected to provide maximum returns on investment in terms of employee performance.

What is the scope for research in HR function?

Research in the HR function can be in specific areas like recruitment, talent management, performance management, compensation and benefits, learning and development, change management and industrial regulations, or span across them. It can be around any new organisational initiative whose efficacy for employee performance is yet to be proven. Employee performance may be measured in two ways: employee outcomes and employee attitude. Employee outcomes can be in terms of turnover, absenteeism, productivity, contribution, retention and competency. Employee attitude can be in terms of engagement, commitment, satisfaction and motivation. Research can also consider demographics of the workforce (for example, gender, work experience, age, tenure, hierarchical level) and organisational factors (for example, leadership, culture, infrastructure) that may affect employee performance.

How to do research?

Research involves a sequential set of activities that need to be carried out in a structured manner. To understand them better, let’s take an example of research on the effect of ‘work from home’ on employee performance. The following activities would be conducted as a part of research.

1. Defining the goal: Goal is the end purpose for which the research is being conducted. For the given example, a goal can be ‘How do we ensure performance of employees in my organisation while they work from home?’.

2. Selecting variables: These are the aspects/factors which we wish to measure and analyse through research. For example, the pertinent variables for research on ‘work from home’ can be employee engagement (a measure of employee performance) and work-life balance, communication frequency and job stress (aspects that may be important for employee performance while they work from home).

3. Collecting and analysing data: Quantitative data on the selected variables can be collected from various sources within the organisation. For example, data on employee engagement and job stress may be collected through an employee survey. Data on employee engagement and communication frequency may be collected through a supervisor survey. Data on work-life balance and communication frequency may be collected from system records and survey of concerned employees in the HR department. This data can be analysed through different methods like multiple regression, analysis of variance and structural equation modelling, using software tools like excel, R, SPSS, Python (for example).

4. Interpreting findings: The findings would indicate how working from home affects work-life balance, communication frequency and job stress, and how they in turn affect employee engagement. Accordingly, the findings may suggest certain actions like a new job design, or a new set of key performance indicators and result areas for employees.

5. Identifying new variables: This activity would be needed if the above findings do not offer satisfactory or expected results. In such cases, additional research might be conducted to identify unknown variables that may be influencing employee performance while they work from home. This would require qualitative data collection through interviews with employees and supervisors. Content analysis of this data may bring to light variables that were never considered before, for example, meeting duration and timings, and team cohesiveness.

Collection, analysis and interpretation of quantitative data on these variables (repeating activities 3 and 4) can provide a definitive direction for additional organisational actions that may promote employee engagement while they work from home.

Conclusion

To summarise, research is a focussed, intricate and systematic enquiry that can give decisive answers to the most challenging problems of an organisation. It does so by uncovering cause-effect relationship amongst factors that may be known from before or discovered along the way. When done proficiently and timely, research can be a useful tool to ensure successful contribution of HR policies and practices to employee performance.

- Prof. Smita Chaudhry, Associate Professor - Human Resources

*Views expressed are personal.

(Source: https://hr.economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/hrtech/performance-optimization/how-hr-can-use-research-to-improve-employee-performance/80756831)