Ester Martinez

HR needs to stop being so busy

19 Mar 2021   |   Culture Technology

Ester Martinez

HR needs to stop being so busy

19 Mar 2021   |   Culture Technology

HR has become very good at being busy. There are papers to file, processes to run, people to recruit, forms to be created.

But through this pandemic, it has a chance to redefine itself in a big way.

Ester Martinez, CEO of People Matters, thinks that “HR, is really the business of accelerating the business strategy and the business objectives.”


Moving from activity to objectives

Ester used the analogy of a ship that’s moving through the water. Some people are focused on the engine, others on the charts of where the ship is going. For a long time, Ester says that HR has been just running around on the deck looking busy.

Now is the time to really think about the work that needs to be done and how much freedom and flexibility we can bring to individuals to fulfill that potential.

The move to digital work has opened up new opportunities for HR to take a leading role in accelerating objectives. It can help to define where people are most productive (home, office, elsewhere), and can focus on helping leaders manage their teams better.

Ester says, “It’s an opportunity to redesign completely the employee experience and what it means. But it does need a lot of commitment from HR and business to really just be very strategic.”


Leave the toxic behind

Ester says, “Even pre-COVID, we had seen cultures had become very toxic because of workplaces. I think we have an opportunity to kill all that toxicity and start afresh. But as a leader, you have to make sure that your hybrid teams are included.”

She talked a lot about what hybrid work means and how much careful planning it will take to get right. Hybrid is not just taking the best of two options, but really designing a situation where everyone can thrive equally.

When she looks at the future, Ester says there are three skills that leaders will need, regardless of their function: clarity, courage, and humanity. HR has learned to function without all three of these for too long and needs to upgrade to meet the challenges.



People Matters

Ester on LinkedIn

Ester on Twitter

Welcome back to The Digital Workplace podcast. We are so excited. Today our guest is Ester Martinez. She is the CEO of People Matters. Hi, Ester. How are you today?

I’m good, Neil. Thanks. Thanks for having me over.


Oh, it’s always a pleasure to be with you. You were there with our big ‘Digital Workplace Day’ we did back in October, and it’s been fun to see how things have grown for you and are constantly changing. Everything looks in just a fantastic place for you right now. So, it’s great to have you on the show. We are going to start off with a capture question to make sure that you are a certified human. So, your question is, what was your favorite meal growing up?

So, that brings me back to what my mom used to prepare for breakfast. She was like this really, really health-conscious person, I think, very ahead of her time. So, she used to prepare these really yummy apples plus almonds, and I think probably some soya milk or whatever. It was like a puree stuff. And it used to “help me being on the pool for longer time” otherwise you know, “my lips will get blue very soon”. But if I have that for breakfast, I could be in the pool for the whole morning. 


Wow. So, you did a lot of swimming growing up? That was like your thing? 

Yeah, it was just fun. Fun pool.


Yeah. That’s fantastic. I hope my mom’s not listening to this but for my breakfast, for like 20 years, it was these Pop Tarts, these packaged type things just like here, do it yourself type thing. So, I love that. That sounds like such a delicious thing to have for the morning. 

Well, it is now. It wasn’t so nice then. I probably would have loved to have your breakfast instead of my healthy one. But yeah, different age groups.


Yes, absolutely. Well, tell us a little bit about People Matters for people who don’t know or aren’t experienced with it. What is it that People Matters serves to do?

So, People Matters is a community for professionals who are passionate about the impact of people and work in business. And our business, of course, like many businesses listening to the podcast has evolved tremendously during COVID time. So, we used to do a lot more conference events, research, and we pivoted to a much more learning offering. So, we launched our platform called BeNext, which is a cohort-based certification program. And really the same work, but now with, not only with conferences and events, but also with learning journeys, to help the community being able to bridge the gap between what the business needs and what HR focuses on.


Good. And that’s my first question. Is HR still the right term? I know a lot of people say people operations or people different things. Do you still like the term HR?

I think it is about people potential. And I like to always talk about people and work. Because I think the function of what we used to call HR or human capital is to just really accelerate business impact, leveraging innovation when it comes to people, technology, and work at the intersect. So, I would say that human resources is just probably just passe as a term. But honestly, I think terminologies are not important. The important thing is the outcome of the work that we do really.


Yeah, I think like you said, it’ll definitely be something that’s like, ‘Okay. It’s all just because it’s old. It’s not because human resources.’ Even now we try to use the term human a lot, just to talk about the unique nature of what human brains is, as opposed to a machine. But yes, sometimes people get caught up in the terminology and that can be a hindrance too. I find it really fascinating that you say because of the pandemic you’re focused more on learning journeys and helping people to experience that. What is it about the pandemic that made that be like, ‘Oh, we need to focus on learning journeys right now?’

So, I think, because of the pandemic, many businesses have the opportunity to really go back into thinking what business we’re in. I think a lot of our traditional business offerings either got completely damaged or actually stopped. And I think it happened to People Matters as a business as well. We had to reimagine all our offerings into a digital context overnight like many, many listeners today. But also, it gave us an opportunity to say, ‘Okay, which business are we really in?’ And we were always in the business of helping the community to be more impactful to business. 

So, when you define the business that way and you realize that we can’t do that through physical means anymore, then the next natural question is, ‘Then how you may do that?’ And I think that’s true for everyone from the HR community as well. We used to connect with people in a particular way, engage with our employees in a particular way, and now we can’t do it that way. So, it’s also the opportunity to think back and say, ‘What business are we in as HR professionals and what’s really the value that we are proving to the business? And now that the context of workplace has changed, how we may do it in a way that it’s an opportunity to redesign that role and actually make it a lot more impactful than it was even pre-COVID.’


Yeah. Well, tell us about HR teams specifically that are in these organizations. What is it that they’ve learned that they will actually probably stop doing and start doing because of the pandemic more? Are there things that they realize, ‘Well, you know, we were supposed to be doing this. But actually, if we step back and think about what business we’re in, we should be doing this more.’ So, what are those changes that you’ve seen?

So, I think the business we are in, as HR, is really the business of accelerating the business strategy and the business objectives. And sometimes we get lost in initiatives and programs and activities, and we actually really don’t remember and realize that these are the business objectives, and hence, everything that we’re doing should be aligned to that. The opportunity is we have discovered a new way of working because of the largest experiment of working from home we’ve all had to go through. And I think that’s an opportunity for organizations that are brave enough to say, ‘Okay, what are the things we want to continue?’ It’s given access to talent pools that we could never imagine. Because before, we never used to think that ‘When I’m hiring a person for a particular location, then I need this person in that particular city.’ I think that’s just completely gone out of the mind.

So, I think access to talent pools, ability to think about work very differently, so, not just nine to six, or whatever, Monday to Friday, but really about what work needs to be done and how much freedom and flexibility we can bring to individuals to fulfill that potential. 

And then the third piece is, the business financial impact that that flexibility brings. Because now we don’t need so many physical spaces. We don’t need so many offices. We don’t need to travel for meetings. So, a lot of things that we never could have imagined that would be possible. And they were taking us for granted that it has to be built into budgets. So, I think we’ve discovered a new way of working, which I think provides a silver lining for organizations to think about talent and work very differently.


Yeah. And I love that you said that HR is there to accelerate business objectives. I’ve never heard that before and I think it’s so appropriate right now. When we talk about productivity in the digital age, one of the things we talk about is moving away from just being active, like doing things being busy versus actually moving towards objectives and going to goals. And to think about HR as a whole discipline, I think, and many other departments and groups are guilty of this too, but they just seem like they got so caught up in just doing the thing, like ‘you got to be there to make sure the forms are filled out’, ‘you got to be there to make sure the recruiting happens’, to do all these kinds of just processes and activities. And as long as you were busy doing those things, you proved and justified your existence. But to move towards business objectives, that’s a big step for a whole discipline to take.

Yeah. And I’ll give you a metaphor. As I’m hearing you, there’s a metaphor of, you know, you’re in a ship, okay. And the ship is moving from one port to another port, and you want to contribute to that movement. Now, you can do two things. Either figure out what parts of the ship need your help or start just running in the deck. Now the fact that you’re running in the deck as fast as you may want to run, that’s not really contributing to the ship moving. So, I think many times you may just want to ask the question to yourself, ‘Okay, am I busy running on the deck? Or am I busy actually making the boat go faster or sharper by that action?’ 

And you’ll realize that again, and I agree with you Neil, that it’s just not HR, all of us are really like sometimes victim of our own running on the deck and not thinking like, is what I’m doing really adding value? Is it important? Is it urgent? Should I be doing this? Or is there something else that I could be doing to really contribute to that ship to move faster? It’s a great question. I don’t think we’ve ever asked that. COVID helped us to realize that there were teams or jobs doing something that suddenly could not be done anymore, and nothing happened. The business continued to work and then you realize that those roles were not needed, or those paper works that we used to do physically, we couldn’t do them in paper anymore, and nothing happened. So, I think it helped us realize that there were many of us running on the deck without actually contributing to that ship moving forward.


That’s great. I love that your focus is right there. That’s exactly where it should be. You talked about bigger talent pools, about realizing that somebody didn’t need to work in the exact location. So, I want to turn that conversation to, as companies are trying to respond to COVID, trying to respond to saying, ‘Okay, let’s try to get back to some semblance of normal or back to the office specifically.’ And that brings up the question of hybrid offices, where you have sometimes people in the office, sometimes where they’re away. But that’s such a vague term out there just to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to be a hybrid model.’ There are so many different types. So, what’s been your experience? What are you learning? What are you thinking about in terms of hybrid work?

I think it’s a new, as you said, is a new dimension. We don’t yet know fully what’s going to be. I think organizations are looking at different models as you said. We had companies calling it differently. So, whether you’re calling it distributed, or you’re calling it fully remote or you’re calling it hybrid, they’re different terminologies. What’s important is for you to think about what does your business need? What are the different roles required? And I think most importantly also what data is going to tell us very soon is going to be, who is most productive in what kind of contexts. I think the future, and I’m jumping the gun to the question related to technology which I think is also connected to this question. I think technology will have to help us think about who is more productive in which kind of context. 

And some people may actually end up being more productive when we allow them to work from anywhere, forget about work from home now. It’s more work from anywhere. And some of us may be more productive when we are in a physical space outside of our personal space. But I think that’s something that organizations will have to figure out and gather data soon. I think from a work definition perspective, there are organizations that are completely going back to workplaces fully. And that can be either one HQ, maybe multiple HQ’s. I think there is a thread there when you go back to the traditional way that you used to work from COVID perspective. There are obviously opportunities but threats of not having access to that talent pool that we were discussing. 

I think the second model is when you go to the other extreme, which is fully distributed, or remote first, and there are many organizations that were remote first even before COVID like, GitLab and Atlassian, and many organizations were fully remote. And some organizations are learning what that could mean. And there is an opportunity for that other extreme. I think the majority of organizations are going to be in that concept of hybrid. Now hybrid, what does that mean? It means you work from office, but you actually allow for flexibility. That’s one way of hybrid where you know, it’s, let’s say 60, or 70, or 80% is office and then the rest is flexible. Or the other way around, where you say, ‘Listen, there is actually a ‘work from anywhere’, but you will have some hubs for you to come over if you want, you know, you want to change your location, or you want to collaborate or innovate with your colleagues or your teams. There’ll be some infrastructure that’s been built to be put on service of teams who require physical space to come together. 

So, I think in that range, there is an opportunity for organizations to think about what works. There is watch outs on the extremes. Fully remote may not be applicable to all industries. So, you really need to be sure that you’ve taken into consideration your industry, what your clients expect, what works for you, what do your employees want before you take that decision. And similarly, if you choose to go fully on premise, you know, give some flexibility to workers and employees, because I think there has been some work life balance benefits that we’ve seen by giving people that flexibility. So, taking that fully away may actually be counterproductive. And if you’re going hybrid, I think the watch outs are going to be more about how you create that sense of belonging. Some people are going to physical spaces, but others are not. Then how do you make sure that people don’t feel left out and suddenly you’re not able to bring that culture of inclusiveness, as well. 

So, I think it’s an opportunity to redesign completely employee experience and what it means. But it does need a lot of commitment from HR and business to really just be very strategic when you define those different levels of hybrid.


Yeah. I want to get your thoughts on a specific topic I’ve been thinking about a lot when it comes to hybrid. A lot of times, for people who haven’t experienced remote work or working from anywhere like us. We’ve had one year under our belt doing this which is a really short time. It’s not a long time to really think about. Even like GitLab and the company you mentioned before. They may have been doing it for 10 years, which in the scope of all work, it’s still pretty new to figure out these things. One of the things that I’m nervous about people going to a hybrid model is that our mindset is still very much like office centric, like we got to get back to the office. 

And especially as leaders of teams and CEOs and everyone else, if they’re the ones back in the office, it seems like there’s going to be a distinct advantage for people who do decide to be in the office and be in the office every day even because they’re going to get that extra attention. They’re going to be present. People are going to see them. They’re going to be able to default towards just saying, ‘Hey, I’m active. You can see I’m busy, therefore I’m being productive’. So, I’m worried that we haven’t really learned fully the lesson of what remote can bring, and that hybrid model will actually disadvantage people who decide, you know what, ‘I’m going to work from home most of the time and maybe only come into the office one day a week.’ I feel like those people will suffer in their careers and in their team. What is your perspective on that?

So, again time will tell. And it is a leadership decision. I think we need to think. We need to be more visionaries from organization perspective to think about what kind of workplace we want to build strategically that is going to help us attract more diverse talent, that is going to make our organization more inclusive. And I think those kinds of questions are more foundational. Because all the things that we build on top of it will be directing us towards or farther away from that kind of workplace. Now, if we don’t have clarity about what kind of workplace we want to build, what kind of talent diversity we want to attract and retain, and what kind of inclusiveness we want to build, then we may end up taking a decision which can lead to what you just mentioned. 

I think if you ask employees today, the majority of surveys are saying that very few employees want office only. I think Slack had done a recent study a few months ago, and they were just anywhere. I think globally it was 12% of employees who said that they want to go back to office only. And I think in the US it was a bit lesser. It was around 10%. Some parts of the world it was a bit higher, like France and some European countries. And in Asia, and particularly, there were also around 10% of employees who said, ‘I want to go back to office only.’ Majority of people were asking for a hybrid, which means that again, only 12 to 15% said home only. So, there are very few people as well who are saying home only. Employees are looking for this hybrid model. Organization’s responsibility is to crack this model and make it work, which means it’s a leadership issue. 

Now, either leaders are going to use this as an opportunity to say, ‘Well, hybrid’ but then again, I think even pre-COVID, we had seen cultures had become very toxic because of workplaces. I think we have an opportunity to kill all that toxicity and start afresh. But as a leader, you have to make sure that your hybrid teams are included which means using a lot more synchronous technology, using a lot more clarity and context of what is expected from team members, and making sure that if there are some teams that are physically present and some teams that are virtual, how do you give priority to your virtual colleagues first? And have you just been very, very conscious that you’re including them throughout the meeting, if there’s a meeting. Or you may choose to make meetings only virtual. Let’s say that if there are three people physically present but three people are virtual, let’s all log in onto the virtual platform. It doesn’t matter that we’re in the physical space. That will require a very different way of thinking about leadership.


Absolutely. Like you said, it’s something we have to crack. And I think there are too many leaders out there that feel like it’s already cracked, like we already figured it out. We just let people work from home when they want to. But it’s much deeper than that now. Like you said, there’s a lot of decisions to make to create that sense of belonging. Otherwise, people who are working from outside the office are going to sense it. I mean, it’s pretty easy to pick up on when, ‘Okay, the real actions happening in the office and I’m away from it today, or I’m away from it this week.’ And there’s a lot of decisions that we need to make to get there.

Absolutely, absolutely.


Excellent. Yeah, go ahead. 

Yeah, I was just thinking that I don’t think we can completely figure it out. We’ve gone through this 12-months of experiment. And I agree with you that 12 months in the scope of the managerial experience we have is very less. And we are now entering another phase from managerial perspective that it’s probably going to be like a three-year horizon until we come back and then say, ‘Who were the successful organizations that were able to really build leadership traits which are more inclusive and are really trying to untap everyone’s potential?’ And that’s the objective of the new culture of tomorrow. And some organizations will crack it, some organizations won’t. But I think those organizations that are coming from that place of curiosity and that place of experimentation with the intent to really tap into everyone’s contribution, will be the ones that are successful.


Well said. That’s great. I’m going to shift. Our last topic today is going to be about technology in HR and how it helps. For the most part, HR tech seems just to, it was sold to HR teams to make their work easier and make their busy-ness, if you will, easier as they go do things. But what do you see is the state of HR tech? And how can HR tech actually be a benefit to all the people in the organization and not just make some things more easy for people inside that department?

I think that shift has happened. And again, probably COVID has helped. Now, the excitement is in the context of work tech and how technology is helping finally individuals to be more productive, more innovative, more collaborative. And anything to do with making HR more effective, I think that’s just like, honestly, who cares? We’ll really be looking at, ‘Is my company moving faster? Better? Are people more included? Are we more impactful to our customers?’ And I think that’s all that matters. And what we’ve seen is that technology can do so much more than just automating processes. And I was talking to one of our vendor partners who was telling me that imagine that technology could tell us who is more productive in what kind of context? What if technology could say that Ester is more productive in office then she should actually be given an office, while other people may say, ‘Well, you’re more productive working anywhere.’ Technology can tell us all that today. 

Technology can also help managers automate coaching and say, ‘Well, I don’t need you to tell me that.’ Maybe the technology should tell me every morning that, ‘Listen you haven’t caught up with Neil. Do you want me to schedule a meeting with Neil, because I think it’s time for you to catch up with him?’ Or saying that, ‘In the last three weeks, you haven’t spoken to these three customers. So, you may want to’. So, I think technology can just make our life a lot better. And this is not science fiction. This is already real. And it just requires that mindset to experiment a lot more. And it requires the mindset for HR to really move beyond HR tech to really think about work tech, and how can technology make every individual in my team more empowered and more productive.


Yeah. You have nailed it. That is such a great way to look at things. And it comes back to your original point of saying, ‘Hey, we’re here to accelerate the business objectives. We’re not just here to use fancy tools and to have fun with the technology that comes through.’ But if the technology is not advancing the business objectives and it’s not helping, right, it’s just kind of making other things more busy. So, using that effectiveness measure on HR as a discipline, on the technology it uses, that’s a great thing to do. 

And I love your perspective on experimentation. That’s the state where we need to be right now, is to say, ‘Yeah, why don’t we try these things, and we do have the technology to do them. So, let’s try it out and let’s see what happens and what we can learn.’ Because we’re in a season where if we’re in the digital age, like we are at the very early days of it, and there’s so much ground we can make up and there’s so many things we can do, it’s just a fantastic time to think about what’s possible, and the possibility in terms of these objectives and where can you get to. So, I love what you said about that. 

Great. In terms of where you feel like HR is headed just kind of as a final question. If you’re out there talking to CEOs who are building their companies, they’re maybe just hiring some of their first HR people as it comes in, what kind of advice and perspective would you give them as they want to build a fully digital workplace but also have people that are committed to the human development if they’re making those early hires? What type of skill set, what type of objectives do you think they should put on early-day HR folks?

Wonderful. Thanks, Neil, for that question. And because you mentioned that you speak to CEOs, I’m remembering one conversation with one of the CEOs I had the privilege to interview, and he said three things to focus on. One is clarity. And when I say clarity, it doesn’t mean that we need to have all the answers. But it’s really clarity on which direction, like when we were talking about that ship moving from one port to another port. Where is the ship moving? What’s the trajectory? What’s the speed? And why are we going there? I think clarity is very important. Especially as an HR professional, sometimes we tend not to ask those questions to business, because sometimes we feel everyone knows and we may not know. You will be very surprised that sometimes even businesses don’t have that clarity. So, just asking the question about why are we doing this? How is this going to help our customers? And how is this aligned to the larger vision and why is this a strategic objective? I think these clarity questions are super important. So, then you know how to contribute. 

The second is courage. Courage to try new things, Neil. As you were saying, experiment new things. Some things will fail, fail fast, fail forward, and really thinking about if something is not clicking, if I have to really push a lot for people to comply with a process, it’s probably not adding value. It’s probably not well-designed. It’s probably something that, you know, why will a business leader not want to do something that is going to help him or her? So, I think this time of saying, ‘compliance, 60% completion of something, 60% of that, this manager is not doing something’, I think we just really need to be courageous to break from the past and say, ‘Well, this is not working. Maybe it worked in the past, it surely doesn’t work anymore. And try new things.’ And that takes courage. Because when you break from the past, you’re very likely to fail. Right? So just knowing that I’m going to try new things. If it’s helping the boat move forward, then I will continue. If I realize that I’m running on the deck, I will stop. If I’m realizing I may even be slowing the boat, then I have to stop. So that courageous approach to experimentation is really needed. 

And then the third thing which also you mentioned, is a little bit what we call it as humanity, to saying that it’s just not business, it’s also about our society. And society is not just our employees, but our communities and I think that conscious of our business being part of a larger ecosystem. We’ve really suffered those consequences during the pandemic, and we’ve seen how irresponsible ways of dealing with the situation in the early days have led us where we are. I think that consciousness of just being part of a larger ecosystem is also something that I think is important for human resources to take into consideration.


Ester, you are a great light in this world and in the world of business. You’re saying all the things that inspire me and I’m so glad you’re in the position you are to impact so many companies and a lot of folks that are there. So, we look forward to hearing from you often, to hearing your wisdom and where you’re leading folks and your organization. Tell us where we can go to find more about your work.

So, you can see a little bit more about People Matters in which is our website. And you can just come to my LinkedIn profile. It’s Ester Martinez. Yeah. Follow me on Twitter. Ester_Matters, that’s my handle. And looking forward to connecting with you Neil very soon. And you know, congratulations with The Digital Workplace initiative.


Thank you so much. We will be in touch. We’ll have all those links in the show notes, and we will talk to you again soon.

Thank you so much.

Ester lead an incredible team of content writers, researchers, product thinkers, and marketers building fantastic media products to enable more impactful HR and talent decisions.

In past lives, she led different functions in HR for a host of blue-chip companies like HP in Spain, Tata Consultancy Services and India and UK.

Featured on the LinkedIn Top Voices list in 2016 and 2018, which ranks the top writers on LinkedIn for the year.

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