#HRTechChat: Jamie Aitken, Vice President of HR Transformation at Betterworks

“Nobody wakes up in the middle of the night going, ‘Oh, great, tomorrow is my performance review,” said Jamie Aitken in a moment of light-hearted sarcasm during this episode of #HRTechChat. My latest guest on our video podcast, Jamie is vice president of HR Transformation at Betterworks.

There’s truth in humor, by the way. In 2017, Adobe published a report titled “Performance Reviews Get a Failing Grade.” The results to the associated survey painted a bleak picture for the conventional, annual performance review. Startlingly, 22 percent of respondents admitted to having cried after their performance review. You have to wonder how many more shouted strung-together four-letter words at the sky. From the same survey, 58 percent of respondents said performance reviews are stressful,  and 37 percent began searching for employment elsewhere following a performance review. One-fifth of respondents were so impacted by their performance review that they decided to quit immediately afterward no matter whether they’d first secured employment elsewhere.

“Why are we doing this?” Jamie asked — rhetorically, because with every passing year there are fewer and fewer defensible answers to the question. “It’s stressful not just for employees, but for people managers. Traditional performance management doesn’t even move the needle when it comes to performance or productivity.”

It really doesn’t. And it really doesn’t matter that the results to Adobe’s survey are nearly six years. In the time that’s passed traditional performance management has surely become even more anachronistic. The old way of doing performance management is, in fact, antithetical to the implicit goal of any company attempting to track and measure their employees’ performance: to improve it.

Providing strong evidence of a viable alternative is Betterworks’ own report: “2022 Global HR Research Report: The State of Performance Enablement.” Surveying 2,500 employees and managers at a wide range of employers, the vendor found that respondents who were indeed users of Betterworks saw a 25 percent improvement in employee engagement and 44 percent increase in employees’ willingness to exert discretionary effort on the job — i.e., to go above and beyond what’s expected.

Betterworks has coined a term for this alternative: modern performance enablement. Jamie and I spoke at length on the idea, which is to dispense with standalone annual employee performance reviews in favor of promoting continuous year-round conversations between managers and their team members. This building of rapport may culminate in a much more meaningful and empathetic annual retrospective on employees’ performance informed by the substance of these conversations.

Notably, the state of the art in cloud software for employee performance can now facilitate and help drive frequency of interaction between managers and their staff. And it also can capture the highlights of feedback wherever it occurs, sending it to a central repository for revisiting later.

As you can imagine, modern performance enablement is also a huge factor in HR transformation. First, the efficiencies found in modern performance enablement free HR from the often overwhelming administrative tedium of babysitting annual reviews. This helps significantly in delivering HR from its cost-center shackles. Second, modern performance enablement is highly engaging and, therefore, highly inviting. It’s a boon to companywide participation rates, which, in turn, produce rich longitudinal data on the performance of the organization’s people. With the newfound time and mental space to devote to understanding and interpreting this data, an HR department can become a strategic partner to leadership by being the source of deep insight into the company’s people.

Jamie put it best, and I encourage you to watch this episode: “As HR professionals, we now have ways to articulate why what we do matters for the business, and I would say HR should be really excited. Don’t wait for the seat at the table to be given to you. Just take it.”

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Brent Skinner 00:00
Well, hello, everybody, and welcome to this the latest episode of the HRTechChat video podcast. And with me today, we have a very special guest. And that is Jamie Aiken, who is VP of HR transformation at Betterworks. Betterworks is a provider of performance enablement solutions. And you probably describe it better than I will, Jamie but I’m, again, welcome to the to the podcast. Thank you for being with us. And if you could possibly just share a little bit with our viewers around who you are and what better works is and we have a really interesting topic today.

Jamie Aitken 00:38
Well, thanks. And thanks for having me, Brent. So yes, my name is Jamie Aiken, I’m I work at betterworks. I’ve been in HR. Now, I guess I’m a bit of an HR geek. I’ve been in HR for 25 years. And I’ve always been pulled to transformation. So most of my career as a practitioner was around culture transformation, HR transformation, business transformation, anything to do with change. And so if I look at my career, there’s very few times where I wasn’t being pulled into, here’s a puzzle we need to solve, we need to make a shift, how are we going to make that shift? And I, you know, I was thinking about it earlier today, I wonder why it is that I’m always gravitating towards change. And I, I think it might at least somewhat tracked back to the fact that as a as a kid, my dad was in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police up here in Canada, and we moved every two years from the time I was little to probably my mid teens. And so it’s almost it’s almost ingrained in me to be curious about change and to seek it out. So I’ve read global talent management practices for large organizations, I’ve consulted to them. And then about 10 years ago, I started moving into the HR tech space, mostly because there was an awful lot of transformation that was happening in organizations that required tech to enable it. And so of course, I went where the transformation was, and have been in the in the HR tech space for about 10 years. And I describe my job as I have the best job that I can imagine for me, which is all about talking with HR people about how to help support sustainable value driven people centric transformation and organization. And that’s what I get to do every day. And why I came to betterworks was simply because I think, you know, gosh, I’m sure we’re going to be talking about it further. But performance management is one of those. Nobody wakes up in the middle of the night going, Oh, great. Tomorrow is my performance review.

Brent Skinner 03:11
I have to just interject for a moment here because I have a funny sort of anecdote from very recently around that. Not to steal your thunder because I’m sorry, but my wife she works in, in addiction recovery, for very well known for profit, very fast growing company. And it’s a fantastic employee culture, very supportive employer culture, very supportive atmosphere and all that. But But even she, over the weekend, last weekend, was kind of busy this past weekend, or the one before and it’s all blur for me is I’m so busy. But even she was like, you know, kind of stressing over her over performance review. And, and she’s a rising star. I mean, she she’s moving up through the ranks into a leadership position very quickly. And she’s very good at what she does. And she loves her co workers and all that. And even she was I just had to chuckle when you said nobody wakes up middle the night says, I’m so excited about my performance review tomorrow.

Jamie Aitken 04:13
Right. I mean, McKinsey came out with an article a couple of three days ago. And one of the stats that they had in there was that there was a report that 22% of employees report actually reported that they cry associated with their performance appraisal, why are we doing this? Why are we doing this? And it’s not just for employees. It’s also for people managers. It’s stressful for HR as you know, the compliance police. It’s stressful. It’s not seen as providing any real, you know, magic move the needle in it as it relates to performance or productivity. And what I what was compelling to me about betterworks is that betterworks is trying to actually blow all that up, blow up and change the way we approach performance management, which is why we call it performance enablement. So that if you could imagine, people, and this may sound a little pollyannish. So I’m not expecting people are going to be like, Yes. Tomorrow, I’m going to be talking. But gosh, can you imagine if people were engaged and excited about having continuous conversations with their, with their managers with their peers? About what can I be doing better, or recognition or feedback of, hey, that was a really great presentation, and all of that forms, then the your body of work over a period of time. So you’re not waiting for the end of the year when you go into your boss’s office? And, and it just made me think, you know, I was coaching a business leader a few years back, and he was saying, you know, I really need to practice more empathy. And I said, Well, maybe the first thing you can do is take the Kleenex box off the desk.

Brent Skinner 06:15
Wow, wow. Yeah,

Jamie Aitken 06:18
we get a bit of work to do. Like, you know, if you could, if you could take that stress out, if you could, if you could make it something that people look forward to, because they know that that experience is going to help them grow their careers, progress in the organization actually see how what they’re doing is contributing to the achievement of business objectives. Wow, that’s a different kind of experience. And by the way, what if people managers weren’t thinking? Gosh, I don’t really know how to have these conversations. I don’t know exactly what I should do as a coach. What if they were supported better, so that they felt confident and comfortable being able to have those conversations as well? So yeah, I’m thrilled to be at betterworks. I think we’re doing good work here.

Brent Skinner 07:12
Yeah, yeah. I love the company name, by the way, just as a as an aside. You know, what’s really interesting, you know, today, and people have probably figured out by now the topic is topic is performance enablement, modern performance enablement, and HR transformation. And, obviously, it’s also Organizational Transformation completely. Ya know, what is, because there’s a lot that goes into HR transformation, you know, digitalization and all sorts of stuff. And as, you know, obviously, an HR department is doing more than just performance reviews. And by the way, we’re not going to call them reviews anymore, but just just in the, you know, the sort of the conventional parlance, so people know what we’re talking about, but specifically, visa vie modern performance enablement. How does that help to transform HR?

Jamie Aitken 08:06
Well, I mean, I haven’t been at an HR conference over the last 20 plus years, where there hasn’t been at least one session called How to get a seat at the table. Right? Yeah, we’ve been craving and trying to find our way into it. And there’s, there’s a few caveats to that we need to be, you know, as HR professionals, we need to have business acumen, we need to be able to articulate why what we do in HR is actually going to matter for the business. And I think, you know, I think we have some work to do there. Because there’s sort of I look at it this way, there’s sort of operational HR or sort of traditional HR administration, and their strategic HR, and what by transforming, we really need to be thinking about where we need to be spending our time, that’s going to have the most impact for the business in a positive way. And so yes, we can get in HR we can, if I think of HR, I think that as getting operationally excellent in the way our processes simple, easy to use, adopted, well understood well, that there’s not a lot of convoluted bureaucratic effort there. Because by the way, if there is hrs job, is not going to be taken up doing strategic work, it’s going to be running around, chasing all of that bureaucratic noise, right? And keeping that I’m not saying that we don’t have some elements of HR that relate to compliance and getting things right and you know, making sure that the organization doesn’t get sued and that people are doing the things they need to be doing. But really, if you think about where we need to be gravitating as a practice or group of practitioners He is to be spending the time focusing on how is it that what we do in HR? So now that we’re sort of making the leap over to business transformation, how are we helping achieve that goal as opposed to staying in our bubble? And, you know, I’ll give you a great example. So I took on this new role that had been created at this global organization, because the first time they had a global talent lead. And so as a, you know, as a keen listener, I spent the first 30 days going around to the business saying, Okay, so what’s broken? What do I need to what do we need to fix in HR? And all the answers I got, were this, this HR processes broken this HR process, you know, I got a list. You know, as many people as I talked to, I had as many different things in HR that were broken. And it was like, okay, but this isn’t, this isn’t, this is not going to help me prioritize your focus what we need to do. So I switched the question, and I went back and asked the same people, what is the challenge or problem or obstacle that you’re having in your business right now that I can help solve? from a people perspective, and I completely changed the conversation, it completely change the focus, and allowed us to get really, really specific on what our focus needed to be to help the business. And I think those kinds of conversations need to be happening more and more for HR people to really get up into that strategic place and help move the business forward.

Brent Skinner 11:44
You know, you’re singing my sorry. I mean, we talk about here at 360 insights, we’ve just a brief history. Way back, when we, when we founded the HCM practice here at 316 sites, and occurred to me Oh, it’s kind of a eureka moment. It wasn’t like a huge, you know, breakthrough, or innovative thought, or it was more of a novel way of expressing something had existed. The two hemispheres of HCM I called it you know, one is concreted. The other is abstract, you know, the concrete stuff, that’s all the you know, that’s like the administrative work that needs to be automated and needs to be gotten, you need to get it under control before you can, in a lot of time, it kind of a lot of times it impedes you from doing some of the stuff you’d rather do, which is the abstract HCM, which is the cultural stuff, then having a positive impact on the employee experience, these sorts of things, then it occurred to us later on, well, wait a minute, actually, every aspect of HCM has a concrete side and an abstract side, right, you have sort of the, the, you know, the efficiencies that need to be found. And you also have all that, that people related stuff so that you’re influencing the culture in the most positive way. Right. And then my colleague, Jen dole joined us and, and she looked at this and she said, Oh, yeah, efficiency and empathy. Right. And I think that’s, that’s a really nice way of looking at it. And then I thought, oh, sometimes you need efficiency in order to be empathetic, right. And so if you’re an HR department, and you’re just mired, and I’m just thinking about when you went around, and did that listening tour, the first 30 days, and everyone was telling you this process is broken, or this process is broken. Sounded like sounds like there were a lot of operational challenges in the HR department, just workflow, just stuff that needed to be fixed from an efficiency standpoint. And all this stuff that kind of, you know, is adjacent to that, right. And so what I love that that second question you asked is around it was getting them focus kind of get their heads out of that, because it’s so difficult for them to get their heads out of that because they’re dealing with it every day. Totally inauthentic.

Jamie Aitken 14:03
When you think when you think about like, gosh, I remember the first HCM solution the clouds, when HCM started coming out as an offering, we in HR were incredibly excited about the efficiency it was going to give us going from a manual paper based process to one that was going to be to affect automate, but we were so excited about it. I dare say that a lot of us just took our really crummy processes and you know, put them into the cloud. And we didn’t see the because we were so big dazzled by the fact that it was going to save us so much time. But we you know, so I’m happy to say that over the you know, the years that that that have passed since As we’re starting to take a bigger, you know, challenge or voice to say, Do we really need to be doing it this way? Do we really need you know that curiosity? Again? Do we really need to be having, you know, a convoluted workflow with, you know, multiple sign offs? And, and that’s the that’s the I think that’s where we need to be headed. But I think more HR people need to get more curious and more challenging of even within HR, what is the user experience? What is the employee experience and the manager experience? Because, you know, I’ll admit 15 years ago, if we were if we were building a process, you can tell I’m Canadian, because they say process? Yeah, yeah. Probably already said about, and that’s through it. But you know, we would sit in a room bench of HR people build out what we thought would be the perfect process, and then hook it over the fence to the rest of the organization, and then be just stunned that nobody would adopt it, or they would develop workarounds. Right. And so what I’m seeing more and more is, and certainly, I’m in a lot of engagements around utilizing things like design thinking, bringing users, you know, you know, employees or people managers into the room to design that future state, so that we’re not crossing our fingers and hoping that we get it right. But rather, we’re bringing in the very people who are going to be impacted and involving them in the design, and listening really hard for the pain points in a particular process that maybe we are not aware of, and that we’re creating an HR. So there is still some work to be done in HR transformation. But I would also challenge HR professionals to be thinking always about, but what does this what is what we’re doing? How is it going to impact and drive value for the business? All right.

Brent Skinner 17:06
Yeah, absolutely. And I think this is a great segue this to look at this through the lens, specifically of modern performance enablement, right? Like, what is he talking about? It is so important, you’re talking about sort of these, taking old processes, and just kind of like, you know, lifting and shifting the processes, if you will, into a cloud based automated environment, if you still haven’t really reimagined fundamentally what you’re doing. So you know, you. So for instance, taking a traditional annual performance review, it’s almost painful to say, process and putting it in the cloud. You may be saving some time administratively, right? But you’d put you’re not but that’s only that’s only half of, I would not even half of the way there, you know, there’s a lot more. So what is modern performance enablement look like? And how does it? How does it kind of shake HR out of this whole thing?

Jamie Aitken 18:03
Well, I mean, if you you know, if you think fundamentally, modern performance enablement is about having a continuous conversation and a feedback within, you know, between a manager and an employee about how are you doing? What can I help you with? How can I support? How do you want to see your, you know, what do you want to do next? How can I support your personal and career growth, etc. And that happens, you know, certainly more than twice a year. And if you think about it, just as humans, I mean, I said the other day, it’s not like my husband, and I go to the end of the year and say, Okay, let’s see how we’re doing. Have a conversation about what you what you do, right and wrong, and what I do right and wrong, right? There will be tears,

Brent Skinner 18:58
there will be hopefully there’ll be a box of Kleenex.

Jamie Aitken 19:01
And, and I’ll probably only remember, like the last three months worth of interaction, right? What do we usually do we course correct. Like, um, you know, we give feedback, we we communicate, we have lots of conversations, we give we props to each other. And, and effectively, it’s building a connection and a trust, that allows us to feel connected. And to a certain extent, that’s what this approach is about is, is you shouldn’t be surprised if you if you’re waiting until the end of the year, you shouldn’t be surprised what your bosses feedback is going to be. And by the way, they shouldn’t be surprised with your feedback to them. It should be something that is ongoing on a regular basis, and frankly, something that is natural. Now, it doesn’t all happen overnight. It’s not like we wave a wand and turn on some software and folks immediately start getting Are you comfortable with these conversations, I say we walk, run and fly. But over time, as people get more comfortable and confident with it, they get stronger, their maturity on that competency gets better, and you just have richer and richer, meaningful, valuable conversations and feedback over time, which, you know, we did a really interesting survey, where we asked like 2500 people, employees and managers, some who use better works, and some who didn’t. And then we found some really interesting things. We saw a, you know, 25% lift in employee NPS, which is basically engagement, we saw 44% of employees that used betterworks said that they were willing to go above and beyond what they were being asked to do. So the notion of, yes, I’m aligned, I know, what I’m focused on, my boss has my back. And I feel supported, I feel connected to this organization. And, and that shows up in productivity. So I think the the other piece, specifically that betterworks has cracked, is this notion of in the flow of work. Again, it talks about removing the barriers or the noise in a process so that it’s seamless. So what that really essentially means is, we tie into whether it’s Outlook or teams or you know, Google or whether or you know, Gmail, or whether it’s Salesforce, etc, any of the tools that your employees are using, if they update a goal, or if they mark an achievement in Salesforce, for example, or in you know, Excel, they don’t have to now move out, they can do that in that system. And it’ll be picked up in put into better works, which means you’re not. So imagine how revolutionary that is, versus, oh, gosh, it’s the end of the year, I need to go out of my job, I need to move over, I need to go into a new system, I need to log that stuff in. It’s completely inefficient. But the other piece to it as well, which makes it I think, much more natural, is the notion that if you and I’ve just had a meeting, and I just thought, you know, Brent just kicked that out of the park, that presentation was amazing. I could be in Outlook or you know, Gmail, and I will have a little sidebar, that’s better works. And I can immediately send you feedback. And this notion that the feedback is, which then gets sort of, as I said, collected in your body of work. So that’s all part of what you that travels with you. But again, how am i How are we making it more seamless for the humans that we work with, to interact with each other and to get used to and comfortable and natural about this notion of feedback. And, you know, recognition?

Brent Skinner 23:11
You know, a few things. So, A, what I’m hearing is, and we hear this around a lot of the employee lifecycle is reducing friction. You know, it happens in in talent acquisition, you know, especially with high volume, hiring organizations, you know, they want to, they want to reduce the friction in the in the application process, because Joe Schmo who’s applying for warehouse job with Amazon also might be looking to be a cashier at Flying J, you know, and it’s, there’s so many options, and there’s very little, very little compelling them to go with one versus the other, necessarily, and so there’s, so you want to reduce that friction here. You want to reduce the friction of blood, reduce the friction, so that the employee is most apt to or the manager or all employees but the manager or subordinate as we’ll call it, is most apt to actually record it. Right. Because it’s easy. It’s captured almost as a perfunctory after the fact thing which is really, really important. And I can’t help but wonder, or

Jamie Aitken 24:23
are you quoting because Carrie Bradshaw to me? I can’t.

Brent Skinner 24:27
I didn’t realize I was but I guess viewers may be surprised to hear that. I’m not a huge football fan, although I do like it.

Jamie Aitken 24:37
Oh, no. Carrie Bradshaw.

Brent Skinner 24:39
Mary Bradshaw. Terry press. No,

Jamie Aitken 24:43
Carrie Bradshaw famously close. I quit. When there.

Brent Skinner 24:46
Yeah. Oh, okay. Okay. Okay. All right. Yeah, now that neither but I can’t help but wonder though, what the positive impact is The sense of the positive impact for the HR department to when they’re, then they’re having to babysit this process chase people down? What is that? Like? Because that’s probably part of the HR transformation piece, big time,

Jamie Aitken 25:13
no question, right? All of that chasing all of that. I mean, I think I mentioned at the top of our talk, HR, people aren’t excited about being a police. That’s how they get in. That’s not why they get into HR. Right, they’re about helping people reach their potential that you know, they’re not, they’re not about chasing people down to make sure that they filled out a form. So the fact that that is removed is in one is one thing, I think the other thing HR people are really interested in is sustainable adoption, and how people are using it. And there’s a third, which is data. But just an interesting data point of note, which is, you know, if you think about the traditional HR system, using a traditional performance management with, say, two touch points during the year, versus our approach, what we’re finding is, on average, our customers are going in, you know, our users are going into the Better Work system or interacting with a better work system once every seven days. Wow. So it’s, it’s an, the notion then is, people are getting excited about doing this, they see value in doing it. And the other piece, the third piece is the analytics, then, well, if I only have two points of, of, of data from a mid year review, and a year end review, as an HR person, that’s, you know, okay, that’s interesting. But what about if, when, when it’s being utilized and adopted, suddenly you have a richness of data around the feedback people are getting, the exchanges that they’re having? How many conversations are they having, that’s rich stuff, and that stuff, as an HR strategist, that’s, that’s work that you can be really digging into, to maybe help organize parts of the organization that are struggling with this notion of continuous performance, and also recognizing those that are incredibly good at it. So I think all of that is relevant. We could talk about this all day long. We could,

Brent Skinner 27:25
we could I know. And I was looking at the time, and we are coming up on the end here. I just wanted to say super quick, you know, applying natural language processing to that, you know, trove of qualitative data is that can really surface ups in really, really interesting, prescriptive, and analytics for for folks. And there’s this this a lot of potential upside here. Yeah, I mean, you know, there’s so much to talk about here. I think this is a really, really fascinating topic. And it’s so important for organizations for the HR organizations to really get their operational site under control and, and thought through in the most modern way so that they can be they said that they can focus on the people aspect of, of the, of the function as much as possible. And that that, to me, seems to be really the main objective, would you say?

Jamie Aitken 28:25
I would say so, and this is the perfect time, I think this is the perfect time to be an HR innovator, to get really curious to challenge status quo to ask the question, why, you know, why are why are we still doing it this way? And, most importantly, how is what we’re doing going to provide value to the business? I think this is a time where HR is more critical than any other time in my in my career. And you know, I would, I would say it’s HR should be really excited about making their seat at the table. Don’t wait for it to be given to you just take it.

Brent Skinner 29:07
That’s right. That’s, let’s leave it at that for now. That’s wonderful, wonderful. way to put it making the seat at the table. Thank you so much, Jamie, for joining us. Really appreciate it. This is just This is a fascinating topic. And I know our viewers got a lot out of this conversation. wonderful pleasure. Thank you. Take care. Bye

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