Tom Ferland, VP of HR at IQGeo: “It is not cost-effective to pay for space to handle all staff all the time”

Are you happy in your work? It’s a question Tom Ferland, VP Human Resources at IQGeo Group, asked himself early in his career — and the answer was a highly rewarding shift from software analysis to HR. But there’s a second reason we ask the question, because this interview is packed with advice on how to advance your career. And for anyone who works in HR that may be struggling with employee retention.

IQGeo is a tech company, so it should be no surprise that it is embracing technology when it can help develop its staff. And simplify life for the HR team. With offices and employees dotted around the world — the HQ is in the UK, while Tom works from its Denver, Colorado office — it has a forward-thinking approach to flexible working too.

In this wide-ranging interview, find out what motivated Tom to shift careers, his thoughts about the changing role of the office, and IQGeo’s approach to artificial intelligence. There’s lots to digest, so we suggest you make a cup of coffee and start reading.

Tell us about your role – where do you work, what do you do, etc?

Tom has 25 years of Human Resource experience supporting global software companies

I lead HR globally for IQGeo Group PLC, a software provider of geospatial network management solutions supporting telecommunications and utility enterprises. With company headquarters in Cambridge, UK, I am based in Denver, Colorado USA, supporting additional global offices in Ghent, Frankfurt, Toronto and Tokyo. I drive growth and people-related initiatives in a continuous effort to be an employer-of-choice organisation. After an initial few years of restructuring and rebranding, IQGeo has taken off with high growth in revenue, headcount and products to lead geospatial management solutions

My focus on providing interesting work, career development, rewards and recognition and forwarding efforts in social responsibility and charitable activity all contribute to our culture of innovation and collaboration. I have collaborated with expansion efforts through acquisition and performed due diligence and integration. 

I am building an HR team located in our centres of excellence, each with its own local ownership of supporting staff, compliance, comp and benefits, employee relations, training, and performance management. Starting out as a technical analyst, and then as a manager, I bring quick credibility to employee conversations having been in both employee, manager, and employer roles. Instilling trust and adding value is key to HR effectiveness and partnership.

What made you pursue a career in HR? And what advice do you have for anyone considering a career in HR?

My first career as a software analyst led me to leadership roles by growing a technical support team from ten to over 70 technologists. With such growth, I learned first-hand the importance and impact a new hire can have on a team. How a great hire can uplift a team, and certainly how a poor-fit hire will derail a well-functioning team. Hiring managers have such an important role in building teams, that as one, I wanted to learn more about the recruiting process, and began to partner with HR.

In time, I wanted to learn more: what happens after you make a hire? What about performance, career development and handling behaviours that are not leading to success? How do you off-board people? These were natural questions that drew me further into the profession.

I took an HR certification program and began learning more and more, leading me from specialist to generalist, and then onward through career progression. My friends thought I was bonkers! Nobody goes from a deep technical background into Human Resources! But, I felt (and still feel) that this was how I could best support the business. Getting the right people into the company, setting them up for success, and guiding people’s careers both within the company and at times moving on outwards, is essential in a growing business.

For someone considering HR as a profession, look for “entry points” that appeal to you. These would be specialty areas that are fundamental such as organisational management, employee relations, benefits, compensation, training and development, recognition, or, like in my case, recruiting and talent acquisition. Explore one of these areas very well, and expand to other disciplines, gaining competency through additional training, certification and good old repetition of on-the-job work. The rewards for such effort are many. There is something inherently satisfying in enabling people to succeed, grow, promote and thrive. Doing so will also bring your own career along.

How do you think offices as we know them will change in the next decade?

I see the need for “variable size” offices. Just as work schedules and attendance become increasingly flexible to accommodate (and retain) talent, so too the office needs to shrink and swell by demand. It is not cost-effective to pay for space to handle all staff all the time, so office space logistics must evolve to first identify valleys of attendance (for example those coming in consistently 3-5 times/week), then to secure options for peak demand when most/all others come in. The office will then schedule additional spaces for 2-3 times per month when it is needed for training, events, all-hands meetings and the like. Monthly facility costs will have some variability, but only paying for what you need is certainly better than long-term renting of unused space. 

We will continue to see the movement of the office workstations to becoming hot desks, adding more huddle rooms, more shared and collaborative spaces, and more first-come-first-serve workstations. We may miss the days of highly personalised workstations as spaces become more transient, but the trade-off of a more customised work location will evolve as a new baseline expectation. 

Related reading: How the world of work will look in 2030

Post-pandemic, what are your thoughts on flexible work trends and how do you think they’ll shape the upcoming years?

My belief on this, supported by survey after survey, is that one size will never fit all again. We see consistent feedback that tech workers want flexibility: to work where they want, when they want, and to pick and choose which days to come into the office. Workers do still want to come to the office, on occasion, but that too varies from 2-3 days per week to 2-3 days per month. If one size cannot fit all anymore, does that mean that all sizes must be available to the one? There must be a balance.

I am seeing more and more requests for customised and bespoke work arrangements, including such demands as early/late starts, off-hours, evenings, weekends, mid-day breaks, and shorter workweeks just to name some of the easy ones. The demands might not necessarily be consistent, either, such as following school schedules, drop-off/pick-up times, and family/elderly care demands, all of which are particularly challenging for workers who feel any pressure to conform to a traditional 9 to 5 schedule. 

More challenging requests may include working from other locations, and even other countries for short but not insignificant periods of time. This will challenge even the best global HR teams in setting policy and raises important questions: is this a benefit, a prerequisite or a condition of employment? How does the company accommodate requests for long-term employees whose circumstances change? How to payroll, how to tax, and, even more importantly, how to equitably grant or not grant requests based on role, function and circumstance? Is a manager playing favourites, and thus creating a perception of discrimination by denying someone else asking for a similar “privilege”?

Even as hybrid work evolves, a real challenge facing managers, HR and companies comes down to monitoring and measuring performance. It is hard enough when the person is in the office, but hybrid and remote staff have an even more challenging need to assess performance. Stronger communication and additional technology solutions for measuring remote worker performance are needed and will be imperative in assessing how far we should allow those demands in flexible work arrangements to go.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received and how has it shaped your career?

I was in a software company for many years, making a successful shift into HR within the same company.

As a mid-level HR Manager, I asked a trusted advisor for some career advice. She said I should leave the company to gain additional experience outside this current company. Either within the same industry, or a different-sized company, but that remaining too long in the same company would stagnate my career. Then she said (after assuring me she did not want me to leave!) that while I remained in my role, we would work together to build what additional skills we could. Not only was I grateful for the advice (I actually stayed another two years), but I have also carried that into my career counselling for many others when it looked like someone’s career was going to stall.

Over time, I did change industries (eventually to return to tech) and learned how to apply HR in different venues, industries and sized organisations. Diverse perspectives and experiences will make for a more well-rounded HR practitioner. 

Can you give us an example of how your HR team leverages technology and how that has helped the company?

As a growing global company, we engage in both organic growth through rapid hiring and accelerated growth through acquisition. During the last acquisition, the HRIS [human resources information system] in place was ill-fit for the business. While a successful enterprise platform, it was better suited for a larger mid-size company that could dedicate full-time resources to leverage its many features properly and effectively. As a small company with limited resources, we struggled to track, secure, comply and report using the old platform’s unwieldy toolset. A search to replace the HRIS followed a typical process and short-listed some alternative options.

Weighing new criteria that included multi-national localisation options, GDPR compliance and ease-of-use employee experience, a final selection (in this case BambooHR) resulted in a green light to begin the change management process, to decommission the old system, and implement the new one with some overlap to ensure a smooth cut-over.

Right away, we noticed employee adoption was up, reporting went from hours to minutes, and metrics that were laborious before were now being tracked over time as part of the core package. Confidence in core HR record keeping, error-trapping, and strong PTO and Performance modules have freed up those limited resources to do so much more engagement work with staff. We can expand into other modules as needs arise, and costs are competitive.

An interesting takeaway from the whole HRIS review/replacement effort was that by staying true to the initial list of requirements, must-haves and wish lists – and letting the reviews, demos and sandbox efforts tally the pros and cons – the final selection was objective as opposed to going with the initially perceived “winner”. We let the objective review be a major factor in the selection. In the end, while no solution is perfect and each platform seems to shine in some particular area over others, getting the right toolset for the right size/shape/structure of the business will lead to faster adoption and confidence.  

What do you perceive are some of the risks of deploying AI in the workplace?

AI is certainly a double-edged sword. It is undeniably useful in many workers’ daily tasks. Engineers have already reported the remarkable time-saving assistance AI provides in repetitive coding, code fixing and review, or when producing a pro/con assessment of third-party software. AI can list things and synthesise ideas culled from many respectable sources in nearly no time at all.

But, of course, AI can’t think. One simple example showing this limitation is asking an AI: if it takes three hours for three towels to dry on a clothesline, how long will it take nine towels to dry? The answer, of course, is three hours: towels dry at the same rate regardless of the number! The AI reports that tripling the number of towels should triple the time using the concept of “proportionality”. So, it gives an answer of nine hours. While it explains its rationale for an incorrect answer, it still takes a human to understand the reality of the problem to assess the response given by an AI.

AI also can only report data that it can find, and while often accurate, it can be dated. A recent search on our company history, for example, showed accurate data though some of it was months, even years, out of date. Data needs to be ground-truthed and not taken for granted as accurate.

We are still evaluating how, as a company, to best utilise AI tools in the workplace and what policy statements will best utilise the AI’s value as a toolset. We are being careful – the rapid developments in this technology encourage, for us at least, a pragmatic and cautious approach.

What is an HR initiative you’ve spearheaded that you are particularly proud of?

We noticed a trend in 2021 that a concerning percentage of hires were leaving the company before two years of tenure. Why the higher-than-normal turnover? Was it Covid-related, or remote/hybrid-related, perhaps a problem in our recruiting process? The challenge was how to reduce the percentage of separations for those under this two-year mark. I planned a multi-prong approach: a Mentor Program, a Graduate Training Program and Stay Interviews.

The Mentor Program sought to provide all new hires with an assigned colleague to help onboard, coach, counsel and help the new person. While certainly providing a cultural mentor, there were some that became technical mentors and others career mentors. Ensuring a “buddy” was available helped with those awkward, initial few weeks and months of a new job, especially as some were fully remote.

The Graduate Training program paired interns and graduates with a mentor to familiarise entry-level professionals with the ways of working. Establishing foundational behaviours, along with those who can lead by example, has an important influence on extending the tenure of new hires.

Finally, Stay Interviews were conducted by both HR and managers to focus on those entering the second year as a check-in. Often, uncovering early discontent that could be addressed can get someone back on track. In our experience, some mitigating actions can extend tenure significantly – in one case resulting in a transfer and structural org change that was better both for the employee and the overall business. A win-win.

All in all, these three simultaneous initiatives resulted in a significant reduction in early separations – better than a 50% decrease in our case. With some additional efforts in screening and selection, and revising the Mentor Program in year two, we see a sustained low rate of early-separations in year two, a good sign that these initiatives work to retain seasoned and entry-level talent.

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Tim Danton

Tim has worked in IT publishing since the days when all PCs were beige, and is editor-in-chief of the UK's PC Pro magazine. He has been writing about hardware for TechFinitive since 2023.