It’s all in the numbers
Karl Strichow has been a Director in Workforce Analytics at the ATO for over a decade. During that time, he has seen many changes in the way the organisation collects and uses HR data. We caught up with him recently to discuss his thoughts on how data has lifted the HR profession, and what’s next for the future of work.
Can you tell us a bit about your role at the ATO – what do you do and how has it evolved over time?
My role as Director of Workforce Analytics started ten years ago when the area was called the People Reporting and Analytics Centre. About a year in, we changed the name to Workforce Analytics as this better represented, at the time, what we aspired to achieve. The activity of deriving business value from HR data is called different things in different places, and organisations are generally somewhere along a continuum from basic HR data reporting through to predictive people analytics. We’re striving in practice to be ‘people analytics’ because that encompasses more and delivers greater business value.
HR analytics brings together data from multiple HR systems to gain holistic insights about your workforce. We’ve been doing that for several years now. People analytics goes further than that – it makes use of less structured information, like free text analysis. It looks at data that comes from other systems that aren’t HR, but help to colour the picture, so to speak.
For example, swipe data (where staff swipe their building pass as they enter through the race gate in the office foyer), and remote working platform data help us understand the office attendance and remote working patterns of our workforce. During COVID, this helped us understand where people were, so that in the event we had an exposure on site, we knew the size of the risk, and couple better determine our response. This data is especially important now with staff beginning to transition back into the office.
Anything we can do to appropriately harness already held information about our workforce saves everyone time, money and improves the employee experience. When we survey, we should do that to expand our knowledge, fill in and help identify the gaps.
Do you think that leveraging data that isn’t traditionally HR data gives us insights into organisational culture?
Absolutely. Some of it is about shedding light on what actually happens, versus what people say happens. For example, it is demonstrated time after time that people are more likely to disclose having a disability anonymously in a survey than within organisations’ HR systems. The size of this “gap” however will be different in different organisations and represents an opportunity if it can be quantified, the drivers understood and addressed. In an ongoing partnership with the Diversity and Inclusion team, we quantified the gap, identified several drivers and used the insight gained to inform strategies to address that gap.
This is ongoing work, but at its most basic, the ‘gap’ was partly an ‘awareness’ gap – that is, people didn’t understand the value of disclosing this data internally or how we use it to inform the ways we support them. Narrowing that gap over time would demonstrate a mixture of raised awareness and increased trust. Data and insights helped us to identify that need and in response, the ATO conducted campaigns to raise awareness and encourage people to feel more comfortable about disclosing that information.
The most recent campaigns have been the most successful in the ATO’s history. In 2020 only one in every three ongoing employees with a disability recorded this in the HR information system. In mid-2021, following an enhanced campaign, one in two employees with a disability recorded this in the HR information system. That’s an incredible success for the organisation, but we’re not finished yet!
What role has data played in the professionalisation of HR at the ATO? What are some of the big achievements, and has anything surprised you?
Bringing in data doesn’t mean we all have to become ‘data people’, but we do need to become more data literate and develop an understanding of the concepts, or at least know where to go to get that understanding. Once you overcome that hurdle, you can start using data and analytics to inform your approaches and strategies, provide evidence to back them up and measure progress, rather than just relying on gut feel.
Bringing in an analytics mindset creates an environment where it’s ok to be wrong on the journey to evidence-based decision making. Actually, it’s more than ok – I celebrate it when a previously held truth is found no longer to be the case. Why? Because we’ve learnt something new! Look at the evidence, discuss alternative views, identify a paradigm shift and re-evaluate how we do things.
A great example of where analytics really helped us change it up and find a more successful way was with managing unscheduled absence levels at the ATO. Prior to 2013, we had a purely numbers-driven approach to unscheduled absence.
Back then, a prevailing attitude informing our strategies was: ‘I work hard and never take a day off. Why can’t they just work harder like I do?’ But going in purely with the ‘big stick’ approach in the ‘hot spots’ wasn’t working. With that strategy, we tended to dig in the prevailing culture and basically play whack-a-mole – if we pushed our thumb down harder, leave levels went higher. Why? Because we weren’t using analytics to inform our holistic strategies; we were primarily using reporting to pick targets.
In 2013-14, we started undertaking research into unplanned absence to identify what the key drivers were. We found the answer was in the unspoken psychological contract – the unwritten expectations, understandings and commitments between an employee and employer. Are you engaged with your work? Do you want to be there? Do you respect your boss? If you’re sitting at home in the morning, not actually ill, but feeling 50/50 about going in that day, and the answer to one or more of those questions is ‘no’, then the chances are that you’re going to be crook that day.
We found that where people were most engaged, absence was lower – high engagement correlated with low absence, and vice versa. If you can increase engagement, people are more likely to want to go to work. So, by 2017-18, through concerted efforts across all the drivers of engagement and culture, we were able to bring unplanned absence down by nearly 20%. This trend has continued in recent years. You can’t increase engagement just by telling people to work harder – you need to harness data to identify drivers and inform your strategies.
What do you see on the horizon for organisations using data in HR?
In a physical sense, data will become even more integrated in our daily lives and there’ll be a bringing together of corporate enabling data, for example finance and HR as the most obvious. In a cultural sense, this won’t mean that HR people will become finance people – but HR people will become finance literate enough to be able to speak with the business and understand the financial element of business decisions, not just the HR elements.
The other thing I see on the horizon is further democratisation of data. Here in the ATO, we democratise our data insights through online interactive dashboards, enabling people to self-serve information. The ATO leads the way on a lot of that. Other agencies ask, ‘you let everyone see this!?’ Yes, we do. We made our online dashboards open for non-sensitive information and it was a challenge for some people. But think of it in terms of evolution – give people information and you empower them to make good decisions.
The theme for this edition of the newsletter is the future of work. What do you think will be the future of work and what role do you think data will play? What are some of the challenges and opportunities?
The most obvious thing – as we head into the new year – is that hybrid working will be an ongoing feature of our workplace and an increasingly important feature of the employee value proposition. With staff returning to the office, analysis around our hybrid approach and the most effective mix for employees and the organisation, will become even more important. We need to be on the front foot when it comes to identifying potential future issues and opportunities.
With that in mind we added a question into our last two Censuses to ask staff about their ratio of working at home and in the office over the previous month. I characterize this question as a ‘multiplier’ of insight as it helps us to understand a great deal more across the full question set. For example, how does your work mix of office/home interact with the frequency of informal check-ins with your supervisor, your engagement, wellbeing and perceived productivity? We’ll unpack that further in future censuses and really build up our understanding of the work-from-home versus work-from-the-office approach to the future of work.
From overseas we’re hearing about the ‘great resignation’ as people reassess their priorities and work arrangements. This appears to be starting to play out in Australia, and yes, there are indications from the Census that even we in the ATO, with our highest engagement on record, have a greater proportion of employees than in the past looking to leave their position – to either get a new position within the ATO, leave the ATO and go to another organization, or retire. Whether this is a complete paradigm shift or a phase – for example clearing the backlog of employees who put off leaving during the pandemic – remains to be seen. More data and ongoing analysis required!
Finally, what do you have planned for the festive season Karl?
I’m taking extended leave and will visit several interstate relatives and friends I haven’t got to see in the past 2 years! Aside from that I will go back to luthier school to build a second guitar. The first one I built was in 2010, just before I became director of Workforce Analytics, so it will nicely bookend this phase of my career. Thanks for the chat.