Article: It is time to rewrite the employee playbook: C.H. Robinson’s CHRO

Strategic HR

It is time to rewrite the employee playbook: C.H. Robinson’s CHRO

In this exclusive interaction with People Matters, Angie Freeman, Chief Human Resources Officer at C.H. Robinson shares her views on the impact of COVID-19 on the transportation and logistics industry worldwide and how the pandemic has sparked the adoption of automation on a large scale.
It is time to rewrite the employee playbook: C.H. Robinson’s CHRO

Angie Freeman leads C.H. Robinson’s global talent and corporate responsibility strategies, including employee communications, sustainability and D&I. C.H. Robinson is one of the world’s largest third party logistics providers, with annual revenues of over $16 billion and approximately 16,000 employees around the globe. As a services company, C.H. Robinson’s people and winning culture have been instrumental to its long track record of success.

Angie also serves as President of the C.H. Robinson Foundation. Angie joined C.H. Robinson in 1998 and during her career and has served in a variety of positions including leading Investor Relations, Marketing, and Public Affairs.

Angie serves on the Board of Directors for the Shyft Group, Inc, a manufacturer of commercial specialty vehicles. She also serves on the Board of the University of North Dakota Alumni Association & Foundation. Previous Board service included serving as Chair of LeadersUp, a national non-profit founded by Starbucks that supports increased employment opportunity for at-risk youth. Angie holds a Master of Science degree in Comparative Politics from the London School of Economics, in addition to a BA in Political Science and a BS in Secondary Education from the University of North Dakota.

In this exclusive interaction, Angie shares her views on the impact of COVID-19 on the larger transportation and logistics industry worldwide, how the industry is adapting to the changing scenario and how the pandemic has accelerated the need for technology to boost productivity and creativity. 

Here are the excerpts from the interview.

Every country across the world has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. And the transport and freight sectors have certainly not gone untouched. How do you see the impact of COVID-19 on the larger transportation and logistics industry worldwide?

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on transport and logistics has been significant, largely due to the wide variety and vast number of players in the sector. The industry faced initial downturns due to the disruption in global manufacturing and grounding of passenger planes due to border closures. However, we also quickly saw a spike in demand for freight services due to stay-home measures resulting in an e-commerce boom.

One positive impact of the pandemic is the accelerated adoption of supply chain technologies – such as Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, and data analytics. In a COVID-19 world, cargo visibility/traceability are key tools for companies to gain an advantage in terms of overcoming supply chain shocks.

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We anticipate that the industry will continue to embrace logistics technologies at a faster rate in order to adapt to the new normal. For example, this will include leveraging data to provide near-real-time analytics into shipment tracking, hence driving more precise logistics and inventory management. 

The pandemic not only shined light on the importance of supply chain technology, but also the people who kept supply chains running. We saw an increased appreciation and understanding for those working long hours to support the global economy and people’s needs – including transporting vital personal protective equipment (PPE), food and beverage supplies, and more. C.H. Robinson was grateful to work alongside our 78,000 contract carriers to help make that happen. 

How is C.H. Robinson adapting to the changing scenario? Throw some lights on your initiatives? How are you measuring impacts?

The logistics industry has been gradually undergoing digital transformation, but the pandemic has accelerated the need for technology to boost productivity and creativity by eliminating repetitive tasks. C.H. Robinson is committed to supporting clients and partners through our dual initiatives in technology and human resourcing.

Firstly, we continue to invest in our global technology platform, Navisphere®. Our technology built by and for supply chain experts provides customers with greater supply chain efficiency and real-time visibility to help deliver smarter solutions. Earlier this year, we partnered up with Microsoft to integrate IoT device monitoring within Navisphere®. This provides customers a more detailed level of intelligence about their goods as they move through the supply chain – including temperature, humidity, light, and pressure in shipments. Through this collaboration, we hope to benefit more customers and carriers around the world. As with every industry, we are using automation and technology to extend human capability and complement business growth. 

We also see our people as one of our largest competitive advantages in this changing landscape. Even through disruption our customers and contract carriers know they can rely on our people. As we keep up with evolving consumer shopping habits and the rising volume of online sales, we are seeing a need to hire for a wider range of roles. In addition to the usual roles of dedicated account managers and supply chain experts, we continue to open roles for software engineers and data scientists. These roles help us strengthen our information advantage and technological innovations, providing our clients with greater visibility for their logistics needs.

Adaptability, flexibility, and the use of innovative technology are essential for supply chains to operate effectively in the new normal. What implications does this have for HR and talent leaders? How can HR leaders create a culture of innovation amid this chaos?

While Logistics 4.0 and the adoption of technology within the industry was well underway before the pandemic, COVID-19 has clearly hastened the industry’s transformation.

In turn, digital talent is – more than ever before – an asset for logistics companies that are looking to differentiate and gain a competitive advantage.

At C.H. Robinson, our employees remain our biggest asset – hence we have put in place HR strategies to recruit, train, and retain top talent across our company by expanding our definition of critical talent, we’re aiming to ensure we have the people and expertise  necessary to lead our company into the future. For example, aside from opening roles such as data scientists or software developers, we also have made appropriate investments in skills training for our existing employees. This allows us to future-proof our organization and enable the robust talent pipeline needed to adapt to changing business conditions.

While we believe digital talent is imperative in sustaining business momentum in the new normal, our efforts to recruit and upskill would not succeed without the right organizational culture. Our culture of trust and transparent communication is key at C.H. Robinson as we aim to provide as much certainty as possible for employees during this time. Our approach to leveraging human-centered leadership and empathy has also gone a long way in uplifting employees and reassuring them of their sense of purpose within the organization. Ultimately, we hope to help our employees adapt, innovate, and find opportunities to thrive.

How do you see the increasing role of next-gen HR technologies such as AI, new wellness technologies, VR, cloud-based HCM tools? What are some of the critical business challenges that HR Technologies can help organizations resolve today?

The nature of HR work has undergone tremendous changes in recent years, thanks to the mass adoption of intelligent tools to help HR professionals automate administrative tasks, measure employee performance, and make recommendations to the business. 

Today, AI-powered HCM software offer the HR function a tangible edge in assessing employees’ experiences, skill sets, and potential movements, while also adding intelligence to decisions regarding training, promotion, and recruitment. This is invaluable for a people-first organization like C.H. Robinson, where anticipating what our talents’ need to excel within their work scope is high on our priority list. 

How are you resetting your global talent strategy amid this pandemic? How should talent strategy be different for the new world of work?

A key offering of C.H. Robinson is our global network of highly qualified and dedicated logistics experts with broad industry experience and proven track record in supporting our customers’ every business need. Our people are arguably our largest competitive advantage, and we are acutely conscious of the role the HR function plays in maintaining that edge, particularly in today’s context.

We are not embarking on a brand-new path in the post-pandemic economy, given our long-term focus on recruiting, nurturing, and empowering the right talent from day one. Of course, the increasing competitive landscape today, with the logistics industry being the key enabler of global trade amidst disruptive shifts, does present a new set of hiring challenges. This is all the more reason for C.H. Robinson to double down on our existing efforts to inspire and grow passion for the industry—through strategic investments in employee engagement, training opportunities, and benefits. 

What are your priorities as the HR leader of C.H. Robinson with respect to the adoption of HR technology?

Any organization that has the support of a digitally adept HR function will outperform those without. In some cases, this could mean a massive change in current business processes for some companies.  

At C.H. Robinson, the way we tackle this centers around two aspects: challenging ourselves to stay abreast of the latest HR technology and building a work environment that is fit for the next generation of savvy talent.   

C.H. Robinson has HR systems and processes in place to prepare our organization and people for the next phase of growth in the industry. Placing a strong emphasis on added intelligence, process efficiency, and optimal user experience, we have made significant investments in human capital management software for our employees across the globe. This includes streamlining our talent management, payroll solutions and people analytics within one platform. Additionally, we also leverage digital workflow solutions to enable our employees to access answers to commonly asked questions about employee policies and benefits. Ultimately, we are looking to provide seamless integration for our employees – regardless of where they work.

Our digital HR strategy goes hand in hand with C.H. Robinson’s approach to recruiting – maintaining a healthy pipeline of experienced and digitally adept professionals. Candidates who are motivated, entrepreneurial, comfortable working with technology, and interested in pursuing a career in an industry that is undergoing rapid transformation. Ultimately, we want to build a capable team of experts who are passionate about leveraging technology innovations to solve business challenges for our customers.  

What do you think the future holds for HR in a data-driven world post the pandemic?

The pandemic has sparked the adoption of automation on a large scale, and the impact is being felt across many industries, including logistics. 

Within the HR department, data insights give us access to people analytics – a more comprehensive view of how C.H. Robinson’s human resources are being allocated and utilized. The ability to act on this knowledge strategically allows HR to offer even more value to the business. Of course, the advent of transformative technology will also have a significant impact on existing HR processes, and we will need to proactively improve our HR skill set to adapt and thrive. We see this as a case of leading by example in continuous learning and adapting to the new nature of work. 

Outside of HR, the modern workplace will see many business functions transformed, restructured, or even made obsolete. As part of our mission to continuously nurture talent, we put a lot of emphasis on spearheading a new game plan to smoothen the transition into the future workplace – making sure every employee knows where they stand, and where they are going.

As each country begins to come out of the crisis, having the first-mover advantage of knowing who to approach and where to hire them from will be a critical factor in gaining market share. How should talent management strategy evolve for the post-pandemic world?

The current environment presents a black swan opportunity for companies to rewrite the employee playbook – transforming it into one that speaks to the unprecedented gains in technology and the trust employees place in their leadership.

In the post-COVID-19 world, talent management must evolve to address the need for fluidity in talent and a seamless flow of knowledge and innovative ideas to enable capability, capacity, and agility. Given the world’s rapid adoption of remote working culture, organizations and their HR leaders now know that recruiting top talent can be expanded across cities and states – particularly for roles that allow for remote work. Recruitment is often location agnostic, and this can result in a whole new level of opportunities for HR leaders. For C.H. Robinson, we have also leveraged the current landscape to enable digitalization and higher adoption of technology for the purposes of remote employee training. We have put in place programs to help our employees build upon their skills for the future, while enabling them to stay productive at home. 

Do you think leaders will need to focus on building much more agile and resilient supply chains, as great swings in supply, demand, and costs become the new normal?

With COVID-19 continuing to impact our global markets, it has become clear that supply chains across the world can no longer rely on tried-and-tested tactics of the past. As shipping volumes become more variable, supply chains must become more adaptive, especially as the logistics players prepare for the next major catastrophic events – from weather, to future outbreaks, and other associated disruptions.

Indeed, traditional supply chains that rely on manually intensive and laborious processes will struggle to compete as our industry continues to transform digitally. Moving forward, industry players will have to leverage new technology that enables end-to-end visibility of shipments. At C.H. Robinson, we have put in place such functions for our customers – allowing customers full visibility over their shipments and ability to adjust their delivery timelines in the event of disruption.

The use of data analysis to optimize logistics routes and streamline warehouse functions based on fluctuating consumer demand can also prove useful in enabling a more resilient supply chain. Above all, ensuring that we continue to hire and provide upskill training for employees across all functions will go a long way in building the supply chain of the future.

Read more such stories from the November 2020 issue of our e-magazine on 'The State of Digital HR

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Topics: Strategic HR, #HybridWorkplace

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