2 robots on a table

What happens in Paris…

Before Unleash even started…

Unleash asked me to be a judge and evaluate the 30 submissions for the HR Tech startup competition. All participants shared a short video and a link to their website. Some of them I knew, most of them I didn’t. I was asked to judge them on several aspects, like technology, functionality, applicability and potential: are they really bringing something new, or do they build on something that’s already there? How disruptive are they really?

I am happy to report I saw some really interesting solutions, working on topics that are close to my heart, like new ways of learning, employee coaching and the deskless workforce. And even better, these young companies are all based in Europe: we need a vibrant HR Tech startup scene to ensure that we create modern environments where young people want to come and work. The top 5 of companies that were chosen to pitch at Unleash in front of the audience included two apps to communicate with the deskless workforce, and the grand prize went to OneTeam – an all-in-one employee app to support frontline workers (and I’m proud to say they’re from the Netherlands!).

And take look at the 4 runners up: Roleshare (job sharing), Blink (frontline workers), Gradar (job grading) and Mentessa (peer to peer skills coaching). I am sure they will give you inspiration!

Even more startups

The day before Unleash, I attended the Acadian Ventures conference. The audience was an awesome mix of investors, vc’s, buyers and startups. Thomas Otter opened the conference with a short presentation on the future of work and the need for sustainable work, supported by great tools and forward looking technology.

A panel of investors discussed what founders of HR startups need to be successful: an obsession with what they are building, the ability to get their message across clearly and yes, luck! We also heard that the current investment climate is a bit more prudent, but funds continue to invest in promising companies.

Customers shared the need for experimentation in HR and piloting new tools. They also encouraged founders to be very focused on solving real problems of HR departments, by validating their assumptions with CHROs before they start building their HR software. And to reach out to the CFO more often!

And startups had the opportunity to demonstrate their solutions: take a look at Holivia (mental health), Progression (career growth) and Futurz (pay equity). Great founders with awesome stories!

A very good way to spend the afternoon, followed by an excellent diner in the heart of Paris!

Unleash: the battle for the client

Then it was time for the main event: Unleash World. This was the first time in three years, and I was curious to find out what Marc Coleman and his team had in store for us. Would the HR space be anything like it was before the pandemic?

Well, it was and it wasn’t. The usual suspects, the incumbents were there with the largest booths. But I was pleasantly surprised by the number of young companies that came out of the pandemic, and were represented there as well: many of them received large funding rounds and were able to show their HR solutions in a nice-sized booth. The startup desks were back too, and in more locations than before. I enjoyed seeing all that innovation in one place.

And while the incumbents might have the advantage of serving large clients, the battle for the HR client is on, especially in the SMB market. There are so many companies in this space that still run HR through spreadsheets, with requirements and needs that are not a great fit with the traditional vendors. Young companies stand a fair chance at disrupting the world of work. I talked to a couple of HR technology buyers, and there is a real need to do something different, to cater to the needs of a younger workforce, that wants fresh apps that are laser-focused on supporting them at work, and not tools for HR.

My sessions were all on the second day, so I spent the first day listening to keynotes, walking around the exhibit and meeting old and new friends. You can find an impression of my first day in the video below, and you can also find the keynote highlights in the articles on the Unleash World site.

You won’t be surprised to hear that skills, and the need to support employees to learn new skill sets, especially digital skills, were well represented in the keynote topics. The question before us is: what is the shelf life of skills and how can we educate people in real time? Another topic that got a lot of attention was well-being at work, how to create high performing teams and build inclusive workplaces.

HR Tech Bubble?

And then it was day 2, and time for my sessions. In the morning I participated in a panel discussion with Thomas Otter and Georgios Markakis to answer the question: Is there an HR Tech Bubble? We didn’t think so, and we talked about the importance to be really disruptive and apply new technologies, like blockchain, in HR.

In the afternoon I had a keynote on (don’t be surprised) payroll, and why I wrote my book. We had a Q&A session once I was done, and what always surprises me is that no one has a question until the first person raises their hand, and then everyone has a question ;). Anyway, it was a good thing that this was the last session of the day. I spent quite some time talking to people who are trying to change their current payroll. They gave me great inspiration for updates to the book!

The work struggle is real

During the conference, the shared message was that the pandemic has really done a number on the workforce. What they need and expect from work has changed. And while many of them went back, it’s not like it was before. The pandemic was a seismic shock, and everything we thought was real has been put into question. That also puts a big strain on work, on the way we work together, our career priorities and what we want from life. It’s been a disruptive time for everyone.

So my biggest surprise probably was that I did not see this disruption back in new solutions: yes, I saw new vendors, but there were no surprises. Most of them offer incremental improvements on existing solutions or approaches, but no one fundamentally disrupts the HR Tech and payroll market. Maybe it’s a bit early still, as we are just starting to understand how work has changed. But as Stacey Harris recently noticed in the HR Systems Survey: the year of grace is over, and customers expect vendors to show real added value.

In that light, let me end this article with 5 observations:

  • The focus on employee experience and engagement translates into (too) many point solutions and I expect we’ll see a lot of consolidation, and the remaining vendors won’t survive. Do we really expect to improve engagement through a tool?
  • Helping employees to feel connected with each other and with work is key to thrive in this decade. But are we headed in the right direction when we create systems to foster this? I did not see any solution that solves a problem every company is struggling with: how can we equip managers and HR leaders for the demands of the new world of work and help them create great places to work for all employees? We are missing a fundamental trick here to bring work to the next level.
  • Supporting frontline or deskless workers has become a topic of interest, but vendors create their solutions while being deskbased. And so, with a few exceptions, they don’t fully understand and solve the needs of the deskless workforce, which is a huge market. Much closer cooperation is needed between companies and vendors to create solutions that the deskless workforce really needs.
  • The line between work and private life is blurring, especially in the area of mental and financial health. It was unthinkable for employers to bridge that gap a few years ago, but that has completely changed. Employees today expect help, and they welcome the support that employers offer. We need more solutions that figure out the underlying cause of the problem first, instead of offering a generic mental health program.
  • And my final point: where are the new payroll and time engines? I saw many creative solutions that rely on existing engines to harvest data for analytics and compliance, but we need companies to disrupt the landscape with pay and time functionality that’s fit for the demands of the 21st century, including native EWA functionality, crypto, wallets, scheduling and so on. Maybe next year?